Mark Richt and Major Applewhite exits highlight Early Signing Period risk




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A day before New Year’s Eve, two college football programs made significant coaching changes. At Miami, Mark Richt announced his retirement, while Houston decided to fire Major Applewhite after just two seasons, with West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen the top candidate to replace him.

The timing is a little unique, as most coaching changes occur before the start of bowl season — sometime between the end of November and the first week or two of December. Making a change in late December or later hurts one particular group of people.

A bunch of recruits signed with these programs 11 days before these moves , thinking they’d be playing for different coaches.

Now those recruits are stuck.

The Early Signing Period for recruits in the class of 2019 was December 19-21, with almost all of the recruits who signed over those three days doing so on the first day. Miami had a rougher-than expected ESP, and though the Canes ended it with more decommits than actual signees, they still inked 14 players, including six blue-chips. Houston also signed 14, including several high three-stars who had power conference interest.

Had those players waited until the traditional National Signing Day, on February 6, maybe they would have decided they didn’t want to play for the next coach. Maybe the new coach wouldn’t want them. Maybe nothing would change at all! But at least the recruit would be able to make the most informed decision possible. But they signed early, and now they probably won’t be able to switch to another program without sitting out a season.

This isn’t the necessarily the fault of nefarious coaches. It’s just lousy timing

Sure, there are coaches who lie to recruits and then bail for other jobs right after the paperwork is official, but that wasn’t what happened here. After all, it’s not like Major Applewhite planned on being fired, or planned on giving up 70 points to Army in a bowl game. Had the Cougars lost by say, just seven points, maybe he gets another year.

Likewise, unless Mark Richt knew he was going to retire at the end of the season, and by all accounts that isn’t the case, then it’s harder to argue he deliberately lied to incoming recruits. Instead, Miami lost a bowl game badly, the school wanted him to do things he didn’t want to do, and here we are.

This will probably happen in other seasons too. Coaches might get unexpectedly fired after bowl games, or an NFL job might open up after bowl games, or other sorts of unexpected coach attrition could occur.

This is a risk recruits face, but not everybody can just refuse to sign early

A high-four-star recruit might have the leverage to decide to sign whenever he wants, to give himself the most time and information. In fact, we’ve argued that maybe elite recruits shouldn’t sign early, even though coaches may want them to. A three-star recruit may not have that same leverage, though. By signing during the early period, he’s guaranteed a spot, and won’t risk being processed or replaced by a “better” commit later in the cycle.

Signing early may be a calculated risk (you hope your coach will be there for at least some of the time you’re on campus), but it’s one many recruits will have to make. Coaches have told us in the past that they wouldn’t consider commits who didn’t sign early to be real commits.

There are ways the sport could make this more fair for the kids.

Just because the rules are this way now doesn’t mean they have to be this way forever. Schools could hypothetically allow legislation that would free recruits from an early signing if a head coach or lead recruiter (say, their position coach) left for another job before the second National Signing Day. In fact, such a proposal’s been discussed, but not implemented.

Here’s what MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher told AL.com back in May of 2017:

The (National Letter of Intent) is administered by the (CCA) and I know that’s an issue that continues to be studied and discussed, but I’d also note we have early signing periods in other sports with the same sort of requirements that we have in football,” Steinbrecher said. “Students need to go into this with their eyes open. Part of the reason why I think so many people kind of congregated around that mid-December date by the time you get there if there’s going to be changes in the program, at least at the head coach level, the vast majority of those changes have occurred by then

We now have another ESP under our belts, and now we have more data to show that, hey, head coaching changes can happen in late December too.

If administrators picked this date because they thought coaching chaos would be over by then, it’s probably time to choose a new date.

Perhaps in the summer, before the start of the football season? An out-clause for departing coaches, plus an earlier date, could allow recruits much more time to make an informed decision should circumstances change at their targeted school during the year.

That would require schools being willing to give up some of the power they enjoy in the status quo, but it would also give them more recruiting flexibility by making them able to reach out to kids who want to examine other options after coaching changes.

It’s hard to make a perfect recruiting system that works for everybody. But it sure is a tough pill for a kid to swallow when he gets a new head coach weeks after committing.



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