Favorable National Report: MAC Proposes Change to 25 Hard Cap Rule

Late to reading it, but Andy Staples’ report in The Athletic last week deserves the attention of Mid-American Conference fans that care about the politics of how teams go about building their rosters.

Right now, the NCAA has a rule that says that teams have a hard cap of 25 players that you can sign and bring into a program in any given year. The emphasis on the hard cap happened because the Alabamas of the world (most notably: Alabama) kept over-signing kids to their programs and left them to dry when dozens of signees wouldn’t get into the schools they were promised a fair shot at. Teams still can’t have more than 85 scholarship players on the rosters.

In April of 2017, the NCAA put the hard cap of 25 on the FBS programs. This meant that teams were able to sign only up to 25 players per year — high school guys and transfers. It was a move that had its merits, but now the MAC stepped up and proposed a rule change that would certainly shake things up. In Staples’ report, MAC Commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher said he’s not trying to “blow up the hard cap.”

MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher also serves as the vice chair of the NCAA’s Division I Council — the group that ultimately would vote on any rule change. He explained that in the NCAA’s new legislative process, conferences introduce “concepts” rather than rule proposals. This allows various groups to debate and possibly tweak proposals before they actually reach the NCAA’s legislative agenda. So the MAC’s idea might go through several iterations before it reaches a vote. If it reaches a vote at all.

Steinbrecher said ADs and coaches in the MAC didn’t make the suggestion lightly because the current rule was adopted to combat oversigning, the practice of signing more players than a school has available scholarships to accommodate. The issue is the hard cap of 25 has made it difficult for some programs to get back near the NCAA-mandated roster limit of 85 scholarship players when they’ve suffered significant transfer losses following a coaching change. “It’s been a recognition that there are times for legitimate reasons that you lose numbers,” Steinbrecher said. “Given the hard cap today, if you fall behind in the numbers, it makes it very, very challenging to get back up to your numbers.” (Andy Staples, The Athletic)

Seems like a good idea on the surface. especially when we consider how the early signing period has changed everybody’s calendars when it probably shouldn’t. The early signing period for prospects to send in their letters of intent is in mid-December, which is when roughly 90% of signing classes get roughly 95% of the way filled up. Teams going through coaching changes may or may not have many (or any) prospects signed to their programs. Akron didn’t have any early signees when the school hired Tom Arth five days before the signing period. Kent State hired Sean Lewis during the 2017 early signing period and got three kids to sign. Scot Loeffler had two and a half weeks to prepare for the 2018 signing period at Bowling Green, but 17 signed on signing day. (Bowling Green, unlike Akron and Kent State, fired its coach during the season.)

Generally speaking, most teams don’t have to rush to get most of their classes filled in December if the legwork can be done in the spring and summer months before that. Even when kids don’t enroll in their schools early, they’ll still sign their LOI because coaches don’t want another school to come in during January and February to flip that prospect’s commitment.

There are plenty of talented recruits still available after the early signing period, but the pool’s really dry at that point, and some of the kids that are still available may be available for good reason.

A new coach, with the proposed rules, could actually try to not fill up an entire class in his “Year 0” with the program. Instead, maybe, of investing time to sign a 16th or 25th player for that cycle, the new MAC coach could use that time and get everything back home figured out (organizing coaches, the players already at the school, etc.), and put even more time into figuring out the recruiting board/plans for the future. This pretend-scenario I’m trying to play out in my head could mean that the new coach’s 35th player signed in Year 1 might be better than the 25th player the new coach would’ve signed in his Year 0.

That’s at least how I’m trying to make sense of the new proposal. There’s no guarantee that this will become a reality, but it’s an easy change that’s probably necessary at this point.

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