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June 6, 2011

BLOG: The Roster Management Revolution

DESTIN, Fla. - Nick Saban knew what was going down.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Saban abruptly left a meeting between SEC athletic directors and football coaches and walked briskly towards the elevator carrying his brief case.

He didn't get far before being surrounded by a group of a dozen or more reporters. He was asked a question about the status of discussions on oversigning, this year's hottest topic at the SEC's annual spring meeting on the Emerald Coast. Saban simply glared and said this:

"You (the media) are going to mess up the kids' opportunity 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 give the guy the opportunity, but you need to take the other 100 cases where somebody gets the opportunity."

Less than 48 hours later, we found out why Alabama's head coach was upset. And it wasn't because his bosses decided to take down his statue.

The SEC passed an array of reforms falling under the "roster management" umbrella, most notably reducing the number of prospects a team may sign each year. But they also passed new rules on summer school enrollment, medical exemptions and enforcement by the conference office of the newly enacted rules affecting roster management.

But the somewhat surprising decision to abolish oversigning by maximizing yearly signing classes at 25 hogged the headlines. It should be called the "Elliott Porter Rule" because his regrettable case at LSU last summer finally convinced the presidents an overhaul of the system was required, and that they had to grab responsibility and control for overseeing "roster management" away from the coaches.

Why did the SEC do it? They'll tell you it was to promote student-athlete welfare. But I believe there is more to it than that.

Ever since the SEC sent an earthquake through the college sports world by agreeing to the 15-year TV contracts totaling $3 billion with CBS and ESPN, it has been the target of unprecedented and unparalleled scrutiny throughout the country.

With five consecutive national championships in football, the scrutiny has only intensified. Story after story - many of them in newspapers based in the Northeast and Midwest - have recounted in excruciating detail the alleged recruiting misdeeds committed by SEC schools, including USC.

In my opinion, these decisions relating to "roster management" are as much about restoring the league's reputation nationally as it is about making sure every signed prospect gets into school.

Pouncing on a series of recruiting missteps, the national media has sought to portray the SEC as a conference where a "winning is everything" mindset permeates to the detriment of the athletes.

And there's another reason for the new set of rules as well: the presidents and ADs sought to remove the coaches from the equation beyond signing their annual quota of 25 players.

But coaches didn't give up without a fight. Most of them aggressively stated their position on oversigning in Destin - keep the limit at 28.

But the unanimous vote by the coaches to retain the 'Rule of 28' was trumped by the unanimous vote of the SEC presidents to cut the signing limit to 25, the maximum number of players a school can enroll each year. Suddenly, oversigning was abolished.

Did the SEC presidents essentially give the proverbial middle finger to the football coaches on the oversigning issue? Yes.

Did the SEC presidents say to the coaches that we don't trust you when it comes to making the right decisions in managing your rosters? Yes.

In eliminating oversigning, they again made the point that the presidents are the ones calling the shots, not the coaches.

That being said, the most unpopular man in Tuscaloosa these days must be Alabama president Dr. Robert Witt because he dared to oppose Saban, described by Forbes three years ago as the most powerful coach in sports, on the oversigning issue.

It will be interesting to see the fallout from the president's unanimous vote at places like Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Tennessee where winning as many football games as possible is high on the agenda and anything that gets in the way of achieving that objective is greeted with skepticism.

Florida and Georgia don't count because their respective presidents have been outspoken opponents of oversigning for years, so their vote in favor of lowering the signing limit to 25 was expected.

In my opinion, contrary to some, the package of "roster management" reforms approved by the presidents won't result in a noteworthy competitive disadvantage to the SEC.

Why? Because the NCAA will likely pass the same measures either before or at the organization's convention in January, meaning every Div. I school will have to follow them.

In fact, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive made a point of emphasizing the conference would submit the entire "roster management" reform package to the NCAA for adoption. I doubt he would say that now if he expected the vote to go against the SEC.

NCAA President Mark Emmert met with the SEC presidents for over four hours last Thursday. As the former president of LSU and Washington, he understands the inner workings of the SEC.

I can assure you Emmert was given every detail of the SEC's roster management legislation to take back with him to Indianapolis.

Emmert probably told the SEC presidents he would work hard - and quickly - to make sure the reforms approved by the SEC would be introduced for a full vote as soon as possible. There are no guarantees in any legislative process, but this one appears to be a slam dunk.

Hey, if limiting signing classes to 25 is good for the SEC, then it's good for everybody.

Either way, SEC Football Media Days should be fun considering it will be the first opportunity for many reporters to ask the coaches for their reaction to the new "roster management" rules.

Some, no doubt, will simply shrug their shoulders. Others, like Saban, are poised to go on the offensive.

Boring days are rare in a conference as hypercompetitive as the SEC.

As I said, it will be fun to watch it all unfold over the next few months.

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