The Week that Was
By Tony Gerdeman
Everything below this sentence is none of your business. And really, I don't even know how much there is. I do know, however, that some of it will have to be edited out. But what does get edited out will be edited out because it has set its own path for being edited out.
Signing Day was on Wednesday, and for the first time ever, that means that multiple coaches around the country were asked about oversigning. We should probably mark it in the calendar and celebrate it in the future.
As you would imagine, some of those answers were different than others.
Alabama's Nick Saban: “But we have so many seniors. We have some guys (three juniors) going out for the draft. Nobody really knows for sure how many guys we had on scholarship last year, but we didn't have 85. I can tell you that.”
So then why doesn't he just come out and tell everybody how many guys were on scholarship last year? He dangled the carrot, and apparently nobody in the room asked WHY nobody knows for sure how many guys were on scholarship last year. Or nobody even asked HOW MANY? I thought Alabama was a public institution? I would think the state, and the people in it, would have a right to know how many football players were on scholarship last season. Sure, the powers that be know, but why does Saban feel the need to hide it from outsiders? Should it really take a Freedom of Information Act request to find out how many scholarships Saban has to give every year?
In stark contrast, every year when the opportunity arises for Ohio State's Jim Tressel to award a few walk-on seniors with scholarships, the university sends out a press release detailing that fact. Scholarships are things to be lauded, not hidden.
Now contrast Saban's comments with Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald on Wednesday: "We have 85 scholarships, we had 17 to give, and we’re at 85 right now."
And that's from the coach of a private institution.
The number of scholarships to give is NOT a dirty little secret unless it doesn't mesh with the number actually given. The ONLY reason for hiding the number of players currently on scholarship is simply because you want to, and the reason you want to is because you need as much gray area as possible to work in. Which is sad.
I wonder if the SEC media wanted to, could they simply ask the SEC offices how many Alabama players are on scholarship? That seems like something the conference should be more than happy to answer. But then, maybe they don't know either. Or maybe they don't want to know.
The Big Ten, on the other hand, demands to know. The conference allows oversigning by three, but when a school oversigns, they basically have to explain to a committee where the three extra scholarships are coming from. It's something that was done at times in the past, but really isn't done anymore. The transparency of the situation as a whole could be one of the reasons why it has nearly died, but the larger reason is simply that Big Ten schools have had to sharpen their focus and actually target kids that they believe will be around for four or five years.
But don't take it from me, take it from Wisconsin's Bret Bielema: “The topic of over-signing is a big deal and in my first couple years we always used to oversign by three but now we are not oversigned at all for a reason. We just don’t lose as many kids as we used to. We are more spot-on with what we are looking for. It’s a credit to our staff that we always say we are looking for a Wisconsin-type kid no matter where we are.”
Maybe Saban just needs new glasses? Of course, when your conference doesn't require you to be sharp, why would you do it on your own?
But then maybe I'm being too harsh. After all, maybe Saban is right when he says, "Any player that has left this program prematurely has created his own exit route. He's created his own conditions for leaving, if that makes any sense, whether they're academic in terms of not doing what he needs to do academically, whether there's some violation in terms of team rule or policy, whatever it is. Some of these things we're not allowed to comment on.”
It's just fortunate that that number of players who “create their own conditions for leaving” always matches exactly with the number of scholarships needed to free up for the incoming class. Or at least it would if we were to ever know the actual number of Alabama players on scholarship. Props to gray areas, I guess.
Clearly, an improved focus on players that fit into Alabama's atmosphere would eliminate many of Saban's problems with attrition, because not everybody has such problems.
Wisconsin assistant coach Charlie Partridge talks about Bielema's approach in this regard, “Coach has really embraced what Wisconsin is all about and so have we as assistants. We target our kind of kids earlier and that is leading to better classes. We are not bouncing back and forth; we don’t have a lot of de-commitments. We don’t have to go to plan C. We are more targeted and more on-point for what we want.”
