As LSU football fights scholarships limitations and SEC legislation, the NCAA’s newest battle – ‘oversigning’ – polarizes college footbal
By Cody WorshamPosted Jul 13, 2011
Elliott Porter is used to delivering blindside hits – not taking them.
As a defensive lineman at Archbishop Shaw High School in Marrero, La., Porter tallied 85 tackles and 11 sacks as a junior – numbers good enough to earn him a scholarship offer to play football at LSU.
But just as he had unpacked his things in his campus dorm last summer in preparation for fall camp, Porter was on the receiving end of a blindside blitz from an unexpected rusher: Les Miles.
“I had no idea it was coming,” Porter said to sports website, www.Rivals.com, of an August 2010 meeting with Miles.
During that meeting, Miles informed Porter the scholarship Miles had promised him was no longer available. What neither party realized was that now Porter, who had already posed for his LSU portrait, had become the unfortunate poster child of college football’s most recent great dilemma: oversigning.
The gray debate
The NCAA allots 85 athletic scholarships per season to Division I football programs, with 25 available to incoming recruits. But, in 2010, LSU “oversigned” by inking 27 players to national letters of intent.
A common practice among SEC schools, oversigning is the process by which college football programs offer more scholarships than are available. It’s both an insurance policy against natural attrition – like injury or academic ineligibility – and a meritocratic measure of obtaining top talent that, until last month, was perfectly legal.
So when the entire 2010 class unexpectedly qualified, Miles had to select two recruits for the chopping block. Since he couldn’t give Porter the chance to wear the purple and gold, Miles offered him and fellow freshman Cameron Fordham a different shade of shirt: gray.
“Grayshirting” is a phenomenon in which a recruit delays full-time enrollment from the fall semester to spring in order to count his scholarship against the next recruiting class. In the case of Porter and Cameron, it would allow both players to fulfill their dream of playing LSU football, albeit one semester later.
Both players rejected the offer. Fordham altruistically offered to walk-on sans scholarship, and Porter headed for more appreciative pastures, signing with SEC rival Kentucky for the 2010 season.
“I want to be somewhere that I am wanted,” Porter said immediately after the transfer. “What happened wasn’t fair. But it’s how things go. It’s a business. I fully understand that now.”
Joshua speaks; the SEC listens
Unfortunately for Coach Miles, the media were not quite so understanding as Porter.
One website dedicated to recruiting reform, www.Oversigning.com, used the Porter saga as a platform for discussion of oversigning’s downfalls previously un-criticized in the mainstream media.
“Oversigning is a violation of the spirit of the recruiting bylaws,” the site’s anonymous editor, known only by his eponym, Joshua, told Dig in an email. “It puts undue stress on the roster, and the advantage being gained by schools that exploit the loopholes diminishes the sport.”
In addition to the grayshirt, these loopholes include the medical hardship – a poorly regulated policy that allows programs to pay for a reportedly injured player’s education without having him count against the scholarship total – and the back-count, a sort of anti-grayshirt in which non-qualifiers from a class can attend prep school or junior college in the fall, qualify there, and then enroll with the team as part of the recruiting class they did not qualify for, freeing up room for the next year’s class. Coaches have been known to use all of these methods liberally in order to stock their rosters with the choicest selections.
Joshua found little surprising about the Miles-Porter fiasco, geographically speaking.
“Oversigning is largely an SEC problem,” he said.
It’s no wonder, then, that in the wake of Porter’s transfer, SEC commissioner Mike Slive took regulatory action.
At last month’s SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Slive passed a proposal targeted at curbing the practice in the conference, which: 1) enhances conference oversight for medical hardships; 2) cuts the cap for incoming signees to 25; 3) counts summer-school attendees (like Porter) toward that fall’s scholarship numbers, eliminating the last-second grayshirt; and 4) prohibits post-graduate transfers.
“The goal is to make sure we can balance equity between the student-athletes, prospective student-athletes and the institution,” Slive said. “I believe the coaches still have the flexibility to do all of the things they need to do.”
Unfortunately for Slive, neither critic nor coach was pleased.
Joshua called Slive’s bill nothing more than “a nicely packaged PR move.”
“At the end of the day, it is just more window dressing,” he said.
Joshua advocates a cap-free system in which schools may only sign as many players as they have openings. His formula: take the total number of allotted scholarships and subtract the number of departing scholarship players, which must be determined by National Signing Day. Whatever that difference is, be it five or thirty-five, is how many players a school should sign in a recruiting class.
The new SEC rules, he says, still permit oversigning.
“If a school has 16 legitimate openings, they can still go over by nine because they are allowed to sign 25 no matter what,” he said.
