In response to CBS Sports' report that power-conference commissioners might consider reinstating the pre-1972 ban on freshmen eligibility, Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin introduced an alternate. At first, it was just a suggestion on Twitter, but it might be one of the most athlete-friendly proposals in a long time.
Instead of making freshmen ineligible to play, I’d rather give every athlete five years of eligibility and do away with redshirting.— Scott Stricklin (@stricklinMSU) February 18, 2015
Or, all freshmen are ineligible unless they reach certain HS academic standards. And then they get five years of eligibility as a reward.— Scott Stricklin (@stricklinMSU) February 18, 2015
The proposal to restrict freshman eligibility was born out of a desire to cure the one-and-done basketball phenomenon at places like Kentucky. Granted, the Stricklin idea wouldn't solve that, but it would create a more accommodating environment for players to mature athletically and better balance the demands of sports and attaining an undergraduate degree.
"[The tweets] were just spitballing, so I wouldn't call it a plan," he said later. "I'm just throwing an idea out there. It was my reaction to the news. But I do believe if we're exploring options like preventing freshmen from playing, let's explore all of our options. Let's look at a lot of ideas."
Without the benefit of long-term studies, here's a quick look at what Stricklin's suggestion could offer.
Incentivize freshmen to arrive academically eligible
Stricklin's suggestion is that incoming freshmen would have five consecutive years of eligibility, provided they can meet the NCAA's new minimum academic standards effective in 2016.
"Coach [Dan] Mullen and I have had multiple conversations about this in the past, that if kids can't meet those entrance requirements, they have to sit out their freshman season. In this suggested format, if you don't meet the standards, you're essentially taking an academic redshirt year. But why not reward those students who arrive eligible with that 'extra' year?"
No more burning redshirts. No more punishing players for injuries.
Once players are cleared academically, they're eligible for five years with no redshirting. That means no uncomfortable "burn" scenarios, in which a player has to use up a year of eligibility by taking the field during a planned redshirt season.
"I don't know of a coach in any sport that hasn't had to debate removing a redshirt because of injury at the midpoint of a season and risk wasting half a season or more of an athlete's eligibility," Stricklin said.
"By removing redshirting, you can focus on the best interest of the student-athlete, which is sometimes not addressed by our current system. If you have a system where everyone's eligible, and say you're up by 28 points in a homecoming game and want to play a freshman, why not allow that player to learn and gain experience?"
This would also allow a player injured for the season to automatically hang onto an extra year, without an NCAA application process.
More time to complete a degree
As Stricklin notes, the four-year eligibility structure is based on a traditional academic model.
Given the rising demands of high-profile sports, why not build in a five-year window to help better pace the demands of completing an undergraduate degree?
"It's not uncommon at all to see our student-athletes complete course work for an undergraduate degree in less than four years in some scenarios and then begin work on graduate degrees," he said. "Without looking at any numbers, I don't see how extending the window for academic enrollment wouldn't encourage more students to finish their degree or pursue post-graduate opportunities. And this isn't the ROTC. You don't have to stay that fifth year. If you want to leave, you're free to go."
Stricklin wouldn't comment on the potential a five-year eligibility window would have on the current graduate transfer rule, which some college graduates like Russell Wilson have used to get one-and-done transfer seasons without losing eligibility. A chance to play five in five wouldn't nullify the need for the graduate transfer outright, but it would give players better chances to pursue graduate work at their current institutions.
Better on-field competition
An increase in experienced upperclassmen means an increase in skill for everybody. Says SB Nation recruiting analyst Bud Elliot:
"In theory, this could increase the number of players returning to school yearly, which in turn would decrease the number of players schools could sign each year, leading to some top talent trickling down to lesser schools. Schools that win with players who are better college athletes than pro prospects would get to keep them an extra year, while schools who rely on NFL-bound stars would still see them leave early for the NFL at about the same rate."
Adds Stricklin: "I don't see this as benefiting one kind of coach or one kind of system in a sport over another. Any team with experienced players is usually going to be better than one without."