Tuesday Tip: Sign in the Spring or Fall?

The recruiting race is on – has been for two weeks.  With just 121 days until the start of the Fall signing period, this is a frenzied time.  Think about it – in the next four months seventeen and eighteen year old kids are expected to learn about different teams, prove themselves to coaches, visit schools, AND decide where they’re going to spend the next 4-6 years of their lives.  Oh yeah, AND they’ve got homework, homecoming and in some states, the high school season to think about.  Like we said, it’s a busy time.

There are actually two signing periods when swimmers can ink their name to a National Letter of Intent (NLI).  The first occurs for a week in November while the second begins in April and extends through August.  That leads to today’s question – is it better to sign in the spring or the fall?

Before we get to that, it’s worth taking a moment to explain what an NLI is.  It’s a contract where swimmer agrees to attend an institution for a year in return for athletics financial aid.  The NLI takes pressure off prospective student-athletes, because once signed, swimmers are no longer subject to further recruiting contacts and calls. It also assures the swimmer of a scholarship for one academic year.  For the school, it provides assurance that their swimmer won’t bolt to another school.  In theory, because the NLI is tied to the university, not a particular coach, it is meant to focus on educational objectives.   

Ok, but back to Spring vs. Fall.  Which is better?   That depends on you because there are risks and advantages to both options.  

Many coaches were quick to point to the Fall signing period, though some of that is out of self interest.  “Coaches want to coach all year, not recruit,” says Princeton’s Susan Teeter.  If a coach can sign a class in the Fall, it makes for a much lighter workload throughout the season and enables coaches to focus on their team.   “Recruiting is our lifeblood, however, the current team members must be our priority,” explains Tennessee men’s coach John Trembley.  “If we have finished recruiting in the Fall, then we can spend the lion's share of the year spending time working with, helping, and stewarding our current student-athletes.”  

Brigham Young’s Stan Crump puts it another way, “In the spring, I really like to focus on fast swimming, not recruiting.”  

Of course there are also advantages to the swimmer for signing early.  One of them, according to Denver’s Brian Schrader, is “having the decision made and enjoying your senior year without distraction.”  While the recruiting calls and visits can be fun and exciting, they can also become exhausting and tiresome.  

“If you are an established swimmer whose ‘stock value’ is well established and you have a clear idea what type of school you want to attend then Fall signing is best,” says Northwestern’s Bob Groseth. “It allows you to enjoy your Senior year without the need to make a decision on college looming over you.”

Signing early, Teeter adds, “takes all the pressure off you and the coach” while Pittsburgh’s Chuck Knoles notes that early signing can eliminate the “what-if’s” of your senior year – (i.e. what if you don’t swim as fast your senior year due to illness or other outside-of-swimming reasons).   

NC State’s Brooks Teal thinks the answer to this question has to be taken case-by-case.  “Generally, if a recruit has a short list of ten schools that will grant them a great education and an opportunity to be competitive, have spoken to the coaches, and taken a visit, then the decision should be made in the Fall.  There are generally more scholarships and roster slots available.”

Oh yes, roster spots and scholarship availability.  If a scholarship is going to be a deciding factor in a swimmer’s decision, this can be a real concern.  On a home visit, one school recently told one of our bloggers that their institution only has two scholarships available this season.  If money is an issue, this can be a real concern.

“As a coach I think there is an advantage to signing early,” explains Hawaii’s Vic Wales, “because scholarship money is given out on a ‘First Come, First Served’ basis.”  Add’s Gregg Troy of Florida, “If you are looking at top 20 schools then early is better or the funds will be gone.”

“A lot of things change during a senior year,” adds SMU’s Eddie Sinnott. “If you don’t sign early your money could go to someone else. That will happen at schools that do not recruit people but instead recruit talent.”

But recruiting talent is a big part of the equation.  “Boys develop later than girls,” explains an assistant at a combined program.  “Sometimes when we see a boy we think is about to blossom, we will sign them in the Fall for books or 10%, knowing that in the spring, it might take 30% or more.”  As Southern Illinois’ Rick Walker notes, “If you sign early and swim much faster after, the coach is not obligated to increase the signed offer.”

But what if you don’t have your choices narrowed down?  What if you don’t have an “established stock value”?  What if the coach you really like is on the hot seat?  What if you’re that boy on the verge of some big swims at your state meet in March?  Then, Spring signing may offer some advantages.

“There is a group of athletes that benefit greatly from another season of training,” explains Schrader, “and spring can bring more opportunity to them as far as scholarship and options.”  

Teal agrees “Recruits who are new to the sport and/or have shown continual improvement, might wait to garner more interest,” he explains. “Faster times don’t always mean that a recruit will get their top choice, but if they are open to many different schools, then faster winter/spring times will often equate to a better college choice and more money.”  

Wales likewise notes, if you don't swim faster you may cost yourself some money, but there are always programs with money left in the spring because their fall recruiting did not go well.”

Not everyone agrees, however.  “The primary reason kids wait till the spring is to go faster to increase scholarship opportunities,” explains Ohio State’s Bill Dorrenkott, but adds, “seldom does this occur.”  

It’s not all dollars and cents though.  “Spring signing is fine,” according to Stanford’s Ted Knapp.  “It works very well for those who have a busy Fall, do not want to rush through the process, want to make more than 4-5 campus visits, need first-semester grades and/or retake the  SAT/ACT to enhance admission opportunities.”

Another thing to consider is how ready you are to make a decision.  UC-San Diego’s Scott McGihon feels that recruits “Should really only sign early if you are positive that you have exhausted all your options, and have found the perfect fit for you.”  After all, a lot of things can happen your senior year.

Consider Dan Madwed. Two years ago, the flyer/IM’er (and fifth-ranked recruit in our class of 2008) signed on with Michigan, home of coach Bob Bowman and half of Trials’ 200 butterfly finalists.  Bowman, however, will be returning to Baltimore.  Are you ready for such a change?  Madwed is, and tells CollegeSwimming.com he is still enrolled at Michigan and ready to swim with new head coach Mike Bottom.

Another thing that could change is you.  Adolescents can be a fickle species, with many not ready to make such a difficult choice in the Fall.    Some coaches are accommodating of this, others not.  Count Kansas as one place that works with, “what the recruit is comfortable with.”  As head coach Clark Campbell explains, “We will not pressure a fall decision.”

“If you decide to wait it is important to get a confirmation from the coach that a scholarship will be available in the spring,” says Sinnott.  “One thing for sure is you will know if the coach wants you or your times.”