The Expectation of Expectations: A National Signing Day Diary at USC

Lane Kiffin, a reluctant mother and more from one of the oddest days in all of sports
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My friend – we’ll call him John – is tired.

I knew that before he tells me exactly how long he slept on Tuesday night (0.00 hours), or of the message board imbroglios that have broken out on the site he works for. The bleary eyes and frowzy Viking beard tell me what he doesn’t: covering recruiting can suck, and it especially sucks on National Signing Day.

I don’t know John very well, even though we see each other a couple times a week. We talk about sports and swap did-you-see-that-last-night inanities, and it’s all rather enjoyable because John is a cool dude, but it’s largely superficial. I’m not totally sure he knows my last name, to be honest. We’re friends the way reporters sometimes are when they share a beat, and that’s fine.

Except John and I don’t really share a beat. I cover USC football and basketball as a part-time gig. John covers USC recruiting full time, with a sideline gig in football and basketball. There are a host of differences that accompany that distinction but the most telling ones are those stridently broadcast throughout the sports world on the first Wednesday in February each year.

And so we – John and I and a dozen or so other media members – are assembled in a makeshift conference room in USC’s football complex, awaiting the arrival of Lane Kiffin to announce his signing class. While we’re waiting, someone recaps this year’s greatest hit, a tale involving a recruit forced to cancel his signing day ceremony because his mother stole his letter of intent and fled the scene, refusing to provide the signature needed to make his pact to Arkansas official. A few of the non-recruitniks chuckle incredulously at this. So do a couple of John’s ilk, only their laughter is full of credulity.

They don’t laugh because they are surprised by this, or by anything that happens in recruiting anymore. They laugh because other people still are; they’re laughing at the idea that anyone could still be startled by what happens on Signing Day.

***

Among the most amazing things about Signing Day – much more than the sheer insistence upon itself or the fact that a billion dollar business still hinges on fax machines in 2013 – is that in the era of real-time social media and memes, it is all still consumed more or less in earnest.

For its Signing Day special, ESPNU stationed reporters on no fewer than 13 college campuses and sent emissaries to cover 17 different announcements. And for over eleven hours, they breathlessly reported as though each time-stamped dispatch from Tuscaloosa or Austin about the latest letter of intent was the most important thing in the sports world, probably because it was for that fleeting moment. It’s not as though the people doing so don’t realize the absurdity of giving an 18-year-old a national TV spot to let millions of people know which college roster he’ll round out next season; they do, and often hate it. It’s just that the disgust is swallowed up by the pulsing urgency of it all, a desperate need to know where that 18-year-old will sign, because recruiting is built on human curiosity funneled into a business model. National Signing Day is the epic conclusion to a thousand 18-month-long murder mysteries, except we already know who’s doing the killing, and who’ll get away with what. The central conceit is learning which one school on a given recruit’s list will survive, which maybe makes it more like a slasher movie, then.

The fallout – good, bad, or otherwise – makes its way to online message boards, whereupon those burping test tubes of emotion inevitably percolate and bubble over the way they do when people whose attention spans have been toyed with far too long decide to get together and play on the Internet.

There’s no acknowledgment of how weird this all is, because there just isn’t any time for that, not with five kids out there who haven’t faxed their letters in yet, and two more who announce later today and that one guy who is committed to us but still announcing on live TV and oh my God why does he have a Clemson hat on the table, I thought he was going out of state and shit, we lost that linebacker recruit and it’s a dead period so we can’t trip him in for an unofficial visit but maybe we can offer that three-star down the road only we never had an in-home with him so how well do his parents know his position coach and fuck, now our third corner decommitted, why the hell did we let him take more officials after we took him but haha it’s cool, he sucks anyways and oh yeah, suck it, we just flipped your four-star left guard, betcha didn’t know that he started in the Army All-American game and dammit, fuck, shit, no, not our running back! And so on. It gets loud.

Those who turn their nose up at recruiting fans like to claim it’s a mindless hobby, or plain creepy. The latter is a matter of taste, but on the former they could not be more wrong; trying to keep up with even one school, let alone all of them the way recruiting analysts do, is not at all mindless. It is, in fact, a mind-full: it’s like watching a dozen chess games at one time, only with every move impacting all 12 boards. There’s so much mental legwork involved that something has to give, and so people like John react the way cyborgs do when too many processes are wired into their circuitry: they discard inefficiencies like wonder and awe.

Suckers like us were the ones guffawing at that recruit’s mom, and the lengths she went to to keep her baby from leaving home. The sharps were busy trying to get a read on whether that meant he's signing with Miami.

***

Eventually, Kiffin did show up, partly because that’s his job and also partly because there’s no better showcase for Lane Kiffin than a day so fully dedicated to the aggressive celebration of what is mostly unreachable potential.

He then proceeded to tell us about the 13 blue chippers he brought in, while the sports information director handed out a press release celebrating each of their various accomplishments. Reading them over, it was hard not to consider a sobering truth: that, for 95% of the players signing today, the most impact they will ever make in the activity that has already come to define them is being made in that moment. They put on a hat, they were celebrated in a few lines of bold-faced type, they were discussed as if they might be the difference between one type of season or another. They’ll compete against similar people who were introduced in similar ways last year, and the year before that, a little mountain range of low personal peaks.

It doesn’t take me long to snap out of it, though. John was asking Kiffin about scholarship math, and I needed to know who didn’t make the cut. We all got back to work, and took notes.


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