by | CBSSports.com Columnist

Coaches need to see the signs and stop the over-signing

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Lord, have mercy we are getting ready to have us a big ol' argument in the SEC.

The subject? Over-signing.

What is over-signing, you ask?

I'm afraid there is math involved, but let's start with the basics.

The NCAA rules allow no more than 85 football players on scholarship at any given time. The rules also limit schools to no more than 25 new players on scholarship in any given academic year.

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So even limited math skills (like mine) tell us that you can't sign 25 players per year over a four-year period and stay under the cap of 85. So sometimes, in order to bring in the maximum new talent per year but still stay under the cap, coaches have to get "creative."

If a team with 85 players on scholarship loses 15 seniors and two juniors to the NFL Draft, then logically that team only has 17 scholarships to give in the next signing class. But schools in most conferences are allowed to sign as many as 28 new players per class regardless of how many scholarships are actually available. The key is that when the school year starts, the team in question cannot be above the cap of 85 and only 25 of those can be newly enrolled.

Most of the time these numbers sort of work out for themselves. Guys flunk out. They quit and move on for more playing time. They do knucklehead stuff and are asked to leave.

But sometimes the numbers don't add up and schools are caught short of scholarships. LSU signee Elliott Porter had already moved into his dorm room last August only to be told there was not a scholarship available for him. In other cases, players are told they will have to "grayshirt" because all the scholarships are gone. A player who is grayshirted pays his own way during the fall semester with the guarantee of a scholarship the following January, which counts against the next signing next signing class.

That, in an admittedly oversimplified nutshell, is over-signing. It's kind of like the airlines when they overbook a flight hoping that a certain percentage of people won't show up. Sometimes they get caught with too many passengers and not enough seats. Only the schools don't ask for volunteers and give them a $400 voucher and put them on the next available flight. The athletes are given the option of grayshirting or leaving for another school.

Based on the research of websites like oversigning.com, the SEC is the biggest offender of this practice. Ole Miss, Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and South Carolina are at the top of website's competition, known as "The Oversigning Cup."

But there are other schools in the SEC who want to see the practice end. Schools like Georgia. Earlier this year I met with Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity and he told me the subject would likely come up during the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., which start on May 31. McGarity made it clear where he came down on the issue.

"It's just wrong. It's just not the right thing to do," McGarity said. "And we're not going to do it at Georgia."

McGarity's coach, Mark Richt, recently got fired up on the subject during a Georgia Bulldog Club meeting that over-signing is "an awful thing to do."

Florida president Bernie Machen takes it a step further. Dr. Machen wrote a piece for SI.com last February calling the practice of grayshirting "morally reprehensible."

Nick Saban defended his practices at Alabama, saying the numbers are a lot more complicated than they seem to be. (Getty Images)  
Nick Saban defended his practices at Alabama, saying the numbers are a lot more complicated than they seem to be. (Getty Images)  
Not everyone in the SEC agrees with Georgia and Florida. Alabama's Nick Saban spent a good chunk of his signing day press conference last February defending charges of over-signing.

At the time Saban said getting the numbers right is a lot more complicated than what meets the eye. One of the things that makes it complicated is that schools like Alabama keep those numbers secret.

"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," Saban said at the time. "When you add all those things up, plus guys we have that may not qualify [academically], it's not fair to criticize the numbers."

The case can be made for over-signing, within reason, of course.

Example: Let's take that team that lost 15 seniors and two juniors to the NFL Draft. The school signs only 17 players. But after National Signing Day in February, five guys flunk out or get in trouble and they are gone. Then four members of their signing class bomb out academically and don't qualify. Under that scenario the team actually loses 22 players but is bringing in only 13.

It is worth noting that it was the SEC that first put in the signing limit of 28 in 2010. Some kind of limit became necessary because in 2009 Houston Nutt signed an unprecedented 37 players at Ole Miss.

One of the things that will be put on the table at the SEC meetings is the current Big Ten model. Big Ten schools are allowed to sign only the number of available scholarships plus three. So if a school loses 17 players due to graduation and other circumstances, it may sign only 20 on National Signing Day. In fact, the Big Ten regulates how many scholarships its schools are allowed to offer to three more than the available scholarships. If a school wants to over-offer, it must get permission. If it oversigns, that school must document what happened to every single player that left the program if they did not graduate.

In other words, the Big Ten keeps their coaches on a tight leash when it comes to this subject. I don't see that happening in the SEC and my prediction is that no change on the current policy will come out of the SEC meetings. Coaches believe they need to over offer and over sign as a hedge against players who don't qualify academically plus natural attrition. They want the option of signing an academically challenged player they know won't qualify, placing him in junior college, and hoping to get a good player in return. There are too many coaches in the SEC who don't want to give up that power. They also have the ultimate trump card in this debate: The current system has allowed the SEC to win five straight BCS national championships.

Here is my bottom line on this. What coaches cannot do and must not be allowed to do is mislead or outright lie to players and their families. A player must be told up front if there is even a possibility that a scholarship might not be there for him and that he might have to grayshirt. In fact, I would not be opposed to a signed document to that effect. Then the player and his parents have to make a decision whether or not to move on to a school that can guarantee a scholarship or stay with their No. 1 school and roll the dice.

But if coaches get caught in a numbers crunch and suddenly tell a kid --without any warning -- there is no place for him then that, as Machen said, is morally reprehensible and a college president should not stand for it. If such a bait and switch happened in academia there would be lawsuits galore.

With all of the other problems going on in college football, this is a subject the coaches, athletic directors and presidents had better manage carefully. If enough kids get screwed out of scholarships and start going public, the backlash could be pretty severe. And the sport, at least from an ethical conduct standpoint, is pretty much in traction right now.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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