You can find more of Mr. Blinder’s work here.
“College Football Prospects Actually Signing on Signing Day? That’s So 2017,” by Alan Blinder
College football’s national signing day was more than a week away, but P. J. Fleck, the coach at Minnesota, had little reason to care.
He had finished recruiting this year’s class before Christmas.
Alan Blinder: Before I even got off the phone with Fleck, I had a hunch I might have the lead of my article. Luck sometimes strikes like that.
But when I first drafted the top of the story, the lead was probably twice this large and far, far too long. It meandered. It had extra information. I worried a busy reader might give up and move on to another article. So I started tightening, striking some details entirely and relocating others elsewhere in the article. The result? Two snappier sentences.
We do not, however, want to surrender accuracy while we self-edit, and there is a crucial word in the first sentence: “little.” I feared that saying “no reason to care,” though sharper and a bit more of a gut punch, might suggest Fleck was totally checked out. That wouldn’t have been accurate: Every coach is still paying some attention to signing day, even if only to watch which players their friends and rivals sign.
“We don’t even talk about signing day anymore, we’re so December-driven,” Fleck, already focused on who might play in Minneapolis in 2021 and beyond, said as he glad-handed his way through 10 Texas high schools last Tuesday.
All I knew was I didn’t want to use the word “visited.” It’s boring. ”Dashed” would have worked. “Scrambled,” too. But when I considered what Fleck had told me about his day — a marathon of meetings with coaches — “glad-handed” was the easy choice.
As recently as three years ago, the start of the traditional national signing window — this year, it is on Wednesday — was a coast-to-coast high school spectacle of news conferences, pep rallies and marching bands. Then a rule change allowed football players to sign over the course of a few days in December, which sparked a seismic reordering of the calendar, altering how coaches, recruits and parents navigated a pressurized, intensely public process.
Check your facts before you publish. I had it in my head for a bit that the signing window was precisely 72 hours, but a quick spin through my draft to confirm some facts and figures revealed that, technically, the signing period doesn’t last for 72 hours. (In 2019, it began at 7 a.m., based on a recruit’s time zone, on Dec. 18 and ended at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 20.) So I used “a few days.”
Another choice I made: The rule change didn’t lead to a calendar tweak here or there; it revolutionized recruiting. “Sparked” was a vibrant, active word, and “seismic” signaled that this was no ordinary change for college football. “A big reordering” just felt flat to me.
One consequence is already clear: The so-called early signing period is no longer early at all in the competitive world of recruiting.
This paragraph was my editor’s idea. He wanted an unvarnished statement of how the early signing period is no outlier. I was on a reporting trip for another article when I filed my story from the airport; by the time I got home a few hours later, Oskar Garcia, my editor, had added a version of this line. I tweaked it a bit, and we were good to go. Journalism is very often a team sport, and it should be.
Only a handful of elite players remained available entering Wednesday, more than six weeks after hundreds of high school athletes made binding commitments to colleges. Many players, looking for the edge in the fall that can come from spring practice, have already begun classes on their new campuses.
We needed to mention the early signing period had affected the remaining talent pool, but how? Not everyone is steeped in recruiting, so I settled on an approach that would make the point — there weren’t many sought-after players left — but avoid jargon and subjective assessments that might confuse some readers.
“The fax machine and February signing day are dinosaurs,” said Brandon Huffman, the national recruiting editor for 247Sports, a website that rates and tracks prospects. “They are what used to be, not what currently is.”
First, who doesn’t love a quote about dinosaurs? Second, say you were one of those readers who wanted to learn more about the players who could still sign. By mentioning the website, we established Huffman’s credentials and suggested a resource for readers who might want to learn more.
The early signing period proved popular from the start: In 2017, according to the N.C.A.A., nearly three in four Football Bowl Subdivision recruits signed their national letters of intent — formal agreements that cover attendance and financial aid — in December. In 2018, that figure surpassed 80 percent. (The option has not been used as often among Football Championship Subdivision teams, which saw less than half of recruits sign early during the first two years under the new rule.)
A crucial part of reporting is finding reliable information. Recruiting websites — real-deal operations, blogs, message boards — abound and offer plenty of information, but I wanted hard numbers and figured that the N.C.A.A., which oversees the early signing period, would have the most comprehensive data. It was not difficult to get; I simply asked for it.
As for the numbers, I used “nearly three in four” earlier in this paragraph, so I can switch to “more than 80 percent here” without feeling like I’m using the same phrases and just swapping out percentages. The paragraph becomes duller if I say “almost 75 percent” and “more than 80 percent.”
Although the N.C.A.A. has not finalized its data for this recruiting cycle, the trend appears to have continued, especially among the football juggernauts. Alabama and Clemson each opened the 2017 round by inking agreements with 15 players; this December, Clemson signed 24 recruits, while Alabama picked up 22. Ohio State, formidable from the dawn of the new rule with 21 recruits, managed 24.
If you don’t have some information from your reporting or research, it helps to explain why. Sometimes, it’s because a prospective source did not respond to a message or declined to comment. On another occasion, it might be because the available information might not be reliable. In this case, the official numbers were incomplete and unavailable.
In terms of the specific schools I used here, hundreds accept national letters of intent, but I wanted to show how some of the biggest brands in college football use the early signing window. Alabama and Clemson have won a lot of titles lately, and Ohio State is renowned for its recruiting. I considered mentioning Louisiana State, but I ran into two realities: that the Tigers had not used the early signing period as much as some other big names, and the fact that I was going to be running out of space for my article.
“From year one to year two, from the coaches’ side of it, they probably learned a lot as far as how many offers to make early, how many to hold back for February,” said Susan Peal, the N.C.A.A. official who directs the national letter of intent program. “They were learning that process along the way.”
Indeed, Mack Brown, North Carolina’s coach, said in an interview this week that the early signing period was “the biggest difference” when he returned to coaching after a five-season hiatus.
Mack Brown is one of the biggest names in coaching: He spent many years at Texas, where he won a national championship, before he took over North Carolina’s program for a second time. But I wanted to talk to him for other reasons. I knew from my research and reporting that Brown had been involved in some of the debates about creating the early signing period, and I also knew that he had expressed some worries about how it affected new coaches. I knew his perspective would be good for me to have rattling around in my brain when I sat down to write, and I knew it would be good for readers to see, too.
Coaches were among the first backers of an early signing period for football, though Brown noted that some had envisioned a more limited system that would have allowed, for instance, only early enrollees to reach formal agreements in December.
History matters. A lot of folks will support an idea once it proves successful or becomes popular, but we wanted to show how the thinking had evolved.
If I could do this article again, or if I had a larger word count, I would probably spend more time delving into what happened before the rule change.
Instead, as Brown put it, “the floodgates were opened.”