College football's early signing day is Wednesday, and P.J. Fleck, by design, intends to sign a smaller class than usual.
That's because he doesn't know yet the parameters for constructing his roster for next season. Because of the pandemic, the NCAA is not counting this season toward player eligibility, meaning seniors can come back next season.
Fleck has invited his seniors to return. It's not a big senior class, and it's unclear how many will take the offer, but Fleck isn't signing a full incoming freshman class until he gets a final answer from his boss, Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle, on a crucial and potentially costly question.
This is where things could become complicated and create more public blowback for Coyle.
Normally, the NCAA limits FBS football teams to 85 scholarships. With the eligibility waiver in place, schools are permitted to go over that number. Whether they do so is up to each individual school.
Football teams could have more than 100 players on scholarship next season. Some undoubtedly will stick to 85 because of the extra cost in a tough economic climate, but rest assured that others — perhaps many in Power Five leagues — will exceed that limit since they have the option.
The NCAA provided the same eligibility relief for spring sports earlier this year after those seasons were canceled. The Gophers allowed seniors to return, but Coyle held firm on scholarship limits per sport.
The coaches were told to stick to their usual limits.
Don't be surprised if he rules differently for Fleck and football, despite steep revenue losses for his department and criticism levied at him for the September decision to eliminate three men's sports (tennis, gymnastics, indoor track and field) after this school year.
This special allowance for Fleck from Coyle will be the right decision, one that also will be unpopular and viewed as unfair by some.
I don't like cutting sports and taking opportunities away from athletes, but the Gophers desperately need football to succeed for the department's overall financial health. If this expense helps that cause, even if it looks hypocritical and inconsistent, it will be worth it.
Fleck said Monday that he "definitely will be able to go over the limit," but that he doesn't know the exact number. "It's not going to be an astronomical number," Fleck said.
This football-first financial model of big-time athletics is nothing new, but it has been thrust under a blazing hot spotlight with schools around the country dropping nonrevenue sports in response to financial strain caused by the pandemic.
For years, I have implored Gophers officials to show stronger commitment to football — to invest more, make it a priority, commit the same kind of resources to football as their rivals.
College administrators understand the financial power of brand and institutional identity tied to a successful football program. So like any professional business — and that's precisely what this is — they cater to the golden goose.
The question is, could the Gophers manage to support their current 25 sports and field a successful football program within their budget after this pandemic? I tend to think yes. Coyle ultimately decided no.
Dig below the surface of sports being eliminated nationally and you will find the root of the problem. Once massive TV revenue started pouring in, athletic departments went hog-wild. Imagine winning the lottery. That's how college sports reacted to their windfall. They got rich(er), and they spent it.
Not just football, the whole enterprise — though football serves as the poster child because their excesses in staffing and other areas look especially bloated.
In 2012, the Gophers athletic department reported $83.6 million in expenses. In 2019, that figure swelled to $129.5 million. They spend more on facilities, salaries, recruiting, equipment, team travel — basically everything. Because they had the money.
That scenario played out at Power Five schools everywhere. This is how the arms race works. There's no such thing as good enough because somebody else is always doing more. And no school wants to be viewed as cheap, or unwilling to compete, because that will get used against them in recruiting.
The incentive to spend money to keep pace is always present. Again, I encouraged it. Then applauded when it happened.
Then a pandemic hit.
Schools responded by cutting sports, which is unfortunate and probably unnecessary in some cases.
Is there a different standard when it comes to investing in football? Undeniably. People see that as unfair, and I understand their frustration. But pulling back on something so critically important does not seem like a smart plan.