Oversigning: Very Bad

Alabama's Nick Saban has become the poster child for the practice of "oversigning".

We are now in the heart of college football recruiting season, which is always a weird time of year because the practice of obsessing over where some 18-year-old decides to go to college…well…IT’S JUST WEIRD, PEOPLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But there is one thing that is becoming a significant issue lately.  It is the practice of “oversigning”.

Ole Miss's Houston Nutt also has some creative ways of making the numbers work.

Every year, each college football team is allowed to extend scholarships to up to 25 players and have a maximum of 85 players in total who are on scholarship at any given time.

In theory, what happens is that a coach will sign only the number of players required to bring his team up to the 85-player limit.  If that number is greater than 25, then he will only sign 25.

This doesn’t always happen in reality.  Some coaches will sign more than the number required to bring their team up to 85 players on scholarship, as long as they sign 25 or less in any given year.  For instance, a coach may sign 21 players when he only has space to sign 14.

When this happens, it is called “oversigning”.

Why do some coaches oversign?

Because life happens.  Some players don’t qualify academically.  Some get hurt and lose a year or two or have to quit football altogether.  Some transfer to other schools.  Some declare for the NFL draft a year early.  Oversigning provides a margin of safety in the event that any of these things happens.

This is a numbers game.  A coach who signs 6 more players than he has scholarship space for is betting that he is going to lose 6 players between signing day and the start of fall practice.

So what if that doesn’t happen?

Ah, there’s the tricky part.  Coaches who oversign have come up with some quite creative ways to finesse the numbers so that everything works out by the start of fall practice.  Some kids are sent away to prep school or junior college.  Some are asked to not enroll until the next January, so that they will count against next year’s numbers and not this year’s.  And some are pressured into transferring to other schools by being told that they will not get significant playing time.

The problem is that in this day and age, oversigning has evolved into more than just a means to provide a safety margin against the inevitable losses that result from unexpected transfers or early defections to the NFL or failure to qualify academically.  Nowadays, many coaches, sad to say, are using oversigning as insurance so that they can run off kids who turn out to be not quite as good as expected.

Nick Saban of Alabama has become the poster child for this practice.  A Wall Street Journal article from back in September quotes three former Alabama players who took medical scholarships (thereby ending their football careers) but felt pressured to do so.  All of them said that they believe Alabama uses this practice to clear roster space for better players.

The website oversigning.com has become something of a clearinghouse on this issue.  They track schools’ commitments vs. available spots.  Currently Alabama and Ole Miss are tied for the lead nationally at plus-10 (that’s 10 more commitments than available spots), followed by LSU at plus-9 and Arkansas at plus-8.

This isn’t happening everywhere.  Georgia’s Mark Richt does not engage in the practice of oversigning.  Neither does Paul Johnson of Georgia Tech.

The NCAA has rules that govern the process of recruiting, but there are loopholes.  This is one.  Coaches who are motivated by money and the desire to win at any cost will eagerly take advantage of it.

There are ways that the NCAA can close this loophole.  Make the 85-scholarship limit a hard limit.  Eliminate the practice of “gray-shirting”–encouraging a player who signs in February to not enroll until next January just so that the numbers work.  And eliminate the requirement that players who transfer to another school sit out a year.

The practice of oversigning has evolved into a serious blight upon the sport of college football.  The NCAA desperately needs to do something about it.

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