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The Recruiting Game
By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
February 2, 2005


Football recruiting services have been around now for more than 35 years, driving many old-school football coaches nuts with their rankings and predictions.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – In 1970, Ford auto executive Joe Terranova began writing a column in a local Dearborn, Mich., newspaper about college football recruiting.

At the end of each column he asked people to mail $2 for additional information. Four hundred people sent him checks, according to a 1986 Sports Illustrated story entitled Call them the Cub Scouts.

Tom Lemming, one of those who made up the next wave of recruiting experts in the early 1980s, once said of Terranova: “To criticize him is like a rock musician criticizing the Rolling Stones.”

But many did.

Terranova’s newsletters and reports drove former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler nuts. Said Schembechler, “If I don’t know more about a player than these guys, I’m going to make a lot of mistakes.”

Former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen, who once sat in on recruiting strategy meetings with Schembechler as Michigan’s recruiting coordinator, remembers Terranova.

 
  Michigan coaching legend Bo Schembechler had a great disdain for recruiting reports.
University of Michigan photo


“Whenever you coach football and especially if you’re head coach you don’t want some Joe Terranova telling you who to recruit,” said Nehlen. “Every team has needs and if you need two linebackers, two running backs, three offensive linemen and two defensive backs, that’s how you judge your class. Did you get what you need?”

Nehlen says Schembechler never looked at a single recruiting report that came his way.

“I at least opened them,” he said. “Bo just threw them into the pile.”

Former UCLA coach Terry Donahue once approached Terranova and asked, “Why do you put so much pressure on me?”

Former USC coach John Robinson used to make it a habit to have his assistants call recruiting services and ask them to lower the ratings of his players to keep expectations from getting too high.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno has such a disdain for the business of recruiting that he doesn’t even announce his class of prospects.

But Terranova and others coming after him were undeterred, even when some of them weren’t making a lot of money. When Lemming issued his Prep Football Report in 1980 he printed 500 copies of his newsletter, admitting later that he sold only two.

“I lost $12,000,” Lemming told Sports Illustrated.

Six years later, however, Lemming’s subscription list grew to 3,000 and today you can read his prep evaluations on ESPN.com and watch him daily on ESPN News. Lemming fashions himself as one of the nation’s foremost recruiting experts who travels the country to seek out the best players.

Lemming's ratings and opinions haven't come without controversy. Last fall Duke student newspaper The Chronicle accused Lemming of influencing basketball recruit Greg Paulus, also a top prep quarterback from New York who signed early with the Blue Devils, to give up basketball through columns in his magazine.

Lemming was also accused of influence pedaling by a Florida State fan website called Warchant.com. The web site said Lemming tried to steer a top California prospect away from the Seminoles a couple of years ago.

Lemming has denied both claims.

“That’s really sad if that’s true,” said Nehlen.

What is undeniable is the influence recruiting experts have on prospects and the reluctance of coaches today to criticize them. Because of their unfettered access to high school players they can have an indirect or even direct impact on the school a player chooses and how he decides to announce it.

Fall into their bad graces and a school could get blackballed.

After recent favorable recruiting write-ups, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano is beginning to get a taste of the other side. The Newark Star-Ledger recently did a lengthy piece on Rutgers’ recruiting difficulties this year, seeking out Lemming to bolster its case.

Schiano issued this response: “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think this is a story on signing day. When articles come out now, it’s not reporting – it’s influencing. I disagree with recruiting articles this time of year.”

WVU Sports Marketing Director Brad Howe says he doesn’t discus recruiting with clients per se and is not that familiar with all of the rating services, but he points to the fact that West Virginia once had more than 8,000 fans watch an exhibition basketball game after the Mountaineers had a highly rated signing class that included prep All-American Jonathan Hargett.

Bobby Burton, whose National Recruiting Advisor was morphed into Rivals.com six years ago, in 2000 was listed by Sporting News along with Lemming as the 88th most powerful persons in sports.

“When the dotted lines are signed on letters of intent, these guys can make or break the reputations of countless college head coaches and assistants,” wrote the publication.

Even Schembechler’s old nemesis made a list that even Bo couldn’t get on: ESPN.com Page 2’s 100 Biggest Innovators of the last 25 years. Terranova was ranked 54th ahead of NBA all-star weekend and just behind NFL free agency.

West coast bird dog Allen Wallace gave up law to begin publishing Super Prep Magazine in 1985 and has made enough money doing it nationally to continue his report today.

Same goes for Max Emfinger, now based in Covington, La., who is still churning out newsletters and posting verbal commitments to his web site after getting his start 20-some years ago rating high school prospects in Texas. In the early going, Emfinger, who exaggerated the number of letters he won playing football at Baylor (he says two but the school says one, according to Sports Illustrated) sometimes offered Texas-sized zingers like his evaluation of Florida running back Emmitt Smith.

Wrote Emfinger: “Emmitt Smith is not a franchise player. He’s a lugger, not a runner. The sportswriters blew him out of proportion. When he falls flat on his face at Florida, remember where you heard it first.”

Wheeling-based Doug Huff, a long-time high school researcher and retired sportswriter at the Intelligencer who created the first national high school record book and has been a prep consultant for Street & Smith and Parade Magazine for nearly 30 years, is one of those who remembers Emfinger’s absurd claim.

“We’ve seen countless numbers of factless claims the last three decades in the numerous publications offered by the recruiting experts,” Huff wrote in one recent StudentSports.com column.

What Terranova started 35 years ago has turned into a profession for literally anyone with the time and willingness to scour the country tracking down, evaluating, and talking to thousands of high school football players.

“You can definitely make money,” admitted Mike White, who identifies top Pennsylvania prospects for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by day and files reports for SuperPrep Magazine and the not-for-the-general-public Dick Lascola recruiting service by night.

Greg Hunter, founder of Blue & Gold News which specializes in coverage of West Virginia University sports, admits his publication wouldn’t have lasted more than 15 years without supplying recruiting information.

“For the first eight or nine years nobody (in West Virginia) was providing this information and we were the lone voice,” he said. “We wouldn’t have survived without it.”

White says today the Internet has forced newspapers to change the way they cover high school recruiting.

“It’s impossible to get a scoop any more because of the Internet,” White said. “Let’s say you had a top kid, 15 years ago you got him and you got the scoop and it was in the paper the next day. Now, if you find out about it at three, four o’clock in the afternoon his buddy or his brother or sister goes to the message board and throws it out there and it’s everywhere.”

 
  West Virginia recruiting coordinator Herb Hand admits the Internet has created a great deal more work for the WVU coaching staff to monitor rumors and gossip.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo

According to West Virginia University recruiting coordinator Herb Hand, the Internet has made him spend a good amount of his day scanning web sites and message boards to find out what is being said about the Mountaineer program.

“If there is something on the computer about West Virginia football I’m going to know about it because it’s my job to know about it,” he said last spring. “If that information is on the Internet that means that any kid from here to China can access it. Any information, whether it’s good or bad, is still information a kid uses to help him make a decision.”

The web, says WVU Compliance Director Brad Cox, is making his job much tougher, too. “We spend more time educating everyone involved of the rules,” he said, noting that the list of those he’s informing is growing exponentially. “The Internet has made football recruiting basically a year-round deal for us.”

Some big-time football programs have now hired people simply to track down Internet rumors and put out fires.

White doesn't begrudge the new wave of Internet recruiting experts saying "everyone has a right to earn a living," but he admits that many of them have hidden agendas and motives.

Yet White does concede that the Internet has a good deal of legitimate information and is used by many reporters to help get leads on stories. However, it causes additional work because information has to be confirmed to make sure it’s accurate. Because a good number of fan web sites don’t hold themselves accountable to normal journalistic standards, it only takes one mistake for a newspaper to be burned.

White believes the challenge today for high school sports reporters is to come up with stuff not on the web and to continue to be as accurate as possible. He says recruiting stories in newspapers are generally presented in a much more polished fashion and objectivity is perhaps the most important criteria for fans to consider.

“I get ripped on the Pitt board all the time because I don’t blow up their recruits,” White said.

So how did these guys become experts? According to Douglass Looney, who authored the 1986 Sports Illustrated piece on high school recruiting, they are experts because they say they are.

“These gurus out there … they rate classes and they do this and they do that,” mentioned Nehlen, whose 1988 team played in the national championship game without having a single prep All-American player. “A football coach is expected to win and he’s expected to be in the top 10 in recruiting that some guy decides who is in the top 10. They don’t know their a-- from second base anyhow.”

“An expert on college recruiting is somebody who knows 10 percent of the available talent while everyone else knows five percent,” Lemming once said. “All I know is that college football is 50 percent coaching and 50 percent recruiting, so that definitely makes recruiting important.”

So important, according to Huff, that ESPN produced a television show in the early 1980s called Scholastic Sports America which helped start the phenomenon. The show eventually proved to be an avenue for a young Colorado reporter named Chris Fowler to get his start at ESPN.

