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Jay Paterno: Recruiting Rankings, Hype Drive NCAA Over-Signing

by on February 10, 2011 6:30 AM

Years ago, major college football’s national signing day was an exercise followed by only the hardest of the hardcore college football fans. There were no websites, only a few services that ranked players or a team’s class. That has all changed, and changed dramatically.

I can speak with some experience in this matter. I spent nine years as a recruiting coordinator. Eight of those years ranked in the national top 20; among them were five top-10 classes, including two years where we were rated No. 1 nationally by at least one service.

You know what those rankings were worth then? If you took your recruiting ranking and a couple of bucks with you to Starbucks, you could get a cup of coffee.

Now the rankings are taken as the gospel truth.

The way recruiting classes are evaluated has changed drastically over the years, most notably with the most popular ranking systems put forth by Rivals and Scout. The rankings are based on a total accumulation of points, so the more players you sign, the more points you garner and the higher your ranking will be.

Recruiting is now valued as a second season for football coaches. After a difficult season, one of the best defenses a coach can mount is a class ranking among the top five or top 10. It creates a public perception that your program is on the rise.

The pursuit of recruiting rankings has led to over-signing—the more you sign, the more points you get. Over-signing is signing more players than the NCAA allows in a given year.

At the major college football level, NCAA rules allow you to enroll no more than 25 new scholarship players a year. The NCAA also limits the total number of scholarship players on your team to 85.

Those are hard caps and are non-negotiable. The limit is the limit--or is it?

There are three accounting tricks used to get around the limit. For years, one of the tricks was to have a player graduate early and start in January. You could essentially back-date that player to the previous class (unless you signed the limit the previous year).

The second trick is pushing a few players back to the following January, essentially moving that scholarship to the following year.

The third trick is to sign players who will not make the NCAA’s initial academic eligibility standards, and stash them in a junior college so that no one else can sign them. It is a game of keep-away. It also explains how one school was able to sign 37 players in 2009 (the highest number of signees in the last 10 years). 

Theoretically, those methods should only be effective every couple of years. Eventually, the numbers catch up to the overall 85-scholarship limit. The question is, how can some teams do it year after year and where do those over-signed players end up?

The NCAA scholarship is a one-year grant and has to be renewed annually. In fact, the NCAA does not allow a coach to guarantee a recruit that he will honor the scholarship for four years. That allows teams to not renew scholarships. If that can’t-miss five-star player turns out to be a miss, the scholarship may not get renewed. It allows recycling of scholarships by eliminating the worst players and adding that scholarship to the next recruiting class.

Recently, there has been some media discussion about the ethics (or lack thereof) in continually over-signing. Over the past 10 years, an average of nine of the top-20 rated Rivals teams over-signed.  One particular team has signed 143 players the past five years (an average of nearly 29 per year) and 275 over the past 10 years.

Now, I am no math major, but I do believe even Enron’s accounting firm would have a hard time making those numbers fit the NCAA’s rules.

But even with all the evidence, the tough questions remain unasked. During one network’s signing-day coverage, they interviewed four coaches who had over-signed in a two-hour window. Not once did anyone interviewing the coaches ask for the math equation that makes 27 or 29 or even 31 fit into 25.

As long as the high level of interest remains in recruiting rankings that reward quantity, expect this trend to continue. The pressures on coaches to chase those rankings will continue to drive the practice of over-signing.

The fanatical interest in college football’s second season goes all the way to the top, and I mean literally to the top.

Just prior to President Obama’s speech at Penn State last Thursday—the day after signing day—White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs asked me how Penn State’s recruiting went and admitted that he had been checking his computer on signing day. When President Obama met Joe Paterno backstage, he asked how recruiting had gone.

In an honest response, Joe Paterno said:  “Who knows? You don’t really know for at least two years.”

The question to be asked is, how many of these over-signed young men will still be around at the schools they signed with in two years?



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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