Two years ago, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt defended signing 37 players to national letters-of-intent with a statement he probably intended as a joke.
"There's no rule that says that we can't sign 80," Nutt said at his 2009 National Signing Day press conference. "All I know is we have to have 25 ready to go in August."
With an assist from the embarrassment produced by Nutt's bounty, there now is a rule.
When Football Bowl Subdivision schools across the nation begin signing football players on Feb. 2, they'll have to adhere for the first time to an NCAA bylaw that limits them to 28 signees between Signing Day and May 31. Unchanged is the rule that declares schools can bring in only 25 new scholarship players each academic year. Also unchanged is the rule that allows schools to have only 85 total players on scholarship at a given time. So now that a nationwide rule governs signee totals, the morally shaky practice of oversigning should end. Shouldn't it?
Not even close. The rule isn't worth the paper on which it's printed, and everyone in college football knows it.
The NCAA rule was sponsored by the SEC, home to some of the nation's most notorious oversigners. The SEC passed its own rule in 2009, and that rule was in place last year when Auburn signed 32 players and LSU signed 29. Thanks to a lingering numbers drought in the Loveliest Village on the Plains following coach Tommy Tuberville's 2008 ouster, Auburn managed to squeeze every academically qualified player onto the roster. That wasn't the case at LSU, where coach Les Miles already had tried to clear the decks by cutting quarterback Chris Garrett. Miles misjudged how many of his academically shaky signees would qualify, and by summer's end, Miles had two more qualified newcomers than he had available scholarships.
So Miles had to tell signees Elliott Porter and Cameron Fordham -- who had turned down other schools to accept LSU's promise of a football scholarship -- that there wasn't room in the class for them. Porter already had been taking classes in Baton Rouge. He already had a dorm room.
Fordham accepted an offer to walk on at LSU. Porter instead went to Kentucky on scholarship. He didn't like it in Lexington, and now he's back at LSU, where he'll have to be a walk-on for two years before he can finally get the football scholarship LSU promised him when he was a high school senior. Should he have known better than to return to Baton Rouge? Maybe, but that isn't the point. LSU promised him that scholarship and didn't deliver.
In spite of NCAA bylaw 126.96.36.199, more players will get caught in a similar scholarship crunch this year because the 28-signee limit is so toothless. The reason? The dates. Auburn could sign 32 players last year in spite of the SEC rule because the Tigers brought in five players -- including Heisman Trophy-winning junior college transfer quarterback Cam Newton -- in January. Only 27 players signed between February and May, one under the limit.
More than likely, some signees will be told this summer that there isn't a scholarship for them. Some players currently on scholarship will be forced to accept medical hardships or will be cut outright -- scholarships are awarded annually under NCAA rules; they are not four-year deals -- because so many coaches can't help themselves in the pursuit of the next big thing.
The SEC receives most of the scorn for oversigning, but it isn't the only place where programs embrace the practice. In the past five years, 25 of the 120 FBS programs have averaged more than 25 signees a year. That list includes eight of the 12 SEC schools (Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama, LSU, South Carolina), half the Big 12's current 10-team membership (Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech) and six of Conference USA's 12 schools (Southern Miss, Tulsa, Houston, Marshall, UAB, UTEP).
The Big Ten has no issue with oversigning because it banned the practice in 1956. The conference actually loosened its rule in 2002 to allow schools to oversign by three players, but even that rule is drastically different from the NCAA rule now in effect. According to Big Ten associate commissioner Chad Hawley, schools are allowed three over the 85-man limit, not the annual 25-man limit. If, for example, Michigan ends a season with 20 open scholarship spots, then Michigan may sign 23 players. No more.
If a Big Ten program chooses to oversign, Hawley said, it then must document exactly how it came under the 85-scholarship limit. That way, coaches are less likely to cut a player who has done nothing wrong other than fail to live up to his recruiting hype. "If you've oversigned, you're going to have to report back to the conference," Hawley said. "Come the fall, you're going to have to explain how you came into compliance."
Contrary to popular belief, the SEC does not endorse oversigning at the conference level. Associate commissioner Greg Sankey said the conference began studying the issue in 2007. That study led to the 2009 rule, which is a baby-step toward real reform. Sankey said conference athletic directors formed a working group in August 2010 to further study the issue and the ancillary issue of grayshirting (asking a player to delay his initial college enrollment until the following January), and Sankey expects more discussion of potential legislation at the conference's spring meeting in late May. In spite of the conference's reputation, there are quite a few people in SEC country who want to see an end to oversigning.
It isn't lost on Sankey, who has studied this issue for years, that oversigning has received more public attention lately. SI.com examined the issue two years ago. ESPN investigated it last year and produced detailed pieces on ESPN.com and Outside the Lines. A Web site, oversigning.com, has popped up. Its mission? Track and shame the programs that sign too many players each year.
"It was kind of a cultural thing that's developed," Sankey said. "Now, there's probably a critical mass at play that has increased the level of scrutiny."
The question of regulation is two-pronged. First, is oversigning harmful to the welfare of the student-athlete? When a player is told in July that the scholarship he was promised almost a year earlier has evaporated, it absolutely is harmful. It also harms the welfare of athletes who become victims of offseason purges to clear scholarship spots for new signees.
