A gray area
Controversial recruiting trend of grayshirting has advocates, detractors
Nobody really remembers when it first began. Some coaches say it's been around forever, while others say it started to catch on only over the past 10 years. Either way, grayshirting is just as much a part of today's college football as The Head Ball Coach's visor and $70 million football performance centers.
A search after Wednesday's national signing day revealed mentions of grayshirts from coast to coast and in virtually every single conference, both large and small.
But what exactly is a grayshirt, and why do schools use it on the recruiting trail? What are the benefits and drawbacks to the players who accept grayshirt offers? And why are some university administrators and high school coaches opposed to the practice? The answers to these questions generate a number of different responses, and as long as there is no NCAA regulation on grayshirting, there are going to be people with polarizing viewpoints on the practice.
Everybody who follows college football is pretty much aware of what a redshirt is, and a grayshirt is basically a delayed version of a redshirt. When a recruit grayshirts, he signs a letter of intent in February but doesn't report for fall practices with his teammates. He delays entry to the school until the spring semester of his freshman year, keeping the NCAA five-year eligibility clock from starting. During that first semester, he can't enroll in college as a full-time student, can't receive his scholarship, can't practice and can't be around the program in any official capacity.
It's that oral agreement to not go on scholarship until after what would have been a prospect's first season that allows schools to skirt NCAA rules limiting Division I-A football programs to 25 new scholarship players per academic year and 28 signees in each year's signing period.
"You don't want to just go around and throw grayshirts around," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "They're going to count on your scholarships. From year to year, you're limited by numbers. There might be this great player, he really wants to come, but you just don't have a spot. That's where a grayshirt can come into play. You get another great player."
Former Colorado coach Gary Barnett first started to use grayshirts in the 2000 season. He said in his six years at Colorado he didn't have one negative experience with the approach.
"You're not going to grayshirt a guy that's a four- or five-star recruit," Barnett said. "You're going to grayshirt a guy because you don't have room for them, or you want him and you think he's going to grow into something special. It gets him an extra year of growth, extra year of school. It gets him started without the pressure of playing. If you can convince the kid and the parents to do it, it's the very best thing going for a kid."
Both Swinney and Barnett said the downsides are obvious. A prospect has to pay for everything that first semester if he wants to take classes as a part-time student.
No grayshirt success story is better than Kansas State senior safety Ty Zimmerman. Coming out of Junction City (Kan.) High in 2008, Zimmerman was a two-time all-state quarterback. But colleges didn't flock his way and his only options were Division II Washburn University and a grayshirt offer from Kansas State. Zimmerman always dreamed of playing for the Wildcats, so he accepted the grayshirt offer even though it wasn't the most ideal situation.
"It sucked at first," Zimmerman said. "It wasn't really the ego part for me. Just the fact all my friends were off going to college, and I was stuck back at home. All my friends were off at college having fun, playing football and everything like that. That was the hardest part for me, talking to them on the phone every day and hearing about how much fun they were having. It took a lot of patience, but it really paid off for me in the long run."
It sure did. Zimmerman developed into one of the best players in Kansas State history and will someday have his name on the K-State Football Ring of Honor. He earned All-American honors as a junior and senior and became the first player in Wildcats history to receive all-conference honors all four years of his career.
Not everybody is a fan of grayshirting, though.
All my friends were off at college having fun, playing football and everything like that. ... It took a lot of patience, but it really paid off for me in the long run.” -- Kansas State's Ty Zimmerman
University of Florida president J. Bernard Machen criticized the practice in a piece posted in February 2011 on SI.com. "What needs to happen in intercollegiate athletics is that universities must accept the moral responsibility to stop and prevent 'grayshirting' and its associated actions," Machen wrote. "The football programs must be accountable and should honor institutional commitments to its students."
Machen categorized the offer of a scholarship as a contract between program and a recruit. If the team runs out of scholarships and must grayshirt a player, the contract is broken, which Machen suggests breaks one of the program's ethical obligations.
"These schools play roulette with the lives of talented young people. If they run out of scholarships, too bad. The letter of intent signed by the university the previous February is voided. Technically, it's legal to do this. Morally, it is reprehensible."
A number of high school coaches across the country have been vocal in their displeasure with grayshirts, especially when the idea comes late in the process after a prospect has been committed to a school for months.
On signing day 2012, Darius Philon out of Vigor, Ala., announced he was going to Alabama. But he later found out his offer had turned into a grayshirt because of a knee injury suffered in his senior season. He eventually selected Arkansas, where he played in 12 games this past season and finished fifth on the team in tackles. At his 2012 signing day news conference, Saban defended how his staff uses grayshirts and said "we have never not done it up front."
Then there's the story of Brayden Burris of Wichita (Kan.) Bishop Carroll, who committed to K-State as a junior in 2006. Two weeks before signing day -- 18 months after he committed -- Burris was told by Ron Prince and the Wildcats that they wanted him to grayshirt. He landed at Iowa State and became a four-year starter.
"The issue I had, and any coach in my shoes would too, is when a school changes the rules of the game right at the end," Carroll coach Alan Schuckman said. "You just can't do that to a kid, especially one that has been committed to your program and not wavered on that decision for months and months. I have a problem when somebody doesn't back their word. That's why it was a bad thing, not because of the grayshirt thing."
And that seems to be the overwhelming opinion of most coaches and prospects. If they know the ground rules going in -- and they're not changed at the last minute -- most see the advantage of grayshirting and understand the benefits for the program and for the prospect.
"If you really think about it, logistically and logically, it really is a hell of a deal," Barnett said.