At high schools across the country, football stars got their moment in the sun, surrounded by balloons and entourages of proud relatives as they announced their college choices on National Signing Day. Some wore bow ties. Some wore suits. Most wore the obligatory caps adorned with school logos.
The decisions of these 17- and 18-year-olds played out live Wednesday on websites, blogs, sports radio stations and ESPN2. The TV screen was busy with updating lists of the top recruits, rankings of each college’s haul and — the best category — “flips,” or kids who changed their commitment at the last minute.
There are so many recruiting services handing out stars and national, state and position ratings that it’s totally hypothetical whether Alabama out-recruited Florida State or whether Ohio State, Louisiana State or Mississippi moved up with bullet classes.
Sure, signing day has gotten to be too much, too soon for the players. As with all things football — including the Super Bowl, the NFL Draft, college bowls — the hype threatens to overwhelm the substance of the event.
But at least with high school athletes the feeling of elation and accomplishment is genuine.
“It’s the second most important decision in a young athlete’s life, right after who you’re going to marry,” said Thomas Brown, offensive coordinator and running backs coach at the University of Miami. “On the other hand, we stress to kids that their college choice is bigger than football because at some point football is going to stop.”
At UM, the 18 signees of the Class of 2016 brought relief and satisfaction. New coach Mark Richt and his staff had only three recruiting weeks to get this group in order. They lost some, including cornerback Tyler Byrd, who was swayed to pick Tennessee by the personable Larry Scott, UM’s interim coach after Al Golden was fired and now an assistant for the Volunteers. They gained some, including wide receiver Ahmmon Richards, who picked UM over Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee.
“When you have everything in place and your support staff is clicking, there’s some energy and synergy,” Richt said. “But when you start that train from ground zero and try to move that thing, there’s so many things to do in such a short time.”
Miami’s class was ranked 21st in the nation by Rivals.com, 20th by 247Sports and 19th by ESPN, which ranked FSU No. 1 and Florida No. 12. Ten of the 18 UM recruits were rated in ESPN’s top 300. That’s quite promising for Richt, who was fired by Georgia and hired by his alma mater with the goal of leading the Hurricanes back into championship contention.
UM is strong at linebacker, with early enrollees Zach McCloud, Mike Pinckney and Shaquille Quarterman, which should help cure the chronic problems on defense. Keep an eye on defensive end Joe Jackson, receiver Richards, receiver Sam Bruce, tight end Michael Irvin II, running back Travis Homer and quarterback Jack Allison.
UM is lacking at defensive tackle, offensive tackle and cornerback. Richt acknowledged they could use more wide receivers.
“We’re excited about having guys who really want this place to be great,” Brown said. “Miami is unique when it comes to brotherhood.”
The injection of hope was evident as Richt and his dynamic assistants talked about how “growth” is their top priority for the players, both as students and athletes. Golden’s players were fine young men, but on the field they stagnated. Richt has to prove he can nourish talent.
“I think 16 years ago when I went to Georgia as head coach, I only knew one way, which was, quite frankly, Bobby Bowden’s way,” Richt said. “This time around as head coach I was more excited. Last time I was more scared; I’m trying to fake it until I make it. This time I knew I had a very clear vision of what it’s going to take, what I wanted to get done and how I wanted to get it done.”
Richt lamented the “grind” of recruiting and the emotional strain on “frazzled” recruits, families and coaches. New cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph said the main thing that has changed since he was a UM signee was how players market themselves aggressively on social media.
“The excessive attention makes it hard to motivate some kids,” Rumph said. “You can’t get your license until you’re 16. You shouldn’t be recruited until you’re 16.”
Allison signed early to avoid the pressure of signing day.
“The recruiting process was annoying,” said Allison, recalling how 76 coaches came to visit his school in Parrish, Florida, the spring of his junior year. “It was wild. Some were just trying to sell a product. My advice to young guys is that every staff is going to lie to you and tell you you’re the greatest in the world, but once you get to college you’re just another freshman on the totem pole.”
Once signing day is in the past, when the caps are in the closet and the freshmen arrive, their four-star ratings won’t matter. That’s when the truth comes out.