As inevitable as the sun rising in the east, another National Signing Day was followed by another outcry against greyshirting and all of its supposed ills, and as is typically the case much of the spotlight was on Alabama. By no means is that practice unique to Tuscaloosa, of course, and many schools in fact have made this standard custom and practice for roster management, but Nick Saban is the easy villain so he bears the brunt of the criticism, as usual. The outcry is predictable at this point, but the recent hard cap imposed by the SEC has worked to make such situations more frequent. With all of that in mind, a quick thought on greyshirting.
First, take the 30,000 foot view of the current competitive landscape. Consider the two basic realities at play in big-time college football: Coaches are paid large amounts of money to win and are promptly fired if they do not win enough, and the inherent nature of the recruiting melodrama is such that a significant number of prospects will not make a decision until the last minute and many other prospects will do an about-face on or near National Signing Day, eschewing a long-time verbal commitment when letters of intent arrive for another school.
In real terms, the interplay of those two inescapable realities is that for head coaches to win enough to continue being head coaches, much less compete for conference and national championships, they must be highly aggressive in terms of roster management. Only 85 players are allowed on scholarship at any given time, and invariably some signees will see their collegiate careers end prematurely regardless, whether it be to early entrance into the NFL Draft, poor academics, arrests, or some other intervening circumstance that brings their college career to an early end. This unavoidable attrition typically makes it necessary that coaches maximize the size of individual recruiting classes in order to offset the roster turnover.
Well, the powers-that-be decree a hard cap of only twenty-five signees per year? That simply means that in most cases head coaches will have to find a way to bring in exactly 25 signees. Legislative fiat or not, games must still be won, stadiums must still be filled, rosters must still be maximized in terms of capacity, and each spot that goes unfilled becomes the literal equivalent of self-imposed scholarship sanctions, each and every one of which limits programs in their ability to compete come Autumn Saturdays.
So in essence the maximum signees allowed by legislation becomes the minimum allowed by on-field realities. With no real flexibility in terms of class size, it then falls on head coaches to perform a perfect balancing act -- whereby all available scholarships are awarded while no prospect is forced to greyshirt, much less actually lose a scholarship -- which is almost impossible given the late decisions and potential defections. The inevitable result in most instances is that someone will be left out in the cold, and so it happened this seasons at countless schools, including Alabama, LSU, Stanford and many others.
For this, head coaches tend to get painted in an unfavorable light by the sports media talking heads and the self-appointed moral authorities, but a fairer look isn't nearly as harsh. Coaches are, after all, doing no more than simply trying to maximize on-field success given the applicable rules established by those above them (which is, incidentally, their job), and many modern rule changes have made that job even harder. Long gone are the days when most coaches could freely take risks on players with potential academic problems or uncertain medical issues, for example. With each spot now unused being lost forever, coaches simply have to be certain that whoever they allow to fill those spots can, at a bare minimum, qualify academically and arrive to campus relatively healthy in the months immediately after National Signing Day. Evaluations, then, become even more critical, all the while the nature of the recruiting cycle changes such that -- due to earlier decisions of many prospects and the acceleration of the recruiting process as a whole -- evaluations must be made much sooner than in years past, with much less information, and a greater potential of a bad outcome with a missed evaluation. And when something inevitably goes wrong, the coaches, and not the system under which they are forced to operate in, inevitably become the scapegoats.
Players, of course, aren't winners either and fairness are often left with a series of bad choices at the very end of a long process. Given their lack of power to change the situation in terms of the existing system, the best advice for them moving forward may simply be to become more vigilant in their college selections and to become more aware of the harsh realities of the current scholarship regime in place. Don't want to greyshirt? Fair enough, but realize that, for example, as a recruit almost certain to redshirt who then suffers a major injury while part of the recruiting class of a top program, a greyshirt is a legitimate, perhaps even likely, possibility at that point given the the numbers crunch that programs must successfully navigate. In real terms that means committing to a lesser program that can more readily guarantee a spot as a mid-summer enrollment, which admittedly may not be ideal, but realistically little more can be done and that at least helps avoid the turmoil of having to make a last-minute decision under great pressure.
In the final analysis, like it or not, this is the nature of the beast vis-a-vis the current regime in place. Scholarships have been systematically reduced for many years now, both in terms of overall rosters and individual recruiting classes, all in the name of searching for a nebulous concept of "fairness" for institutions with fewer resources. Perhaps that is a noble pursuit, perhaps not. Either way, when you have a system intentionally designed to limit the number of scholarships given out to prospects, don't be surprised when some prospects are left out in the cold when the ink dries on National Signing Day, and don't blame head coaches who are simply trying to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.