“A lot of things started popping up about 25 years ago,” Huff said. “Between ’80 and ’85 is when it really started.”

Huff says that’s the period when college football recruiting became accessible in the mainstream media. USA Today began picking a national player of the year in the early 1980s and soon fans could find ads for subscriptions to recruiting services in college football magazines and publications. Later recruiting services started charging fans for 900 telephone numbers until the web ended that.

Huff credits ESPN and USA Today among others for bringing recruiting experts out from the fringes and into everyone’s homes. Now the Internet has taken recruiting to a completely different level.

One on-line service has a supervisory board of 12 regional consultants. Rivals.com is perhaps the biggest of the biggest, having 43 full-time employees, more than 200 contract writers and editors and claiming more than 15 million page views per day on its network of web sites, according to a Washington Post article on football recruiting last fall.

“How in the world can a recruiting expert who works at this company have any idea how good this quarterback is in Cleveland, Ohio?” Nehlen asked. “It’s tough enough for a coaching staff to go into that school and talk to the coach, look at film, and then try to judge. That’s a hard job right there, let alone some guy who hears from this guy or that guy that this kid is a great player.”

“A lot of them don’t have the journalistic training to be accurate on names, heights, weights and high schools,” Huff added. “Many of them don’t even know where the high schools are located. Then you see all of this stuff being accepted. What bothers me more than anything is the fact that journalists are getting lazy. They are accepting anything that comes across their desk saying, ‘Well, that’s a source and that will give me a column.’”

White agrees with Huff. “Anything that I see I make sure I check it out,” he said.

Fact-checking took on new meaning a few years ago when a story circulated that a fictitious player was made up with bogus height and weight, and was listed at a non-existent high school. The player eventually made his way onto some recruiting service lists.

According to White, the Internet is on the verge of turning college football recruiting into an uncontrollable monster.

 
  Former WVU coach Don Nehlen says he never let recruiting reports influence his decisions on which prospects to sign.
WVU Sports Communications photo

“Covering recruiting now has become a pain,” he said. “Two things: it never ends now – it used to be you only had to worry about it from November to February – and I do think the kids have become very jaded because the Internet people are calling them all of the time. It’s not just the local papers calling them any more.”

White illustrates his point. “If a kid narrows his list to eight schools in the summer that means automatically he has eight and probably as many as 16 different school-related (fan) web sites calling him right off the bat,” he said. “That doesn’t even include the eight coaches calling him.”

With recruiting information so readily accessible, fans are now virtually inside their favorite school’s recruiting war room.

“Our alumni probably know more about who’s on our recruiting board than I know,” one college recruiter recently told the Washington Post.

That is the primary reason why many sports editors and reporters now resist covering recruiting.

“I don’t go crazy over it because every other day you’re reading a different story,” says Dominion Post sports editor Bob Hertzel. “What is a verbal commitment? It’s a verbal non-commitment. They act like they have to withdraw their previous verbal commitment which didn’t mean anything in the first place.”

Jack Bogaczyk, whose job it is to try and sift through the wheat and the chaff as sports editor of the Charleston Daily Mail, says there is much more chaff than wheat when it comes to recruiting.

“What has happened to us is we’ll have someone call in here two days after some kid has committed and say, ‘Did you know Marshall has gotten a commitment from a junior college tackle from Mississippi?’ I feel like saying, ‘No, I didn’t know that and, two, I don’t care,’” said Bogaczyk.

Tony Caridi hosts a statewide talk show each night on radio stations throughout West Virginia and he often uses recruiting information on his show. But he doesn’t blow it out like he used to after he got burned hyping up a prospect that turned out to be a colossal dud.

“There are just too many players throughout the years that were highly touted that don’t live up to these almost super-human buildups that they receive,” said Caridi. “I think it’s a disservice and I think a lot of these guys are out there doing this to make a fast buck.”

Bogaczyk, like many of his journalistic contemporaries, has a disdain for the amateurish claims and inexactitudes being pedaled by many recruiting web sites.

“We were putting together a tabloid each week during football season and in mid-October Rivals.com did a national ranking of their top 100 and West Virginia’s top recruit at the time was ranked number 85. I remember that specifically because we put it in there,” Bogaczyk said. “By the end of November he wasn’t any different; he was still averaging the same amount of yards per carry yada, yada, yada.

“At the end of November’s rankings he jumped to number 29 in the nation,” Bogaczyk continued. “Now, how did he do that? Here’s how -- because instead of being committed to West Virginia and being recruited by Central Florida, all of the sudden he’s being recruited by Southern Cal and Ohio State as well. My theory on a lot of these recruiting services is it’s not how good a player is, it’s who’s recruiting him.”

