The Hat Trick

February 3, 2016 is National Signing Day and ESPN will highlight the big signings and rank the recruiting classes.
February 3, 2016 is National Signing Day and ESPN will highlight the big signings and rank the recruiting classes throughout the entire process.

National Signing Day’s Gamesmanship and Antics

By Darius Williams

The scene is one that has become very familiar around this time of year as we approach February. Some athletically-gifted 17-year-old young man stands in front of television cameras at one of the many  post-season all-star games played these days. He’s always accompanied by his parents and perhaps even his siblings.

A reporter gives a brief rundown of the athlete’s high school career which is front and center at that  moment. It usually is at this point that you see the five baseball caps in front of the player, each  representing a university longing for his services. As the question of which major college campus he will be displaying his athletic gifts gets asked by the reporter, he will gaze down at the five hats in deep thought. After all, trying to decide between the University of Alabama, Louisiana State University, University of Florida, University of Texas and University of Southern California could stall the most decisive of men.

Knowing all along that LSU is his choice, he first will reach for the USC cap. Maybe realizing he won’t fit in with the fast pace of Los Angeles, suddenly he then decides the Florida cap is the one he will grab and fold the brim of to show his swagger. Well hold up, Gainesville won’t be his new place of residence either as he puts the Florida cap back down on the table. Deciding to end the suspense, he finally grabs the LSU purple and gold cap and utter the words made famous by Cleveland Cavaliers great LeBron James. “I am taking my talents to (fill in the blank).”

The greatly-anticipated day where we get to see where this country’s most talented high school football players will be spending the next three to five years is one that has intrigued those who closely follow both college and high school football. Seeing a local kid go off to do great things in college even captivates those who hold no allegiances to the sport in particular.

Long gone are the days when Throckmorton High School star Bob Lilly in 1957 decided to attend Texas Christian University and mailed in his letter of intent to the Fort Worth, Texas, campus. No cameras were present on his family’s farm as he was baling hay to see if Southern Methodist University was going to steal him away. There was no publication detailing his every visit to a campus and what all he ate while on his visits.

The overload of information we have on the players now has reached extreme levels. With all the attention comes a sense to play up to all the pomp and circumstances surrounding National Signing Day.

In 1989, the way an athlete decided to announce his college choice changed forever. These changes can be traced to David W. Carter High School in Dallas. Coming off a controversial run to a state  championship, one later rescinded, the team’s two best players decided signing their letters of intent in the auditorium, counselors’ office, lunch room or coach’s office would not be the route they chose. Both having All-America labels attached to them and considered the very best the country had to offer, linebacker Jesse Armstead along with free safety Derric Evans put on a show.

It’s hard to say Armstead’s press conference was a humbling experience for him. He rented out a banquet hall at the ritzy Loews Anatole on the outskirts of downtown Dallas and unofficially became the inventor of the “hat trick’’ to the amazement of those watching on television and those who were there in person. Armstead chose the University of Miami, unveiling a No. 1 Hurricane jersey in the process.

Evans decided to go with less clothing while scripting his ‘John Hancock’ on documents from the University of Tennessee. It could have been all the tension and stress from the hundreds of phones calls and letters from college coaches that led him to believe he should sign his letter of intent in comforts of a jacuzzi in his family’s home. With gold necklaces dangling while he wore a biker’s tight outfit that looked like it came straight from Tour de France champion Greg Lemond’s closet, Evans kick-started the trend of “one-upping” the competition. Even to this day as a movie hit the big screen this past fall about the very team for which Armstead and Evans played, the directors made sure to re-enact the jacuzzi scene signing of Evans.

Not everyone is putting on these public displays of “look at me.” Many follow suit with the school district in which they played and join all other signees usually in a gymnasium or civic center of some sort. They already have verbally committed prior to the day, killing all suspense in the process. They all show up wearing the caps of their chosen colleges. A quick signing and then they are whisked away into the hands of a representative of that the college to begin the clearinghouse process.

The self-centered ‘5 Star’ prospect will find this an unfulfilling way to choose where he will further his education. Take for instance last year. The No. 3 overall rated recruit in the country, defensive end Byron Cowart, went on national television to announce his decision to sign with Auburn University. The 6-foot-3-inch, 280 pound man-child was decked out in a well-tailored suit with accessories matching Auburn’s colors. An astonished crowd gathered inside the gymnasium was surprised to see him walk in with a doll. Now we aren’t talking about a Barbie Doll or anything of that nature, but a Chucky doll from the movie Child’s Play. The relevance of this stunt was to play off of Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, with whom folks always have associated his image.

