TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The SEC owes Nick Saban a favor. Had someone in the conference office told the Alabama coach that the league would let recent Alabama grad—and former Crimson Tide defensive back—Maurice Smith transfer to Georgia and play immediately, Saban probably would have released Smith immediately instead of getting painted as a villain for weeks.
The SEC announced on Friday afternoon that Smith would be granted a waiver to a league rule that would allow him to play immediately. This is the correct decision, because the rule is a bad one in the first place. But the decision came at the wrong time. Instead of letting its most successful coach get blasted as being anti-athlete news cycle after news cycle, someone at the SEC should have stepped in much earlier in this process.
This never had to become a national debate. Had someone at the SEC told Saban earlier this month that Smith would get the waiver, then Saban—who is nothing if not pragmatic—probably would have simply released Smith and saved himself the negative headlines. He stuck up for the league's rule, but the league didn't. Had Saban known the SEC would cave, he probably would have released Smith weeks ago.
"It became a personal thing. It really wasn't a personal thing," Saban said Friday during an interview with myself and Chris Carlin for SiriusXM's College Sports Nation channel. "This was strictly, 'Here's the rules. Here's the way things get done.' The issue here is what kind of freedom should players have to be able to transfer and go other places? That's a philosophical decision that doesn't get made by me. We have rules in the NCAA and the SEC that sort of govern that. I was just respecting the rules."
Said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey in a release: "The standard for granting waivers has been clear and compelling evidence that there is a reason for allowing an exception to SEC rules. I found, among other contributing factors, that a student-athlete who graduates in three years and exhibits a strong commitment to his or her academic future provides compelling motivation to help them achieve their goals on and off the field."
This is the correct attitude, but an athlete shouldn't need a waiver. Saban never should have been in the position to get characterized as the villain because school presidents should never have given coaches that option in the first place. SEC presidents loosened their graduate transfer rule in 2014 because their initial decision—that a graduate would have to have two years of eligibility remaining to transfer to an SEC school—was even sillier. When they meet next May in Destin, Fla., they need to go all the way and allow graduate transfers to play immediately no matter what.
The bottom line is that when a player graduates, he should have the freedom to go to whatever graduate school he wishes. If he has athletic eligibility remaining, he should be allowed to play at the new school. It should not matter if the schools are in the same conference. Yale wouldn't ban one of its graduates from attending Harvard's medical school. Why should the rules be different for professional football players in training? The arrangement should go both ways, too. A player who graduates should be able to leave if he finds another opportunity. A coach should be able to cut a player who graduates if that player doesn't deserve one of the 85 scholarships the school is allotted. And forget what those coaches and administrators say about players choosing graduate schools for [insert sport here] instead of academic reasons. Those people conveniently forget that most athletes in revenue sports chose their undergraduate school because of the team and not because of the teachers.
What also hurt Saban's cause these past few weeks was the case of former Alabama receiver Chris Black, who was granted a waiver from the SEC to transfer to Missouri as an Alabama graduate. In that case, Black's request met the stricter definition of the rule because he did want to study in a graduate program Alabama didn't offer. Black also had left the team and wasn't going to have his scholarship renewed. Smith, meanwhile, ended spring practice as the No. 1 nickel cornerback. But Smith made his intention to transfer clear, so Saban's decision to renew Smith's scholarship against Smith's wishes also didn't help the optics.
This came down to an internal struggle between Alabama and Georgia. Saban did not want players leaving to follow former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who was named the Bulldogs' head coach in December. Smart isn't that different than his former boss, by the way. While he's happy to take Smith, he initially blocked tailback A.J. Turman—an undergraduate transfer who had to sit out a year after transferring—from receiving a scholarship at Miami even though Turman didn't even want to go to Miami. (He went to Florida Atlantic.) Smart wanted to set the precedent that players wouldn't be able to easily follow former Bulldogs coach Mark Richt. That's not much different than Saban's stance.
What's interesting about this decision is that Saban could be the biggest beneficiary of a loosened rule or a loose waiver process. Let's say Vanderbilt has a great tailback who graduates in three years. Let's say Alabama needs a tailback. Who wouldn't want a bachelor's from Vandy and a master's in football domination from Alabama? But because the rule exists as it does, Saban has said he should follow it. Plus, Saban agrees with the rule. "I think we need to be real careful in terms of unexpected consequences," he said.
I have no problem with the Vandy-to-Alabama scenario I described above. Graduates should be allowed to pursue the path that is best for them. If Vanderbilt or any other school wants to keep players from leaving for Alabama or Georgia or LSU, they should win more games and send more players to the NFL. Saban would say such a scenario would be bad for the conference because the teams at the top could cherry-pick the teams at the bottom. I would say those other schools need to give those players reasons to stay.
A more interesting unintended consequence would be if SEC schools suddenly try to slow down the academic progress of their athletes. They have worked hard to help athletes graduate, but now they may not want to help as much. Of course, the athletes can take that into their own hands. They can work as hard in the classroom as they want, and full freedom of movement after getting a degree would be a great incentive to get that degree quickly. And if the end result of that is more college graduates, that's a pretty good consequence.
SEC officials came to that conclusion Friday, which is excellent. But they could have come to that conclusion in June. Then Smith wouldn't have had to fight for his release, and the league's most successful coach wouldn't have been allowed to twist in the wind while he defended a rule that—unbeknownst to him—his conference office didn't care to defend.