The end of college football's love affair with the fax machine

Would December signing day help recruiting process? (1:33)

Tom Luginbill thinks the negatives would outweigh the positives if there was an early signing period in December. (1:33)

We will never really know what dinosaurs sounded like. They were all here and now they are all gone and, despite Steven Spielberg's best efforts, any attempt to replicate the noises they produced is nothing but a million-dollar guess. There is, however, one dinosaur that we can indeed identify audibly. On Wednesday morning, it shall awaken to roar once again.


National signing day is not only the time when the dreams of football-playing youngsters come to life, it is also the day those youngsters hold the signed sheets of paper that will unlock those dreams -- their national letters of intent -- and then look at the adults around them to say, "Fax machine? What the hell is a fax machine?"

"Signing day is one of those days when you can immediately tell how old you are and how young other people are," 51-year-old Gus Malzahn said to me on the first Wednesday of February two years ago. "The young guys on my staff, once a year they're standing around the fax machine like, 'Hey man, how do we turn this thing on?'"

Yes, even in this digitized on-demand age of the interweb and smart phones, the most frequent method for delivering NLIs on NSD is F-A-X, this according to the NCAA. However, it is not the only method. Far from it. They can be sent via email, which is likely how the form arrived from the school hoping to close the deal. The NLI is scanned and emailed to the prospect, who typically prints it out, signs it and waits until dawn on national signing day to send it back during the first moments it's allowed. Yes, some do it by email. But fax still hangs on as the preferred device of delivery. For now.

Sweeping college football recruiting reform will be up for vote by the NCAA Division I council in April. If it all passes -- and it should, easily -- then national signing day as we know it will end, thanks to a new mid-December three-day signing window. That will remove the current sense of urgency surrounding the first Wednesday of February. So, say goodbye to the cold winter morns staring at the old facsimile machine, hoping your program's future superstars can get their commitments in through potential paper jams.

"I like getting those faxes," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe admits. "I guess it would be easy to say, 'Well, he just likes getting his cup of coffee and standing there waiting on the first faxes to come in because Coach, you know, he's old.' But the truth is that everybody finds some thrill in it. That includes the kids who are sticking that letter in the other end and watching it head on out to the school he's chosen. I've been coaching 35 years now. Seeing a surprise letter come out of my fax machine on the other end? That's never gotten old."

Cut's first college coaching job was as an assistant at Tennessee in 1982. Back then, national signing day wasn't a de facto college football holiday. No kids were doing the hat selection shuffle. ESPN wasn't carrying 11 hours of live coverage across a fistful of media platforms. No one faxed their letters to Knoxville because, unless maybe there was one being studied over in the computer tech lab, there probably wasn't a fax machine to be found on campus.

Over the next few years, all of that changed. Both signing day and faxing.

According to FaxAuthority.com ("your online guide to frustrating technology"), facsimile transmission technology has existed since the early 1840s, roughly 35 years before the first college football game between Rutgers and Princeton. That's when British inventor Alexander Bain, grandfather of the electric clock, synced up two pendulums and passed a message between them. Over the next century, inventors figured out how to send photographs and whole documents, first via telegraph and then by telephone, but the industry never captured the public's fancy, not even when Steve McQueen blew audiences' minds by receiving info via fax in 1968's "Bullitt."

Then the 1970s arrived and Japan became fanatical about faxing. A decade later, as young David Cutcliffe settled into that first job with the Vols, Japanese electronics companies started marketing their new machines in the States. According to the Telecommunications History Group, there were approximately 250,000 fax machines in the entire United States in 1980. By 1985, that number had doubled. By 1990, there were five million machines slingshotting billions of documents around the nation.

Every February, those documents increasingly included signed letters from high school football players.

"You talk about business picking up. Recruiting moved into a higher gear, buddy," recalls Bobby Bowden, Florida State's head coach from 1976 to 2009. "We used to get letters from kids in the mail. Like, mailman-sticking-it-in-the-mailbox kind of mail. When faxing became an option and the NCAA said that the signature on that copy counted the same as the original, man, then recruiting went from being a foot race to being like a NASCAR race. It hasn't slowed down since."

To be clear, Bowden is saying that college football recruiting hasn't slowed down. The fax industry? It's decelerated faster than someone can say "You've got mail." As personal computers and email made their way onto desktops, fax machines stumbled toward the tar pits. Sales in America peaked in 1997 and in Japan three years later.

However, like those who predicted that running the option would be wiped from the earth by spread offenses, predictions that faxing would become completely obsolete have also been proven wrong. As Jonathan Coopersmith, who wrote "Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine" in 2015, said: "Fax did not diminish to the role of a residual media, abandoned by all but a few zealots or hobbyists." (Coopersmith knows zealots. He's a professor at Texas A&M. Gig 'em.)

It's true. Even in the face of email, texting and internet-based faxing, there are still more than 45 million paper fax machines in use around the globe, including 17 million in the United States. But keep in mind that the phrase "in use" might be left to some interpretation. Sitting on the counter next to the copier does not equate to getting the same daily workout as that copier.

"We have plenty around the building, but no, they don't get used much," Malzahn's assistant, Emily Ann Tatum, confessed to me on NSD 2015. "As long as the one by the war room is working on signing day, that's all that matters."

That's certainly all that mattered to War Eagle Nation that day, when the fax machine finally cranked up from its daylong slumber for the rare evening signing day print job. After having produced an inbox basket full of prized recruits at dawn, it fell eerily silent. The day's biggest catch, five-star defensive end Byron Cowart, still hadn't sent in his letter several hours after a live media conference in which he'd donned an Auburn ball cap. Rumors ran rampant he was bailing to become a Florida Gator. Turned out that some miscommunication (some still say a dispute) between the player's family and his high school coach had left that letter sitting next to the coach's fax machine instead of being placed in it.

As Malzahn walked down the hallway to meet with the national media, he was struggling with how he would explain the Cowart situation. Then one of his assistant coaches yanked a newly arrived document off the fax machine and stuffed into the head coach's hands as he strode to the podium. It was Cowart's signed letter of intent.

The imminent changes to traditional recruiting deadlines will likely do away with that kind of tick-tock facsimiled "24"-ish drama. But the warm and fuzzy feelings stirred by the WHEEEE-URRRRR-CHRUUUUUUUGGHHHHH and whirring of that printing wheel can't be duplicated.

"I know it's old-school to want to hold something in your hand," FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said one year ago, as he grasped a stack of just-arrived 2016 letters. "But you work so hard at recruiting, and the kids and their families have worked so hard to make a decision. Something physical that says, 'It's official, here we go, we're in this together.' I think everyone likes that feeling. That's a fact."

Actually, coach, that's a fax.