Friday, February 26, 2010

An Essay on Oversigning

Oversigning: a college football issue that implicates legal thinking, recruiting, and fighting between SEC and Big Ten fans? Sign me up! I've been reading over the past few weeks and enjoying the discussion. The authors there take a much harder line on oversigning than I would and at times, their writing devolves into unhinged attacks on the SEC from every angle. (Comparing endowments? Really?) In those instances, they come across as excuse-making Big Ten fans who want to justify the fact that SEC teams have won more national titles in the past four years than Big Ten teams have won in the last forty. However, the site is well-written and reasonably well-argued, so I encourage you to take a look, especially if you are an Alabama fan looking for someone other than Paul Finebaum to whom to send a "SLANDER!!! BURN IN HELL!!!" e-mail. Anyway, here are my occasionally coherent thoughts:

We're all part of the same hypocrisy, Senator: The point that the authors miss is that most of the schools in the SEC that sign beyond their recruiting budgets are recruiting from some of the worst high school systems in America. Put yourself in Houston Nutt's CrazyDome for a moment. You're recruiting primarily from high schools in Mississippi, which rank in the bottom five in just about every output statistic. If you have 20 open spots on your football team, you'd be nuts to recruit only 20 players when you know that you are likely to have 4-5 academic casualties. It's no accident that Georgia and Florida don't oversign, but the schools from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina do. The high schools in Georgia and Florida are better because those two states are more economically developed. (I'd add "more removed from the 19th century," but let's leave that joke for another day.) Yes, you can make the point that Nutt and other coaches like him are recruiting academic basket cases and expecting them to hack it in school, but this hypocrisy applies throughout college football. What is worse: Ole Miss recruiting players with 800 SATs who are expected to compete in college with a student body that averages 1050 or Charlie Weis recruiting players with 950 SATs who are expected to compete at a private school with smaller, more competitive classes against a student body that averages 1300? (I'm guessing at the numbers here, but I don't think I'm far off.) Yes, it's bad to see a number of players flunk out at Alabama and Ole Miss, but is it better than players with 950 SATs are graduating en masse from Notre Dame and Stanford?

The Invisible Hand: The notion that the authors like to advance is that Nick Saban has an advantage over more ethical coaches because he signs the equivalent of an extra recruiting class every five years and then weeds through the players. However, if the scenario that I'm describing above is correct, then Saban and other oversigning coaches aren't getting a boost from oversigning because they aren't the ones picking which players stay and which players go. Grades and standardized test scores are doing the culling, or at least a lot of the culling.

You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes: The rest is done by Saban, but it's important to determine how he's doing it. There are two possibilities, each that would lead to a separate judgment. In Scenario One, Saban tells a player that he has been passed on the depth chart by younger players and that it is unlikely that the player will see the field at Alabama. The player is welcome to stay, but he will be making all of the sacrifices of a college football player in terms of time and physical commitments without getting the benefit of playing on Saturday. The player then decides to transfer. Take Nick Fanuzzi, for example. Fanuzzi knows that he is unlikely to be a starter at Alabama. He has the chance to transfer to Rice, where he's likely to be a starter and get a great education. He is aware of Joe Flacco's career path, in which Flacco transferred from Pitt to Delaware so he could see the field and Flacco ended up as a first round draft pick. Why wouldn't Fanuzzi transfer? And what's wrong with that result? Should we punish Saban for being honest? Would we prefer it if he strung players along with the promise of playing time, only for some of those players to wake up as upperclassmen, knowing that it's too late to transfer and they have lost their chances at seeing the field?

Paging Bob Ley: In Scenario Two, Saban either tells a player directly that he needs to transfer or implies it with something along the lines of "we're going to make your life very difficult." If that's the case, then the authors are absolutely right that Saban and other coaches like him in the SEC are deriving a competitive advantage from bringing in large classes and then cutting players who don't pan out. I don't see any evidence of that occurrence, but maybe some media outlet will do some reporting on players in the Alabama Diaspora. I can't imagine that it would be very hard to get a former player to say bad things about Saban and his staff is they are indeed cutting people. I don't see any media outlet in the State of Alabama taking up the cause, but ESPN? Yahoo!? Sports Illustrated? If the story is there, they would be foolish not to take it. Media attention to cutting players should be one of the two checks on oversigning. The other is negative recruiting from rivals. If Alabama really is intentionally cutting ten players per year, then that would be an awfully effective recruiting tool for Urban Meyer or Mark Richt.

Please act like an aristocrat: One legitimate criticism of Alabama and LSU is that those two schools have the recruiting cache to be more selective in taking players. To come back to the Ole Miss example, one can see why Ole Miss would go so hard after Jerrell Powe. Ole Miss does not have a huge recruiting profile, so they can't afford not to go after a five-star defensive tackle from the state, no matter how marginal his academics. (And before you mount your high horse,, be prepared to defend some of the players that Michigan State has signed and then retained over the years. Desperation isn't the sole province of the SEC's middle and lower classes.) Iowa State and Kansas State have to pull in huge classes because they are in states with minimal talent, so they go the route of JuCos and marginal prospects from talent-rich states be necessity. Alabama and LSU, on the other hand, are national powers. They have recent national titles, significant fan bases, and renown from coast to coast. (Maybe not quite like USC or Notre Dame, but close. I'd venture a guess that most people in Oregona have heard of Bear Bryant and Death Valley.) They should not be in the top 15 of average class size. I was interested to see UNC so high on the list, since they don't fit any of's tangents about the SEC. UNC is an excellent academic school, ranking ahead of most schools in the Big Ten. It's in the ACC, which claims is a refuge for schools that didn't want to compete in the unethical SEC. And yet there it is, signing 128 players over its past five classes.


Anonymous said...

I doubt that the school systems that most northern players attend are demonstrably better: Detroit's schools, or Akron's schools, or are pretty much the same thing as rural Mississippi schools (the northern schools probably have slightly better equipment, but very similar student populations). Think about the kids MSU recruits from the PSL.

Schools graduating players who enter with 950 SATs are doing a good thing: they are willingly accepting a small reduction in goodwill and prestige associated with their degrees in order to confer a benefit to athletes who, by and large, don't receive market value for their services. That's a lot more noble than dumping a kid with a 950 SAT in a school and watching him fail.

Kyle W said...

Not trying to cast stones here but, I think the tone of your essay here is a bit more defensive then the authors' tone is in attacking the SEC. I've read for a few weeks now and have no idea what their conference bias may or may not be. They laud Carroll, Mack Brown, Tressel, Richt and the stance Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd made in the 50's and 60's. Truly they just seem to be anti-oversigning. Andy Staples on Sports Illustrated wrote an essay on Houston Nutt's 37 player class last year sometime, so its not that national columnists haven't seen the issue. These authors have a website dedicated to what I believe is a legitimate ethical issue in college football and it happens that the Big Ten and SEC are on the opposite spectrum.

I think that to excuse Ole Miss (and others in general) for lowering their standards of admission to below-acceptable rates just to gain more top-level talent is a bad way to look at things. A university and its athletic department may of course do what they wish in admissions, but for you to attribute it to bad high-school educations is... slippery. I am certain that a large state university like Ole Miss can find enough suitable athletes with their grades in order as opposed to what they currently do which is a large risk/reward on the academic side. The problem is that the athletic department seems overly determined to stay competitive with Florida and LSU which is improbable.

According to your argument, it would seem that the university officials at Ole Miss can't find enough students in general with high academics since a poor high school education affects more than just football players. That doesn't seem to be the case. I think we can assume that about the same ratio of academically successful students exist as academically successful athletes out of the Mississippi education system, and the South in general.

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