February 01, 2011
Revisiting a recurring offseason theme.
For a few years, the shady-yet-legal practice of "oversigning" – essentially, coaches signing recruits up for scholarships they can't account for under NCAA limits – has been the hobbyhorse of a few cranky bloggers and one very earnest website devoted exclusively to shaming the practitioners. Beginning last fall, a handful of reporters, watchdogs and national columnists joined the fray.
Today, they welcome the first member to the club of outspoken oversigning critics who can actually do something about it – Florida president Bernie Machen, who opened up with both barrels for Sports Illustrated on teams that renege on their promise when the scholarship numbers don't add up:
In Division I college football this practice is known as "grayshirting" and, unfortunately, there are universities that sanction this activity. The universities, with full knowledge of what they are doing, extend more athletic scholarships than they have. These schools play roulette with the lives of talented young people. If they run out of scholarships, too bad. The letter-of-intent signed by the university the previous February is voided. Technically, it's legal to do this. Morally, it is reprehensible.
Associated with "grayshirting" -- and equally disgusting -- is the nefarious practice of prematurely ending student-athletes' scholarships. Some are just not renewed even though the student-athlete is doing what is asked of him. Some students are mysteriously given a "medical exemption" which ends their athletic careers -- and makes another scholarship available for the football coach to hand out.
No university would allow this for the general student body. Imagine the uproar it would cause! What needs to happen in intercollegiate athletics is that universities must accept the moral responsibility to stop and prevent "grayshirting" and its associated actions. The football programs must be accountable and should honor institutional commitments to students. It is, after all, a moral contract.
Here is your token example of pot calling kettle black. Still, Florida's own (relatively limited) record of greyshirting is beside the point if Machen is serious, which he appears to be.
On Monday, he told USA Today he doubted the rule the SEC passed in 2009 to limit initial overages to 28 signatures will have any effect. Teams are allowed up to 25 new scholarships per school year under NCAA rules, and up to 85 scholarship players on the entire roster, both counted at the start of the season, and some coaches will continue to hedge their bets against unexpected attrition between signing day in February and the start of summer practices. "There are still universities that will oversign and it's going to end up with a student athlete being left out," Machen said. "I think we either have to get the universities to be more serious about it, or the league and the NCAA are going to have to pass more stringent punishments for those who do oversign."
His local ally in the anti-oversigning club is new Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, who told a local website over the weekend that UGA "will not sign more than 85 scholarship football players," period. It should come as no surprise that the calls are coming from the bully pulpits of Florida and Georgia. For one thing, McGarity worked in Florida's athletic department for 18 years before returning to his alma mater last year. For another, they may have more to gain from a crackdown on oversigning than any other schools – including Big Ten schools – because they're in the minority of SEC heavyweights (along with Tennessee) that haven't made it a habit.
In fact, within the SEC, the oversigning charge has been almost exclusively the province of the West Division: All six teams from the West have signed at least 131 players over the last five years, putting all among the dozen most egregious oversigners in the nation. That distinction only applies to one team from the SEC East (Kentucky) and to only two teams from the other "Big Six" conferences, Iowa State and Kansas State, which have unusually high turnover as the two most JUCO-reliant programs in the country.
The difference is four or five additional players per year, and that adds up: On average, each team in the SEC West has essentially signed the equivalent of an extra recruiting class over the last five years compared to teams in the ACC, Big Ten, Big East and Pac-12, and therefore has also seen the equivalent of an extra recruiting class wash out through various means of attrition. In four match-ups against teams from those conferences in the 2010-11 bowl season – including Auburn's date with Oregon in the BCS Championship Game – the SEC West rep in all four of cases signed at least 19 more players than its opponent over the previous four years.
That's the same SEC West that placed four teams in the top 10 of the final polls, five in the top 20, and went 40-5 against the rest of college football last year – including, yes, a 6-0 mark against Florida and Georgia, the conference's most disappointing teams. That will get the administration's attention real quick, and apparently has.
Machen has a couple lines on his resumé from the Big Ten (he earned two advanced degrees from Iowa and held a post at Michigan), which has quietly banned oversigning for more than 50 years. The conference hasn't taken an activist bent on expanding that rule, in part because there was likely to be little national support and in part because there was never an impetus before the hyper-focused environment of the Internet made it easier for bloggers, columnists and casual fans to understand the rules and online databases made it easier to keep track of the numbers. Machen seems more willing to see those fences built around his neighbors' yards, and he may not be alone.If they're sour grapes, they've got some teeth, too.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.