- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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One way or the other, the hot-button oversigning issue in the SEC will come to a head next week at the league's spring meetings in Destin, Fla.
It's a fight that could be every bit as passionate and intense as what we see on the football field every Saturday afternoon in the fall.
Some in the league have been outspoken against the practice, which was lambasted earlier this year by Florida president Bernie Machen, who called it "morally reprehensible."
Top officials at Georgia, including university president Michael Adams and athletic director Greg McGarity, have also been outspoken that something needs to be done about schools that perennially sign more players than they have scholarships for under the NCAA limit of 85, and then weed out other existing players to make room.
Grayshirting, the practice by which players committed in a class delay enrollment until January and then count against that next year's class, has also come under fire.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive has said he expects some form of legislation to be adopted next week that would put more teeth into how schools are allowed to manage scholarship numbers. In 2009, the SEC mandated that schools could sign no more than 28 players in each class, but players who enrolled early in January or waited until June to sign didn't count against that number.
That's how South Carolina was able to sign 32 players in the 2011 class; Arkansas signed 30.
The critics against oversigning have been loud, but the coaches who are for it in the SEC aren't going to go quietly.
They say the key is proper communication with the recruits and their families.
"The innuendo out there is that all these things are being manipulated in a negative way," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "But nobody has ever really brought to the forefront the positives by doing it the right way. People hang onto all the situations that aren't done the right way and act like in every situation that somebody is getting screwed in some sort of way, and that's just not the case."
Saban is hardly alone.
In an unofficial survey of the SEC's 12 head coaches, it sounds like it's about 8-4 in favor of not drastically changing the rules. In addition to Saban, Ole Miss' Houston Nutt is in that camp, along with South Carolina's Steve Spurrier and Tennessee's Derek Dooley.
Georgia coach Mark Richt is in the opposite camp. He said that it was an "awful thing to do" to bring in players to participate in the summer strength program and then ask some to leave or wait until January to sign based on which ones performed the best.
He didn't stop there, either.
"These other coaches have been oversigning, trying to make sure they never come up short of that 85 number," Richt said earlier this month at a Georgia booster club speaking engagement in Greenville, S.C. "But in doing so, have they done it in an ethical way?
"I'd say the answer is probably not."
Nonetheless, those coaches in favor of oversigning insist that it's a necessary tool for them as they try to manage scholarship numbers and prepare for the unexpected, such as players not making it academically, players getting injured and players being dismissed for off-the-field issues.
It's also different recruiting in a lot of the SEC states than it is in other parts of the country in that coaches are dealing with a larger pool of at-risk students academically.
Granted, it's not politically correct to say that, and coaches are hesitant to say it publicly. But just about all of them deal with it in the SEC, and often it's a guessing game down to the last minute about whether a handful of players in each class are going to qualify academically.
"It's a tough juggling act, and it gets tougher every year," Nutt said. "Before they do anything, I just wished they would look into exactly what we go through every year."
How it all shakes out -- and how all the athletic directors and presidents vote next week -- remains to be seen. But this much is certain: It's been communicated rather pointedly to Slive by several of the coaches that if he wants the SEC to continue winning national championships and likes trumpeting the fact that the league has won five in a row, then he'll see to it that the rules concerning oversigning and grayshirting aren't completely overhauled.
As long as people are not being unfair to the players in terms of how they manage what they do, I don't see what's wrong with oversigning and grayshirting some kids who're on board with it.
--Alabama coach Nick Saban
"I think one of the best things we do in the SEC is manage scholarship numbers," Dooley said.
Saban understands unequivocally that he's been the poster boy for everything that's wrong with oversigning, and he's equally aware that he's been accused of running off players.
His response: The people who count are privy to what goes on in his program, and there are never any surprises with the players or their families during the recruiting process.
"As long as people are not being unfair to the players in terms of how they manage what they do, I don't see what's wrong with oversigning and grayshirting some kids who're on board with it," Saban said. "We have a rule for that. We have 25 initials and 85 total. Well, 25 initials every year doesn't add up to 85. So even when the NCAA made the rule for scholarships, they understood there is attrition in football that as coaches you don't totally control."
Nutt signed 37 players during the 2009 class, which precipitated the SEC capping the number of players a school could sign each year at 28. Nutt points out that he knew several of the players in that particular class would be placed in junior college. And like Saban, he said it's critical to have some different options to make the numbers work when you're dealing with so many unknowns.
"It goes back to not having any surprises and being up front with the kids," Nutt said. "When you have that kind of communication and the parents and kids agree with it, it's good for everybody. It's also good to bring some of these kids in during the summer. Some people say there are tryouts going on, but that's not true. The kids know up front what's going on."
Saban, who coached in the Big Ten at Michigan State, said it would be a huge mistake to go to a hard cap similar to what the Big Ten uses. The Big Ten schools are required to establish a budget number for how many scholarship offers they can give and can't go more than three over what they have room for under the 85 limit.
"In my opinion, it would really affect the quality in our league," Saban said. "You can't know the attrition from signing day until August, which guys who're going to be fifth-year seniors that decide they don't want to come back and play football. Well, you can't count those guys. You're going to have to tell those guys they're going to have to decide in January.
"We don't have academic issues here at Alabama. I don't think we've had a guy that needed to go to summer school to get eligible for two years, but some schools lose guys academically. We haven't had that issue here. But at Michigan State, we lost eight guys one summer. Now, how do you overcome that?"
Saban is also quick to defend the charge that he pressures players into taking medical redshirts or dismisses players who aren't contributing on the field in order to open up more scholarship room each year.
"First of all, I've never gotten rid of a player who didn't create his own circumstances for why he had to leave the program, whether it was academic, whether it was behavior, whether it was drug-related, whatever," Saban said. "Really, I've always given guys more rope than they deserve, and I think the innuendo out there is that I'm just picking and choosing which guys to run off, and people bring it up that I've medical-ed more people. Well, yeah, I medical them so they can stay in school and graduate, where other people just get rid of them. I don't make those decisions, either. The doctors make them, and we have great doctors."
Saban said what's lost in this whole debate is that the players have a responsibility and an obligation, too.
"If I have behavioral situations or kids not doing what they're supposed to be doing in school, I make them sign a letter that says, 'If you don't do these things, then you're done,'" Saban said. "If they won't go to school or are having positive drug tests, that's not going to be tolerated and is against the policies of this university.
"Plus, when you have guys like that around, they screw up other guys that are good guys."
Chris Low covers college football for ESPN.com. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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