What is National Signing Day?
For decades, the first Wednesday in February was like Christmas Day for college football coaches. National Signing Day was a national holiday in the college football community as everyone loaded up on coffee and breakfast pastries and sweated out the day by the fax machine waiting for recruits to fax over their official commitments. The fax machines have mostly been replaced by emails, and the date has changed as well, but the excitement and long days of National Signing Day are still very much alive and well.
Instead of one signing period that lasts most of February and all of March, there is now an early signing period for three days in December before the regular period two months later. The football recruiting schedule now more closely mirrors the basketball schedule, except there is still plenty of attention on both signing days. However, there is less focus on the student-athletes signing in February than before, as more energy is put into who can complete their classes during the early period. However, the excitement over the next crop of student-athletes at every school is beyond palpable as almost every school still adds a player or three during the normal period.
For many old-school college football fans, National Signing Day means those late flips and crazy chaos. That certainly still happens in both December and February, but that chaos also tends to happen a week or so before signing day now. The recruiting process is now far more accelerated, and there is pressure on information and knowledge now earlier in the process. Coaches are beginning to push even more for decisions from high school students before their senior year even begins. National Signing Day, and the festivities surrounding it, don’t make that decision any easier with the first day of the period considered a deadline to make a decision now.
National Letter of Intent
It is called National Signing Day because the student-athletes actually have to sign something in order to lock in their commitment. The National Letter of Intent is a program the NCAA manages through the Collegiate Commissioners Association. The first NLIs were in 1964 when seven conferences and eight independent schools banned together to create a contract between the school and the student-athlete. For the 2021-22 academic year, 652 Division I and Division II institutions participated in the voluntary program as an NLI member institution. Perhaps the biggest misnomer is that recruits do not technically have to sign a National Letter of Intent. However, doing so means there is no guarantee the school will provide them with financial aid.
The NLI is a binding agreement in which the prospective student-athlete agrees to attend the school for at least one academic year (two semesters or three quarters) and the school commits to providing the student-athlete with athletic financial aid. The NLI also comes with a recruiting prohibition, so once a student-athlete signs and submits the letter of intent, no NCAA institution is allowed to engage in any recruiting activities with the student-athlete. As such, a high school student is allowed to sign an NLI with only one school and the NLI expires for college athletes after that first year in residence.
When recruits hold National Signing Day Activities at their school or maybe a local park, the student-athletes sign a copy of the legal contract for the public and media to see most of the time. Indeed, most of the time, the recruit has emailed in his actual NLI early in the morning with recruits eligible to submit those letters at 7 a.m. local time on that initial signing date.
Early Signing Period
The early signing days are now the center of the recruiting universe with most coaches hoping to complete their classes by the time pen hits paper in December. The advent of the early period was born out of the shifting in the recruiting process as more high school football players began making their college decisions earlier in the process. Many players have already made their choice before August 1 of their senior year when schools can first officially offer student-athletes scholarship money. The early commitments led to months of other schools trying to flip a recruit, and it became apparent these recruits needed to be able to secure their decisions earlier in the process. Plus, the early signing periods help solidify the recruiting class and make it easier for coaches to know where to focus for the normal signing period.
Now prospective student-athletes can sign their National Letters of Intent for three days in December. The early signing days are the third Wednesday of December through the Friday that follows, making it a very brief window for recruits to sign their letters. This is the first time prospects are able to officially sign with their chosen school and actually firmly commit to that school for the first year. By signing early, the student-athletes will not get bombarded with more recruiting material in order to flip their commitment, and it delivers more peace of mind by officially signing that letter.
Normal Signing Period
If a prospect is unsure about signing early, they can wait until the normal period, which begins the first Wednesday of February every year and lasts until April 1. Most of the attention is focused on that first Wednesday, and most of the action occurs on that first signing day. However, they do have until the signing period ends on April 1 to make a decision and submit their NLI. There is no less fanfare over the old-school signing date because most recruiting classes are completed by that point, however, there is always some intrigue with top-level prospects who have not made a decision or are trying to finish up their eligibility requirements.
Whether you’re a junior-college star transferring from a two-year college or a Division I prospect switching schools, there are differences from the normal process as it pertains to financial aid. Those transferring from a four-year institution face two different sets of rules depending upon whether or not they completed their first year at the school at which they signed their NLI. Those looking to transfer before finishing that freshman year must apply to be released from their National Letter of Intent prior to speaking with any other schools. Those who have completed their first year simply have to follow the rules at the new school to ensure they qualify for and are awarded athletic financial aid from the new school.
Those who decide to move on from two-year colleges will follow a similar process to the high school seniors. They must sign National Letters of Intent with their new school, but the difference is they are allowed to sign those agreements from the first day the early signing period opens until January 15 for mid-year enrollees. If the junior college player elects to transfer between academic years, it would follow a similar path to those who miss the regular signing period.
Division II Signing Day
The Division II process is extremely similar to the one Division I recruits need to undergo. The biggest difference is Division II schools do not have the early period, and instead a much longer regular signing period. The Division II schools cannot officially accept NLIs until the first Wednesday in February, but the period does not end until August 1. The lone exception is a junior college transfer, who is allowed to enroll mid-year at a Division II school during the Division I early signing period similar to JUCO players electing to play Division I.
Division III Signing Day
There are no athletic scholarships awarded at the NCAA Division III level. Therefore there is no official signing period for these schools. Many players who do end up playing college football at the Division III level will hold their own signing ceremonies, but there is no binding contract like the NLI. Instead, they will simply enroll at whichever college they prefer and then start practicing with the team when fall camp opens in August.