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Salvaging Football Recruiting Deregulation

At this point, it appears the NCAA’s first grand attempt at deregulation, which should have been primed for success, will be a mixed bag at best. Three of the centerpieces have received significant opposition, and less controversial proposals have also taken hits possibly just for being nearby. At this point, it looks all but certain that there proposals will receive the required 75 override requests:

  • Proposal RWG–11–2, which allows any staff member to make recruiting calls and evaluate recruiting film;
  • Proposal 13–3, which allows unlimited phone calls and texts to prospects; and
  • Proposal 13–5-A, which deregulates mailings to prospects.

Some of these proposals cannot be changed without losing the vast majority of the benefit. For instance, if there is any limit on the frequency or timing of phone calls, then you have to monitor phone calls. That means logging and auditing. It means paying for tracking software or devoting an employee or intern’s time to reviewing phone logs and bills. And given that the rule is acknowledged as unenforceable, it gives coaches willing to cheat an opportunity to get a leg up.

But what are you going to do? The NCAA has to get something done here, even if in the end it is a token gesture. And with new objections being raised every day, the odds that the Division I Board of Directors will be able to simply let the proposals ride and hope they survive is falling precipitously. The BoD has to play the hand they were dealt which means modifying the proposals.

So here are ideas for them to consider once the proposals are overridden. Given that the vast majority of the public outcry is coming from FBS football, that is where the modifications are focused. But all of them are general enough that they could be adapted to cover Division I’s other sports, except for basketball which has no problem with the deregulation.

Proposal 11–2: Recruiting Staff

The easiest way to limit the number of staff that can recruit is to limit the number of total staff a team can have. Currently teams are limited in the number of coaching staff, and football has a limit on the number of strength and conditioning coaches. But there is no limit on the number of non-coaching support staff a team can have.

The idea of limiting non-coaching staff in football and basketball has been around since 2010. Limits of five, six, and nine have been tossed out. The biggest problem has not been the number, but defining who is counted in the number. Various proposals exempted clerical staff, managers, video coordinators, graduate students, undergraduate students, and undergraduate students who work as videographers. Others went more general and allowed individuals to work with the football program so long as they did not work for the head football coach or exclusively with the football program.

One option would be to set a limit on additional recruiters for football or other sports. Somewhere in the five to nine range for football would be a start, although still require large staff upgrades in some cases. Then football programs are not under pressure to go beyond that, but can still hire additional recruiting or support staff.

But a more creative idea would be to start separating football coaching and recruiting. A sport like football could have a limit of 10 permissible recruiters who need not be coaches. For every coach the program is willing to take off the road and keep off the phone, it can add a full-time staff member devoted to recruiting. And those staff members should be able to go beyond calling and watching film to in-person evaluation and off-campus contact with prospects. Programs would need to balance less personal involvement by the coaching staff in recruiting with freeing the coaches to coach while recruiters recruit.

Proposal 13–3: Unlimited Phone Calls

Mississippi State head football coach Dan Mullen had an interesting idea for slowing down a 24/7/365 recruiting cycle based on an existing rule:

“Currently, we have eight weeks where we’re not allowed to do anything with our (current) players. You can do that for coaches with recruiting, too. You would let the schools pick their four weeks because schools get out earlier in the South than they do up North. Schools up North, they would need later recruiting times to do camps and summer visits. You can pick your four weeks, and move from there. So for four weeks, you can’t do anything during the summer.”

Mullen has a germ of a solution, but his idea has a number of flaws. First, the NCAA is getting away from declared weeks in recruiting, like how football now uses evaluation days during the fall and spring evaluation periods. Second, this needs to be a regular, year-round solution rather than a little break in the summer. And third, each school declaring its own recruiting breaks helps coaches, but does little for prospects. Unlimited calls from half the schools is still unlimited calls.

It would be a bigger change, but a complete overhaul of the football recruiting calendar makes more sense. First, eliminate the distinction between contact and evaluation periods as well as between quiet and dead periods. College football scholarship recruiting would have recruiting periods and dead periods.

Second, make dead periods truly dead. No evaluation, no visits, no off-campus contact, no phone calls, no emails, no letters, nothing. As long as dead periods still allow for unlimited recruiting of some kind, they offer no real break for coaches and kids.

Third, expand recruiting periods throughout the year but introduce a new limit, taken from basketball: recruiting person-days. Currently, football limits evaluation days, which count as one coach evaluating prospects per calendar day. Two coaches evaluating on a given day uses two evaluation days and so on. Recruiting person days takes that concept and applies it to contact as well, which is more or less unlimited in football.

