January 19, 2011
What you'll be reading about for the next seven months.
If you're the kind of person who reads college football blogs on a regular basis, you probably don't need an in-depth introduction to the divisive – yet entirely legal – concept of "oversigning." It can happen two ways, when a team adds too many players to fit under either the 25-scholarship limit for a single recruiting class or the 85-scholarship limit for the entire roster, but the result in both cases is the same: A returning player at the bottom of the depth chart has to go to make room for new blood.
The end result is a one-way commitment that leaves players in the cold, and some teams – especially from certain conferences – with a significant advantage in the talent at their disposal. At best, coaches who oversign put themselves in the position of actually hoping certain players fail or otherwise fall by the wayside in time to meet the count.
It's not exactly subtle business, but as the NCAA (not to mention the IRS) tends to look unfavorably on the idea of a "business" decision involving allegedly amateur student-athletes, the practice isn't overt enough to draw attention to itself, either. No college coach will openly cut a player who's showed up on time to practice and kept himself in good legal and academic standing. Instead, the lineups are culled by obscure transfers and "medical hardships" and the occasional veteran who's already earned his degree begging out of a final season, all under the fourth headline in the "Most Read" sidebar of the local paper's website. Which is understandable, because once the writing's on the wall, who actually needs to be pushed out the door before he decides to go in search of more playing time on his own?
If you haven't been around to watch the issue bubble to the surface over the last three years, 2011 may be the year that more casual fans begin to realize it's a lot more players than they think. For one thing, after a couple years of certain bloggers loudly clearing their throats – and one devoting himself entirely to the subject – the mainstream media is increasingly catching on to the meme.
Sports Illustrated's columnists have decried a couple of egregious individual cases at Clemson and LSU, respectively. In September, the Wall Street Journal tracked down multiple former Alabama players who said they'd been pressured into accepting a medical hardship – of which Alabama has granted as many as the rest of the SEC combined since Nick Saban arrived in 2007 – and quoted three more ex-Tide players in November who said they'd been kicked off the team for entirely fabricated "violations of team rules." (Saban has made quite clear in the past that he doesn't want to talk about it.) In December, ESPN's "Outside the Lines" targeted Kentucky basketball for oversigning under coach John Calipari, and talked to ex-Miami defensive end Steven Wesley, a one-time starter who disputed the widespread rumors that he'd been declared academically ineligible just before last season – right around the same time hyped recruit Seantrel Henderson, a last-minute defection from USC, joined the team. No, Wesley said, he was just cut.
Because of the nature of the beast, oversigning only gets attention when players like Wesley and the 'Bama refugees who talked to the Wall Street Journal are actually willing to go on the record to call a spade a spade, and then it depends on whether you believe their stories (or whether you care in the first place). Otherwise, it's routine matter of course. Last July, LSU effectively cut a signee, Elliott Porter, who committed to the Tigers as a junior in high school, then reportedly turned down other offers from Florida State, Nebraska, Stanford, Texas Tech and a dozen other I-A/FBS schools based on the assumption that he had a free ride at LSU – an assumption he held throughout his senior season, signing day, his high school graduation, an entire summer and even through move-in day on campus, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath him at the last possible second, when coach Les Miles found himself two men over the 85-player limit and asked Porter to sit out the season as a "grayshirt," and rejoin the team later. The only reason anyone noticed at all is because Porter bothered to tell the story and call it "not fair" on the record.
Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt pushed the line so far with his overstuffed, 37-man signing class in 2009 – almost half of whom never had any intention of enrolling at Ole Miss, at least not that fall – that the SEC was compelled to pass a rule (similar to a longstanding rule in the Big Ten) limiting schools from signing 28 players in any given class. But even at that rate, teams can still sign up to 112 players in a four-year period, a good 27 more than they can fit under the 85-scholarship limit in any given season. Six SEC schools signed at least 100 players from 2007-10, including two, Auburn (119) and Mississippi State (113) that even managed to sail past the 28-man average established by the Nutt Rule. In the meantime, one way or another, an entire recruiting class worth of talent has had to wash out of both programs to get them to magic number, eighty five.
The eventual answer is a restriction that addresses that number (the Chizik Rule?) by severely restricting how far over teams are allowed to go over it in a given four or five-year period. That won't happen until it generates significant heat as a national issue, and the heat isn't there until more players are willing to confirm that yes, they were more or less fired by a business that isn't supposed to be a business. Players won't talk until they're asked to by reporters who know the score, or at least care enough to inquire. We're getting closer all the time to that scenario as the norm.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.