Signing day a start, not a destination

Signing day is coming, which means this is a busy time for my friends who work in the Sports Fetish Dept.

It's also known as covering recruiting.

In the Sports Fetish Dept., commitments, decommitments and "soft verbals" by 18-year-olds tend to heavily influence the quality of life of fans who are otherwise sane adults. Those with that particular fetish tend to follow football as feverishly in February as they do in the fall, when the actual games are played.

I am constantly amazed at the amount of interest in such a speculative endeavor as ranking high school football and basketball players, and ranking recruiting classes. Then again, the weather is generally the most popular segment of local TV news broadcasts, so clearly there is a healthy American appetite for semi-informed conjecture and prediction.

But if TV became the perfect weather vehicle, the Internet has become the perfect recruiting vehicle. In fact, I am convinced Al Gore invented it to satisfy recruiting freaks. It's the perfect platform to provide endless information and guesswork, endlessly updated, to an endlessly obsessive audience.

There is no doubt that more sophisticated scouting, like Doppler radar, has improved the ability to project which players will make it big and which will not. But it is still a wildly inexact science. Which is why everyone should remember that signing day is just the launching pad, not the landing zone.

What happens Wednesday is not nearly as important as what happens every day thereafter.

The question isn't how good a recruiting class is in February; it's how good the class is from September to January two, three and four years from now. Which means that the following factors matter far more than how many stars have been assigned to each player's name:

How hard are they going to work?

How well will they fit with their program?

How well will they be coached?

How much will they grow up?

And how toxic are the effects of excessive hype and hero worship on the highest-rated recruits in the nation?

(This is a basketball anecdote, but it speaks to the benefits of never having a recruiting-based sense of entitlement: At the 2005 Nike All-America Camp in Indianapolis, I wound up watching one game in the bleachers next to new Indianapolis Pacers draftee Danny Granger. In talking to him I found out that he was there simply to see what the famed Nike Camp was all about; he was a low-profile recruit who had never been invited during high school. Today the unspoiled Granger is making $10 million a year and among the leading scorers in the NBA.)

The futility of trying to project how players will turn out is why I'm a fan of what my friend and colleague Bruce Feldman did for this package: re-ranking the 2006 recruiting classes based on what they've done, not on what they were projected to do.

The Scouts Inc. folks do a great job of documenting this for ESPN.com, but hindsight confirms that we're all just guessing about what's going to happen. Only four of ESPN's 2006 top 25 recruiting classes were signed by teams that played in a BCS bowl four years later: Florida (No. 1), Texas (No. 3), Ohio State (No. 10) and Alabama (No. 18).

USC had the No. 2 class and just finished its worst season since 2001. Georgia was No. 4 and performed so poorly that Mark Richt had to shake up his staff and has himself edged toward the hot seat. Notre Dame was No. 5 and fired its coach. Florida State was No. 6 and got its legendary coach pushed into retirement.

And so on: Michigan, UCLA, Tennessee, Louisville, Maryland and Texas A&M all were in the '06 top 25 as well. Ask fans at those schools how they feel about the current shape of their programs.

Among the programs I didn't see in that top 25: Boise State (14-0), Cincinnati (12-1), TCU (12-1).

Classes can be vastly overrated and underrated, and certainly the same is true for individuals and their impact on a program. Even missing out on a FIVE-STAR SUPERSTAR!!! can be overcome.

Losing Tim Tebow might have helped cost Mike Shula his job at Alabama, but it did not cost the program its future glory. Greg McElroy, offered a scholarship by Shula only after Tebow jilted the Crimson Tide, turned out to be a pretty solid consolation prize for successor Nick Saban -- especially last Dec. 5, when he outplayed Tebow in the SEC championship game.

There are plenty of other examples, and they can be found at the highest level of the game.

Drew Brees will lead New Orleans into the Super Bowl next week, but the Texan couldn't earn a scholarship offer from Texas or Texas A&M. His choice came down to two iconoclastic spread-offense coaches at mid-level programs: Purdue's Joe Tiller or Kentucky's Hal Mumme. Brees chose Tiller and took the Boilermakers to the Rose Bowl.

On the other side, check out the guys who had 100-yard receiving games for Indianapolis last weekend in the AFC Championship Game. Austin Collie (seven catches, 123 yards, one touchdown against the Jets) was a tepidly celebrated recruit at BYU. Pierre Garcon (11 catches, 151 yards, one TD) was a flat nobody who went to Mount Union.

Given the uncertainty of what is to come after signing day, it's best to avoid excessive giddiness or depression based on the quality of your favorite team's class. In fact, I suggest adopting former Louisville and Michigan State coach John L. Smith's approach. Annually asked on signing day to assess his class, he had the same basic response:

"I'd give it a C. How do I know? We haven't coached them yet."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.