May 28, 2014

SEC preps for early signing -- if necessary

DESTIN, Fla. --- Dave Hart played in the days before regulation, when recruiting limitations and rules mostly were left to the sole discretion of each individual school.

So long before going to the University of Alabama as a basketball player, Hart made the most of the recruiting process.

"There were no limits. You could visit as many schools as you wanted to visit," Hart told a handful of reporters Wednesday here at the SEC Spring Meetings. "I'm embarrassed to tell you, it was probably 12 to 15. There were some neat things going on on those campuses."

While Hart, Tennessee's third-year vice chancellor/director of athletics, faced virtually no restraints, there could be more changes on the horizon for current prospects --- specifically in football. Just days after the Atlantic Coast Conference announced it would propose an early signing period in football that would begin on Aug. 1, SEC officials moved forward with their vision for an early signing date on the Monday following Thanksgiving --- but only if a change must be made, Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive said in emphasizing that the league's coaches strongly preferred to keep the current recruiting calendar and lone signing period that opens on the first Wednesday in February.

"There's plenty of opportunities to see the campus; it's just an official prior to early signing would not be one of them," SEC Executive Associate Commissioner Greg Sankey said. "People can opt to take every official visit, the five that they're currently permitted; that's going to result in signing in February."

The proposed new date, which this year would be Nov. 29, is the first Monday following the conclusion of the regular season and players could sign only on that day. A prospect who had not taken any official visits and who was in academic standing to sign could sign on that date and then take his official visit to the school at a later time. If a prospect wishes to take multiple official visits, up to the maximum five, then he would be ineligible to sign before the first Wednesday in February.

"That has been something that has been on the docket for a long, long time. Much like NCAA restructuring in my opinion, it's time has come," Hart said. "Whether or not we go there depends on the group and what the other conferences are going to do and what the timeframes would be. There are a lot of variables to that."

Added Vols second-year coach Butch Jones, who also told that he preferred the current format remain status quo, "If early signing day is going to be a reality, I really, really like the proposal that the SEC has come up with. There's so many benefits to, first of all, there's minimal change. It keeps the recruiting calendar intact. I think it's very healthy for the overall welfare and benefit of the student-athlete. I think it benefits him. I think it benefits high school coaches. I think the individual who wants to get his decision over with, that he grew up always wanting to go that particular school, to be able to have that signing date the Monday after Thanksgiving. And I think it also protects us in terms of our investment with our current teams. We're not having all these in-season official visits. If they want to sign on that Monday, they don't take any official visits, then they're able to take the official visit once they sign. And I think it really keeps the overall integrity of what a commitment is."

Four-star offensive lineman Jack Jones, reigning Class 6A Tennessee Mr. Football winner from powerhouse Murfreesboro Oakland, told that he would welcome such a measure.

"Yes, that would be awesome," Jones said of a potential early signing period. "It's always been one of my lifelong dreams to run out of the 'T.' I would to be able to lay my signature down after Thanksgiving. That would mean I would be able to join the Tennessee Vols even sooner.

"I can't wait to see what the next few months have in store."

Maryville High School coach George Quarles, who has had more than a dozen Football Bowls Subdivision signees, said he liked the SEC's if-necessary proposal better than the August date the ACC has set forth, but Quarles also questioned the need for any change at all.

"That first Monday after Thanksgiving is a lot better than the one in August. From a coach's standpoint … the process has just gotten sped up so much that I just don't know a lot of high school coaches who would be in favor of an August signing period," said Quarles, who has eschewed numerous college overtures in winning a record 10 state championships at Maryville. "But you get some kids who would shut it down after they sign. So that would be something I think coaches would be concerned with. …

"I'm sure other coaches would feel the same way; it's not broken right now. Yeah they recruit them earlier and earlier and you're unofficially offering freshmen and sophomores, but I just don't think you want to speed that signing part up. I would think you would want more time to get to know the kid. Right now look at college basketball and all the guys getting out of their letters of intent with coaches leaving or getting fired. You just don't know how things are going to end up in August and sometimes even the first Monday after Thanksgiving."

Butch Jones, who had some notable official visitors during his debut season but strongly prefers to wait until after the season for most prospects to come to campus in an official manner, points to keeping his focus on his team and its current season.

"Sometimes there are some benefits to the official visits (during season) and a lot of times because of the overall acceleration process in recruiting, in-season official visits kind of become necessary. But I do, I think it's a time for football and a time to develop your football team," the Vols' coach said, "and then you have to prepare for a recruiting weekend as well. It makes it that much more challenging. And I think the other thing is, just being able to on their official visit, that 48-hour window that they have, to be able to spend that quality time with the individual and his family."

Hart admits the measure could also provide all schools with some fiscal relief --- lesser expenses on coaches' travel; potentially fewer wasted official visits --- but insists the measure is, if necessary, designed to aide players like Jack Jones.

"It's certainly a factor, but I think more than that it takes pressure off kids who know where they want to go," Hart said. "I've been a proponent of that for several years."

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