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National signing day is like game day for college football coaches

Chris Singeltary, the director of player personnel for the University of Michigan's football team, pulls the first signed letter of intent off the fax machine at 7:14 a.m. on National Signing Day.
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Chris Singeltary, the director of player personnel for the University of Michigan's football team, pulls the first signed letter of intent off the fax machine at 7:14 a.m. on National Signing Day.

The most important day of the year for a college football coach is not the home opener, the big rivalry game or even a bowl game.  It’s national signing day, which falls on the first Wednesday in February.

On signing day, the end zone is not grass or Astroturf, but a fax machine tray.  Only when a signed National Letter of Intent breaks the plane of that tray does it count.

A couple years ago I got a chance to see the sausage get made – and it’s not pretty.

The coaches start by collecting information on more than a thousand players.  Then they watch hundreds of hours of film, and make dozens of trips across the country -- from Pasadena to Pahokee -- to meet with hundreds of high school players, their parents and their coaches.  They follow that up with thousands of calls, emails and text messages -- all in the hopes of getting the 25 players they think will help them win a title in a few years.   

That’s bad enough, but now, thanks to ESPN and the internet, recruiting season has become a full-blown season in its own right.   It lasts all year – and it’s harder on the coaches than the actual football season.

The night before signing day, every coach in the country makes his final round of calls to his recruits, because if a player flips, all the coaches have is air.

They’re also paranoid about sleeping in.

One coach I met set no fewer than eleven alarms: two clocks on the left bed stand, two on the right, and two battery-powered clocks on his bureau in case the power went out, plus three cell phone alarms spread around the house, and two more alarm clocks downstairs – all set at five minute intervals.

That’s how important this day is to the coaches – and how exhausted they are when it finally arrives.

They drive to the parking lot long before the sun comes up, open a silent building, turn on the heat and the lights on their way to the meeting room, then put ESPN-U on the big screen, and drop boxes of donuts and huge bags of McDonald’s on the table, plus plenty of coffee.

It ain’t healthy.

Most of them gained ten to 20 pounds.  “You see what this does to us,” one told me, “and you figure this has got to wear the kids out too.”

Bleary-eyed and exhausted from six weeks of non-stop, no-days-off recruiting hell, the coaches settle in, waiting for 17-year old kids to determine their collective fate.

Some of them drag desk chairs into the copy room to babysit the fax machine.  Nothing but nothing is left to chance.

One of them told me, “This is like game day.  It’s miserable.”

It gets more miserable when a five-star recruit you’ve courted for years starts his press conference with three baseball caps in front of him, each with the logo of a school he’s considering.

Then he asks some mysterious advisor behind him – some guy you’ve never seen before – to pick the cap of the school he’ll attend.  And the mystery man picks some school out West. 

Years ago, former Michigan athletic director Don Canham asked men’s basketball coach Johnny Orr how recruiting was going.

Orr said it could be great if he landed the player everyone in the nation wanted.

“What are your chances?” Canham asked.

“The key is always the mom,” Orr said.  “And the mom loves Michigan.”

A few months later, Canham asked him if he’d landed that big star.

“No,” he said.  “But the mom is coming to Michigan!”

The year I watched, after every recruit’s fax had come in, they celebrated by walking back to their offices to watch tape of recruits for the next class.

The interim between recruiting classes lasted exactly nine minutes.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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