Why Urban Meyer doesn't want an early signing period for college football

Danny Clark committed to play football at Ohio State in December 2013, when he was a high school freshman from Akron. He was the Buckeyes’ quarterback of the distant future, a kid so committed to the dream of playing in the Horseshoe that he later got an Ohio State logo tattooed on his arm.

“I truly felt I was born to play for the Buckeyes,” Clark said in a statement on Tuesday.

That statement, however, announced that he wouldn’t be playing for the Buckeyes. After being committed to the program for nearly four years, the quarterback was backing out of his pledge, although with a heavy heart. It was a tough realization that needed to happen.

Maybe it was Ohio State recruiting higher-touted quarterback prospects over him. Maybe it was the awareness that as a pro-style quarterback, a different offense was a better fit for his skills. Maybe it was just maturity, the recognition that boyhood dreams don’t always make the best adult realities.

Whatever it was, the player, and presumably the program, both felt a split was a good idea.

“My story is not over,” Clark wrote. “It is just beginning.”


Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is against the early signing period. (Getty Images)
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is against the early signing period. (Getty Images)

This is known as a decommitment in college football recruiting, and to some in the sport it is considered a bad thing, a sign of instability or discontent. It shouldn’t be. This is just part of the process. If things aren’t right then both Clark and Ohio State are better off going in different directions now, not after an unsatisfactory year or three on campus. It’s better if everyone is honest going in.

It’s no harm, no foul … other than, perhaps, the tattoo.

Yet there remains a movement from a large swath of college football coaches and administrators to create a so-called “early signing period” when kids such as Clark could ink a binding agreement to Ohio State during the summer before their senior year. Coaches hail it as a way to calm the recruiting process rather than have to stay on top of prospects straight through the current signing day in February.

It also would have bound Clark and Ohio State (sort of) to each other. Officially, the letter of intent is a one-sided document that says Clark can’t receive a scholarship anywhere else but doesn’t force the school to even admit him as a student. Most of them, however, are honored.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer expressed on Monday his longstanding opposition to the early signing period during his weekly news conference. It likely wasn’t about Clark’s pending decommitment. This, for Meyer, is about logic, fairness and principle. He’s been saying the same thing for years.

And while the current system undoubtedly favors a place such as Ohio State, which can still swoop in late and flip prospects, it isn’t just a self-serving position. Meyer is right here. The early signing period is not something the NCAA should pursue. If anything, it should be getting rid of it in basketball and other sports that employ it.

“I keep hearing about this early signing period, early access, and let’s move everything up,” Meyer said. “I still can’t believe we’re having this conversation.

“We’re absolutely opposed to that. I hear the reasoning is because there’s so many decommitments. What the hell does that mean? So because 18-year-olds – excuse me, 17-year-olds – are decommitting, let’s give them a legal document so they can’t decommit? That’s not very smart. Young people have a right to choose where they want to go to school. Period. Let them decommit a hundred times. That’s why they’re called 17-year-olds.”

NCAA rules should always be about the welfare of the student-athlete, or in this case the future student-athlete. An early signing period is the opposite of that. It is all about coaches who want to get half or more of their recruiting work done before the season. It’s about not wanting to continue to woo kids.

“It’s lazy,” Meyer said bluntly.

Mostly, it’s about protecting coaches from losing players who have strong senior seasons and attract scholarships from more successful or desirable programs. If a player fails to perform, well, suddenly that one-sided letter of intent can come into play and the kid is screwed … only now at a time when there are fewer scholarships available across the country.

Mostly, though, it offers no consideration that sometimes circumstances can change, especially when dealing with developing players and transient coaches. Why hold a kid back if he has a big senior season? Why stick one in over his head if he fails to continue to develop?

Then there is this: If there is an early signing period, then what of all the prospects who would have excitedly signed with LSU during the summer only to see head coach Les Miles fired in September? Or the hundreds who will be stuck with signed letters to all the other schools that will fire their coaches at season’s end, or watch the coach they thought would be there jump to a different job?

The best way to handle recruiting is to push it back as late as possible, and February of a prospect’s senior year of high school is a good spot. Recruiting will never be perfect. However, by then, the coaching carousel has generally stopped spinning. Recruits were able to show their best during their senior seasons – not just seven-on-seven summer events. Everyone has a little time to gain perspective and information.

An early signing period wouldn’t eliminate situations such as Clark. It would just increase them because the drive to get guys offered and signed as soon as possible would encourage coaches to evaluate players at younger and younger ages. Bad fits would increase.

“Now they want to have official visits in [a high school recruit’s] junior year,” Meyer said of another rule proposal. “There’s some kids that don’t even have ACT scores. Their bodies are gaining 18 pounds. Why not move it back to their sophomore year? It’s bizarre. You’re going to see more transfers and more mistakes made in recruiting than ever if they keep pushing this.”

Meyer’s position isn’t popular with many coaches, who think an early signing period gives them more control. The guy with three national titles, though, sees that as fool’s gold. A coach, he figures, should always covet more info before signing a player, not less. And vice versa.

“You make too many mistakes in recruiting,” Meyer said, “and someone else is probably standing up here.”

Meyer now has an extra open scholarship for the Class of 2017. Danny Clark has a recruitment process to reopen. A decommitment occurred in Ohio.

This isn’t a problem seeking a solution. It actually isn’t a problem at all.

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