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Soapbox: Recruiting Wounds, Reopened

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Way on back when (like, February, ages in blog years), typically erudite Brian Cook put up a post under his AOL mugshot in which, drawing on Joe Tiller's jab at Rich Rodriguez, he called Nick Saban a "snake oil salesman" for signing a bulging incoming class that could never fit through NCAA-regulated doors. Inevitably, as is natural law when Big Ten types condescend to wag their fingers at the Dirty South, vitriol and minor pandemonium ensued. I got e-mails about the impending feud before I even read the first shots, and one phone call. Neither is typical. Tiders were trez pissed.

I had no designs on reforming scholarship regulations I don't really understand, so no way was I hopping into the line of fire then. (I imagine it like Woody Allen limping onto a battlefield, trying to get someone's attention: "Ahem, uh, excuse me, yes, uh, I was wondering, ah..." and ducking as a bullet leaves his empty cap spinning in the air.)  Amidst the rapid deluge of angry sentences in both camps, though, Brian wrote one that closed the door as far as I was concerned:

The issue is not 32 > 25. The issue is that 70 + 32 > 85.
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This is pretty clear: outside of the five to seven scholarships Alabama has to nix from this class to get under the NCAA-mandated 25 (which might reasonably be achieved by academic culling and grayshirting, which is also fairly sketchy but common enough), it has to axe at least another half dozen existing scholarships to fit the incoming class on top of the number it has coming back. This happens to a couple fifth-year seniors on every team who've never played, who have their degrees, and who are probably pretty reasonable about it; it gets a line in a "News and Notes" column, maybe. At two or three, `Bama partisans may be right: "That's life." At three or four times that number, though, as Brian pointed out, that's a troubling bit of administrative indifference.

Two months on, the Birmingham News looks at the post-spring roster, does a little math (for reporters, this is dangerous territory), and put the question to the boss his own self:

First: blogosphere runs circles around the MSM on a story lol yay bloggers.

Second, as I've said before, coaches these days are politicians - votes are fans in seats - and in contemporary terms, Saban is Dick Cheney: ruthless, short-tempered, secretive beyond all reasonable bounds, likely to shoot colleagues in the face. Throw in paranoid, and he might be closer to Nixon. Scholarship policy, like energy and security policies that cost thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of tax dollars to the Washington press corps, is precisely the Alabama beat writer's business. Why didn't he just say, "So?" Or walk away and ban the whole lot of them forever? You can do that, you know. The media has no special rights; anybody can make a public records request. People don't need to know anything. Liberal busybodies probably had it coming.

For anyone who agreed last month that Ray Ray McElrathbey's unceremonial dumping at Clemson represented college sports hypocrisy at its finest, there is a problem here. As expected, Bama's had some attrition since the number stood at 70 returning scholarships a couple months ago: B.J. Stabler left the team for injury-realted reasons and Jeremy Elder was booted for allegedly holding up a pair of students in February; there was also some confusion about Grambling transfer Tyrone King and the Bear Bryant Scholarship awarded to "legacy" students, which incredibly does not count against the NCAA's scholarship limit in King's specific case (every school should get such a racket going).

Still, Saban has to answer (well, obviously, he doesn't have to, but he should answer) for some spots. Comparing old Rivals signing lists to the spring roster, I count returning 63 scholarship players, not including suspended Prince Hall, whose status is technically in the air but who also has a chance to return on scholarship in the fall. Including Hall, but not including any transfers or walk-ons who have earned full rides (I find evidence of only one, transfer Colin Peek), the numbers break down like this:

2004 2005 2006 2007 TOTAL
Originally Signed* 29 28 21 25 103
On Spring Roster 10 18 17 19 64

* Some players who didn't meet initial requirements or who grayshirted are listed as signees under more than season; they're only counted here once.
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That's more generous than Ian Rapoport, writer under fire in the above video, who calculated 66 players on scholarship as of Monday. For Saban's sake, let's take the low number. Still, 64 + 25 > 85. In addition to the six or seven players in the incoming class who'll have to be whittled out, four returning players are over the line (six by Rapoport's count). And they won't be fifth-year seniors: nine of the ten guys still around from the 2004 class are all starters or multiple letter-winners (Antoine Caldwell, Brandon Fanney, Ezekiel Knight, Travis McCall, Will Oakley, Nikita Stover, Nick Walker, Lorenzo Washington, John Parker Wilson) whose departure would warrant much more than a shrug and a line at the bottom of the roundup. The only one who might go quietly is career scout-teamer Drew Davis.

