Sports Nut

National Signing Day, Explained

A guide to the convoluted and ridiculous rituals of college football’s signing day.

Jim Harbaugh.
Jim Harbaugh, coach of the Michigan Wolverines, Oct. 17, 2015, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Christian Petersen/Thinkstock

Last February, the New York Times’ Marc Tracy wrote an excellent, compact introduction to National Signing Day:

On the fourth Thursday of November, Americans gather with their families to give thanks. On the last Monday of May, they remember those who gave their lives for their country. And on the first Wednesday of February, they scan Twitter to find out where several dozen talented 18-year-olds have decided to go play college football.

If you don’t care about all the war daddies in Florida State’s recruiting class and think that “building a fence” is something Donald Trump wants to do, then scanning social media on this particular Wednesday can be a strange and dizzying experience. So, here is a quick tour through the rituals of signing day, a time when coaches dance, fax machines sing, and athletes communicate via the medium of dessert.

1. The hat dance.

Top recruits, signing day tradition dictates, indicate where they’re going to school by arraying a bunch of caps on a table, then grabbing the one that bears the logo of their college of choice. In his 2013 defense of the “hat dance,” Bryan Curtis wrote about the ceremony’s many variations, including throwing away rival teams’ hats and the use of a hat-bearing sibling as a decoy.

On Wednesday, a player named Mecole Hardman Jr. came up with something much better:

This suggests a new possible slogan for the International Cake Exploration Societé: “Cakes—they’re hats you can eat.”

Safety Deontay Anderson’s interpretation of the hat dance, though, made those delicious cakes look like ordinary, inedible hats. In a video orchestrated by Bleacher Report, Anderson made his college decision via sky-dive.

Makes sense.

2. The fax machine.

The first Wednesday of February is the one day of the year when the humble fax reclaims its rightful place as one of America’s top 6,000 pieces of technology. Even in this age of email and Snapchat and virtual reality, the nation’s elite high school athletes still fax in their signed national letters of intent (though they can now email them as well). And so, as the Wall Street Journal explained in 2011, “The machines get tender loving care before the big day, getting tuned up and topped off with toner.”

The University of Florida’s fax machine got tuned up well enough to “sing” the Adele hit “Hello.”

But the best, most successful fax machine in all the land is in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

That fax—perhaps with the help of other impossibly strong and agile faxes on the Alabama fax depth chart, coached up by the legendary electronics repairman Nick Saban—had brought in five straight No. 1 recruiting classes according to 247 Sports and as of Wednesday evening can now claim a sixth. The question now is whether that fax will become an NFL star like Julio Jones or a flop like Trent Richardson. Either way, it’s a lock to get drafted in the first round.

3. Flipping.

Also known as a “signing day surprise.” Players make verbal commitments throughout the year, but the documents they submit on signing day are binding. Until those papers come in, there’s always a chance for a “flip”—a player changing his mind at the last possible second and committing to a different school.

The University of Texas did a lot of flipping on Wednesday, as this Charlie Strong parody account was happy to report.

A flip from your in-state rival is sweetest of all.

4. Gloating.

With no games to be played for seven long months, signing day offers a rare off-season opportunity to mock the opposition. Wednesday’s most laughable moment came courtesy of a recruit named Brandon Jones. As the site Good Bull Hunting noted, a Texas A&M fan site went so far as to produce a film about Jones, titled “On an Island.” On Wednesday, Jones signed with A&M’s biggest rival, offering the opportunity for some brutal emoji taunts.


5. Accusing your rivals of cheating.

Top recruits get money in brown paper bags at every school except: feel free to insert the name of the school you root for here. That’s the subtext—and usually the actual text—of 98 percent of conversations on college football message boards. What makes signing day special is that coaches get on camera and start sounding like WooPigSooieHogsFan999.

6. Jim Harbaugh does something weird.

A new tradition, but already kind of the best one. The Michigan coach reportedly wooed a high school kicker by sleeping over at the kid’s house. He also climbed a tree to impress another recruit. On Wednesday, at a signing day party attended by Tom Brady and Derek Jeter, Harbaugh explained modern dance techniques to a coaching legend.

He also discussed the importance of macro global trends.

And scored an endorsement from Lil Wayne.

Most important of all, Michigan got a commitment from the No. 1 prospect in the country.

And the kicker from the slumber party? He’s going to Michigan, too.

That player, Quinn Nordin, actually flipped to Michigan from Penn State—he’d previously announced his commitment in a video in which he’d stepped out of a private plane wearing Nittany Lions gear.

Watch out next year for a video in which a punter jumps out of an exploding helicopter to announce his commitment to Mississippi State.