Revisiting the recruiting debate on oversigning; more mail

Wednesday February 12th, 2014

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones signed 32 recruits in the class of 2014, including 14 early enrollees.
Garry Jones/AP

Last week on National Signing Day, I wrote about recruiting's now-annual tradition of Alabama landing the top-ranked class in the country. That was quickly followed by another annual tradition -- indignant fans angry that I didn't write about how 'Bama plans to make room for all of those signees. Our old friends, the oversigning crowd, are still alive and kicking.

Remember all that hoopla a few years ago about Mike Slive curbing oversigning? Tennessee just signed a class of 32.
-- Jim, Dallas

Yep. At one point, Volunteers coach Butch Jones told a booster club, "If we can find a way to sign 35, we'll sign 35."

In the hypercompetitive world of coaching, if there's a loophole to be exploited, someone is going to find it. "It's very simple," Jones explained of the Vols' numbers game on National Signing Day. "All we were really able to do was count [scholarships] backwards and count a couple of [scholarships] forward." Counting backwards means that if a school handed out fewer than 25 scholarships the previous year, it can count some its early enrollees (of which Tennessee had 14) toward last year's cap. Counting forward is a little bit sketchier. Presumably, it means that a couple of Tennessee's signees will grayshirt, or delay their enrollment by a semester, a practice that has been criticized in the past. But it's only a problem if a player doesn't know of the plan before signing. I'm guessing that Tennessee's signees are already on board. And lest you think this is solely an SEC thing, NC State introduced 33 new players last week, including two planned grayshirts. Northern Illinois signed 31.

STAPLES: The story behind Tennessee's landmark 2014 recruiting class

While I wrote about oversigning quite a bit back in 2011, at a time when this issue garnered the most attention and helped prompt the SEC's rule change, I've pretty much thrown up my hands at this point. For one thing, I don't care about the competitive angle like some do. The Big Ten, the league in which fans generally raise the biggest stink about oversigning, has voluntarily adopted a stricter policy than other conferences, which is admirable. But it can't then turn around and use it as an excuse for why it's not winning national titles.

My primary concern is for the many players around the country who will be cut loose in the coming months to make room for newcomers. Most, in turn, will transfer to less prestigious schools. Still, it's impossible to police such cases, because privacy laws preclude coaches from having to explain if or why a player lost his scholarship, and there are myriad other factors on both ends that go into transfer decisions.

At this point, all fans can hope is that there has been enough coverage of oversigning that recruits know what they're getting into before they sign, that they're not being grayshirted involuntarily and that they realize that not all scholarships are guaranteed for four years. Beyond that, if neither the NCAA nor the conferences feel compelled to crack down on the issue, then I can't fault coaches like Jones for taking advantage.

Stewart, I'm still having a hard time comprehending Maryland and Rutgers moving to the Big Ten. Jim Delany and his conference presidents can preach all they want about academics, demographics, etc., but this is an obvious and disgusting display of greed to maximize TV revenues. Delany weakened the competition to the point where a one-loss Big Ten school, with its weak in-conference strength of schedule, should not be allowed to overtake a one-loss school from another power conference. Did Delany unwittingly bastardize his conference for a few extra bucks?
-- Matt, New York

With time, I've begun to see the wisdom in Delany's broader strategy. Sure, money is an indisputable factor here (though I don't see how it's "greedy" or "disgusting" to want to build a school's field hockey team a better locker room), but the demographics concern is very real. Any enterprise -- be it a Fortune 500 company, a local butcher's shop or an athletic conference -- wants to grow its brand, and there's no escaping the fact that the Big Ten's core markets have flat-lined. According to USA Today, Illinois' population grew by 3.7 percent from 2000 to '13, while Ohio's grew by just 1.9 percent. Michigan's population declined by 0.4 percent over that same time span. Meanwhile, in SEC country, Florida's population grew by 22.3 percent, Georgia's by 22.1 percent and Alabama's by 8.7 percent. Hence, the ever-increasing recruiting gap between the two leagues.

So, if you're Delany, you have three choices. You can attempt to annex the South. You can expect coaches to keep convincing kids from other regions to migrate north. Or, you can expand your footprint east to include two populous regions.

That said, in the short term, there's no question that the Big Ten is doing more harm than good to its already damaged football product. Ohio State caught tons of flak last season for its schedule; adding Rutgers and Maryland isn't going to help that perception. In the event that Wisconsin becomes a playoff contender this fall, it's a good thing that the Badgers open against LSU on Aug. 30. Their conference schedule -- in which their two cross-division opponents are the Terrapins and the Scarlet Knights -- will be widely mocked.

Maryland at least has some history of national success. The Terrapins are likely due for an upswing some time soon. Rutgers, on the other hand, has produced just one Top 25 team in the past 35 years (in 2006) and is led by a coach, Kyle Flood, making a Conference USA-level salary ($860,000). The optimistic spin from Delany and company is that Big Ten affiliation will help both the Terps and the Scarlet Knights elevate their programs and, in turn, elevate the conference. But that could take many years. In the interim, the Big Ten could slip farther down the national ladder than it already has.

