DESTIN, Fla. -- No fistfights have broken out in the football coaches' meeting room at the SEC's spring meetings here. Georgia coach Mark Richt and Alabama coach Nick Saban haven't arm wrestled to determine how many players Saban can sign in February. Even among bitter rivals, the discussion has been civil. But the oversigning debate has raged this week in the conference that serves as the issue's poster child.
"The first amendment is alive and well in that room," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said Tuesday.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the league's football coaches batted around a series of proposals from the league's athletic directors that would further restrict coaches' ability to stockpile recruits. The proposal to limit schools to 25 signees per class wouldn't make the SEC's rules as restrictive as the Big Ten's hard cap, but it would make the SEC a close second and probably would inspire the rest of the FBS to adopt the SEC rules. After receiving input from coaches and athletic directors, the league's presidents will discuss oversigning -- those in attendance have adopted "roster management" as the preferred euphemism -- on Thursday and Friday and vote on the proposal.
In January, I called the SEC's 2009 rule -- later adopted by the entire FBS membership -- toothless. This proposal has some teeth. It doesn't have the saber teeth of the Big Ten's rule, but it has some sharp canines and broad molars. It could close some loopholes, protect players from nasty surprises like the ones 2010 LSU signees Elliott Porter and Cameron Fordham received and eliminate a competitive issue within the conference between the schools that have embraced oversigning (led by Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss) and the ones that haven't (led by Florida and Georgia). Also, by reducing the total number of players schools can sign, it would reduce the annual offseason churn during which recruits who didn't pan out as expected find their scholarships revoked. Players would still get separated from their scholarships, but most would be flunk-outs or miscreants who would have been kicked off their teams anyway.
Here are the details of the proposal designed by the league's athletic directors and obtained by Marc Weiszer of the Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald:
• No school would be allowed to sign more than 25 players in an academic year.
• Football signees who enroll in summer school would count against the scholarship total the moment they set foot on campus. (This would eliminate situations in which a player goes through summer school only to learn in late July that there is no room for him in the class.)
• The SEC office would have more oversight for medical scholarship exemptions. Some schools have complained about the amount of exemptions Alabama has used in recent years. The new rule would allow the league office to review the exemption requests.
• Early enrollees would be kept from signing a financial aid agreement until they enroll in classes. Currently, those players can sign agreements after their junior year of high school. Once they do, other SEC schools are banned from recruiting them.
Oversigning has embarrassed the SEC, and while some of the coaches are loathe to let go of a competitive advantage, the ADs and presidents seem to understand that strengthening the rules on this particular issue won't dilute the quality of the football in the conference that has won the past five national titles. "We need to protect the kids," Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said. "We're the biggest and the best conference around. We need to be leaders."
So will the league adopt all aspects of the proposal? That's difficult to say. Slive is one of the most powerful people in the sport and he wants this issue resolved, but the opposition may be so fierce that compromise becomes necessary. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley loves all but one prong of the proposal. He'd like to see the signee number stay at 28. Dooley signed 28 in 2011. The NCAA only allows 25 new scholarship players a year. One of Tennessee's early enrollees counts against last year's total, so the Volunteers could fit 26 of those players on the roster. If two recruits don't qualify academically, the class will fit. Dooley thought the 28-man limit was necessary. He isn't sure the number needs to drop more, but he does believe the other proposals should pass.
"It eliminated the excessive oversigning," Dooley said. "Well, there are still a lot of loopholes out there that we didn't address. Those have led to even more complaints, which is fair. It's a fair criticism. There's legislation out there to close the loopholes.
"For example, there is legislation to make them count when they come in for the summer. That's a good rule. There's legislation to count the midyear guys. It's my belief that when they come on your campus and enroll in school, they should count. It's pretty simple. By doing that, it'll close all the loopholes and it still allows for a little overage to account for the academic risk, the attrition that's unexpected, the guy that swings on Signing Day."
Dooley believes closing those loopholes will curb the problems that have made oversigning such a hot-button topic. "The 28 rule has been in effect [throughout the FBS] for one year, and it hasn't been in effect without loopholes," Dooley said. "What I would be for is let's close the loopholes, and let's track the 28 and see if it leads to any abuse. I don't think it will."
Coaches in the Big Ten would argue the proposal doesn't go far enough. Coaches in the Big 12 -- where half of the schools are chronic oversigners -- probably would side with their colleagues in the SEC West, where everyone oversigns. Coaches at schools that only occasionally sign more than 25 when a need arises probably would side with Dooley.
No matter what the coaches think, the SEC's presidents will be the final arbiters on the issue this week. And whatever they decide probably will become the law of the land in major college football.