When Alabama relented and gave Maurice Smith his unconditional release, there was a pretty common sentiment that the reason it did so was because the the fix was in — that Nick Saban knew the SEC wouldn’t grant a waiver for Smith to attend Georgia. It turned out that was wrong.
But there’s more to this story than that. It wasn’t simply that the SEC granted the waiver, albeit conditionally. It’s that Greg Sankey went out of his way to criticize the very conference rule that Saban supported.
Sankey did acknowledge it’s time for a healthy discussion about this subject beyond Maurice Smith, particularly SEC Bylaw 126.96.36.199, which prohibits transferring within the league and playing right away barring a successful waiver request. In the commissioner’s words, “The current rule places our coaches and administrators in untenable situations so it is time for us to address graduate transfer rules.”
Granted, that statement came after some weasel words about the need to be careful with graduate transfers (why?) and praise for Alabama’s stance, but when you boil it down, untenable is untenable. Sankey recognized that Maurice Smith was the perfect storm to challenge an unfair rule and had little choice but to do what he did.
“The five conferences wanted autonomy to make these [type of] decisions,” SEC commissioner Sankey told me. “We’ve just been stuck in the morass of Division I governance process and don’t have an output. Part of what I’m observing is we’ve got to do something.”
It starts with getting rid of the silly year-in-residence rule for graduating players who, like Smith, desire to transfer within the conference. I spoke to two FBS commissioners Friday who told me their conferences would at least have to consider getting rid of similar grad transfer rules.
Sankey was not of them, but the architect of Friday’s ruling suggested he is already tiring of ruling case-by-case. In other words, Smith’s case was not the first one he has dealt with, just the some prominent.
“No, I don’t [look forward] to doing this on an ad hoc basis,” Sankey said.
Think about it: This whole thing blew up over an academically-motivated kid from Sugar Land, Texas, who was second in special teams tackles last season for Alabama.
In a world where conference commissioners issue mealy-mouthed proclamations about student-athletes’ concerns, the optics of preventing someone with a degree from transferring are terrible. Sankey doesn’t want to defend the indefensible. Perhaps that will indeed lead to a change in the SEC’s rule, which would be a welcome development.
But that may not be the biggest thing about what just happened. Because it’s hard to look at how this went down and not think that Greg Sankey hung Nick Saban out to dry.
The SEC owes Nick Saban a favor. Had someone in the conference office told the Alabama coach that the league would let recent Alabama grad—and former Crimson Tide defensive back—Maurice Smith transfer to Georgia and play immediately, Saban probably would have released Smith immediately instead of getting painted as a villain for weeks.
The SEC announced on Friday afternoon that Smith would be granted a waiver to a league rule that would allow him to play immediately. This is the correct decision, because the rule is a bad one in the first place. But the decision came at the wrong time. Instead of letting its most successful coach get blasted as being anti-athlete news cycle after news cycle, someone at the SEC should have stepped in much earlier in this process.
This never had to become a national debate. Had someone at the SEC told Saban earlier this month that Smith would get the waiver, then Saban—who is nothing if not pragmatic—probably would have simply released Smith and saved himself the negative headlines. He stuck up for the league’s rule, but the league didn’t. Had Saban known the SEC would cave, he probably would have released Smith weeks ago.
I think Staples is right about that, except for the favor-owing part. Saban made a self-serving decision and righteously cloaked himself in the conference rule. He misread the situation in that Sankey was placed in a spot where he had little choice but to take his own talk about student-athlete support seriously. (Saban also didn’t help himself with the Black and Pappanastos transfers.)
Still, Sankey could have simply granted Smith’s waiver and left things at that. Instead, with his call to revise the graduate transfer rules, he’s indicated his intent to move the conference in a direction that will undercut head coaches’ control of their players, something that for most is not a desired result. And Nick Saban is the catalyst for that.
I don’t think anyone saw that coming, least of all Nick Saban.