Wisconsin assistant Joe Rudolph echoes those same sentiments: “People have a good picture of what Wisconsin stands for. We want to express the values that make up our program. Coaches and prospects are excited that that vision can still bring a lot of success. You want to be in a place that stands for those values...”
So maybe along with focus, Saban could add some values, that way they're not missing so badly on all of these players who keep finding their own path out of Alabama. After all, if they're good enough to offer, they should be good enough that you'd want to keep them, right?
Jim Tressel is fortunate in that way as well. As he told reporters on Wednesday, “The thing I think you have to credit our staff with, and our academic support services with, is that we don't have a whole bunch of high attrition. And so when we bring 20 guys, there may be a guy or two not be with that group as they finish, but we don't have huge attrition. So if you don't have huge attrition, you're not gonna have—you know 4 x 30 is 120—so we're not gonna have that type of thing.”
So, Coach Saban, maybe some better academic support would help eliminate so much attrition—assuming you actually want to eliminate it, of course. But be careful, if you improve it too much, there won't hardly be any attrition at all!
Though Alabama and Nick Saban aren't the only masters of oversigning, they are the poster boys for it. Alabama fans may not like it, but that's their coach's fault, not anybody else's. While he came out with both guns blazing against oversigning in the linked article above—or FOR oversigning, rather, every bullet misses the mark. Unfortunately for Alabama, the rest of the nation is taking note.
Iowa's Kirk Ferentz was asked about oversigning, and you can see on which side of the fence he falls: “I’m glad we’re a Big Ten member institution. That’s one thing we encourage a lot of parents to do, go back and look at the numbers that schools sign if they are considering a school. I do think its telling. The math is fairly obvious. To me it indicates a little different set of priorities. I better stop at that.”
A different set of priorities, indeed. And amazingly, it's Saban who thinks the Big Ten is crazy.
Minnesota's Jerry Kill has been in the Big Ten for about two months now, and he already knows the value of focused recruiting and valuing scholarships. The Gophers could be tremendously helped by oversigning and encouraged attrition, but as he stated on Wednesday, that's not how he's going to operate: “You can live with the recruiting mistake for 365 days, or you can play against them one time. So we’re going to be very careful just going out there and taking somebody to take somebody. We’ll make sure they fit at the University of Minnesota.”
The Big Ten schools need to make sure the players fit because they have to. For Saban and the SEC, that's not really a priority. But that doesn't mean certain members of the SEC approve of the norm. Georgia's Mark Richt spoke out this week on the way some in his conference throw around scholarship offers: “One of the hardest things for us to do is to evaluate and nail down who you’re going to go after, especially in our own state. A lot of the out of state teams will just come in and just offer like mad. They’ll come in and just offer like candy. Quite frankly I’m not going to name names of schools, but a lot of them will do that just to get in the fight and if the kid commits too soon and they’re not sure they want them, they’ll just tell them that’s not a committable offer. Whatever the heck that means? If we offer a kid in our state and he says he’s coming, we want to take him, OK? Sometimes we’re a little bit slower to offer maybe than some out of state schools. Sometimes that might hurt a kid’s feelings. That’s not our intention. Our intention is to have integrity when we offer a kid and be able to follow through.”
Richt's words combined with Florida president Bernie Machen coming out this week and speaking against oversigning and grayshirting mean that it's not just the Big Ten who is bothered by this practice. Unfortunately for those practitioners, it's going to be the pressure from inside the conference that brings about change, and the pressure is building.
And here's a nice closing thought from Pat Fitzgerald on the kids he recruits that I bet never enters the mind of Nick Saban: “They value what we value. And when we make a commitment, they make a commitment back to us. With a 100 percent graduation rate and one of the highest retention rates in the country, these kids are not only NCAA-qualified but Northwestern-qualified. These kids fit the values of our program and are expected to graduate within four years here at Northwestern.”
Let's never forget that regardless of the millions of dollars being tossed around, we're still talking about academic institutions. That still needs to matter along the way.
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