Coaches at universities with large football programs have bent the rules for years. They are required to win at all costs in order to keep their high-paying jobs. Instead of being viewed as mentors and father figures, as they once were, they are now businessmen running multimillion-dollar enterprises. The amateur athletes have become commodities rather than students and are treated accordingly. As hardcore college football fans already know, this problem manifests itself in a practice called over-signing.
Over-signing is not a particularly new issue. It has its roots at the University of Alabama dating back to 1941, when a writer and Crimson Tide alumnus named William Bradford Huie noted some of the problems that he had seen firsthand while a student. He wrote that he had witnessed hundreds of students, some illiterate, drop out after their first semesters because they had not made the football team even though coaches had promised them roster spots. Huie was the first to expose the ills that go along with college sports when they become an obsession rather than a hobby.
While this practice has changed forms over the years, it has gotten uglier as college football has become more cutthroat and profitable.
Today, Football Bowl Subdivision programs are allowed to have 85 players on scholarship at any given time; this number is firm, and the NCAA will not budge on it. Essentially, over-signing is the act of a school accepting more letters of intent in a single year than is allowed by the 85-player limit. For example, if a school has 67 returning scholarship players returning for the next year, but still accepts 25 LOI — which is legal under NCAA rules — they would have 89 players on the roster. Since the NCAA is so strict about the 85 number, the coach would have to find a way to trim his roster to 85.
This is where over-signing becomes ugly, which is why it should have no place in college sports.
While some scholarship players may leave the team due to natural attrition, most have no intention of leaving and are instead forced out. Some tactics for roster trimming include encouraging players to transfer, granting them medical hardships or simply failing to renew their scholarships. All three are allowed. None are ethical, especially when dealing with 18- to 22-year-old students, many of whom cannot afford to be in college without a scholarship.
It’s easy to find an example of a situation in which a player’s scholarship is not renewed. Last December ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” documented the story of Chris Garrett, then the third-string quarterback at Louisiana State University.
He had dreamt of playing in Baton Rouge as a child, and eventually his dreams came to fruition when he signed to play there during his senior year of high school. After redshirting for his freshman year, he was ready for a larger role. He played well during the Tiger’s annual spring game and was training hard during voluntary workouts over the summer. One day he got a call from Les Miles, the coach at LSU, saying that his scholarship had not been renewed. The next day he received a letter — dated 11 days before his call with Miles — stating that he would not be coming back the following year.
Garrett was stunned and promptly tried to set up a face-to-face meeting with Miles, only to find out that his coach was on vacation. Two weeks later, a nicely tanned Les Miles stood in front of a podium on Southeast Conference Media Day and stated, “Chris Garrett is a really talented quarterback and a good person, but just did not, for whatever reason, have the want to fight and compete at LSU.”
Talk about an outright lie. A week later, Miles asked incoming freshman Elliot Porter, who had already moved in to a dorm and started practicing with the team, to grayshirt.
Grayshirting is when a recruit defers scholarship benefits until the following calendar year rather than being part of the team when he signs. Usually this happens so a recruit can get his academic affairs in order, but this wasn’t the case for Porter. Instead of agreeing to come back a year later, Porter chose to go to the University of Kentucky, where the coaches, he said, actually wanted him.
These are just two examples of many instances of over-signing. The SEC is currently the most consistent abuser of this system. Teams like Auburn, Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State, Arkansas and South Carolina over-sign yearly. No wonder the last six national champions have come from the SEC; they cycle through about 20 more players every four years than other schools.
Alabama’s Head Coach Nick Saban summed up his position when asked about the ethics of over-signing: “It’s none of your business. Alright? And don’t give me this stuff about, ‘The fans need to know,’ because they don’t need to know.” Yes Nick, we would like transparency because you’re the coach at a public institution funded by the fans’ tax dollars.
The Big Ten has made strides in combating over-signing by allowing schools to sign only three more players than they have room for per year to account for natural attrition. This is a good first step, but it is not enough. Until the NCAA recognizes that these football players should be students first and athletes second, over-signing will plague big-time college athletics. Since it will take quite a while for this fundamental change to happen, we will have to relearn math to understand that the sum of 30, 29, 25 and 28 will always be 85.
Matt Emch is a sophomore in the College. Riding the Pine appears every Friday.