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Decoding Nick Saban's surprising diatribe in defense of oversigning


Feb. 2 marked another joyous Signing Day in Tuscaloosa, Ala. For the third time in four years, a major recruiting site ( deemed Alabama's class the nation's best. On the heels of that past success at 'Bama and two No. 1 classes at LSU, the 2011 haul further enhanced coach Nick Saban's reputation as the sport's most renowned recruiter.

But this year, Saban's Signing Day press conference wasn't entirely about saluting his staff and heralding incoming blue-chippers like linebacker Brent Calloway and defensive back Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix. There was an -- forgive me for this -- elephant in the room.

Over the past year, Saban became the unwitting face of recruiting's hottest topic: oversigning. He's far from the only coach in the country who regularly signs more players than there are available spots on his roster, as my colleague Andy Staples recently documented. But the more national championships a coach wins, the greater the scrutiny, and the likes of The Wall Street Journal began shedding light on Saban's penchant for expending a number of upperclassmen every year to make room for the new kids.

To his credit, Saban didn't dodge the question when it came up on Wednesday. He actually gave a 431-word diatribe in defense of both oversigning and grayshirting, another contentious practice that Florida president Bernie Machen criticized this week.

But Saban didn't exactly offer specifics for how he'll trim his roster, either. (Not that anyone expected him to.) I'm also not sure how much of what Saban said anyone aside from blind 'Bama loyalists will believe. Let's put it out there and see.

Here is the full transcript of Saban's Wednesday comments, broken up into excerpts I will dutifully attempt to decode.

There has been quite a bit written about oversigning, so to speak, but we have never gotten rid of a player because of his physical ability.

Translation: Alabama has never explicitly "cut" an underachieving player.

Any player that has left this program prematurely has created his own exit route. He's created his own conditions for leaving, if that makes sense. Whether they are academic in terms of not doing what he needed to do academically, whether it is some violation of team or school policy, some of those things we are not allowed to talk about.

We get that some players will inevitably run into academic or disciplinary troubles, and that a coach is well within his rights to cut such players loose. What we don't get is how Saban is magically able to project exactly how many such players will run amok each year so he knows how many scholarships he can afford to give out to recruits.

We have so many seniors; we have some guys going out for the draft. Nobody really knows how many guys we had on scholarship last year, but it wasn't 85, I can tell you that.

Here, Saban is calling out sites like that think they can just call up the roster on Alabama's official website and assume it equates to Alabama's scholarship count. By "nobody," Saban of course means nobody but him.

But what exactly is the justification for keeping that number a state secret? Lane Kiffin liked to remind media on a near-daily basis last year that his undermanned team was playing with "only 71 scholarships." At his own Signing Day press conference Wednesday, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald proudly declared: "We have 85 scholarships. We had 17 to give, and we're at 85 right now."

If there's inaccurate information out there, Coach Saban, by all means help us clear it up.

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We have some people that could not finish the season that will probably not be able to continue to play, that will be replaced, and we have several players that can graduate and may not come back for their fifth year, who have been redshirted. When you add all those things up, plus guys we have that may not qualify, it is not fair to criticize the numbers.

By "not able to continue to play," Saban is referring to players who have suffered injuries so severe they might be granted medical hardships. Those players maintain their scholarships to the school but are no longer part of the team. Saban has done this with at least 12 players during his four years in Tuscaloosa, which raises red flags considering Ohio State's Jim Tressel, for example, has placed just four players on hardship scholarships in his entire 10-year tenure. Do Alabama players suffer debilitating injuries at a far greater rate than Ohio State players? Not likely.

It's also worth revisiting one particular word from that last Saban excerpt: "replaced." Aging NFL veterans get replaced. Defective car batteries get replaced. But washed-up student athletes? Even Bear Bryant finds that a bit callous.

When you look at the numbers without knowing all the facts and internal information, I think that is a little premature and unfair. Then for people to go out and use that against you in recruiting is even more unfair. This is the number of players that we could take, and we could add one or so [more] if the opportunity presents itself in the future.

Hint hit: There's still room available for you, Cyrus Kouandjio and Jadeveon Clowney.

In Saban's defense, it's easy to understand why he's upset that other coaches are using his sign-and-purge reputation against him on the recruiting trail. Many of the guys recruiting against him are doing the exact same thing.

And we do have some guys that may grayshirt. Let me address that too, because I think there is a lot of criticism in grayshirting that is unfair.

On this he's right. The fault in Machen's pitch against grayshirting was that he lumped together cases like LSU's Elliott Porter -- whom Les Miles reprehensibly pulled a scholarship from last year after Porter had already moved into his dorm -- with, say, former Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson, who willingly waited a year in order to play for his beloved Crimson Tide.

First of all, we have never grayshirted a guy here who when he decided to come here didn't know the circumstances that we were going to take with him at The University of Alabama. The reason is sometimes academic, the reason is sometimes physical development and maturity, but never has a player not known [he might be grayshirted.] ... Now I don't think that is a bad thing. If we were not able to do that, those players would never have the opportunity to come here. So we are actually creating an opportunity for a guy to come here, not taking one away. That is why I think there is some disconnect out there and understanding about what grayshirting is all about.

The counterpoint to that is receiver recruit Daryl Collins, who originally committed to the Tide last March but signed with Kentucky on Wednesday because he would have had to grayshirt at Alabama. Was Saban up front with him about the possibility? "I didn't think I was going to be grayshirted," Collins said Wednesday. "It affected [my decision] big time." Does that qualify as "creating an opportunity for a guy to come here, not taking one away?"

But Collins is hardly alone in his predicament. Another receiver, Collins Moore, committed to Ole Miss last August, only to find out on an official visit two weekends ago that he'd have to grayshirt in Oxford. His future coach, Houston Nutt, has long been one of the sport's most blatant oversigners, and this Signing Day announced 22 signees to go with five early enrollees and a transfer. That's 28 newcomers total; a school can only give 25 scholarships.

"Those things usually work themselves out," said Nutt. "I've never had a mother come up to me and say 'Hey, you weren't very truthful with me.' We always lay things out in the front, in the beginning, or in the middle of the recruiting process where they have time to have their options if they want to go elsewhere."

Moore would presumably find fault with Nutt's definition of "middle." In fact, that usage is far more ludicrous than any of the 431 Saban words I dissected earlier. But Nutt won't be winning any national championships in this lifetime, nor claiming any top-ranked recruiting classes. Saban may well land more of both, which is why his tactics will always be scrutinized far more closely.

Of course, not everyone's a critic.

"I'm of the laissez faire philosophy that all is fair in love and recruiting," said National Editor Allen Wallace. "It's easy to sit back and say oversigning should not be allowed if it's not your job. But ... these guys are paid millions and millions of dollars to protect their team. You're asking him to put his moral obligation to the player above his obligation to the school."

Saban, based on those 431 words, would have us believe he's doing both. Perhaps we'll find out when we hear from the next round of Alabama transfers and medical hardship players this summer.