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Mile High Sports

Knudson: SEC football teams have a built-in edge

Next Monday night, if things go as the oddsmakers think they will, Alabama head coach Nick Saban will win his fourth college football national championship when his Crimson Tide beat Notre Dame. And there will be much rejoicing… at least in Alabama.

The four-letter network and others will jump to anoint Saban as the “Greatest This” and the “Greatest That,” and he will forever wear the label of iconic college football coach. The praise will stop just short of sainthood. Yet all those accolades should come with an attachment.

ALL of Saban’s success as a college football coach has come as a head coach in the Southeastern Conference, where he has gladly exploited a loophole in NCAA rules that allows him – and all other SEC schools – to “over-sign” the number of high school prospects they land on Letter of Intent Day. In other words, they get to sign more prospects than spots they have available.

This allows schools to circumvent the NCAA rule of 25-scholarships per year and 85 scholarships total. All they have to do is get down to the 85 limit by the start of fall camp in August and everything is fine. If you’ve signed 12 more newbies in February than spots you had available, then you simply cut your weakest 12 players over the summer to get back down to the limit. Easy.

Other conferences do not go for over-signing. They closed the loophole themselves, and exceptions have to be validated and approved by the conference. While some schools in other conferences have signed a few more players than spots available, they do so under tight guidelines knowing that those spots will come open due to players leaving on their own.

Many schools – including most of the members of the Big Ten – are now offering four-year scholarships in an effort to curb and/or eliminate over-signing. The Big Ten is the leading advocate to make this practice mandatory and is pressing the NCAA to do the same. Even though SEC commissioner Mike Slive is FOR the four-year scholarship rule, SEC football coaches do not want it. They want scholarships for student-athletes to continue to be a year-by-year deal, “so they have to continue to earn their spot.” It’s sort of like a multi-year NFL contract that is guaranteed for the team, but not for the player.

College football is nothing but a business after all.

Saban was among the coaches to loudly criticize the idea of the four-year scholarship and Alabama tried to have them made illegal. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is also in favor of this continued exploitation of student-athletes (so he can continue to cut his weakest players every summer.) Spurrier lambasted the very notion of multi-year scholarship (even though he loves his own multi-year contract) and criticized the Big Ten for not allowing over-signing.

“I think that really hurts them a lot,” he told the media. “They end up giving scholarships to a lot of walk-ons.” Which is, of course, terrible for business.

Former South Carolina wide receiver Bryce Sherman was a victim of Spurrier “over-signing.” He was cut from the Gamecocks squad in July of 2011 after having started much of the previous season.

“They said they got better players over the last year,” Sherman told the Gainesville Times. “Everybody they recruited committed. It is what it is. It’s a business. I don’t think it’s fair, but it’s not my call.”

Justin Fielkow of the Tulane Law School Sports Law program disagrees. “Such an attitude fails to take into account the persistent exploitation of young men who are dependent on coaches and universities keeping their promises amidst a flawed system,” Fielkow blogged. “Where players are deemed to have no further value to an institution and punished through the revocation of their financial scholarship, the line between college and professional football becomes blurred to the point where universities forget that they are first and foremost academic institutions shaping the minds of young individuals, regardless of the amount of money that is poured into their football programs.”

According to the web site www.oversigning.com, SEC schools combined to sign 52 more players on LOI day than they had scholarships available in 2011. That means 52 current players had to be released and/or have their scholarships revoked during the summer, and it also means 52 prospects that should have signed with other schools. Saban and Alabama signed 11 more players to LOIs than they had scholarships available that year, meaning that sometime between mid-February and the end of July, 11 ‘Bama players (the 11 weakest players on the roster) lost their scholarships for one reason or another.

Do you need another reason that the Tide just keeps rolling?

The same Nick Saban who is about to start being mentioned among the greatest of all-time was not so great as the head coach at Michigan State in the Big Ten, where he went a modest 40-24-1 during five seasons from 1995-99 before bolting for LSU. Then, after a successful stint in Baton Rouge, the nomadic coach left to coach the Miami Dolphins for two seasons, where he went 15-17 and was widely considered to be a bust. Then, it was back to the SEC and the built-in advantage, and presto! Saban wins big again. Hmmm.

Yes, the SEC is the dominant conference in college football. Over-signing is the reason why. Take away this huge advantage, and the SEC schools would be forced to deal with the same rules and level of parity as everyone else, and Nick Saban would not have four national championships.

Is it going to change any time soon? Unless the NCAA makes the four-year scholarship mandatory, it doesn’t appear that way. The only team to beat Alabama this season was Texas A&M – a newly minted SEC member. The Aggies have already caught on: “What 25 per year scholarship limit?” A&M currently has 34 players listed as “commitments” for the 2013 signing class. That should make the bottom nine players on the Aggies depth chart pretty nervous this summer – and A&M a national title contender next fall.

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