On Wednesday morning, the nation’s number-one high school football recruit, a 6-foot-3, 252-pound defensive end named Byron Cowart, announced on national television that he would play football at Auburn. And then, as often happens on the skeeviest and most discomfiting day of the college football calendar, all hell broke loose.
Cowart is from the state of Florida, and was reportedly interested in playing at the University of Florida before the Gators fired head coach Will Muschamp. After the season, Muschamp was hired as the defensive coordinator at Auburn, and so it made sense that Cowart would sign with Auburn, except that he didn’t immediately fax in his signed letter of intent, which is the only document that makes a commitment official.
And this is when the whole thing started to make no sense at all.
The rumor was that Cowart had not yet completely made up his mind, which is probably something the people closest to him should have advised him to consider before he made a decision on national television. But then, I imagine Cowart felt the need to say something; I imagine Cowart, like every other high-profile recruit, so fully bought into the reality-television aspect of college football’s signing day that he felt he couldn’t get by without unveiling some sort of hat at a press conference. So he did that, even though he wasn’t entirely sure as he did it.
By mid-afternoon on Wednesday, Cowart’s letter of intent to Auburn was still reportedly AWOL; there remained a lingering possibility that Cowart might flip to Florida, thereby nullifying the most impactful press conference of the day. There were rumors floating about that maybe his high school coach (whose son is Florida’s defensive backs coach) had a separate agenda (he told Yahoo! that Cowart signed two letters of intent on Wednesday morning, and didn’t fax either of them in), and there were rumors that maybe Cowart was waiting to see if his friend, a fellow defensive end named CeCe Jefferson, might sign with Florida (he did). It was all very mystifying and insider-ish, and it was been fueled a bevy of confusing Tweets from recruiting experts who seemed as flummoxed by this unexpected feint as everyone else.
I guess it was only a matter of time before this happened. And even though it now appears Cowart will end up sticking with Auburn, it felt almost refreshing, another mockery of a day that pretty much everyone involved agrees is deserving of mockery.
There is no process in all of sports that feels quite as ridiculous as college football recruiting does at this moment. It is a high-pressure sales job that doesn’t end until a signature is on the dotted line; it is a throwback to the days of used-car lot employees and stereo salesmen working on commission. I doubt that Byron Cowart somehow meant to game the system; I’m going to presume Byron Cowart came into signing day legitimately confused and indecisive, as a high school senior has a right to be. But anytime someone calls attention (wittingly or unwittingly) to the clusterfuck of signing day, I think it’s a good thing.
Of course, I’m not sure if there’s any way (or enough willingness) to change the process at this point. Signing day is one of the high points of the year for ESPNU; signing day is college football’s version of the NFL draft, something to obsess over on subscription-only message boards when the season is in a dead period. The cutthroat methods of the Southeastern Conference – in which every recruit is fair game until his signature has been faxed to the proper authorities – have migrated to the long-staid Big Ten in the person of coaches like Urban Meyer and James Franklin (and presumably Jim Harbaugh). In a way, it’s a reflection of the pathological competitiveness of the men involved, but sometimes this day feels like a reflection of how the players themselves have so little control over their circumstances – how they often succumb to the loudest or slickest sales pitch just so they can get it all over with.
In that vein, my favorite story of signing day was not the ongoing saga of Byron Cowart, even though he may have forever nullified the notion that donning a hat on television is truly a moment worthy of televising in the first place. My favorite story was that of a four-star running back from Rockwall, Texas named Chris Warren, who held a press conference to decide between Washington and Texas. And how did he make up his mind? By literally flipping a coin.
Has there ever been a better statement on the arbitrary and capricious nature of signing day than a kid utilizing heads or tails to decide his future? I imagine Warren (whose coin landed on Texas) would have been fine at either school. But hell, at least he made his choice on his own terms.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb