It appears the battle lines are taking shape as the SEC meetings draw near. On one side we have the chronic oversigners clamouring to come up with excuses as to why oversigning should remain in tact, reasons such as “It’s a very difficult job to try to manage, to keep two, three deep at every position” (Houtson Nutt), or "oversigning is 'helpful' because so many of the players in the state come from underprivileged backgrounds and may not qualify academically" (Steve Spurrier), or "I don't see it as a bad thing unless you're being dishonest or waiting until the last minute, which eliminates their visit opportunities with other schools" (Bobby Petrino).
Nick Saban added his name to the list of coaches that will fight to keep oversigning alive and well in the SEC on Thursday.
"The innuendo out there is that all these things are being manipulated in a negative way," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "But nobody has ever really brought to the forefront the positives by doing it the right way. People hang onto all the situations that aren't done the right way and act like in every situation that somebody is getting screwed in some sort of way, and that's just not the case."
Shouldn't the situations like Elliott Porter, Chris Garrett, and Steven Wesley be the situations that everyone holds onto, not the positives? Did he even mention any positives other than the competitive advantage aspect? The stories of kids having their scholarship offers pulled the day before signing day by Spurrier and their High School coaches being irate about it, shouldn't that be what we hold on to?
If just one kid gets screwed by oversigning, isn't it enough to seriously crack down on the practice? Think about it in terms of the way the NCAA creates its rules. Often times, an NCAA rule is created not because the area in question is nefarious, such as the rules regarding selling personal memorabilia, but rather because of the potential for abuse. The rules regarding selling personal memorabilia are in place to prevent a booster from buying a jersey from a player for $100K, not because they don't want some kid selling his ring at a fraction of its value. Even if you believe that oversigning only harms a few and only when not done right, shouldn't it be addressed in the same way as the rules regarding selling memorabilia? What's more harmful, a kid getting a few extra bucks or some poor kid losing his scholarship at the last minute because a coach oversigned his class to bring in better talent so that he can keep making his millions of dollars?
Those positives that Saban refers to by the way are the competitive advantage that these coaches gain by exploiting this practice. Nearly every coach that oversigns has stated that it provides them with an advantage.
"In my opinion, it would really affect the quality in our league," Saban said. "You can't know the attrition from signing day until August, which guys who're going to be fifth-year seniors that decide they don't want to come back and play football. Well, you can't count those guys. You're going to have to tell those guys they're going to have to decide in January.
This is where the competitive advantage issue comes into play. By oversigning, coaches can bring in a few extra guys and work them through the spring while at the same time working the 5th year guys that have eligibility remaining, and then after spring training is over coaches can make a decision as to whether or not they want to renew a 5th year guy who may or may not have graduated yet, knowing all along they have an ace in the hole and will end up with the best 85. The coaches want their cake and eat it too.
Why is it that 5th year guys can't make a decision as to whether or not they want to come back in January, but Juniors leaving early for the NFL can? Are Juniors that much more prepared to make a life-altering decision than 5th year seniors?
Furthermore, if the question is whether or not they want to come back, isn't their participation in spring practice an indication that they would like to come back? Just recently Alabama had a 5th year RB Demetrius Goode participate in spring practice, indicating he hadn't given up on football, but then after spring practice decided he wanted to go to UNA instead. Perhaps he wanted playing time, fine. But can't that decision be made in January at the same time Juniors make decisions to go to the NFL?
On the other side of the battle line you have Florida and Georgia who have both been very outspoken about the abuses of oversigning and greyshirting. Mark Richt has been especially outspoken about the abuses taking place:
Georgia coach Mark Richt is in the opposite camp. He said that it was an "awful thing to do" to bring in players to participate in the summer strength program and then ask some to leave or wait until January to sign based on which ones performed the best.
He didn't stop there, either.
"These other coaches have been oversigning, trying to make sure they never come up short of that 85 number," Richt said earlier this month at a Georgia booster club speaking engagement in Greenville, S.C. "But in doing so, have they done it in an ethical way?
"I'd say the answer is probably not."
It has become extremely clear that the coaches that want to continue oversigning all want you to believe that there is nothing wrong with the practice as long as it is done the right way. Again, there is nothing wrong with selling your jersey for a few bucks, so long as you don't sell it to a booster for $100K, right?
At the end of the day it all comes back to the competitive advantage aspect of the argument and the pressure on these coaches to win. These coaches are under more pressure to win than anywhere else in the country, so of course they want you to believe their practice of oversigning is okay as long as it's done right, they can't afford to live without it based on the pressure to win.
Houston Nutt is already starting to feel the affects of the 28 rule, named in his honor, and he knows if further rules are passed that he could be in serious jeopardy of losing his multi-million dollar job, so of course he's fighting for the right to continue to exploit the spirit of the signing process and the loopholes inherent to the NCAA's 25/85 rule.
Quick Note Regarding the Medical Hardship Aspect of the new Legislation:
The new legislation that is on the table includes a proposal to address the issue of medical hardships and how those are being used to game the system and fudge the scholarship numbers. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, Nick Saban's medical hardship numbers are way above the norm, and then when former players were asked about those medical hardships and whether or not they felt pressured to take them the players revealed that they were pressured and that they thought the medical hardship was loophole used to bring in better players.
Three Alabama players who've taken these exemptions say they believe the team uses the practice as a way to clear spots for better players by cutting players it no longer wants. These players said they believe Mr. Saban and his staff pressure some players to take these scholarships even though their injuries aren't serious enough to warrant keeping them off the field.
"I'm still kind of bitter," said former Alabama linebacker Chuck Kirschman, who took a medical scholarship last year. Mr. Kirschman said Mr. Saban encouraged him to accept the scholarship because of a back problem that he believes he could have played through. "It's a business," Mr. Kirschman said. "College football is all about politics. And this is a loophole in the system."
That is THREE former players coming out and saying they believed the team used the medical hardships to clear roster space for better players, one of which says he's still bitter about it calling it a business and a loophole.
Here is what Nick Saban had to say about it.
Saban is also quick to defend the charge that he pressures players into taking medical redshirts or dismisses players who aren't contributing on the field in order to open up more scholarship room each year.
"First of all, I've never gotten rid of a player who didn't create his own circumstances for why he had to leave the program, whether it was academic, whether it was behavior, whether it was drug-related, whatever," Saban said. "Really, I've always given guys more rope than they deserve, and I think the innuendo out there is that I'm just picking and choosing which guys to run off, and people bring it up that I've medical-ed more people. Well, yeah, I medical them so they can stay in school and graduate, where other people just get rid of them. I don't make those decisions, either. The doctors make them, and we have great doctors."
In one breath Saban says, "I medical them so they can stay in school," and in the next breath he says, "I don't make those decisions, either. The doctors make them, and we have great doctors." Which one is it? Who is making the final decision to issue the medical hardship? Hard to believe everything is on the up and up when you have 3 players claiming they were wrongly pressured to take those medical hardships to clear roster space and another player calling it a loophole.
The new proposal on the table includes a measure for medical hardship monitoring, but is it enough?
Giving the SEC league office more oversight concerning those players placed on medical scholarship. In other words, the league would be involved in reviewing outcomes. A team doctor, trainer and athletic director would need to sign off on each case.
The new legislation would require 3 people to sign off on the medical waiver, does anyone in their right mind believe that a trainer or an athletic director are going to go against the decision of a doctor? And if what we read above from Saban is true, it appears that he has great influence on whether or not a medical is issued to a player. The details are still unclear, but you have to believe the athletic director would only be signing off on whether or not to grant the medical hardship or to just not renew the player -- if coaches are allowed to continue oversigning and continue to be in a numbers crunch, is there an athletic director out there that is going to refuse to sign off on a medical hardship and have his school face NCAA violations for going over the 85 limit?
Unless there are more details regarding the medical hardship oversight, what we have on the table doesn't appear to be anything other than window dressing in reaction to the WSJ piece on Alabama's medical hardships.
We have a couple of suggestions: 1. many of these medical hardships are the result of a numbers crunch because of oversigning, eliminate the oversigning and you would see a drastic decline in the number of medical hardships issued by schools that oversign, 2. have the NCAA conduct an exit interview with the kids placed on medical hardship so that guys like the 3 Alabama players who told the WSJ that they thought they were being pushed out to make room for better players can tell the NCAA and have the NCAA conduct an investigation.
The topic of oversigning is somewhat complicated, the numbers are hard to track, especially when a school redacts them from public documents, the terms used in the recruit game are hard to understand (greyshirt, redshirt, count forward, count back, medical hardships, medical redshirts, etc), and the NCAA bylaws combined with the NLI process can make the whole world of recruiting hard to truly understand. Most fans simply follow rivals.com and the other recruiting sites to see where their team is ranked and give very little thought to how rosters are managed and whether or not coaches are abusing the oversigning loophole or any other loophole.
This site has been the epicenter of the oversigning debate since it was launched roughly a year ago. Since being discovered by Stewart Mandel in May of 2010, its popularity and traffic has grown to the tune of 200,000+ unique readers and 6.6 million page visits.
This is why I love the Internet. I must confess, I was not aware of oversigning.com until receiving this e-mail. (I've since seen it referenced numerous places.) Hats off to the authors. They've done a tremendous job of shedding light on a largely under-covered topic through meticulous research and easy-to-digest data. They seem most concerned with the overlooked human consequence of this practice: coaches quietly cutting loose underperforming or injury-riddled veterans to make room for a new crop of recruits. Currently, the site is closely monitoring Alabama, which, as of the most recent post, still had 91 scholarship players on its projected 2010 roster, in its "March to 85."
Needless to say the topic is viral, as it should be. It's a topic that is years and years overdue for the spotlight.
For those of you who are new to oversigning, there is plenty of material on the topic readily available all over the Internet.
In the past year of following and writing about this topic, we have found that there are two main components to the oversigning debate: competitive advantage and ethics.
Where most people get lost in this argument is in that they think that the team that oversigns the most is automatically the better team. Often times people will say, Huston Nutt is the most notorious oversigner in the country - he signed 37 in one class, if it was such and advantage why doesn't he win the National Championship every year? Well, it's not that simple. You have to look at when the attrition takes place in order to determine if a coach is upgrading his roster by signing more guys than he has room for, having those guys qualify and enroll, and then having upperclassmen or guys already on the roster pushed out via transfers, medical hardships or simply not renewing their scholarship, OR, if a coach is signing a bunch of guys that won't qualify and have to go to JUCO which ultimately has no tangible bearing on the roster in the short term, a practice commonly known as signing and placing. Nick Saban and Les Miles would be the former, Huston Nutt would be the latter, and that is perhaps why we see a difference in the results on the field, not to mention Saban and Miles are simply better coaches, much better.
There is absolutely no question that oversigning creates a competitive advantage against schools that are prohibited from the practice or elect on their own, as does Georgia in the SEC, to not exploit the loophole.
Oversigning provides coaches with the opportunity to hedge their bets against attrition, gives them leverage in the recruiting process by not being as restricted in terms of the number of players they can pursue, and gives coaches a mulligan should they miss on a recruit. We wrote a post a while back comparing the numbers for National Championship Coaches.
National Championship Coaches 2002 - 2010
The first thing that jumps off the screen is that despite being out of college football for 2 years (2005 & 2006), Nick Saban still signed 193 recruits, which is second only to Les Miles his successor at LSU when Saban left in 2005. Saban also has the highest average recruits per year at 27.50. In 7 years, Nick Saban has never signed less than 25 recruits in a single year.
Let's compare that to the same set of years (2002-2004 & 2007-2010) for the coach with the lowest numbers, Jim Tressel. Tressel signed 142 players in the same years that Saban signed 193 recruits. That is a difference of 51 players over the same period of time, 7 years. That is mind boggling to say the least.
Note: we would add Gene Chizik to the table above, but he only has two recruiting classes as a head coach: 2010: 32 and 2011: 24.
Ken Gordon at The Columbus Dispatch asked former Head Coach of LSU, Gerry DiNardo, about the competitive advantage of oversigning:
"At LSU, I could do whatever I wanted," said DiNardo, now an analyst for the Big Ten Network. "The athletic director trusted me. If I signed 30, he knew I would be at 25 when I had to be. There was always a way to manage to numbers."
Then in 2002, when DiNardo was hired by Indiana, he was in for a shock. The Big Ten had the most restrictive rules against oversigning of all the major conferences.
The NCAA allows 85 scholarship players. DiNardo found that he could sign only the number of players that would bring him to 85. Not only that - he could offer only 20 scholarships.
What that meant was that if any of the 20 players he offered went elsewhere, he was short of 85 that season.
"The Big Ten puts itself at a competitive disadvantage," DiNardo said. "You would never be at 85. When I got to Indiana, the numbers were awful. We had 50-some players on scholarships. My only chance to catch up was to oversign."
Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said, "It's like in bowling, if your opponent gets three balls instead of two."
The analogies are endless, but the point remains, having the freedom to play fast and loose with the numbers when competing against schools that play conservative and tight with the numbers creates a competitive advantage. Jim Tressel, being the senator that he is, took the high road when questioned about it:
This doesn't bother Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, though. The way he looks at it, the majority of his games are against Big Ten schools working under the same rules.
"I don't think (oversigning) is a crisis-type thing," he said. "I don't see it happening in our league that much. Sometimes in a bowl game we compete against another conference, but I've never thought we had an unfair bowl matchup because of that."
But he did make it very clear where he stands on the issue:
Tressel said his staff tries to keep the lines of communication open, so he usually has a good idea who might transfer. But in general, Tressel is in philosophical lock-step with the Big Ten. Where others consider it a competitive disadvantage, he looks at it from the perspective of making sure he treats recruits fairly.
And that means ensuring he doesn't have to sweat out a summer like DiNardo did.
"We're probably conservative in more ways than just play-calling," Tressel said, referring to offering relatively few scholarships. "We've ended up under 85, because we don't want to overcommit.
"To me, the worst nightmare would be if you have got to tell someone, 'We can't fit you.' You're talking about a young kid's life."
The direction of the ethical side of the oversigning debate became pretty apparent to the general public when University of Florida President, Bernie Machen, called the actions of other SEC members morally "reprehensible," "disgusting," and "nefarious." Those are STRONG words from an SEC President aimed directly at other SEC member institutions who are notorious for oversiging.
When it comes to the ethics side of oversigning you have to look at several areas:
1. Honesty in recruiting.
2. The spirit of the NCAA rules vs. The Written Bylaws.
3. College football being "Big Business" instead of Tax-Exempt Institutions of Higher Learning.
With the increased attention on recruiting rankings, college football's second season has become more competitive than ever, especially in the SEC where the recruiting battles are just as hard fought and nasty as the actually games on the field. Greg Doyle recently wrote about this very topic.
Honesty in recruiting:
How honest are coaches being with recruits? Are they telling them upfront that they plan to oversign the roster and that there might not be space for them? Why are we seeing guys who commit and then on signing day are surprised with greyshirt offers, or even worse after signing day and after they have moved onto campus? Is it unethical for a coach not to prepare for roster management and ensure that there is never a need to push someone out? After all, most coaches make more than the smartest, most-credentialed professors on campus, surely they should be able to manage their roster in such a way that doesn't force them to push a greyshirt on an unsuspecting kid or push out an upperclassmen.
Recently, Nick Saban alluded to a possible ethics issue with recruiting in the SEC when he compared how coaches in the SEC react to a verbal commitment to how coaches in the Big 10 reacted to verbal commitments when he was in the Big 10. Paraphrasing, he said that in the SEC when a guy commits verbally he becomes a target for other schools, but during his time in the Big 10 when a guy commits verbally he was off limits unless the recruit approached another Big 10 school, in which case the coach that was approached would contact the coach the player was originally committed to and discuss the matter. If coaches in the SEC are not handling verbal commitments ethically, according to Saban, which he admitted he was just as guilty of because of the competitive nature of recruiting in the SEC, are they handling roster management ethically with regards to the oversigning?
Just today, Sports by Brooks published an article called: Player's Parents Outrage Illuminates Nutt's Deceit, in which he claims any credibility that Houston Nutt had left in recruiting has been driven off of a cliff.
The Spirit of NCAA Rules:
Obviously, there is a loophole in the recruiting bylaws with regards to the number of players that can be enrolled each year and the total number of players allowed on scholarship each year. 25 new players can enroll and no more than 85 can be on scholarship at one time; 25*4=100 plus any redshirt seniors obviously doesn't even come close to the 85 limit. However, the NCAA used those numbers to provide a little bit of cushion and probably had no idea that some coaches were going to use that cushion as a way to manage their roster like a professional football team. The Spirit of the NCAA bylaws for recruiting is that if you have 17 openings for new scholarship players then you should sign and enroll 17 new players, not 25 and push 8 guys out the door.
The NCAA bylaws are enormous and they grow every year. Much of that growth is in response to coaches abusing the spirit of the existing rules, such as the Huston Nutt "28 rule" because of his abuse of the signing process and the Nick Saban "bump rule" because of his abuse of bumping into recruits while visiting their coaches.
In the Big 10 Conference, there is not a problem with oversigning. Although schools are allowed to send out 3 extra NLI than they have room for under the 85 limit, most coaches avoid doing it at all costs. Why?? Because they like competing at a competitive disadvantage? Probably not. They probably avoid it because they all know oversigning is a dirty little trick that is played with numbers in order to gain an advantage and it comes with the price tag of messing with the lives of young people. The Big 10 Conference has embraced the spirit of the signing process by developing a culture devoid of oversigning. It didn't happen overnight--the rules on oversigning have been on the books in the Big 10 Conference since 1954.
College Football as Big Business:
Often times, supporters of oversigning will point to the 1 year renewable scholarship and infer that college football has become big business and schools need to manage their rosters like NFL teams. That argument falls on deaf ears because despite the growth of college football these are still institutions of higher learning, governed by an organization with a mission statement that states athletics only exist to enrich the educational experience and that the educational experience is paramount, and they enjoy a tax-exempt status that the NFL does not enjoy. Somewhere along the line, there is a disconnect between the spirit of the NCAA's mission statement and what certain schools are doing in blatantly managing their rosters like an NFL team. How ethical is it for a coach or school to hide behind the tax-exempt status of an institution of higher learning while attempting to run a NFL style team with roster cuts and an injured reserved list; at least in the NFL guys on the IR have half a shot at making it back.