Dick Harmon: Oversigning recruits can get out of hand

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 6 2015 11:45 a.m. MDT

PROVO — The act of oversigning on national letter of intent day is a rite of passage in college football.

It’s a protective measure for coaches — a kind of insurance. For others, it tiptoes a moral line. With the local colleges, it is more of a statistical hedge that helps a program cope if a recruit with academic challenges fails to make it to fall practice.

At other schools, particularly in the SEC, there are complaints it is unethical and even a slimy dark side of major college football recruiting.

The NCAA’s national letter of intent signing date for the class of 2011 is Wednesday. This is the day fax machines in football offices across the country start spitting out paper with coveted signatures of prized recruits.

It isn’t unusual for BYU and Utah to sign one or two more players than the amount of scholarships each school has set aside. It’s a cushion. Their statistics tell them that if they are working with a prospect struggling to get admitted academically, there is a mathematical chance the kid won’t make it. Some of those kids end up getting stashed at a junior college and eventually make it on campus. Others never do make it to Division I.

Signing more recruits to run off existing players who are judged to be inferior is an ethical issue that really bothers some college observers, even if scholarships are renewable each year.

Some schools are running players off the team to make room for more talented recruits. Some are pressuring players to take medical exits from the team. They can remain in school with everything paid for, but it frees up a scholarship for a recruit.

Alabama players told the Wall Street Journal last September they were pressured to quit the team for medical reasons when they felt healthy enough to play. It is an issue also addressed by SI.com and ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” program.

A website has cropped up called Oversigning.com, which keeps a tally of how out of whack some schools are getting with signing more players than they have grants-in-aid to give.

It’s like an airline that sells more tickets than it has seats on a flight, then bumps passengers at the last second.

According to recruiting websites, Mississippi has 29 commitments and only 15 of its 85 scholarship players have departed from the program since the end of the season. Ole Miss is plus-14, and if it stands, the Rebels will oversign more than any football team in the country.

Alabama is plus-10, LSU is plus-9, Arkansas is plus-5 and Mississippi State is plus-5.

USC of the Pac-10 is plus-10 but has been docked 10 scholarships from its limit of 25 due to NCAA penalties. According to new Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow, USC is recruiting like it will eventually win an appeal for sanctions.

USC is recruiting for 25, going after guys like DB Ryan Henderson, who pledged to sign at Utah last summer. What if USC can only sign 15 and has been leading some recruits along? Is Henderson one of them? Maybe. Maybe not.

A new NCAA bylaw in play this week limits Football Bowl Subdivision schools to 28 signees between signing day and May 31. The rule unchanged in the bylaw is a NCAA stipulation that schools have only 85 total players on scholarship at a given time. But that rule doesn’t prevent oversigning. The SEC sponsored the rule and had its own conference rule in place in 2009.

National champion Auburn signed Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton in December of 2009 and had him in school in January, along with four other recruits. It didn’t fit in the February to May window. It was a year Auburn signed 32 and LSU signed 29.

The ugly part of oversigning is highlighted at LSU when Les Miles cut quarterback Chris Garrett after misjudging how many of his academically challenged signees would qualify. He had more recruits than scholarships and in the summer had to tell signees Elliott Porter and Cameron Fordham, guys who’d turned down scholarships at other places, that there was no room for them. Porter had already taken classes and had a dorm room.

Not good.

Oversigning per se isn’t a crime. Abusing it, like schools in the SEC apparently do all the time, is against neither the law nor the NCAA’s toothless and gutless rule.

But you get the picture.

In a sport that uses the talents of a lot of athletes for myriad things including million-dollar athletic budgets, ticket sales, promotions and such, it gets a little hairy when the NCAA restricts so many parts of the individual’s rights, but allows this indiscretion.

Locally, I believe Utah and BYU do oversign recruits some years but their operations don’t even come close to approaching the SEC and Big 12, who blatantly abuse the rule. The locals, including Utah State, might announce signings of recruits who will go on LDS missions immediately.

In fact the local guys keep it very close because they’ve greatly benefited from giving scholarships to deserving walk-ons. They like that ploy. At Utah, Christian Cox, Steve Tate and Casey Evans come to mind. At BYU, Scott Johnson, Ben Criddle and Andrew Rich fit in this category.

It may seem a little trivial as signing day approaches. But it is one more in a growing stack of jokes about the way the NCAA does things: Having rules without teeth.

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com

twitter: Harmonwrites

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