I can recall a time when you found out the day after National Signing Day where a recruit was going to attend college. There was no drama leading up to his decision. The ridiculous nature in which such a life-altering decision is being made now should embarrass those closely associated with these players. Somewhere floating around the Internet you can find a few recruits announcing their decision in the form of a rap video. How idiotic is that?

Parents seem to have bought into the selfish nature of the whole college selecting process. Not only are they providing misguided insight on the pros and cons of the schools their sons are interested in, they also have become part of the show. Remember a few years back when All-America defensive back Landon Collins announced that he would be signing with Alabama instead of his home state school of LSU?

Enter his mother. Knowing that millions could be tuned in to this moment, she decided to show visibly her disgust with Landon’s decision. She immediately dropped her head and tuned out on the rest of his speech about why he was choosing the Crimson Tide. Her ties to the Tigers must run deep because she initially refused to sign his letter of intent. The moment for her 15 minutes of fame was there as she was the talk of her son’s biggest day up to that point.

A parent’s role should be to help guide their kid through the rigorous process of trying to decide which school best fits their abilities and offer them the best opportunity to succeed academically. It is the athlete who has to make that campus his home away from home nine months out of a year for the next four to five years.

It all feeds into the ego of a young man who has been told he was great since his first touchdown way back in flag football. It propels those who do become fortunate enough to warrant scholarship offers to announce it in grand style.

A few years back, along with the hat trick, we had the ‘Superman’ stunt of ripping the button-down top shirt open to reveal the school of their choice. Can you recall one highly-ranked recruit letting his toddler daughter make his decision by having her reach into a bowl containing his five choices, only to pick the one he least-wanted to attend?

There have been some embarrassing moments that brought laughter to those of us watching. One particular recruit had his choices on placards with the name of each school neatly placed on each placard. One of his choices was a school nobody had heard of: “Michigan University” does not exist. The University of Michigan does, however.

I find it hard to blame the kids for what is going on today with National Signing Day. What used to consume an extra two minutes on a local sports broadcast about that day now has nationally-syndicated shows covering not only what every player ranked on Rivals Top 300 list has as the leader to get his services, but what they tweeted and what school their girlfriend is going to attend.

Coaches following potential recruits on social media has recently become a trend. Trying to gain a heads up over the competition by playing to a kid’s ego on Twitter can lead to a ‘4 Star’ strong safety for a university I assume.

You can’t expect humbleness from a kid who has been hounded by schools with players he may have grew up idolizing since he was a freshman. It immediately places him in a world unlike that he sits in daily. A sense of entitlement comes when you as a head coach of a major university place a call to a potential recruit just before you hit the field for a nationally-televised bowl game like Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer did to Billy Sims back in 1975. Alabama’s Nick Saban calling anyone right now after winning his fifth national championship probably makes the most modest of kids a little self-centered I would imagine.

There used to be only one source of national ranking to which we knew who the top players in America were and that was the USA Today list that would come out annually around the signing period. There would be a brief scouting look at each of the 100 players listed. Today we have upwards of 20 different recruiting sources that produce their own lists of the top players many go as far to list and rank 500 players.

More outlets means more recognition on a national level for a kid who likes reading about his greatness. I looked at one well-respected recruiting source that had its No. 22-ranked player nationally come in as the best player on another source’s list. It’s just a free for all to feed the egos negatively to a bunch of kids who just received their permits to operate a vehicle.

Can you imagine if Lilly was making his decision on where to attend college in today’s climate? Mailing his letter of intent wouldn’t suffice at all. Being a farm boy and all, maybe Lilly could be milking cows while making his announcement. Better yet, maybe Lilly could play off that old ‘hat trick’ and go with the ‘hay trick’…have his five choices placarded on a bales of hay and choose his school by loading up one in the barn of his final decision. I know the visual of that looks crazy, but not any crazier than some of what goes on today.

I was a sophomore in high school back in 1989 when both Armstead and Evans changed the world of National Signing Day. The 16-year-old in me found it both entertaining and on the cutting edge. An athlete at the time myself, I immediately got to thinking about what crazy and outlandish act I was gonna pull while I penned my letter of intent. Times were different then and doing something more than the standard way often was frowned upon.

Who knows if those two standout players knew what they were getting started some 27 years ago. Even with the flamboyant and self-serving nature in which they announced to the world their decision to attend college, today they must see a recruit’s homemade rap video to the tune of a Lil Wayne song as utterly ridiculous as the rest of the world does.