ATHENS -- It’s the issue that has dominated message boards, Twitter and other fan talk. It has pitted fellow SEC coaches on opposite sides in a very public manner.
And it finally comes to a head this week.
That doesn’t mean there will be a resolution. And it’s certain that no matter what anyone says publicly, the result of the upcoming SEC spring meetings will not leave everyone pleased when it comes to the league’s new, over-riding issue: “Roster management.”
Those two words were how SEC commissioner Mike Slive summed up a slew of issues. But over-signing, the practice of bringing in more football recruits than you have room for, then making room for them, is the major one. The sub-issues involve grayshirting -- bringing in players one semester late, in order to fit them in. It also includes medical exemptions, which some programs have used to gently dismiss players.
At heart, the issue is how cut-throat college football must be. And there isn’t much common ground.
On one side, you have those who oppose doing “whatever it takes.” Florida president Bernie Machen, in a February letter to SI.com, ripped into grayshirting and medical exemptions. Georgia head coach Mark Richt has called pulling scholarships for numbers reasons “an awful thing to do.”
“These other coaches have been over-signing, trying to grayshirt, trying to make sure they never come up short of that 85 number,” Richt said. “But in doing so, have they done it in an ethical way, which is what you’re asking? And I’d say not.”
But South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier has said over-signing is a good thing for his school, because the academics in his state’s high schools are so weak they can’t be caught with too many recruits not qualifying. Other head coaches like Alabama’s Nick Saban and Mississippi’s Houston Nutt, each of whom has routinely over-signed, have staked out similar positions.
On the face of it, the math would indicate that the head coaches -- virtually all of the Western Division, plus Spurrier -- would out-vote Richt and his like-minded friends. But the athletics directors and presidents have the final say.
Slive doesn’t have a vote, but he has a view, as he pointed out, and it’s unlikely that he would put forth legislation without having a good idea of how it will fare.
“It’s more than just the question of over-signing or grayshirting. It’s a question of over-signing, grayshirting, early admissions, summer school admission,” Slive said. “We’ve put together what we call a bit of a package to address these issues, that will give our people a chance to think about these issues in a more global fashion. So then it will be an important discussion item in Destin.”
That package includes a 25-person limit on each recruiting class, according to the Athens Banner-Herald. The conference also proposes to review and approve every medical disqualification, a tactic Alabama has used often as players leave its program.
“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 The Telegraph. “And I think this package does that.”
But it still may lack the teeth that many want. The Big Ten, for instance, has direct limits on the amount of players that can be signed, such as three more than the number of total scholarships available. The SEC has no such current limits.
The NCAA limits teams to having 85 players on scholarship. But because of normal attrition -- transfers, academic casualties, etc. -- the average signing class is about 25.
But Mississippi signed 37 players in 2008. And SEC programs have become very creative, some would say cut-throat, in how they get to the 85 number. Arkansas has conducted what it calls “annual scholarship evaluations.”
“I don’t see it as a bad thing unless you’re being dishonest or waiting until the last minute, which eliminates their visit opportunities with other schools,” Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino told the Wall Street Journal.
But some cases do happen at the final minute. South Carolina pulled a scholarship offer right before signing day this year to an Atlanta-area recruit.
“It’s a conference thing,” Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. “The biggest area that is an area of concern is the SEC. Elsewhere, it’s not really a big issue. There are schools in the Big East, the Big 12 and ACC that over-sign. But it’s not as prevalent as it is in the SEC.”
It’s not a new issue. Alabama’s legendary head coach, Bear Bryant, was notable for bringing in as many recruits as he could, and he supposedly said it was better that a player was sitting on his bench than beating him on the field. When Georgia Tech left the SEC, one of head football coach Bobby Dodd’s concerns was Alabama signing big classes then cutting players before the season.
The fact it’s been going on this long -- and teams like Alabama and South Carolina are winning -- means it’s unlikely the issue will be settled this week.
It’s clear that off the field, it’s a winning issue for Richt. The embattled head coach drew a loud ovation when he proclaimed his stand against over-signing, and he has earned praise from fans for doing it the right way.
But as Farrell -- who is against over-signing -- pointed out: “In the SEC, the right way is winning.”