Second, does oversigning offer a competitive advantage by allowing coaches who oversign to make more recruiting mistakes than their colleagues who refuse to engage in the practice? Ohio State fan site the-ozone.net produced a fascinating post in December that examined the differences in players signed between Big Ten and SEC teams and their bowl opponents. In the Sugar Bowl, Ohio State faced an Arkansas team that had signed 30 more players than the Buckeyes in a four-year period. In the BCS title game, Oregon faced an Auburn team that had signed 19 more players than the Ducks over a four-year period.
The coaches who signed more players had a chance to erase their mistakes. The coaches who signed fewer had to live with their mistakes. That certainly seems like a competitive advantage. "It hasn't really been a conversation, the competitive aspect of it," the Big Ten's Hawley said. "If you look at the numbers, if I had to pick yes or no, I'd have to say yes."
Tuberville, now the coach at Texas Tech, doesn't need to see any numbers to know oversigning offers a competitive advantage. "Sure it is," he said. "But hey, nobody told [the Big Ten] they had to do that."
Tuberville, who coached at Ole Miss before Auburn, believes oversigning can benefit certain players. It's no coincidence that most of the schools that engage in oversigning are either in states or border states that allow junior college football. A coach will sign players he knows have no chance of qualifying academically and then place those players in junior colleges. In return, the junior college coaches will feed the best of their players back to the FBS programs when those players are ready to transfer. Tuberville believes the practice allowed some players to reach college when they might have otherwise slipped through the cracks.
"I always liked to oversign seven or eight just to sign kids, to motivate them, and then we're going to put you in junior college," Tuberville said. "Once you sign, then we can continue to call you and motivate you to go to class, get your grades higher. Then you go to junior college, and you'll be in a lot better shape. Now, you're not going to be able to do that."
One of the signees Tuberville's Auburn staff placed in a junior college was defensive tackle Nick Fairley. After a stint at Copiah-Lincoln Junior College in Wesson, Miss., Fairley went to Auburn, where he helped the Tigers win a national title. He now is considered the top prospect in the 2011 NFL draft by many analysts.
But what happens when a scholarship isn't available? Ohio State coach Jim Tressel could oversign by three a year, but he has signed just 99 players in the past five years. "If you oversign and then get yourself caught in a predicament where a guy [doesn't have a scholarship], what are you going to do when you've got too many?" Tressel asked earlier this month while discussing the issue at the American Football Coaches Association convention in Dallas.
Troy coach Larry Blakeney asks himself that question every year. Blakeney is the Stephen Hawking of oversigning. Blakeney has signed more players than any coach in the country, and in a 2009 interview, he claimed he always had a scholarship for every academically eligible player he signed. "If you ever balk on one, you won't have many more opportunities," Blakeney said.
If that were true, the problem would solve itself. But it isn't. Even after LSU's much-publicized math problems last year, the Tigers have 21 players committed for the class of 2011 and are still recruiting in spite of having only 18 open scholarship spots -- and that's assuming Fordham still hasn't received the scholarship he was promised before he signed in 2010. Players still line up to sign with Alabama even after a Wall Street Journal investigation into the tactics Coach Nick Saban uses to get under the 85-scholarship limit each year.
Give Saban credit. At least he tells recruits they might get cut to clear space for newer signees. When the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Sun-News interviewed seven participants in the Offense-Defense Bowl about the topic of the one-year, renewable scholarship, only one, Alabama commitment Christion Jones, knew his scholarship had to be renewed annually. "Coach Saban told me it's a one-year scholarship you have to work for," Jones told the paper. "Some coaches don't tell some kids. Some kids have to find out the hard way."
Former Rice football player Joseph Agnew is currently suing the NCAA over the one-year scholarship rule, but changing that wouldn't eliminate oversigning. Besides, coaches do need some wiggle room to cut players who aren't holding up their end of the bargain either through a lack of effort of through misbehavior.
What's the best way to eliminate oversigning? That working group of SEC athletic directors is seeking a solution now. Here are a few suggestions:
• Look to the Big Ten. That conference has no trouble with oversigning because of its longstanding rules. Maybe everyone else should simply institute the same rules. The Big Ten hasn't tried to push its rules on everyone else, but it might be time for the conference to start. "It's just something we haven't been evangelical about," Hawley said. "It's so ingrained in our culture. It's just the way we've always operated. It hasn't been an issue that we've pushed."
• Take away the Letter of Intent. Membership in the National Letter-of-Intent program is a privilege, not a right. If a school doesn't deliver on the scholarship it promised in an NLI, don't allow that school to take part in the NLI program the following year. The NLI binds a signee to a school for an academic year. If a player hasn't signed one, he can still be recruited by anyone. In other words, without the NLI, even players who have signed scholarship agreements are fair game for other schools until the second they set foot in a college classroom.
• Hit them where it really hurts. Though they seem careless with their offers, nothing is more sacred to a coach who oversigns than the scholarship itself. So take away those scholarships. If a coach fails to provide a promised scholarship to a signee, he gets one mulligan. Everyone makes mistakes. Do it again, and the program loses five scholarships for a year. Do it a third time, and the program loses 10 scholarships. Use the same rule if a coach is found to be manipulating the medical hardship rule to clear the decks for new signees -- except without the mulligan. A coach whose own stupidity costs his program 10 scholarships also will cost himself his job, and there will be one fewer oversigner to offer scholarships he can't ultimately deliver.