Coaches play the curious game of oversigning in college football
Oversigning isn't illegal (yet), but it raises ethical issues for players and teams
Teams can bring in 25 scholarship players a year, but Ole Miss signed 37 in '09
Teams continue to oversign and count on attrition and eligibility to sort out spots
The fax machine in the Ole Miss football office began spitting out signed National Letters of Intent early in the morning Feb. 4. As the day went on, the fax machine kept humming. By the time Rebels coach Houston Nutt addressed the media on Signing Day, 37 players had inked with Ole Miss. In other words, 37 players had signed a document that promised them a one-year, renewable athletic scholarship provided they met the school's academic requirements and the NCAA's academic and amateurism requirements.
Here's where the math gets sticky. The NCAA allows schools to bring in a maximum of 25 new scholarship football players in an academic year. Furthermore, each school can keep only 85 players on scholarship at any given time. After subtracting departing seniors and walk-ons from the Ole Miss roster, the Rebels could bring back as many as 64 current scholarship players next season, though, since most schools lose between five to 10 players a year through attrition, that isn't likely. So how will Ole Miss accommodate all those players?
"I checked with [compliance director] David [Wells], and there's no rule that says that we can't sign 80," Nutt said at that Signing Day press conference. "All I know is we have to have 25 ready to go in August ready and eligible."
Nutt is correct. Some players won't qualify academically and will go to junior college or to prep school. Others may accept a grayshirt, meaning they will delay full-time enrollment until January, giving them five years to play beginning with the 2010 season.
Neither Ole Miss nor any of the 30 Football Bowl Subdivision schools that signed more than 25 players this month have broken any existing NCAA rule. Nor is Ole Miss alone, even in its own conference. Seven of the 12 SEC schools signed more than 25 this year, and five of the 11 schools that oversigned in 2008 and 2009 are from the SEC. Besides Ole Miss, five of those 30 schools joined the 30-plus-signees club this year, including Troy (40), Hawaii (31), Arkansas (30), Central Michigan (30) and South Florida (30).
As long as programs keep their total at 85 scholarships and don't bring in more than 25 a year, the NCAA has no quarrel -- for now. The NCAA's Football Issues Committee discussed oversigning and grayshirting at its January meeting. The committee, which comprises coaches, athletic directors and conference administrators, agreed to monitor oversigning, but Sun Belt Conference commissioner Wright Waters, the committee's chair, said until the committee can get some hard data, it can't determine if oversigning is an issue that requires legislation.
"We don't know yet, because we don't know the numbers," Waters said. "If you look at it purely in principle, you're uncomfortable with it. But you've also got to ask if kids are being benefited by it. If they are, then you've got to find a way to not hurt those kids and at the same time make sure you maintain a level playing field."
As Waters noted, oversigning and grayshirting raise some ethical dilemmas. For instance, what happens when too many players have qualified academically and there is no scholarship available for a grayshirting player?
"If you ever balk on one, you won't have many more opportunities," Troy coach Larry Blakeney said. "We've never fallen short. We've never not had a scholarship."
Blakeney is a master mathematician when it comes to juggling scholarships. No coach in America has signed more players in the past five years. Between 2005-09, Blakeney and his staff signed 162 players (average: 32.4).
Blakeney doesn't apologize for the numbers; in fact, he believes his method of signing has allowed access to a college education for some players other schools wouldn't touch because of their grades and test scores. The practice also has helped Blakeney field a quality team. Troy won outright Sun Belt Conference titles in 2006 and 2008 and shared the title in 2007.
Blakeney said he and his staff hit upon the grayshirt concept when "some kids kind of grayshirted themselves," meaning they didn't earn high enough standardized test scores to meet NCAA minimum standards and went to prep school for a semester to raise their scores. As they refined the concept, Blakeney and his coaches began to ask qualified players to delay enrollment. They encouraged them to enroll part time -- which prevents their NCAA eligibility clock from starting -- either at Troy or at a school near their home so they could get a head start on college coursework and so Troy could free up another scholarship. "The grayshirt thing is good for them academically because it puts them ahead of the NCAA [continuing eligibility] curve," said Blakeney, who pointed to DeWhitt Betterson, Troy's all-time leading rusher and a 2004 graduate, as a grayshirt success story.
Most coaches who oversign devise a plan as they recruit for how to squeeze their recruiting class into school. For instance, Blakeney, Nutt, Alabama coach Nick Saban and Kansas State coach Bill Snyder each have an idea of which players might not qualify and will need to attend either junior college or prep school. In the case of schools in Kansas and Mississippi -- states with junior-college football leagues -- universities will steer players toward junior colleges in return for the junior college coach steering graduates back to the university. Coaches will also sometimes broach the subject of a grayshirt before extending a scholarship offer.