What Bogaczyk is talking about is the Notre Dame theory, put simply: Any player good enough to be recruited by Notre Dame is good enough to be on any recruiting list.

That is one of the reasons why recruiting experts are usually defensive about what they do.

“I think there has always been a reason (in the industry) to defend people that do ratings,” White said. “Everybody says look at the ones that were supposed to be good and never amounted to anything and they’re right. But look at all of the ones that were rated real high and did turn out to be what they were supposed to be.”

White is correct. There are many instances when recruiting services were on target. They got quarterback Peyton Manning right. He was the 1994 Gatorade national player of the year. Jerome Bettis, Robert Smith, Joey Galloway and Kyle Brady were all on Max Emfinger’s All-America team in the spring of 1990. Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson and USC quarterback Matt Leinart were correctly pegged by the recruiting experts, too. In this business, just like predicting the weather, a few good calls can take a recruiting expert a long way with his loyal subscribers.

But of course there are the big whiffs, too. In 1986 the consensus No. 1 high school player in the country was a running back from Long Beach, Calif., named Leonard “Eight Ball” Russell, who wound up going to Mount San Antonio Junior College before spending two seasons at Arizona State. He played a total of six seasons in the NFL with New England, Denver, St. Louis and San Diego.

Ranked number two that year behind Eight Ball was a 5-foot-10, 190-pound running back from Pensacola, Fla., named Emmitt Smith. He just happened to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and who, if you remember, was called a ‘lugger’ by Emfinger.

 
  Quarterback Michael Vick was the No. 3-rated player in Virginia as a high school senior by the Roanoke Times.
AP photo


A Google search on football recruiting led to the Roanoke Times rankings of the top players in Virginia for 1998. The No. 1-ranked player in the state that year was Ronald Curry, who wound up going to North Carolina to play both football and basketball and is a backup wide receiver for the Oakland Raiders. The No. 2-rated player was Michigan wide receiver David Terrell.

The Times’ third-best player in Virginia was Michael Vick, probably the only time Vick has ever been third-best in anything.

Huff, who helps select the Parade Magazine All-America team every year, is dumbfounded by the rating system that has become so popular today.

“What is the difference between number 10 and number 20?” he asked. “They’ll say, ‘That guy is 5-10 and that guy is 6 foot so the 6-foot guy is number 10 and the 5-10 guy is number 20.’ They say it’s my opinion because I’m the expert.”

And while ratings are highly subjective, White maintains that schools ultimately have to do it on the field.

“Once you get past the top recruiting classes I mean really, what’s the difference between recruiting class number 15 and 25? What I always find funny are college coaches that say we don’t care where our kids are rated and we believe our kids are big-time players. Well, ask them if they would trade recruiting classes every year with Oklahoma or LSU?”

“Coaches have to believe in what they see,” said Nehlen. “They have to believe in their own evaluation system. Heavens, we played pretty good football at West Virginia and put a ton of kids in the pros and that was because we dug up a lot of good kids that a lot of people didn’t want.”

Yet recruiting rankings have stirred rabid fans to the point that many misguided ones have now become more concerned about how their school does in recruiting rather than how it actually performs on the field.

Recruiting rankings have also brought about the growing notion that there are only 100 good high school football players in the country even though thousands are offered scholarships each year. If you happen to be number 101 on the list then you’re automatically either not that good or considered a 'sleeper', in recruiting jargon.

“What is the difference between 100 and 200?” asked White, “Probably not a whole lot.”

There is even a new fad of rating prospects by a star system. A five star represents the nation’s very best prospect all the way down to one star, which is considered the lowest in the rating system.

“I’ve seen many so-called five-star recruits that couldn’t play dead in a western,” says West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez.

Fans frequently email this web site asking why West Virginia doesn’t land more four- and five-star recruits. One even called me an idiot for not knowing the difference between a four- and five-star player.

“Of course a five-star player is one of the best players in the country, you idiot,” he wrote.

Still confused, I decided to go to Bogaczyk for help. After years of covering Virginia and Virginia Tech football, and patiently spending hours and hours answering mail from rabid fans, he has finally set another one straight.

“People were on George Welsh’s rear end before he retired at Virginia because the program had somewhat stagnated,” Bogaczyk said. “They had been passed by the Hokies and Al Groh was supposed to be the answer. Groh has recruited more four- and five-star players than Virginia has ever had.

“What has been the result? Two Tire Bowls and a Boise Bowl loss to Fresno State.”

Now that is something even I can understand.

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