Meanwhile, though the conference’s presidents unanimously passed the controversial bill, its coaches stood in diametric – but futile – opposition, and reacted angrily upon the bill’s passage.
“You all are creating a bad problem for everybody,” former LSU and current Alabama head coach Nick Saban told the media after the vote. “You’re going to mess up kids’ opportunities by doing what you’re doing. You think you’re helping them, but you’re really hurting them.”
Lighter shades of gray
Saban and his peers have long argued oversigning is also about providing more opportunities to student-athletes. When done correctly, they say, it can give non-qualifiers at severe academic disadvantages a chance to further their education at a Division I school by buying them time.
And this academic reasoning, perhaps, points to a reason why the South is so primed for oversigning.
“The elementary education and secondary education in the state of Louisiana is not the best in the world,” LSU athletic director Joe Alleva told Gannett Sports. “So we have kids coming out, and…we don’t know if they’re going to get through the NCAA Clearinghouse and be eligible. Same for the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas. Now, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, they have much better public educational systems for those kids. Kids are coming out better prepared. So a lot of times, you may need to sign 28 to get to 25.”
Still, Slive’s bill passed, much to Saban’s chagrin.
“It took one case where somebody didn’t get the right opportunity,” Saban said. “You need to take the other 100 cases where somebody got an opportunity.”
One of those cases includes former LSU offensive lineman Max Holmes, a Saban recruit from the Class of 2005.
Saban initially signed Holmes as a part of LSU’s 2004 signing class, but beforehand offered Holmes the option to grayshirt, mentioning the benefits an additional year of eligibility might offer him.
Holmes willingly accepted, and though the initial year on a grayshirt was challenging, he called the process “a blessing.” The extra year of eligibility allowed him essentially six years of college football, and it was in that sixth year that Holmes – who transferred to Stephen F. Austin after Saban left LSU – won the Southland Conference title and earned All-Conference and Student-Athlete of the Year honors.
Holmes said, by not forcing him into the grayshirt or springing it on him at the last second, Saban made the process a positive one.
“Done correctly, grayshirting can be a good tool,” he said. “I love LSU, so I said I’d choose to come to LSU and still sit out a year, and that was right for me.”
“If it’s done in an unethical manner, it’s not good for the kids or coaches. But if it’s done right, it can be an efficient tool for both parties,” he said.
In the year that has passed since the Porter saga, much has changed.
For one, Porter is back at LSU, this time as a walk-on and, poetically, an offensive lineman, charged with protecting others from the blind-side blitz. Porter, who returned to LSU in the spring, must remain a walk-on for two years due to NCAA transfer rules.
And as Porter moves on, so too does LSU – but with more roster management troubles looming.
As of press time, LSU is currently committed to 90 scholarship players for the 2011 season, including 24 signees for the incoming recruiting class.
To make matters worse, the Tigers are on a self-imposed two-scholarship reduction resulting from recruiting violations by former assistant coach D.J. McCarthy.
Consequently, LSU must meet marks of 83 and 23, respectively – which means seven players total, including at least two from the 2011 class, must go before fall camp.
Who those seven may be remains a mystery. LSU is keeping quiet on the subject.
“There’s a lot that could change before the team reports to camp and the start of the fall semester,” associate athletics director Michael Bonnette told Dig. “There’s nothing that we can say at this point regarding the number of players on the roster because those numbers are fluid and could change.”
For now, fans speculate junior wide receiver Chris Tolliver will receive a deserved medical hardship scholarship after a string of concussions ended his career early. Others rumored to be in the hunt for such a scholarship are juniors Ryan St. Julien, a defensive back, and Kellen Theriot, a fullback/linebacker, but neither is confirmed.
Meanwhile, among incoming players, at least two – defensive lineman, Mickey Johnson and wide receiver Alonzo Lewis – have yet to qualify. Neither is enrolled in summer school, and both could be grayshirted, even if they do qualify.
Still, even subtracting those five, LSU would need to axe two more scholarships in total to reach 83. Who those two will be is anyone’s guess, but LSU is promising they won’t repeat the same mistakes that they did with Porter last year.
“We’ve been very transparent with the kids this year,” Alleva said to Gannett Sports. “Around February, we told a few kids who may be grayshirted, and that’s okay. I think it’s a bad thing if you surprise the kid. It was accidental last year with Les (and Porter), but I didn’t like it.”
Miles, meanwhile, should just be glad to have Porter back: for the talent he provides, the sin he pardons, and, hopefully, the lesson he teaches, as Miles embarks on yet another August filled with roster decisions to be made.