Student Well-Being

SEC Addresses Oversigning High School Athletes for Scholarships

By Bryan Toporek — June 01, 2011 5 min read
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During the SEC’s annual meetings, which began Tuesday, conference officials are addressing the processes of oversigning and “grayshirting,” where football coaches offer more scholarships to student-athletes than the team has available.

If coaches oversign and end up short on scholarships, they’ll often ask some of their newly signed recruits to “grayshirt,” or pay their own way through the fall semester with the promise of a scholarship that next January.

Those recent high school grads who don’t wish to grayshirt can request a release from their school. Granted, once a student-athlete signs a national letter of intent with an institution, he must attend that institution for a full academic year; otherwise, he forfeits a full year of intercollegiate athletic eligibility. (So, any incoming freshman who wishes to transfer instead of grayshirting would be forced to sit out of competition for a full academic year at his new school.)

The NCAA limits each football team to 85 total scholarships at one time and prohibits teams from adding more than 25 new players on scholarship in a given academic year. A quick computation of those numbers should make you realize that teams can’t offer the maximum number of scholarships for four straight academic years, lest they run short 15 scholarships.

That hasn’t stopped college coaches from sometimes offering more than 25 scholarships in a given class—sometimes far more, like when Ole Miss signed 37 new players in 2009. Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt insists that despite oversigning, he’s never been over the class limit once the school year starts, largely thanks to natural attrition (injuries, academic disqualifications, transfers, and student-athletes leaving early for the NFL).

Elliott Porter, an LSU recruit, found himself in that unenviable position in 2010, despite moving to campus and beginning summer school classes. After receiving a release and redshirting with Kentucky for a year, Porter is back at LSU as a walk-on for the football team. He can’t receive a scholarship until having played two years as a walk-on, LSU senior associate athletic director for compliance Bo Bahnsen told The Times Picayune.

Grayshirts essentially give coaches insurance against injuries and academic or behavioral issues for any of their new scholarship players. The grayshirted players count toward the next year’s scholarship limit, which helps the over-recruiting coaches get out of a jam, at least temporarily.

Back in 2009, the SEC established a new rule that barred schools from signing more than 28 players in a given class; however, players who enrolled early in January or late in June didn’t count against the 28. (South Carolina and Arkansas, both SEC schools, signed 32 and 30 players, respectively, for the 2011 season using that loophole.) The NCAA adopted the same 28-player signing rule earlier this year.

Now, the SEC is considering dropping that 28-scholarship limit down to 25, according to the Associated Press. To avoid repeat cases like Porter’s at LSU, the new rule would also count football signees who attend summer school classes on athletic aid against a team’s scholarship numbers for that next academic year, according to the Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald. The new 25-scholarship restriction would cover those who sign from Dec. 1 to Aug. 1, which would eliminate the loophole allowing schools to exceed the scholarship limits by signing student-athletes before February or after May.

There’s some support for the proposal from high-ranking officials at SEC schools. University of Florida President J. Bernard Machen wrote a letter to Sports Illustrated in early February in which he called the practice of grayshirting “morally reprehensible.” University of Georgia head coach Mark Richt called oversigning “an awful thing to do” earlier this year as well.

But according to an unofficial ESPN survey of the SEC’s 12 head coaches, there’s a roughly 8-4 breakdown in favor of keeping the oversigning rules largely as they are now. Among the SEC coaches in favor of current oversigning rules: Alabama’s Nick Saban (who spoke at length about it during a press conference in February), Ole Miss’ Houston Nutt, Auburn’s Gene Chizik (winner of the most recent BCS championship), and Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino. The SEC university presidents will have final say on whether the new oversigning proposal lives or dies.

Some coach will almost assuredly point out this week that while these rules may be morally sketchy, the SEC has brought home the past five BCS championships in football. Coincidence or not, how do you persuade a majority of coaches to change rules that have led to recent conference-wide success?

While SEC commissioner Mike Slive told the (Mobile, Ala.) Press Register that the conference hadn’t found any oversigning model that they hoped to adopt, one can only assume the Big Ten’s current oversigning policies will arise during the SEC meetings. The Big Ten allows its coaches to oversign only three over the 85-man limit—meaning that if a school has 15 open scholarship spots, it can sign no more than 18 new players. If a Big Ten school does oversign, it must document what happens to every player who left the program without graduating, to show exactly how the team got under the 85-scholarship limit.

Along with the Big Ten’s model, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples provided two other suggestions to the ongoing oversigning problem:

• If a school doesn’t follow through on its promise to deliver a scholarship after a student-athlete signs a national letter of intent, the school should be banned from the national letter of intent program the next year; and

• Revoke scholarships from a team based on the degree of oversigning. A coach can fall through on one scholarship for a student-athlete; after that, the program loses five scholarships for a year for every further instance.

Or, as’s Tony Barnhart recommended earlier this month, coaches could just stop oversigning altogether.

Richt, the UGA coach, offered his own suggestion: Be upfront with any recruit who may face a grayshirt.

“Let’s say you have space for 15 and you sign 20,” Richt said earlier this year. “If those five guys know that if there’s no room in the inn that they’re going to grayshirt ... and the family knows and the high school coach knows, then I don’t see anything wrong with it.

Richt says that he’s never surprised a player with a grayshirt, but he has discussed the possibility of grayshirting with recruits in the past.

Given that the NCAA adopted the SEC’s 28-scholarship limit less than two years after it passed, it’s worth watching the SEC meetings this week to see what comes of the new oversigning debate. The new legislation could be passed as early as this week, according to the AP.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.