December 13, 2008
The most interesting college football blog in-fighting of 2008 began last February, when Brian Cook launched a salvo against Nick Saban for "oversigning" -- inking a massive recruiting class that required Alabama to cut more than a dozen scholarships from its returning roster to meet the NCAA's 85-schollie limit -- and Alabama fans predictably flipped out. The debate escalated until the Birmingham News asked the question to Saban himself, got stonewalled and I did the math on my old site: As of April, Alabama needed to cut 11 to 13 returning or promised scholarships to come in under 85 in the fall. No other major program in the country was even close to this number; Bama was in its own ballpark.
I bring this up because another high-powered, veteran reformer back from a stint in the NFL is apparently trying to accelerate his rebuilding job with an unusual flood of new talent, according to Friday's Raleigh News & Observer, which raised an eyebrow at the full load North Carolina is expected to add to its already-young roster in February:
The Tar Heels will lose 12 scholarship seniors after they complete the 2008 season vs. West Virginia at the Meineke Bowl on Dec. 27. But coach Butch Davis and his staff have already secured 24 verbal commitments for next season -- and they're still recruiting.
Come spring practice, expect UNC's numbers to look a little unwieldy, and, unlike Saban last year, for Davis to have plenty of company in the crosshairs of beat reporters sensitive to yet another good offseason story idea. This is exceedingly dangerous territory for programs and reporters alike, because yes, oversigning is sketchy: A program that puts itself in a position to either pull a promised scholarship or essentially root for attrition from the current roster is not operating in good faith; other than fifth-year seniors who aren't expected to contribute, pulling a scholarship from a kid who expects it is unethical. It's also virtually impossible to prove unless a series of jilted players are willing to go on record.
Take Alabama last year. Comparing the Tide's spring roster to its current roster, Bama shed exactly 13 scholarships since spring practice: Six of the 30 players signed in February (two early enrollees counted toward the 2009 count and aren't considered here) did not make it to the fall, and seven of the 26 players who fell by the wayside between April and August were on scholarship. Two of those castoffs -- alleged cocaine dealer Jimmy Johns and medical casualty Ezekial Knight -- left due to very obvious, easily explainable causes. Was there anything sketchy or dishonest about the other 11 who didn't make the cut, in terms of cold shoulders, broken promises and/or convenient judgments about academics and injuries? I have no idea -- you'll have to ask Tremayne Coger, Patrick Crump, Nick Fanuzzi, Tarence Farmer, Lionel Mitchell, Davonta Bolton, Destin Hood, Brandon Lewis, Kerry Murphy, Jermaine Peryear and Melvin Ray about that.
All of those guys have their reasons for or leaving Alabama or not enrolling after signing a letter of intent. It's not as clear how many of those decisions were their own; Ezekial Knight, for example, thought he could still play despite a heart murmur that kept Alabama doctors from clearing him and eventually requested a transfer in July. Was his condition as serious as the doctors said, or just a convenient way to open up another roster spot? Or both? There's no way for anyone writing about it to make that kind of distinction, and it has to be taken at face value.
In the meantime, the numbers work -- they have to, according to the rules. The numbers will always work in the end. That shouldn't stop reporters from doing the math and asking the questions, but if oversigning is going to stick as an annual issue, one of the kids asked to take a walk is going to have to stand up for his spot. Otherwise, it's just an effective strategy.