One week after leading Alabama to its second BCS title in three seasons, Nick Saban reaffirmed that his commitment to winning isn’t necessarily rooted in a commitment to doing things the right way.
Saban informed Justin Taylor, a North Atlanta High School running back, that he was yanking his scholarship offer from 11 months ago. Eleven months ago. Never mind that Taylor was the seventh oral commitment for Alabama’s 2012 class. Nor that he was a good kid, a terrific player and hadn’t once screamed, “War Eagle!” This is the ugly side of college football that coaches hide between the disingenuous, “Don’t worry, momma, I’ll take care of your boy,” speeches.
The substance of a coach’s word morphs from oak to oatmeal when he finds a faster, stronger player.
This is a form of “oversigning” (or in this case overcommitting) in recruiting, a reprehensible practice we’ve banged on several times before. A coach will accept more commitments than he actually has scholarships to give out. His objective: To fix the scholarship numbers by coercing perceived underachieving athletes to transfer or accept medical hardships, thereby creating space to bring in better players. It’s the quickest route for a coach to lessen his own mistakes or shortcomings.
Forget that whole concept of commitment, four-year scholarships and the mission of college athletics. That went out with 8-millimeter film.
Saban and LSU’s Les Miles are two of the biggest abusers of oversigning. Saban and Les Miles also just faced each other for the BCS title. That’s not a coincidence, coaching talents notwithstanding.
With increasing attention being paid to this topic in the past two years, the NCAA and SEC (where some of the biggest abusers thrive) have attempted to curb the problem by lowering scholarship limits. But that isn’t nearly enough. Lowering the cap doesn’t prevent coaches from bending ethical borders to reach that cap. Case in point: Justin Taylor.
Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich believes, “For the vast majority of coaches, this is not an issue. Ninety percent of coaches abide by the rules and do things the right way.”
I agree. The problem is that the other 10 percent generally are the ones competing for championships.
The NCAA last week announced tougher sanctions against repeated rules-breakers (good), but it did little to close the loopholes on the oversigning issue. Here are a few things that would help:
• 1.) A coach can’t sign more players than he has slots available. If a committed player then fails to qualify academically, gets arrested or the like, that’s on the coach. Go sign somebody else. Every coach would be on equal ground.
• 2.) Scholarships are guaranteed for four or five years. Currently, it’s a series of one-year renewables.
• 3.) Football should have an early signing period, like basketball. If Taylor had signed his national letter of intent in February, it would be a binding agreement. Neither he nor Saban could pull a U-turn.
• 4.) The NCAA should form an impartial panel to oversee any athlete-coach disputes where there’s even the remote possibility of a player being coerced into leaving or becoming a medical hardship. Currently, disputes are settled by committees on the individual campuses.
Seriously, is there a panel in Tuscaloosa that’s going to side against Saban or in Baton Rouge that would go against Miles?
Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, among those who has spoken out against oversigning, said: “I think if there were a body that was not a part of the institution, certainly there would be a more consistent ruling or outcome there.”
He said “there are pros and cons” to an early signing period, but that it also might help, noting it works in basketball, volleyball and soccer.
Of course, football coaches are against early signing. They like having the flexibility to renege on commitments and playing with numbers. They’re going to be against any rule that adds clarity to an issue and eliminates the gray, eliminates their ability to manipulate a situation and get an edge.
As McGarity said, “If a coach makes a mistake in recruiting, that’s not the student-athlete’s fault.”
If college coaches want that freedom, let’s call this what it is: pro sports. Sign players, cut them, trade them — and pay them. But if we’re trying to maintain some illusion that this is still amateur athletics, some safeguards are needed because coaches aren’t going to police themselves.
Previous columns on oversigning
By Jeff Schultz