Wednesday was a memorable day for Ohio State fans, as the program again finished National Letter of Intent Day with a class ranked in the top three in the nation, with some calling it the very best for the 2013 recruiting cycle.
It was a memorable day for Orlando’s Johnny Townsend as well, although for different reasons. What he expected to be a day of celebration for his achievements was put on hold; parties and press announcements held up for a bit as things sorted themselves out.
Townsend was supposed to be a part of Ohio State’s record setting class, but as of this article he has not yet submitted his signed letter of intent. In fact, as of late Wednesday night, rumors were swirling that he would join Florida’s 2013 class on Thursday.
The reasons for that are difficult to pin down. Early reports were that he was having second thoughts, or that Ohio State had rescinded the offer at the last minute. However, comments from his family indicated that this last possibility was not true, and that he instead had the paperwork for a full, four year tenure at Ohio State.
There was even speculation that he had decided to attend the University of Alabama, where he was offered the opportunity to gray-shirt prior to verballing to Coach Meyer; to be a part of the team at his own expense until a scholarship was made available for him, typically within a year. Again, at this point it seems that this report was also inaccurate.
What happened on Wednesday? And how does Townsend’s situation reflect an under-reported aspect of the recruiting process?
First, it should be acknowledged that much of what will follow is speculation; per NCAA rules, coaches are not allowed to talk about student athletes until they’ve officially signed their letters of intent. When Coach Meyer was asked about Townsend’s situation, his comments alluded to this fact as well as his being concerned that this class didn’t fill the need at punter as of yet. Also, Townsend’s family has been private about the situation, even going as far as saying that Johnny will not have an elaborate signing day ceremony, but will instead fax the letter into his chosen university from the athletic director’s office at his high school.
Alabama’s Coach Saban also didn’t comment on Townsend, but talked about how they didn’t anticipate any additional members of this class unless it was someone “special”. A reference to Johnny’s skillset as a specialist? Perhaps… but until this resolves, we may never know.
Coach Saban did say, though, that there were a number of athletes that he’d like to have as a part of this group, but that the numbers simply didn’t allow for him to recruit and sign all of them. This may be why Townsend was offered a gray-shirt opportunity in the first place, but it is a phrase that is quite interesting if you dig a bit deeper. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
The most common “explanation” (again, speculative) that I’ve been able to come up with is similar to what the OZone’s Brandon Castel posits in their forums: Ohio State was unprepared, from a numbers perspective, to have Wilson AND Clark AND Bell commit today; Urban Meyer and his staff really hit a home run, but it created an interesting conundrum. Having those three in the fold put the scholarship number at 24, one away from the NCAA cap of 25, but it also put them at 82 total scholarships, their limit due to sanctions. Since the B1G requires prior approval to go over the maximum number (82, in this case), and since OSU had not considered this possibility, they were not willing or able to honor Townsend’s offer at this time. UPDATE: Brandon also posits that this set of circumstances may have been in play for a while now, and that Ohio State has been communicating this possibility to Johnny for some time.
While it may seem petty that the Buckeyes might have willing to trade one student’s commitment of several months for that of another, presumably “better” athlete or position of need, that seems to be what has happened. Given what the Townsend family said earlier, though, it’s not as if the offer has been taken away completely.
What’s more likely is that Ohio State was hoping that Townsend will wait (NLOID is only the first day that these can be signed- remember Pryor went several weeks beyond for his decision to attend the University of Ohio State), and that a spot will open up this spring. This might happen via a current Buckeye not being cleared after off-season surgery, choosing to transfer, or not having their scholarship extended for a 5th year. It’s also possible that another member of the 2013 class may not end up in Columbus; stranger things have certainly happened, although we hope that that will not be the case.
Essentially, it seems as if Ohio State is now offering Johnny Townsend the opportunity to gray-shirt, similar to what Coach Saban extended at Alabama. I’m the first to say that the timing of this situation is less than ideal (unless, as Castel indicates, the University had been in touch with the Townsends about this from day one), and I certainly hope that Johnny will make a decision that benefits his academic and athletic career, either at Ohio State or elsewhere.
