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A few open secrets about the recruit hat ceremony

Those hats on the table of the recruit commitment ceremony don’t always represent real offers.

National Signing Day hat ceremony Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post via Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

It’s a scene that plays out at high schools across the country every Signing Day.

A football recruit sits at a table and picks up one hat, then another, and then finally a third. He places it on his head. An announcer says “Johnny Recruit has chosen School A over School B and School C.” The crowd goes wild.

Only, often, one part of the Signing Day ceremony is a sham: the losing hats.

The idea for this piece came from years of sitting in press boxes during all-star games, next to reporters who cover recruiting for the top teams in the nation. And time after time, as a recruit chose a hat over others that are supposed to represent other schools, I heard “I don’t know why that hat is on the table; he doesn’t have an offer from them,” or, “He can put that hat on the table, but they won’t accept his commitment.”

Time after time, the player doesn’t pick that hat. Because he knows. Instead, he puts on the hat from a school to which he does have a current, valid offer.

And 99% of the viewing audience is none the wiser. So why do it?

It makes the player look better to have a lot of offers.

The obvious benefit is that the player’s reputation gets a huge boost, when he looks like he is choosing one offer over a bunch of similar or even better offers.

Maybe he is blazing a trail, by picking the lesser school. Or maybe he is seen as spurning a bigger, out-of-state offer to stay home.

It makes the chosen school look better.

If you’re a coach at the school the player does pick, you look great. Your bosses think you beat out all those other great schools represented by hats on the table. The boosters will, too.

The most common hat without an offer seems to be Alabama.

This is anecdotal, but talk to any recruiting writer about this, and the school that comes up first being misrepresented is the Tide, probably because Alabama is the gold standard. Beating out Alabama looks really good for the staff that lands the recruit, whether or not the kid had a real offer.

Why don’t the schools being misrepresented just say something?

By NCAA rule, schools cannot comment on recruits until they sign. And even if they could, they wouldn’t want to disparage a recruit and risk souring a relationship with his family, coaches, town, or high school in the future.

But it drives opposing coaches nuts.

If you talk to a coach off the record, especially this time of year, they’ll express their annoyance of the practice, especially if they are at an elite school that doesn’t benefit from it.

Some staffs may be orchestrating this.

Don’t be so fast to assume that the recruits are the ones picking the hats to improve their perception. It may actually be a coach who floats the idea.

I’ve noticed this trend in recent years, where one school or another seems to try to drum up a bunch of Signing Day hype by having the kids they know will sign with them litter the table with hats that are supposed to represent better offers. If one or two kids do it, it might be random.

But when five or six do, and several kids who have been committed for months all of a sudden do it at an “impromptu” signing ceremony, that’s probably coming from someone at their future college.

The condition of the hat might give the pick away.

Does the hat look like it was just bought at a gas station five minutes ago? Is it a hat that the recruit would not want to be photographed in? He’s not picking that school. Most recruits are not going to spend big money on hats they won’t pick.

It used to be that you could tell based on the hat curve, because a player has probably worn the hat around a bit and worked a good curve in. But now high school kids wear flat bills, and often leave the sticker on, so that tell is mostly gone.

But what about visors?

Brenton Cox

Inspired by Brenton Cox and others, Jason Kirk has a theory about visors: if a recruit has a really full head of hair, and there is a visor on the table along with hats, the visor is easier to put on, so the recruit is likely to pick the visor.

It all works as long as you’re in on the gag.

Famously, one recruit several years ago laid out several hats, none of whom from which he held a legitimate offer. Don’t catfish yourself.