Probably my first inkling that the recruitment of high school athletes was A Thing was when as an 18-year old senior, I got a pro forma letter from some tiny college I had never heard of and couldn't name now asking me to think about checking out their water polo program.
I still do not know how or why the school got my name or sought me out, and I can only assume that it was a case of extreme mistaken identity. Yes, I had been a (below average at best) competitive swimmer for years and yes I could pretty much tread water indefinitely and yes I'm six foot two with ungainly arms and legs, but... water polo? I didn't even know the rules, and sure as hell didn't know anyone who actually played the sport. I laughed, threw the letter in the trash, and happily spent my college years at Ohio State avoiding getting kicked in the nards on a regular basis while practicing competitive drowning.
The second time the concept of recruiting popped up on my radar was after I had rolled up to Columbus for college. I was buying textbooks at a store like a dope and I noticed a bunch of other dopes standing around a tiny rabbit-eared TV. They were watching the 2006 Army All-American Game, and getting particularly excited about one player, who was just steamrolling everyone else on the field. His name was Beanie Wells, he'd get the MVP for the game, and now I knew this dude was headed to Ohio State.
I was pumped. So was everyone else in the store.
We had been seriously afflicted with Signing Day fever.
In retrospect those two events were telling me a lot more about recruiting than I knew, and precipitated the state of affairs that we currently live under: Every Day Is Signing Day.
Even though I thought it was absurd to get an informational letter about a college water polo program as a high school senior in 2003, that was nothing compared to the absolute level of insanity that college sports programs (and college football especially) would reach when trying to land actual recruits. A quick Google search brings up a litany of ridiculous tactics that coaches have used to land elite and semi-elite football talent, including a tricked-out helicopter and a letter that just reads "YOU!" as if Mike London was waiting in a hallway closet with duct tape and a potato sack.
The tactics reflect the urgency that coaches and fans feel about getting the best recruits, and social media just exacerbates it even more. Alabama not spamming every one of the 73 kids they'll extend an offer to this year with hundreds of letters, Instagram DM's, and targeted highlight videos would be a scandal because that is what's expected and demanded.
One thing leads into the other.
The excitement that we felt at SBX watching Beanie Wells truck a bunch of other teens wasn't just palpable, it was marketable. Recruiting had always been big business to the media, and in retrospect I should've realized that the Army All-American Game, what with its halftime commitments and so on, was just a precursor to every live stream of an overwrought college choice announcement from a recruit.
And to be clear, I think everything that was eventually built around signing day rules. I love watching a Busby Berkeley-choreographed hat choosing ceremony, complete with a jet ski and a drop-in from a parachute. The problem is that as with anything else that anyone remotely enjoys, it must eventually done to excess and at all times.
So the idea of a transfer portal and an early signing period and everything else that comes with what recruiting looks like in 2019 was probably pretty inevitable; it was the logical end result of a tried and true method of saying that if one of something is good, then several hundred times that must be far better.
Of course, ultimately it comes down what's best for the athlete. Giving up the specialness of a singular Signing Day in favor of a much larger window of opportunity might sting because I can no longer watch in real-time as an antiquated piece of hardware is turned on for the first time in a calendar year and spits out commitment letters, but if it allows players to subvert a recruiting process that isn't generally in their favor, then I'm for it. Same with the transfer portal (which itself is currently in the process of being monetized as much as possible by media companies).
I can't deny that I still miss the chaos and pure emotion that was the singular Signing Day. The glee of combing opposing message boards when a recruit picks your school over another, the silly hat ceremonies, long winded speeches from volleyball coaches about how much one of their players meant to them when all you really care about is if Ohio State is getting another long snapper... it was fun! And now, not so much. Those things still exist, but the inertia leading to just one big day is gone.
Still, watching your team grow and evolve through recruiting is still a fascinating process, particularly when a new head coach like Ryan Day is concerned. Players matter, and how the Buckeyes are able to build a team to Day's specifications is a really interesting question that I don't think has been adequately answered.
It's a brave new world. One with a lot fewer stories like this one.
R.I.P., you glorious relic of a bygone era.