Wednesday, February 6 is national signing day, when the nation's top high school players can formally sign their letters of intent to play college football at a particular school. Prior to signing day, recruits may make verbal agreements with coaches, but agreements may not be signed.
Dating back to 1981, national signing day has been unique in that no one takes turns, as is the case for the NFL drafts. The top prospects control their own destinies by choosing the universities they want to play for. The teams that secure the elite high school talent do so based on their recruiting prowess rather than the previous year's record, as is the case for the NFL draft and other drafts.
There is an element of gamesmanship, of course. Players sometimes make verbal agreements to schools and then recommit at the last minute, much to the chagrin of the coaches who sold the recruit on their program.
The verbal agreements are non-binding, and one must remember that high school kids are just as likely to change their minds as anyone else. Sometimes extenuating circumstances—such as a change in head coach, NCAA sanctions, or other previously unknown factors—cause players to switch.
Many NCAA Division I schools rely on the reputation of their program, their conference, recent performance and the persuasiveness of their head coach. This gives coaches such as Alabama's Nick Saban, LSU's Les Miles and Ohio State's Urban Meyer a distinct advantage over their counterparts at less successful programs.
However, programs that conduct their due diligence and have smart and effective recruiters on their coaching staffs can build winning teams. Their job is to highlight aspects of the program beyond the Xs and Os.
Schools in the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12, for instance, highlight the strength of the competition and the exposure that these powerhouse conferences can offer. Notre Dame takes advantage of its NBC contract that ensures national broadcasts each week.
Universities in Southern California, such as USC and UCLA, can sell the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles, a large market where there is no NFL team. Universities in Florida and other southern states can highlight the warm weather and the passion for college football in the region.
Winning over the parents is an important factor. High school seniors are still teenagers, and their parents usually maintain a great degree of influence over their decision-making. Coaches rely on their staffs to research the players. Did his parents meet in college? If so, selling the school's heritage will be an important factor.
Often when the recruit comes from a single-parent household, projecting the aura of both coach and surrogate father (who presumably will look after the player's well-being) can be a deciding factor. Joe Paterno famously would win over the mothers of high school players by spending time in the kitchen with them and helping to prepare a meal.
As always, there will be some interesting schools to watch. Will Oregon lose players who gave verbal agreements to the now-departed Chip Kelly, who has jumped to the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles? Notre Dame restored some of its lost luster with its surprising No. 1 ranking prior to the BCS Championship Game, but the team's annihilation by Alabama and the ensuing Manti Te'o controversy may have hurt the program's appeal in recent weeks.
In the age of 24/7 sports news, signing day has become a bigger and more exciting event each year—especially since it occurs after the Super Bowl has been played and before March Madness begins. 2013 will be no exception.
Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice. Among his high profile placements are Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers; Larry Scott, Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference; and Brady Hoke, head coach of the University of Michigan Wolverines. Earlier in his career Mr. Hughes coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA).
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