Last week at a meeting of Bulldog Club members in Greenville, S.C., Georgia coach Mark Richt elicited some of the biggest cheers of the night not for a bold prediction or clever dig at one of his rivals, but for sharing his personal philosophy on the controversial practice of oversigning.
"I think it's an awful thing to do, I think it's the wrong thing to do, and it's nothing that we've ever done at Georgia," Richt said to a hearty round of applause.
Kudos to Richt and Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, who is leading the charge to curb oversigning in the oft-criticized SEC. But Richt is coming off a 6-7 season, the Bulldogs' first losing campaign in 14 years, and a modest 8-5 record the year before that. If Georgia has another bad season this fall, it's safe to presume most of those fans in Greenville will no longer be cheering for him -- and McGarity will no longer have his back.
That, in a nutshell, is why so many of Richt's SEC adversaries defend oversigning, and will likely do so again at the league's upcoming annual meetings in Destin, Fla., where coaches, athletic directors and presidents will consider whether to implement stricter guidelines regarding "roster management." Last year the NCAA adopted an SEC-sponsored proposal to limit FBS schools to 28 signees between National Signing Day and May 31, but as SI.com's Andy Staples and many others have argued, that isn't enough to prevent coaches from exploiting loopholes like grayshirting and early enrollees in order to winnow down to 25 scholarships per class and 85 overall.
While most reasonable minds agree it's unfair to take away a recruit's scholarship offer on the eve of Signing Day (as South Carolina did to two recruits last winter) or push underperforming players out the door to make room for the new class (as Arkansas seemed to do with the recent announcements of five departures), winning and job security are the coaches' top priorities at the end of the day. Some view oversigning as a crucial means to those ends.
Take the case of Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, who, like Richt, may be on the hot seat if he doesn't improve on last year's 4-8 debacle. (Never mind that the Rebels went to consecutive Cotton Bowls before that. This is the SEC. Coaches don't get two straight losing seasons.) Not long ago, Nutt was the poster child for oversigning. His 2008 class included a staggering 37 signees -- many of whom were non-qualifiers Nutt placed in jucos -- prompting the SEC to step in and impose a cap of 28 per class. (Some schools still sign more, counting early enrollees back a class or asking some recruits to grayshirt and enroll a semester later.) It soon became known as the Houston Nutt Rule.
But right now the Houston Nutt Rule is crushing Houston Nutt. A rash of attrition, including the dismissals last week of linebacker Clarence Jackson and sophomore defensive end Delvin Jones, will leave Ole Miss with no more than 76 scholarship players next fall, nine below the NCAA limit, according to the Jackson Clarion Ledger. And that's only if all 19 incoming freshmen qualify academically. Had Nutt been allowed to keep signing 30-plus players a year, he may have avoided this predicament.
Instead, he may soon be dealing with even more restrictive policies.
SEC spokesman Charles Bloom confirmed Wednesday the league's presidents will vote on a formal proposal regarding "roster management" June 3 in Destin. According to Bloom, a working group of league athletic directors began formally discussing oversigning and related issues last fall. At last month's BCS meetings, SEC commissioner Mike Slive described the committee's charge thusly: "We look at it as a roster management issue more than just oversigning in particular. There's oversigning, there's early admission, there's medical redshirts, there's grayshirting, summer enrollment -- we're going to try to look at all of that together rather than in pieces and see how we want to approach it as a conference."
It's not entirely fair to single out the SEC, as several schools (Iowa State, Kansas State, West Virginia and Troy among them) from other conferences regularly sign more than 25 players per class, according to data collected by the watchdog site Oversigning.com. But more than half of SEC schools averaged more than 25 signees annually from 2002-10, and the league's current run of five straight national titles makes it an inevitable target for backlash from other parts of the country, most notably Big Ten fans. (One of the authors of Oversigning.com is an Indiana grad.)
One thing's certain: If the SEC takes a hard stance, other conferences will follow.
