For the last half-century, the NFL has separated itself from the rest of the major professional leagues as the most dominant sport in our country. Due to its immense popularity, the interest in the league extends far beyond the games on Sundays. While the NFL season only lasts for about half the year, the league stays in the mainstream conversation on the major sports television networks and talk radio shows throughout the year due to the draft, free agency, and coaching carousel. Now imagine if all those events were crammed into one month. That’s the current reality of December in college football.
While I typically don’t like to compare the NFL to its college counterpart, I do think that the powers that be in college football should take a hard look at how well the professional game utilizes the calendar to keep fans interested throughout the year. Yes, there are some limitations that the college game must work with that the NFL doesn’t, but there are some issues that college coaches, administrators, players, and recruits are dealing with right now that can be addressed. Let’s dive into what can and can’t be changed.
As we sit here in mid-December, several programs that experienced coaching changes have just hired their new man to lead their programs. The early signing period for recruiting opens next week. The Transfer Portal opened last week and nearly 1,000 players across all levels have entered it. And oh, by the way, teams are preparing for bowl games (including the College Football Playoff). In short, if you are a college football coach right now, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to focus on all these very important pressing issues.
The advent of the one-time transfer rule by itself would’ve had a significant impact on college athletics. But its arrival along with NIL rights has created no shortage of chaos. Lots of players across the country are entering the portal this time of year to test the open market to see if they can secure a NIL deal from their current school to keep them on campus or be lured by a big offer from another program. You might be asking why these players are entering the portal now, before their bowl games? It’s because the newly enacted 45-day transfer window just opened last week. The next question you might ask then, is why did the window open now? Well, because we are talking about college football, it’s imperative to remember that players looking to transfer need to begin classes when the spring semester starts in January. Because of this reality, I don’t see how the transfer portal chaos can be contained in the month of December. There’s no way around delaying it to the new year because of the need to get players on their new campuses and ready for spring ball. It’s worth mentioning that there is another 15-day transfer window after most programs finish their spring practices, but most of the volume of portal entries occurs in this window.
So, if the transfer portal chaos (in its current form) cannot be changed, what can? The early signing period.
For most of college football’s history, there was only one signing period each February where recruits could ink their names on their national letter of intent to play for their future school. However, in 2017, the NCAA Division I Council and the Collegiate Commissioners Association approved an additional period in December where players could officially sign with their new schools. Initially, many thought that only a handful of players would utilize the early signing period and the majority would still sign during the February period. That has proven not to be the case as nearly 80% of high school prospects have signed early.
In theory, having an early period is a great idea. It allows recruits who are firm in their commitments to go ahead and sign their letters of intent and potentially enroll early at their new schools in time for spring practices. But one area in which it has been a failure is how it meshes with the timing of coaching changes. Back when the February signing period was the only signing time, almost all coaching changes had been completed. Few head coaches or coordinators are fired or changed after February, and coaching staff hired in early December had nearly two months to figure out how they want to manage their roster.
That is no longer the case now as new hires are forced to hit the ground running from day one to not only salvage their high school recruiting class. As a result, schools have reacted by firing head coaches long before their season concludes. Increasingly, if you wait too long before the early signing date to make a coaching, roster, or program move, you're way too late. In 2021, 13 schools fired head coaches during the season. This year, an additional 8 did the same.
"The December [signing] date changes everything," TCU AD Jeremiah Donati said last year when he decided to fire TCU legend, Gary Patterson. "[With] the old signing day, it was different. You could get through bowl season and kind of let this play out a little bit, but now the December deadline accelerates the process.
So, what can be done about the early signing period? Some will argue that it should be eliminated, and college football should return to only having one period in February. While that likely would be preferable to what we have now, I do believe some form of an early signing period is beneficial to allow players who are deadest on their schools to not only sign but potentially enroll early in the spring semester. Therefore, I believe moving the early signing period to before the season would be the best solution.
In doing so, you allow the high school recruits that want to sign early the opportunity to cap off their recruitments before the beginning of their senior seasons. In addition, you allow college coaches to have some level of certainty on how their classes are shaping up before they enter the grueling nature of their fall seasons. The mad rush of hosting recruits on campus, in-home visits, and high school visits that coaches do this time of year can be shifted to the summer when they don’t have to worry about the transfer portal, staff changes, and bowl games simultaneously.
Is this a perfect solution? No, but in today’s era of college athletics, I don’t think there is a failproof way to do it. Recruits who sign early will need to have the opportunity to get out of their commitments if their school makes a coaching change. There still will be chaos in the transfer portal this time of year. Coaching changes will still happen before the conclusion of the season. But by moving the early signing date earlier, you take one thing off coaches’ plates. Many will point to the salaries head coaches make these days and refuse to “feel bad” for the number of hours they work (justifiably so). However, adding zeroes to a person’s paycheck doesn’t add the number of hours in their days and it’s worth noting that many of the assistants, graduate assistants, and support staff don’t make a tremendous amount of money.
Most importantly, the student-athlete experience has been negatively affected by the December signing period. Here’s to hoping things can change for the better so players, coaches, and fans can keep their attention on the excitement of what’s happening on the field instead of worrying too much about what’s going on off of it. Just as NFL doesn’t have its postseason, draft, free agency, and coaching carousel all in one month, college football could shift at least one of its major events to a different date.
Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5