SEC coaches nix 25-man signing limit

Published 1:10 am Thursday, June 2, 2011

DESTIN, Fla. (AP) — The hottest topic at the Southeastern Conference’s annual meetings has nothing to do with national championships or NCAA violations.

It has to do with what league Commissioner Mike Slive calls “fundamental fairness” to recruits.

His coaches agree.

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Two years after the trendsetting conference limited its schools to signing 28 high school prospects, the league is considering dropping the number to 25. All 12 coaches voted against the proposal Wednesday, saying it could hinder their ability to fill rosters with talent.

“I’m very comfortable with where it is at right now,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “For us to turn around a year later and want to change again. … I have my doubts about us having given it enough time to figure out if it’s broke or not. I’m comfortable with where it’s at.”

Oversigning has become a controversial issue in the SEC. Critics say it has led schools to “grayshirt” some prospects, making them delay their enrollment until January because there is no room on the roster. University of Florida President Bernie Machen called the tactic “morally reprehensible.”

Slive has taken a softer tone, saying he wants a more equitable relationship for both schools and recruits.

“We’ll make some changes,” he said.

The proposed legislation could be passed later this week.

“When you read what the commissioner has said, there probably will be a change,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “The people that criticize oversigning, I’m not sure they understand why you do it and what it’s all about and how you manage your roster and how you get to (the scholarship limit of) 85.”

Even though Petrino expects the proposal to pass, he doesn’t believe it will be totally welcomed.

“I don’t know if there will be acceptance to it,” Petrino said. “It’s all how you manage your roster. I’ve always been one that oversigns, knowing that out of these six guys, three of them are going to get eligible and three are going to a junior college and then have a chance to come play for us.

“It almost always plays out right. Most of the time, it’s a situation where, prior to school in the fall, I’ve been able to put one or two walk-ons on scholarship.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban blamed the media for the proposed change, hinting that reporters gave too much attention to two LSU recruits who were denied admission last fall. Offensive lineman Elliott Porter transferred to Kentucky, but is now back in Baton Rouge as a walk-on.

“What’s your problem with 28?” Saban said in a testy interview session Wednesday. “Y’all are creating a bad problem for everybody because you’re going to mess up the kids getting opportunities by doing what you’re doing. You think you’re helping them, but you’re really going to hurt them.

“You took one case where somebody didn’t get the right opportunity, but you need to take the other hundred cases that somebody got an opportunity because of it to be fair.”

Miles defended the oversigning process, saying they help combat typical attrition stemming from last-minute defections, ineligible players, health issues, academic casualties and behavior problems.

“All these things have to be managed with some variances, some ability for the coach to fit guys into spots and timeframes,” Miles said. “I have a difficult time defending the immorality of you’re going to be able to go to school for free, you’re just going to have to wait three months to do it.

“I have four children. Give me a grayshirt for any of the four, I’ll take it right now and be the happiest guy going.”

Mississippi coach Houston Nutt has been oversigning classes for years, even when he was at Arkansas. He signed 37 recruits at Ole Miss in 2009, a move that raised eyebrows around the conference and the country.

He said the proposal would make coaches less likely to take chances on prospects who have borderline grades and test scores and may not gain entrance to a university.

“I have a soft spot in my heart when a (high school) coach says, ’All he needs is you. He’s had a few problems, but all he needs is you,”’ Nutt said. “We’ve had success stories that way. But we’re going to have fewer of those.

“If you say 25 … you can’t make mistakes.”

Nutt insisted he’s never actually been over the class limit by the time school started in the fall, pointing out that some attrition happens every year.

Others, though, have ended up over the 85 total scholarship limit and have turned to grayshirting to solve the problem.

Georgia coach Mark Richt believes the practice is acceptable as long as prospects their parents know the possibility exists when they sign in February.

“Let’s say you have space for 15 and you sign 20,” Richt said. “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.

“If a kid thinks he’s coming in with his class and you spring a surprise on him, I don’t think that’s right. Historically, though, there is enough attrition to make room for any oversigning.”

Richt and his colleagues debated the proposal in Destin on Wednesday, along with Slive. But it’s unclear whether anything will change the commissioner’s mind or the vote by school presidents.

“The first amendment is alive and well,” Slive said. “There’s nothing about the SEC that’s not spirited.”