Small change could help recruiting madness

Editor's note: ESPN.com asked five of its analysts to discuss one change they would like to see in college football. Here is the fifth installment of the five-part series.

"Write about recruiting -- it is insane. They get too much attention!"

This was the fervent observation of my wife, Carolyn, veteran of too many football seasons and too many recruiting battles to suit her orderly mind. A marvelous recruiter herself in our coaching days, she has looked on in dismay as football recruiting has metamorphosed into a media/money monster. As is always the case when an industry goes the way of celebrity and dollars, the people exploited and victimized are the very group the game was invented to serve.

Since the overkill and various other evil aspects of this subject are well-documented, let us talk specifics and solutions. Can anything be done? Do we continue to badger, harass, evaluate, and exploit large, fast, smart teenage males until we destroy some of them along with the entire process? Three personal experiences will lead to a conclusion. Each is illustrative of large segments of the "recruited athlete" population.

To set the stage for my true life confessions, let me suggest a mind game. Imagine a return to your late teens. Remember as vividly as possible whom you dated, how you chose her/him and how many times you changed your mind. Think about how many times you changed your mind in one day. Think about how many times you changed your mind each hour. Now, imagine you were receiving hundreds upon hundreds of interviews, phone calls, e-mails, text messages, letters and face-to-face inquiries about your deliberations. Imagine reading the accounts of your thought processes in the local and national media. Imagine seeing your image on SportsCenter and your quotes on a special section of ESPN.com.

Imagine if you can now that you are a college coach whose job depends on the deliberations of teenage males. You have "verbal commitments" from some of America's finest. Imagine that you have done every aspect of the process in just the proper manner. You have contacted your future student-athlete again and again, always to be reassured that he will sign on the dotted line at the appointed hour on that fateful February Wednesday. Imagine that you are making your last legal contact before one of the "quiet" or "dead" periods. Imagine that you cannot find him. You cannot find him, his mom, his dad or his high school coach. Imagine that this fine young man, whose family you have grown to love, who is the Real Deal, who always tells the truth, is next seen smiling on national television, beaming into the cameras as he dons the hat of your most bitter rival. Imagine that the bitter rival had not recruited him at all. Imagine that you never see or speak to him again except to compete against him.

Real cases
Case 1: Philip Doyle was a great player we recruited to Alabama in 1987. He became an All-American place-kicker for the Tide after a sterling career in high school. He was very heavily sought after. Thinking we had been clever and effective in our recruiting efforts, I asked him when he had known he was coming to Tuscaloosa. I will never forget his answer.

Philip smiled and said, "Oh, when I was about 10 years old." It had mattered not at all how many recruiting trips he had made, nor who was coaching at his favorite school. Philip had known all along.

Case 2: This young man, who will remain nameless, was a great prospect, an early verbal commitment, whose mom called me in the summer before his senior year in high school. She asked, "What should he bring? Will he need sheets, towels and an alarm clock?" I was thrilled and told her we would be sending plenty of communications about his needs. He helped us by calling other great prospects and urging them to join him. We were in touch until the week before the national signing. He disappeared from school for a week, was seen carrying a new television into a new home and signed with another school. Housing papers are public information, so we checked the records, and all was in order. He might have simply changed his mind. Right?

Case 3: A good player, also to be anonymous, transferred to another state after his junior season in high school. After spring practice, he became a hot commodity, recruited by several prominent schools. He was courted, took unofficial visits and committed to his favorite program. He and his parents were delighted until the coaches at the school received commitments from three other players at his position, all equal to or better than our subject. Now his father is contacting me, saying "We are confused. What should we do?" I asked by e-mail whether promises had been broken. He has not responded to my question.

Early signing
The fundamental flaw in the football recruiting system is the entire idea of a "verbal" commitment from a teenager. One of our wisest coaches, Jack Fligg, always reminded our staffs of the facts. Each year about this time, he counseled, "Remember men, verbal commitments mean we have a chance to sign them. That is all."

Basketball has addressed the issue with an early signing date. To my knowledge, it has worked reasonably well. Football needs to do the same. I have believed that for a long time, but called upon a real expert for the timing. Georgia Tech assistant athletic director Larry New was one of the finest recruiters and coaches I ever employed. I called him this week, and he was enthusiastic.

"Around the third week of July, after the college football camps, and before the opening of high school training camps, there should be an early signing opportunity," New said. "Most of the kids know by then, and it would eliminate so much of the craziness."

Good advice. Although the recruiting services, the rumormongers and the cheaters will detest it, the families, student-athletes and coaches will breathe a huge sigh of relief. Then the coaches can press on with the business of teaching our teens how to be team members, leaders, good students and winners on the field.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. He is the executive director of Leadership Baylor, a comprehensive leadership initiative at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. His column appears each week during the college football season.