High school football ESPNU 7:30 a.m.

ESPNU has signing day sealed up

jjones@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 5, 2013 

ESPNU_Studio_03

ESPN directors Jim Reed (left) and Rich Kvietkus (right) work on February 4, 2013 in ESPNU's Ballantyne studios in preparation for college football's National Signing Day on Wednesday. David T. Foster III-dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

DAVID T. FOSTER III — dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

ESPNU has dubbed Wednesday as the first day of the 2013 college football season because, well, ESPN is that powerful.

The college programming network in south Charlotte’s Ballantyne office park will devote 11.5 hours of coverage to Wednesday’s National Signing Day in its biggest annual special yet.

From 7:30 a.m. until 7 p.m., 18 of the top high school athletes will appear on the network, with 17 of them announcing their college destination live. The network will also have former SEC coaches Derek Dooley (Tennessee) and Gene Chizik (Auburn) in studio while placing reporters at 13 colleges to get reactions from some of the nation’s top coaches.

The epicenter will be at the 37,000-square-foot Ballantyne office.

“In terms of what comes out of this building it’s the biggest day,” said Dan Margulis, ESPNU’s senior director of programming. “There are a lot of hours of studio, and we have some phenomenal games, but in terms of owning it from a company perspective, I would say this is the biggest. We really put our flag down on it.”

National Signing Day is essentially ESPNU’s draft day. Most top recruits have already given commitments to schools, and the only thing left is to sign a national letter of intent, the contract that binds a player to a college. But several high-profile players have yet to commit to a school.

That’s what should make for an interesting day at ESPNU, which originally planned to start its coverage at 9 a.m. and have a 10-hour special. Executives decided to bump the special up by 90 minutes to fit in the nation’s top recruit, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche of Loganville, Ga.

Nkemdiche, the consensus No. 1 player in the country who originally committed to Clemson, has narrowed his list to Louisiana State and Mississippi, and ESPNU will broadcast his choice at 7:30 a.m.

“We still had a lot we could do, and then the No. 1 recruit in the nation decided that’s the time he wanted to sign, so it made sense,” Margulis said of the time change. “You can’t have a day like this and not have the No. 1 recruit.”

State of the game

Adjusting a day of programming that will involve about 120 staff members on site and nearly 200 in satellite trucks and colleges across the country might seem odd for one 18-year-old’s decision, but that’s the state of football recruiting.

Websites such as Rivals.com and Scout.com have become multimillion-dollar companies in the past decade, specializing in rating players, ranking recruiting classes and compiling highlight videos of the next brightest college star.

It’s that passion from college football fans eager to land the next five-star athlete that has grown the TV special from six hours in 2006 to 11.5 this year. ESPN national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said he’s not surprised by the growth.

“The medium now to where everyone has access to that information, we’re essentially a byproduct of that,” Luginbill said. “Fifteen or 20 years ago in recruiting there was no way of finding video. The only people who saw game tape were the coaches. Now it’s everybody.

“You can’t run from it, you can’t hide from it because it’s everywhere. It’s something people want to know more about because they’re fascinated.”

But that fascination can sometimes verge on the extreme. When a recruit opts for another school, some fans of the spurned school can find ways to display their displeasure with his choice.

In the case of Nkemdiche, his Twitter account (@Aceboogie_001) will undoubtedly be praised by the triumphant school’s fans and jeered by some fans of the school spurned.

ESPNU not first to know

Like viewers, ESPNU is not aware of the athlete’s college choice until he announces it.

Producers work with high school administrators and coaches to arrange the logistics – time of the student assembly, when the satellite truck should arrive – but the big decision rests with whomever the athlete tells beforehand.

“We know the finalists with the schools, but if we know (his choice), as journalists we have an obligation to report it,” senior coordinator producer Shawn Murphy said.

How a recruit announces his decision is up to him. Some recent basketball and football recruits have Skyped the head coach, shaved the school’s logo into the back of their heads or even brought out a bulldog in the case of Georgia and former Bulldogs running back Isaiah Crowell.

But Murphy usually sets parameters and works in concert with school officials to make sure a recruit doesn’t disrespect a potential suitor.

“Early on someone would say, ‘Yeah, I went and visited this school but I’m not going there,’ and then threw the hat (bearing that school’s logo),” Murphy said. “If he wants to have a couple hats, that’s fine and that’s a visual for them. But only pick up the hat of where you’re going.”

Murphy said he doesn’t expect any out-of-the-ordinary announcements Wednesday. From 9 to 10 a.m., ESPNU will show six announcements, hoping to fit all inside narrow time frames.

For more than 11 hours, the crossroads of the recruiting world will be at the Charlotte office.

“It’s an exhausting day. It’s fun, exhilarating and nerve-wracking,” Margulis said. “I can’t stress enough that these are 16-, 17-year-old student-athletes and so it’s not like you’re dealing with a seasoned professional. You never know what can happen.

“But there’s an energy here in this building that you can’t match. And that’s the fun part of live sports.”

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