It seems like a perfect two-year storm for Texas A&M: Moving to and succeeding in the SEC, producing a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and landing a great recruiting class by a well-respected coach. Is it too early to say that the Aggies have finally moved out of Texas' shadow and become the No. 1 football team in the state? Is this a long-term shift or a momentary deviation?
-- Carlos Gomez, San Antonio

There's no question that A&M is the "it" school in Texas right now, thanks to a combination of Kevin Sumlin, Johnny Manziel and the increased spotlight afforded by SEC membership. The Aggies signed seven of's top 25 prospects in the state of Texas this year, while the Longhorns signed six. That never happened during Mack Brown's heyday in Austin, when A&M was plodding through the Dennis Franchione and Mike Sherman eras. Sumlin is already off to a quick start with the recruiting class of 2015, getting seven verbal commitments from players in the initial Rivals250. So, yes, A&M has definitely moved out of Texas' shadow, and I don't believe it's temporary. Sumlin just signed a monstrous new contract. He has things rolling.

Rivals: The Top 25 recruiting classes after National Signing Day 2014

Still, I don't expect that the Longhorns will remain behind the Aggies for long. We're in the very nascent stages of a potentially epic coaching rivalry between Sumlin and Charlie Strong, who is also a magnetic recruiter. Sumlin can sell Manziel, but Strong can sell Teddy Bridgewater. Sumlin can sell his explosive offense; Strong can sell his perennially dominant defense. Sumlin can sell playing in the SEC; Strong can sell playing most games in Texas or Oklahoma. The only problem, of course, is that the schools refuse to play each other even though their rivalry is arguably more intense now than it was when they were in the same conference. This needs to be rectified, because we could be entering a rare, prolonged era in which the two schools are worthy adversaries.

As for the part of the question about Texas' No. 1 football school -- right now, it's Baylor. I didn't see any other schools from the state in a BCS bowl last season.

C'mon, Stew. You owe readers an explanation of your distaste for the Winter Olympics. Not even ski jumping, Stew? "Agony of defeat" doesn't resonate with you?
-- Knox, any USPA drop zone

Oh, that thing has started? Who's winning?

Former Missouri star defensive end Michael Sam is set to become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Can you walk us through the journalistic background of the Michael Sam story? Was this something that you or other national writers heard rumors about, but couldn't get the story formed? Or was this a relatively out-of-the-blue announcement?
-- Andrew, West Lafayette, Ind. had a very thorough behind-the-scenes account of the planning and timing of Sam's announcement. Speaking solely for myself, I found out a couple of days beforehand (at that time, it was scheduled for Monday afternoon) and began to plan coverage accordingly. But there was never a thought given to breaking the story, because it was Sam's story to break. The news here was not that a football player is gay. The news was that Sam broke a longstanding barrier and is set to become the first openly gay player in the history of the NFL. There was nothing to report until he made his announcement.

RICKMAN: A conversation with Outsports' Cyd Zeigler about Michael Sam's announcement

Among the many refreshing aspects of Sam's story is that an entire football team, as well as others in the Missouri and Columbia communities, several NFL personnel departments and, eventually, numerous national media outlets, all knew about his sexual orientation and respected his privacy until Sam was ready to come out. I'm sure every media outlet would have loved to be the one he chose for his announcement. But this was not a recruit committing to a school or a coach changing jobs. This was a truly unique story that needed to be handled with extreme sensitivity. I'm proud of my fellow journalists for doing just that.

Here's a contrarian viewpoint: Alabama's recent recruiting class was glaringly weak! The Crimson Tide have lost four games in three years, two due to missed field goals. Where's the placekicker in this year's class? Why do placekickers get so little attention from big-time programs? Does or ESPN even have a star-rating system for placekickers or punters? Please, your thoughts on the lack of emphasis in this area.
-- Philip Varca, Laramie, Wyo.

You've struck a nerve, my friend. This is a pet topic of mine. I'm bewildered at how little value coaches and recruiting analysts place on kickers given their importance in winning and losing games. I first wrote about this topic prior to National Signing Day three years ago, noting that even the best kickers in any given class aren't afforded more than three stars by the recruiting analysts. Then, in 2012, I wrote quite possibly the longest college kicker trend story in history for Sports Illustrated's annual conference preview issues. It would be easy to hand out a few four- and five-star ratings to kickers, because it is arguably the easiest position to project. Nearly all the top prospects go to various combines around the country, where their leg strength and accuracy are quantifiably measured.