And how many recruiting person-days should football get? 325. Where does that number come from? The 130 recruiting person-days men’s basketball has adjusted for the larger staff in football. That limit would only apply during the academic year though. To make this work, coaches would need to be permitted to evaluate at 7-on–7 tournaments and linemen camps during the summer with no restrictions.

So what does the football calendar look like under this idea? Here’s a rough outline, starting from August 1:

  • August 1-August 15: Contact Period
  • August 15-September 7: Dead Period
  • September 7-December 1: Contact Period
  • December 1-January 1: Dead Period
  • January 1-March 1: Contact Period
  • March 1-April 1: Dead Period
  • April 1-July 31: Contact Period

The rationale here is to space out breaks at important times for both coaches and prospects. Recruiting shuts down in mid-August as camp kicks into high gear. It shuts down against over the holidays and when many high schoolers are taking finals. And it shuts down for a month in the spring to give coaches a break after push toward Signing Day.

Obviously these breaks could be moved and tweaked and placed differently. Mullen’s four week break could be inserted during the summer. And you might have exceptions to allow academic or compliance staff to contact recruits for academic or compliance reasons. But you would create a situation where the best recruiting will be done by the coaches who use limited contact and evaluation days along with periods of unlimited communication in a more open calendar.

Proposal 13–5-A: Unregulated Mailings

This section is easy because Proposal 13–5-A was one of two alternatives. Proposal 13–5-B, which the Rules Working Group dropped in favor of 13–5-A, would have prohibited all mailings except general correspondence.

At first glance, option B looks like more NCAA heavy-handedness. But on the flip side, electronic communication would have been deregulated. So coaches would be able to make whatever fancy emails, recruiting websites, PDFs, apps, Facebook pages, etc. they can dream up.

Proposal 13–5-B has many of the benefits of 13–5-A with none of the problems. Coaches can still get creative with what they send prospects electronically. Compliance does not need to check the size of paper, number of pages, or use of color. No one can send Fatheads, posters, or other expensive custom printed mailings. And coaches can still send letters because even in 2013, you cannot guarantee that a prospect has regular access to email or the internet.

The Elephant in the Room: An Early Signing Period

The biggest reason football is objecting is that football recruiting has become a year-round grind in a way that not even basketball has matched. 25 players are signed in February, then then staff sets in on the next class. Those players commit, decommit, and recommit again all the way up to signing day. And football coaches do not even have the luxury of early commitments, which at least cuts down on some of the volume.

The problem with an early signing period in football is that the current signing period is really good for the prospects. By early February, much of the coaching carousel has shaken out. Barring unexpected NFL departures or scandals like those that ousted Bobby Petrino and Jim Tressel, a player who signs in February does so with more or less a guarantee that at least his head coach will be there.

Players signing the National Letter of Intent prior to the new year thus gives a gigantic benefit to the school and coaches with only a marginal benefit to the player, especially given the dates thrown out for an “early” signing period of sometime in December. Players have already gone through a senior season, potentially lost scholarships to injury or being recruited over, but could be committing to the school right before the entire staff is let go or leaves for another school.

Prospects could instead sign something that is not the National Letter of Intent, but still has many of its features. The most popular idea would be for players to sign a written commitment where the school guarantees a scholarship and the player must stop being recruited by other schools, just like the NLI. No more “committed but taking visits.”

The two remaining questions are when could players sign and when could they get an out. Automatic outs are problematic because they trap some kids who should get a break and promote leaving if the out is triggered. A better way would be for prospects to be allowed to cancel the agreement at any time until they sign the real NLI in February. Schools would be able to cancel the scholarship (or more accurately apply to the NCAA to have the scholarship cancelled) if they had evidence of tampering.

As for when, August 1 makes the most sense. Prospects should be able to sign before their senior season and have a scholarship committed before they risk further injury. All told, coaches would still need to keep checking in on these prospects, but would have at least some protection against the most blatant tampering. And the combination of very early signing and the difficulty of proving tampering would limit the number of early offers to only the top targets.

That would offer coaches something a break as their classes would be formally committed and recruiting would begin to slow down a bit as signing day approached, which would become more a formality than a dramatic conclusion. A long and flexible early signing period could be either as an alternative to the modifications above or with them to make football recruiting as well as other sports a little more sane even as the NCAA gets out of the business of regulating the minutiae.

Are you ready for the NEXT STEP!