Administrators, coaches and football recruits long agreed an early signing period in college football was not needed and that the traditional signing day on the first Wednesday in February served the game well enough.
But over the past decade, the world of recruiting has changed dramatically. Coaches offer scholarships to 13- and 14-year-old prospects who have never played a down of varsity football. Power programs regularly accept commitments from players who've yet to finish their junior year in high school.
After numerous false starts, the Collegiate Commissioners Association is set to vote this week at its annual conference in Asheville, North Carolina, on a proposal that would officially bring an early signing period to college football for the first time.
Here's a look at how we got to this point and why this vote is important for college football.
What to know about the vote
The conference commissioners will vote in Asheville on a proposal to immediately institute a 72-hour signing period in conjunction with the December junior college date. In 2015, it would open on Dec. 16. The signing period would operate on a two-year trial basis, after which the commissioners would evaluate the effectiveness of the change.
Commissioners from the Football Championship Subdivision and the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences will consider the proposal, with one vote assigned to each league.
According to Susan Peal, director of the national letter of intent, the FBS and FCS could choose to adopt an early signing period collectively.
"Or if one subdivision wants an early signing period and another subdivision does not," Peal said, "they can elect to have distinct signing periods."
A simple majority is required to pass the proposal.
Notre Dame, as a football independent with ties to the ACC, will be represented at the meetings by that league.
Will the vote pass?
This, of course, is the multimillion-dollar question.
Barring last-minute changes, an early signing period is expected to meet approval, though it's passage and immediate implementation is far from a done deal. Administrators from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, MAC, Mountain West, Pac-12 and Sun Belt have spoken in favor of the proposal. Conference USA officials, while somewhat indecisive, appear more in favor than against.
The Southeastern Conference is against the December period, and officials from the American have not commented.
In spite of the apparent majority, MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, who chaired the committee that recommended the current proposal, said he anticipates "a spirited and robust debate" before the vote.
"Commissioners would do their leagues a disservice if they didn't look at the topic from every angle," Steinbrecher said.
Complicating matters, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said recently that the current proposal could serve as an entry point to address a host of recruiting matters -- including satellite camps, which have further brought into focus the disagreement on recruiting matters between the Big Ten and the SEC.
Though the committee recommended December and the commissioners will vote only on that proposal, much disagreement remains over the best time for an early signing period. While the league has come out against the December date, some SEC coaches generally favor a signing date on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Coaches in the SEC, ACC and other leagues have supported a signing date in August.
More radical proposals include the elimination of a signing date altogether, essentially letting a prospect sign whenever he is ready.
So will it pass? We'll say yes, but the complexity and volatile nature of the issue leaves the door open to numerous outcomes.
Case for an early signing period
It would save time and money and lots of winter headaches.
"If you know you're going to sign somebody," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said, "it just makes sense to get it done."
A December signing period would allow long-committed -- or recently pledged players who are decisive in their college choices -- to simply get it over with seven weeks earlier than under the current system. Because of the pressure-filled nature of recruiting and constant threat of decommitments, college coaches spend as much time in January catering to their committed recruits as they do working on undecided prospects.
And an early signing period would end some, if not most, of that.
For instance, Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said his program lost recruits last year to Notre Dame, Clemson and Florida State. If an early signing period existed, he said, the Orange and others would be rewarded for their work in identifying prospects. Instead, a cesspool often forms after the season, involving, among other perils, the rise in power of third parties who seek to benefit at the expense of players.
"Anything we can do to help get the runners out of the deal" would benefit the game, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said.
"I don't really see any cons," Johnson said. "I think it's all pros."
According to Cal coach Sonny Dykes, the recruiting calendar was constructed around the schedules of college coaches from 15 years ago. Everything has accelerated. The signing process ought to follow suit.
At the turn of the century, schools still largely identified prospects in the spring, then offered scholarships. The months of December and January were needed for official visits.
"That's not how it works anymore," Dykes said. "You know who you're recruiting. You've known for a year. In my estimation, what they need to do is just take a look at the recruiting calendar and just start over."
A good start, according to a majority in college football, involves an early signing period.
Case against an early signing period
Be careful what you wish for.
Opponents of the proposed early signing period don't necessarily disagree with offering recruits the option of signing a letter of intent in December.
It's the unintended consequences that pose a problem.
"I'm not sure any of us, when and if it does occur," Florida coach Jim McElwain said, "know what some of the snakes lying in the grass are."
But if recruits want to sign and they're allowed to sign, what could go wrong? For some who oppose an early period, the most significant concern is this: It won't be an early signing period. It will become the signing period.
"What we're proposing is not an early signing date," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "What we're proposing is moving the signing date forward."
Already, said Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, the process starts too early. He said he's uncomfortable with offering scholarships to players that he and his staff do not know well. Further acceleration of the process would only deepen the problem, Clawson said.
It stands to reason, if December turns into the preferred signing date -- or even an alternative to February -- recruits who would otherwise visit campus in January might visit in the fall. In the fall, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said, they're supposed to focus on high school football.
"[The recruit is] going to stay up all weekend, enjoy the official visit, get back to his high school and be absolutely wore out for his high school team," said Freeze, who coached high school football in Tennessee as recently as 2004. "That is not a good thing for our relationship with high school coaches."
And shouldn't college coaches prioritize the players on their rosters above all else during the season?
"We want to do right by our current players and we want to be as well prepared as we possibly can," Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
Most SEC coaches stand against the proposal. One could argue, despite the validity of their arguments, the league would oppose any change to a recruiting model that its programs dominate annually.
After all, we can't all remain as politically correct as UCLA coach Jim Mora.
"I have no opinion on it," Mora said, laughing. "That's just the truth. I worry about what I can control -- and that's out of my control, so I'm not going to worry about it. There's my dogmatic, on the record answer for you."