So, with this year's incoming class, up to eleven players who have signed letters of intent to play football for Alabama will have that commitment at least temporarily deep-sixed, even if all 96-98 candidates meet their obligations. The incoming oversign is seven; if half of that number flunks out, or pulls a gun on somebody, or gets caught with a 15-year-old or something - say, four guys out of 32 - the Tide is still seven scholarships over the 85-man limit. Either existing commitments to returning players are cut, or the eligibility of a full third of the `08 class meets some untimely demise before August. The first option - breaking a commitment to an athlete who has met his requirements - is sketchy. The second option - collecting commitments from as many players as possible with the knowledge that a significant number of them have to fail before they even get to campus - is sketchy. Oversigning to this extent is not okay.

It's also not restricted to Alabama - my own precious alma mater and its new messiah of a coach, for example, signed 32 in February, a list already whittled down to 27. A beat writer should ask Larry Fedora where he plans to get those scholarships, and he should answer, even if the answer is, "Well we asked a couple guys to give up their spot, and that's life." The NCAA should ask, too, if it has any muscle left behind its bureaucratic bluster. Brian's laid out a sensible policy proposal on this front: players don't have the option to break their obligation to schools; make the obligation a two-way street. When a kid signs a letter of intent, the school should be bound to show where his scholarship is coming from under the limit. If it can't, at least within two or three positions, no letter. If they anticipate a veteran also-ran or likely medical liability on the team will be willing to give up his slot, make him sign a waiver saying so before that scholarship goes up for grabs.

Coaches can hide answers from reporters, but they have to be accountable to their own players, no matter who recruited them.

Update [2008-4-17 21:37:37 by SMQ]: To be fair, you can’t talk about what Alabama’s doing unless you compare it to what other schools are doing. A handful of teams oversign every year (usually a different handful), so there is something to the claim that "everybody does it." But while those teams might have to cut scholarships to get down to the required 25 this year, once that number is met, they’re not giving away existing scholarships. Everybody does not do that.

Below is a list of all the BCS conference teams that signed more than 25 kids to letters of intent in February. Alabama wasn’t the worst offender on that front, if taken in the context of this recruiting cycle alone. If you compare current rosters to old signing lists and add up the results, though, it’s pretty clear Nick Saban’s "plan" to get his numbers under par is on a different course than anyone else’s. Other coaches oversign with the idea that not everybody in the incoming class is going to cut it, and their excess is low enough that no existing scholarships are legitimately threatened. Alabama’s excess is so high, it has no choice but to drop some of its current commitments.

The following list doesn’t account for transfers or walk-ons who might have earned scholarships in the meantime, but the results are clear enough: the only coaches in the country likely to be required to cut existing scholarships even after the 2008 classes are chopped down to 25, are Saban, for sure, and maybe Tommy Bowden:

2008 Oversigners: Players on Current Rosters, By Recruiting Class
2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 Total Need to Lose After '08 Cut
Alabama 10 18 17 19 32 96 11 + 4
Miami 12 12 16 16 33 89 4 -3
Virginia Tech 6 18 12 21 31 88 3 -3
Clemson 12 12 15 22 26 87 2 + 1
Auburn 8 12 18 19 29 86 1 -3
Kansas State 7 9 16 22 32 86 1 -6
LSU 11 8 16 24 26 85 - -1
Florida State 9 13 20 13 30 85 - -5
Syracuse 10 10 17 21 26 84 - -2
Nebraska 7 11 13 25 28 84 - -4
W. Virginia 9 17 8 22 27 83 - -4
Miss. State 2 14 14 25 27 82 - -5
Boston Coll. 9 14 14 16 29 82 - -7
Ole Miss 9 8 16 18 31 82 - -9
Okla. State 3 11 20 20 27 81 - -6
Illinois 3 10 24 16 28 81 - -7
Washington 9 7 13 25 26 80 - -6
Purdue 9 11 14 18 26 78 - -8
Minnesota 8 10 9 20 30 77 - -13

Remember that, for the sake of consistency, I’m using the generous estimate for Alabama (the total now is probably 98 players, not 96, meaning Saban will have to cut six existing scholarships even with a 25-man class). Also note that the likelihood Bowden will actually to cut anyone (other than Ray Ray, of course, who’s not factored into Clemson’s current roster number) is much lower than for Saban, because Clemson didn’t oversign by nearly as much; if just two Tiger recruits fail to qualify – a good probability – Bowden doesn’t have to touch anyone’s ride. Again, by contrast, 11 to 13 Alabama signees would have to fail to qualify or otherwise fall by the wayside to save all of the Tide’s existing scholarships. If this happens, the investigation will be in swing before the afternoon half of the first two-a-day.