Alabama is the best example of a program that once undervalued kickers. Yet in 2012, Nick Saban signed's second-rated kicker, Adam Griffith, the redshirt freshman who Saban sent in for that fateful last-second field goal attempt against Auburn. Griffith will presumably take over full-time duties this season with Cade Foster graduating. And Saban just signed another highly ranked specialist, punter J.K. Scott, who the Tide need to replace departing four-year starter Cody Mandell. There was no chance Saban would sign two kickers or punters in one class, especially since Griffith could be his placekicker for the next three seasons. Saban is seemingly pursuing and signing some of the best in the country. At the end of the day, sometimes those players just miss field goals.

MANDEL: Nick Saban, Alabama reign supreme on National Signing Day once again

You owe it to your readers to address your Winter Olympics issues in your next Mailbag column, Stew.
-- Knox, any USPA drop zone

An explanation is in order here. Knox is a skydiving enthusiast (hence the unique "hometown") and the reader who emails me the most by far. Even in the dead of the offseason, he has sent seven emails since Jan. 15 -- and five were about my throwaway Winter Olympics comment.

I don't have a great explanation. I'm just not interested in who wins a bunch of snow and ice events that no one pays a lick of attention to during the four years between Olympics. Judging by the fact that Knox is the ONLY person who wrote in about this, I'm guessing many of you share my apathy.

I saw in the recruiting rankings that, at one point, Colorado was one spot behind Old Dominion. Two things stuck out to me. One, I didn't know Old Dominion has a football team. And two, how in the world was Colorado ranked below it? I remember when Colorado once fielded good teams. What happened? Is it still suffering from the recruiting scandal from years ago, or has it just quit caring about football?
-- Ronnie levitzke, Andalusia, Ala.

I found this hard to believe at first, but sure enough, on 247Sports' composite rankings (which combine the rankings from all the major recruiting sites), Colorado finished No. 76, barely edging out No. 77 Old Dominion (another school that oversigned, incidentally). First of all, yes, Old Dominion has a football team, and while it's just five years old, it's moving up from FCS to join Conference USA this season. Obviously, that one slipped by all but the true realignment junkies. As for Colorado, apparently Mike MacIntyre didn't enjoy the customary new coach recruiting bump, a la Kentucky's Mark Stoops, which shows just how tall a rebuilding task he's facing. The recruiting scandal is now a decade old. No question it decimated the program originally, but that's no longer the issue.

At this point, the Buffs have just been so bad for so long that they're an incredibly tough sell, something compounded by the fact that Colorado has no natural recruiting base. It relies on California, which produced more than half of this year's class. This is not likely to be a two-year turnaround like MacIntyre pulled off at San Jose State. A more proximate model might be Baylor's gradual but eventually fruitful reclamation under Art Briles. Once Colorado does start winning more, the school's Pac-12 affiliation should help. MacIntyre did recently land four-star receiver Shay Fields out of Bellflower, Calif., who had at one point committed to USC. Fields cited the success of recent Buffaloes star receiver Paul Richardson as a factor in his decision. The more examples like him, the more players of a similar caliber who will follow.

Apparently, Minnesota and Northwestern are the only two teams in all of college football to keep their coaching staffs intact for four consecutive offseasons. Is this a good thing (continuity, familiarity with a system, steady recruiting) or a bad thing (turnover can energize a staff, change can bring in better coaches, players tune out coaching staffs after a while)?
-- Chris, Chicago

It's definitely a good thing, assuming a program is moving in the right direction. Minnesota has continually improved under Jerry Kill's staff, which has been together dating back to its time at Northern Illinois. Northwestern turned in a disappointing 5-7 campaign last year, but the Wildcats are generally trending upward under Pat Fitzgerald. It would take another down season for me to question whether Northwestern would actually benefit from a shakeup. For a model, look no further than Oregon's seamless transition from Chip Kelly to Mark Helfrich, helped in no small part by the fact that Helfrich managed to retain all but one assistant. And several of those coaches had worked in Eugene for multiple decades, a big reason why the Ducks have avoided even a brief down period in the 20 years since Rich Brooks' breakthrough Rose Bowl season in 1994.

The only possible counterargument I could see? If other schools aren't poaching a program's assistants, those assistants must not be particularly sought after. Stanford, for example, has thrived despite near-constant turnover of coordinators and position coaches since it began its run of four straight BCS bowls. That's because the level of respect for the Cardinal's staff is so high.

But not all assistants are looking for the next opportunity. Many are happy to remain loyal to their head coach. That's definitely true with Kill's and Fitzgerald's groups. All in all, though, the fact that the staffs at Minnesota and Northwestern have stayed together for so long is astounding, and something more recruits really need to pay attention to before signing with a school because of their attachment to a position coach.

Curling begins today (Feb. 10) in Sochi. I know that you secretly record and watch every millisecond of Olympic curling. You tell your wife you're staying up to work, but you're watching curling. Everyone has a favorite Olympic sport, Stew. It's time you shared your love of curling with the world.
-- Knox, any USPA drop zone

It's just the opposite, Knox. I'm bitter because I was cut by my high school curling team.

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