But again, this is an incredibly unfortunate situation, and is certainly different than the previous administration’s methodology for recruiting. Often, Coach Tressel had extra scholarships left over after a recruit went elsewhere (Seantrel Henderson, for instance); these were given to deserving seniors or preferred walk ons as a reflection of their hard work.
Under Coach Meyer, OSU has gained a stellar class- the second in a row- but the philosophy of “recruit through the whistle” can result in situations like the one that Johnny Townsend found himself in yesterday. The “cost of doing business” and “grown man football” rings hollow when you’re a high school senior who misses your moment in the spotlight after months of planning. I’m hopeful that the staff is working just as diligently to make this right as they did to recruit the student athletes who closed out this class. If that turns out to not be the case, I’ll be the first one to call it out as wrong.
However, there is a distinction between the “Why” of these two gray-shirt offers that again highlights a significant difference between schools who compete in the B1G and those who compete in the SEC, and it comes back to Coach Saban’s comments about the numbers.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s my belief that Townsend’s opportunity at Ohio State is running up against the B1G’s philosophy that teams shouldn’t offer more scholarships than they have available. Actually, the rule is that they may offer three more than they have openings for, but need to have the Conference’s approval to do so after outlining how the total numbers will be reached. When Coach Saban refers to the numbers not allowing him to sign everyone he’d like to, he’s referring to something different altogether.
The Southeastern Conference guidelines indicate that no team may sign more than 25 student athletes per year (as per NCAA rules). There are ways around this, of course, with “back counting” as Texas A&M is managing to do with their enormous 2013 class. But the 25 per year, while a step in the right direction, still creates the problem that we’re seeing some of today.
Again, using Coach Saban as an example- According to the staff at Oversigning.com, we know the following about Alabama’s roster numbers. First, they were at the 85 athlete limit last year, as they had at least one gray-shirt in their 2012 class. Second, we know that they had 9 seniors and three juniors leave at the end of their national title season. For the sake of argument, let’s say that they had 15 openings- there’s probably three or so that we don’t know about because I don’t follow SEC recruiting closely.
What’s interesting, though, is that Alabama managed to “win” the “recruiting title” for the third straight year with a great class that included 26 student athletes. If we consider for a moment that they might be able to back-count one of those to stay within the NCAA and SEC regulated 25, that’s still 10 student athletes more than they have opening for, if you use our calculated 15 spots available. Those 10 student athletes may find themselves in similar situations to the ones we mentioned at Ohio State; recovering, considering a transfer, looking to graduate early, may not make it through the enrollment process. While there’s often been accusations that Alabama and other “oversigners” push players out of the program to re-stock after NLOID, that’s not the heart of what I want to point out.
Instead, I want to highlight a philosophical difference between these two similar situations. Ohio State was at their maximum scholarship limit and did not have an opening on NLOID, and either wasn’t able to honor an offer to Townsend due to B1G guidelines or chose not to on other principals. Alabama was at their maximum scholarship limit and did not have an opening on NLOID, and signed more athletes than they had spots for anyway.
We pointed out the impact of this during the build up to the 2012 National Title, and were not surprised at all that this phenomenon (oversigning) was as under-reported leading up to this year’s championship game as the truth about Manti T’eo’s girlfriend. Instead, the narrative was about the depth and quality of players that Alabama had, with no discussion of the practices that allowed these to be stockpiled.
Again, this is not as much a critique of other programs as it is a commentary regarding the nature of high profile sports in comparison to the mission and goal of an academic institution. You know, my favorite soap box. Every student athlete should be treated honestly and fairly, and the possibility of ten or so students at Alabama in similar situations to Townsend; finding their careers sidetracked due to a “numbers problem” seems to be far outside of what a University should be about.
Ultimately, it’s my hope that Johnny Townsend can find the opportunity to be a part of the institution of his choosing under the circumstances that best fit him. Life as a college student is incredible, let alone if you’re a student athlete at a major BCS program… and it’s a shame that the “business” of modern sports has already begun to take away some of those memorable experiences.
UPDATE: On Thursday, Townsend signed for a full scholarship with Florida, becoming the 29th member of their 2013 class. The Orlando Sentinelhas the following quote-
Townsend… was committed since August to go to Ohio State, but given other opportunities, he decided he wanted to play football closer to family, said his father Clay Townsend on Thursday afternoon.
Best of luck, Johnny!