Jordan Cornish was confused, and so was I.
Last week, shortly after Tennessee hired a new men’s basketball coach (Donnie Tyndall), the players who signed a Letter of Intent to play for the old coach (Cuonzo Martin) decided they wanted out of the contract they inked in November of 2013.
They filed the necessary form. Tyndall and UT — unlike other coaches and schools that have become lightning rods for denying such requests — responded promptly. They granted the releases, which dissolved the players’ ties to UT and allowed them to re-open their recruitment.
But while the departing signees can now play for Martin at California, or anywhere else, you probably won’t see them in the SEC.
This is where things get confusing.
Cornish said UT was restricting his release to non-SEC schools. That, it turns out, is incorrect. It’s also impossible.
While a school can place restrictions on transfers, it can’t do the same with signees, who have never enrolled. The only way a school can keep a signee from playing for another school is a) deny the signee’s request for a release and make that signee navigate the appeals process, or b) allow the signee’s recruiting ban, which goes into effect as soon as the NLI is signed, to be lifted while reminding that signee that a release will only be granted if the signee picks an approved-of new team.
UT did neither a nor b. It let its signees walk. And it should be commended for that.
It just so happened the signees walked right into a restrictive league rule that I had never heard of. Looking at you, SEC Bylaw 15.01.2.
It reads …
A student athlete who has signed an SEC Financial Aid Agreement with a member institution and is eligible to receive the athletic scholarship on the institution’s first day of classes of the academic year specified on the financial aid agreement, but who does not enter that institution or who does enter and withdraws from that institution before fully completing his/her first semester or quarter (except when the recipient of an athletic scholarship award enters military service before enrolling in the awarding institution and remains in military service for a period of eighteen months or more), shall not be eligible to receive an athletics grant-in-aid during the student-athlete’s first two years in residence at the second SEC institution.
It doesn’t specifically mention National Letter of Intent. It doesn’t need to. This quote from Greg Sankey, the Executive Associate Commissioner/Chief Operating Officer of the SEC, sums it up. (Thanks to Jayson Judson, @CaptainJJudson, for the find.) Asked to explain what “signing an NLI” really means in the SEC, Sankey said:
“In the SEC they are actually signing a couple of documents. One is the actual National Letter of Intent (NLI) and the second is an SEC financial aid agreement. The first document, the NLI, sets out the dynamics of their signing, the end of their recruitment and their commitment to a particular institution and a sport. The financial aid agreement will set forth the athletic scholarship they will receive upon enrollment at the institution. Sometimes there is an institutional document as well explaining policies and procedures.”
So, by signing the the SEC financial aid agreement that accompanied their NLI, UT’s former signees agreed to go without a scholarship for two years if they backed out and went to another SEC school. And no one is going to do that, right? Especially when teams from other leagues are waiting, full ride in hand. End of discussion, almost.
The only way around the bylaw is a waiver, which must come from the SEC commissioner’s office. They are rare, mostly because the previous SEC school’s opinion is considered, and no one really likes sending their talent to the competition. But waivers sometimes happen.
For proof, check out UT’s baseball roster, where you will find former Georgia signee Nick Senzel, who received a waiver to play for the Vols after Georgia fired the coach coach (Dave Perno) Senzel signed with.