The judicious use of redshirting has become even more important since the NCAA instituted scholarship limitations. Since 1976, Division I schools have been able to recruit and give financial aid to no more than 30 football players a year. As of the first game of this season, there can be no more than 95 players on athletic scholarships on a team at a given time, 25 fewer than a team would have if it signed and kept 30 players each year over the normal four-year undergraduate span. Since redshirts count against the 95-man total, they are maneuvered like pawns to keep a team strong but not overloaded. For example, a successful recruiting year for tackles makes every tackle in school a possible, even likely, candidate for a five-year program.
If the 95-man rule has made things more difficult for established redshirt schools (e.g., Alabama, Nebraska, Oklahoma and others that make a practice of redshirting a number of players each year), that, according to the NCAA, is its purpose. "Without these limits a team could redshirt an entire class," says David Berst. "It was even happening that some institutions were loading up on all the good players around just so they wouldn't have to play against them." Wayne Duke, commissioner of the Big Ten, a conference that did not accept the five-year rule until 1973, feels that limitation is a good thing. "I know for a fact that in 1970 one school had 155 men on its football team," he says. "Think of that. That's 14 full teams plus a placekicker."
To some critics the very concept of redshirting is suspect. They see the practice as simply a devious means of allowing players to age for the team's benefit. Those in favor of redshirting counter that it is not an unnatural process, that it takes many college students five years to get a degree.
No one, however, denies that the reason behind redshirting is to field a better team. "There's no question that even a very talented athlete will be a better player at 22 than he is at 18 or 19," says Scott Hunter, an Alabama redshirt in 1967 and currently a quarterback for the-Atlanta Falcons. Hunter, though, is somewhat ambivalent about the procedure. "There can be social problems as you see your friends, the guys you entered school with, graduate and leave," he says. "But if you finish at 21 and you're not quite the player you could have been if you'd had another year, and if you get passed up in the draft because of it, well, you may wish you'd been redshirted." (The difficulty with that argument surfaces when a player is not drafted even though he has spent a year as a redshirt.)
Though redshirting may be done in any sport, football—because of its numbers, frequent injuries and money-making potential—is most suited to the practice. This last winter, however, basketball broadened the scope of the practice. DePaul University pushed a rule through the NCAA that allows academically qualified freshmen to be held out of play without losing eligibility. Until passage of this rule, which is retroactive to 1974, only sophomores, juniors and seniors could be redshirted. DePaul's motive was narrow—it had a senior basketball player who would not have been eligible for the 1978 NCAA Regionals unless the change was adopted—but the rule could greatly affect many college freshmen, particularly at the football powers.
Conference commissioners worry that freshmen will now be subjected to the equivalent of one-year tryouts and then cut, or that academically unqualified freshmen will be admitted to schools and immediately redshirted in hopes they can qualify as sophomores. "I don't know what the significance of the new rule will be," says Boyd McWhorter, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, "but we doubt that it will be good."
Adding to the insecurity felt by many college football players is the fact that guaranteed four-year grants-in-aid, once the standard scholarship offer at most colleges, have been replaced by one-year grants. Now, a coach does not have to tell a player until July 1 whether his scholarship has been reoffered for the coming school year. Equally unnerving is the fact that a coach can cut a player for non-athletic reasons. As David Berst says, "A coach can decide not to renew a scholarship for whatever reason he wants—because he doesn't like the boy, because his hair is too long, whatever." Even injured players can be asked to leave.
Some of the wealthier schools, among them Alabama, have tried to adhere to a policy of offering non-athletic scholarships to those players cut each spring. But such moves are slim consolation to most athletes. As Joe Jones says, "Lose my football scholarship? Ooh, God, that would be heartbreaking."
Three months after the Sugar Bowl game, Joe Jones is sitting at his desk in Paul Bryant Hall, pen in hand. In front of him are a writing tablet and several books. A collection of Hemingway short stories is creased open to a well-worn page. The room, a typically collegiate cement-block rectangle, is surprisingly clean. Joe admits that when he found out he'd be having company he cleared it of "at least an inch of dust."
Joe's forearms and his elbows are blotched with pinkish carpet burns, an indication that spring football is under way on Alabama's artificial turf. "A guy said to me today, 'You look like you've been in a bike wreck,' " Joe says with a chuckle. "But actually I kind of like artificial turf. I feel real quick on it."