“The 85/25 rule is straightforward,” North explained. “Normally, you can have a total of 85 on scholarship at any given time, not to exceed 25 initial signees in any year to get to that 85. If you’re at the 85 limit and you only lose 15 players, then you can only sign 15.”
Of course unless some relief is granted on appeal, the Tide is currently limited to a maximum of 80 players for the next three years. Plus, this season Bama can bring no more than 17 new players on scholarship, 18 next year and 19 in 2004-05.
Exemplified by players like Phenix City’s Joel Babb, Alabama has always enjoyed a strong walk-on program.
Interestingly, those very limitations on scholarships have apparently enhanced the Tide’s ability to attract quality walk-ons, as numerous athletes have announced their intention to pay their own tuition while playing football for Alabama. However, NCAA rules regarding walk-on players have been tightened in recent years, with the intention of limiting an institution’s ability to soften the blow of probation.
The key is whether or not an athlete would be considered “recruited” by the NCAA. “If you recruit a walk-on, if an athlete is out there and you call him three or four times, then he would still count,” North explained. “You can send him all the letters you want, and he can call us all the times he wants, and there would be no problem.
“But if we initiate phone calls and go for home visits--those type things--with that guy and he walks on at our program and later he becomes a player and plays in a game, then he must be counted toward scholarship limits. That’s the rule.”
In other words, Alabama cannot simply recruit a given player who may have ties to the school and family financially able to pay his college tuition in an attempt to get around NCAA sanctions.
“We’re very careful about how we deal with potential walk-ons,” North said. “We like for our walk-ons to contact us. We like for them to initiate those things. We like for them to come on our campus unofficially.
“That does not obligate us in any way. Those visits would not make them a recruited walk-on.”
Senior starting strong safety Waine Bacon is a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship after proving his talent.
One term often heard in the past no longer has any real meaning. Before, fans commonly spoke of “invited walk-ons” versus the regular kind, indicating players a school’s coaches had recruited during the season but did not end up with a scholarship to offer. In such cases, the staff would “invite” the most talented players left to walk on and hopefully earn a scholarship.
However, with the new rules the term “recruited walk-on” is more accurate. Probably the only instance today in which “invited walk-on” would have any meaning would be those walk-on players who might be a part of the 105-man early reporting roster in the fall.
It’s perfectly legal for a high school or junior college athlete to contact Alabama about the possibility of walking on, but the Bama coaches cannot take the lead. What often happens is that after consulting with parents and high school (or junior college) coaches, the young man will decide to travel to Tuscaloosa at his own expense. Once on campus, the Tide coaches can show him around and showcase their program. But on such trips, all expenses must be paid by the athlete.
“We prefer to be able to do that,” North said. “That way we can legally get walk-ons into our program, and if they develop into a player then we can play them without having them count against that 85.
“Because if they do play, then you might as well go ahead and scholarship them--if they’re going to be counted against you.”
What North means is that from the NCAA’s point of view, there is no difference between an athlete placed immediately on scholarship in the fall and a walk-on officially “recruited” by the coaching staff. “If they are classified as a recruited walk-on, then they have to count against you if they play in a game,” North said. “And they would also have to go back and retroactively count against the initial limit (for the year they entered school), if they play before two years.”
A good example off the current Alabama team would be David Cavan. Considered a very good prospect as a receiving tight end, Cavan likely would have seen game action last season were it not for the NCAA rules. As a recruited walk-on, he would have had to not only count against the 85 limit (where there was room), but Cavan would also have had to count back retroactively against the initial counter limit for his first year on campus. And Alabama was already at the 25 limit for that year.
David Cavan probably would have played last season, were it not for NCAA regulations about the status of “recruited walk-ons.”
“The only way to avoid that is if they stay on campus for two full years before they play,” North said. “Then they wouldn’t count against the initial 25 limit. But they would count against the 85. If they’re there two years, then they don’t count against the initial, but they still count against the other.
“That’s IF they are a recruited walk-on.”
For the precise purpose of limiting a school’s ability to finesse scholarship limitations, the rules have been tightened. That doesn’t mean that Alabama doesn’t hope for contributions the next few seasons from walk-on athletes, but the Tide coaches are being very careful not to do anything that would classify these athletes in the “recruited” category.
North explained the goal, “We could have 25 kids come in here that are not recruited walk-ons. Every one of them could end up playing, and that’s fine. They’re OK.
“Since they were not recruited, we’re not obligated as far as scholarship limits.”
Though the ceiling of 80 total scholarships each year will limit the Tide coaches in this regard, it’s also normal every year for Alabama to reward certain walk-ons with a full scholarship.
“Of course if one of (our walk-ons) earned a starting job, then we would try to put him on scholarship,” North said. “For example, this last year we added five kids to our scholarship (list). Those were former walk-ons. But that (decision) is between the coaching staff and the kid. That’s not a rule. It’s not an obligation that you have to abide by. That’s based strictly our evaluation of them.”