Based on concepts devised by their subcommittee, the league's 12 athletic directors forwarded a formal proposal for conference consideration. Slive does not plan to reveal the specifics beforehand, but in an interview this week with Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph, the commissioner referred to the proposed legislation as a "package" of changes. One possibility might be to mirror the Big Ten's more rigid signing policy, which prohibits schools from offering more than three scholarships above its number of open roster spots, whether that's 28 or 13. Less radical alternatives could include an annual hard cap of 25 signees, limits to the number of grayshirts or medical hardships a school can offer, closer monitoring of individual cases, or all of the above.
The reality remains that Richt is in the minority among his league peers, many of whom see no crime in oversigning. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, who signed 30 players this year, told The Wall Street Journal: "I don't see it as a bad thing unless you're being dishonest or waiting until the last minute, which eliminates [recruits'] visit opportunities with other schools." That's fine, but what about after those recruits get to campus? More than 40 percent of Petrino's 2008-10 signees are no longer on the roster. Those who transferred on good terms can still get a scholarship and a degree elsewhere, but from a less renowned institution.
And while admitting the issue caused some embarrassment this year for South Carolina -- which signed 32 players and still had to turn away two previously committed recruits -- coach Steve Spurrier told the Wall Street Journal oversigning is "helpful" because, according to the authors, "so many of the players in the state come from underprivileged backgrounds and may not qualify academically."
That right there is the single biggest reason why oversigning is a more complex issue than some of its critics acknowledge.
Let's again use Ole Miss as an example. One might suggest that Nutt wouldn't be in his current roster predicament if he signed more "high-character" prospects who are less likely to run into academic or disciplinary troubles. But not every school recruits from the same pool of athletes. In a recent Twitter dialogue on the subject, @TheMarchto85 -- the handle for Oversigning.com -- used Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald as a comparison: "amazing how @coachfitz51 is able to sign 17 to get to 85 and stay at 85 AND remain competitive -- it can be done!!!"
But the nature of Northwestern's admissions standards means the players Fitzgerald signs aren't likely to flunk out or have trouble becoming eligible, making the Wildcats' roster numbers more predictable. As the flagship school in a state with the nation's lowest literacy rate, on the other hand, Ole Miss can't realistically field a competitive SEC team by solely recruiting prospects with 3.5 GPAs. That's not a knock against the school; that's basic socioeconomics.
By the same token, Fitzgerald isn't held to nearly the same on-field standards as Nutt. The beloved former Wildcats star recently received a hefty contract extension for going 34-29 (.540) and reaching three straight bowl games. Nutt, 97-64 (.602) in 13 seasons as an SEC head coach, has already been run off by one fan base (Arkansas) and is now at a school that fired current Duke coach David Cutcliffe for going 44-29 (.603).
None of that justifies signing 37 players, but it helps explain why coaches like Nutt, Petrino or Spurrier might push so hard to preserve oversigning. Unfortunately for them, they don't hold the final say.
While Slive said all groups will "opine" on the proposed legislation in Destin, only the presidents can push it through. They're more likely than coaches to place priority on issues like academics and student welfare. Florida's Bernie Machen, for one, wrote a piece for SI.com last winter and called grayshirting "morally reprehensible." Others, however, may take the philanthropic stance that oversigning affords more individuals a chance at a college education.
But the commissioner himself seems eager for change, and the presidents tend to listen to him.
"The goal is to make sure that our prospective student-athletes are treated in a way that is as they should be treated, like students are treated," Slive told Emerson of the Telegraph. "And I think this package does that."
Given all the recent scrutiny, it will be bad p.r. if the league doesn't do something -- and there's no reason it shouldn't. While Big Ten fans would like to believe otherwise, oversigning is not the primary reason the SEC has won all those BCS championships. Alabama's quality of play won't suffer if it only has 82 scholarship players one year. The only on-field repercussions will be that within the SEC, everyone will be playing by the same set of rules.
Good news for Georgia, bad news for Ole Miss.