TAMPA — The sky is graying above Hillsborough High’s Chelo Huerta Field on this July afternoon. Earl Garcia, the Terriers’ 60-year-old football coach, stands just beyond the north end zone, wishing the storms away.
His 4-year-old grandson, Earl IV, tugs at his shirt. The two dozen or so teenagers stretching on the field? They tug at his soul. Always have.
“The kids are still my heroes,” said Garcia, who embarks on his 40th season as a high school coach this fall. “The kids haven’t changed, they really haven’t.”
Yet the society surrounding them has, and you really don’t want to get Garcia started on it.
“There’s a sense of entitlement (among kids), but someone’s got to teach you that,” he said. “That’s a learned behavior.”
Sense of entitlement. For many prep coaches, that ominous phrase can be condensed into a four-letter word: diva.
“One of the worst things that can happen to a kid,” said Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State, “is to tell them how talented they are when they’re young.”
These days, they’re being told at younger and younger ages.
Puberty, then publicity
As the millennium has sprouted, so too has the media coverage of high school sports.
Collectively, college football and basketball recruiting websites have evolved from cottage to corporate industry, attracting millions of unique visitors each month. Their databases feature a recruit’s comprehensive physical blueprint — from vital signs to vertical leaps.
National watch lists for prospective college stars are trending younger. Instead of just ranking the top senior or junior football players, there’s been an increase in freshmen and sophomore rankings. There are basketball sites devoted to top middle school and elementary players.
And Latanna Stone, an 11-year-old golfer from Valrico, is National Junior Golf Scoreboard’s top prospect for the class of 2019, according to a news release from IMG Academy, where she recently enrolled. 2019.
When recruits make nonbinding oral commitments to colleges, a throng of reporters — representing newspapers, niche websites, even national TV — often converge at homes or schools to chronicle the event. Nearly every scholarship offer they’ve received has long since been tweeted.
Frequently, the teenagers play the publicity for all they can. On Feb. 2, 2011, national signing day came and went without defensive end Jadeveon Clowney — widely deemed the nation’s most coveted recruit — announcing his college decision.
When he finally chose the University of South Carolina 12 days later, on his birthday, he did it on ESPN’s SportsCenter. “I want to make people wait,” Clowney told NBC Sports.
“We roasted (LeBron James), but we let 17-year-old kids do that on TV and all that, and we wonder why they have this attitude going through,” Pasco County athletic director Phil Bell said. “The culture has created that.”
Meantime, national and regional broadcasts of prep football and basketball games seem to increase annually, making instant celebrities of sophomores or juniors. On Twitter and Facebook, those same kids make celebrities of themselves.
“There are kids who play for the next level and don’t play for the name that’s on the front of their jersey,” said Tampa Prep boys basketball coach Joe Fenlon said, who completed his 30th season last winter.
“And that didn’t happen before the onset of social media — kids tweeting after games about how they did.”
And so society’s mantra keeps shifting, from stay humble to stay tuned. Somewhere along the way, the image of a prominent recruit standing before a thicket of microphones and college hats transitioned from clever to cliche.
“I’d much rather walk into a commitment (ceremony) where a kid thanks his parents — like (Plant High linebacker) Andrew Beck did — and puts on a Texas jersey. Something real simple,” said Josh Newberg, a Florida-based recruiting analyst for 247Sports.
“Sometimes I think the hat thing is kind of embarrassing. Multiple times they’ll put hats on the table where I know for a fact some of those colleges aren’t even recruiting him anymore.”
Everybody wins … or do they?
If the media are perceived as the main culprits in the advancement of the entitlement culture, they have some willing accomplices, coaches and experts insist.
Among them: youth sports, where all often are rewarded regardless of ability or outcome; and high school feeder programs. At the middle school level, some school districts employ a “fifth quarter” for team sports, designed to provide playing time to less-skilled athletes.
“I guess this comes from playing in the youth leagues and little leagues where everybody gets to play and gets a trophy,” said longtime Chamberlain softball coach Bobby Diez, who has won two state titles in his 22 seasons.
“I don’t think kids want to compete anymore, so they find another school. Once they get in high school, they’re four years removed from being adults and being in the cruel world where not everyone gets a trophy.”
Lakewood girls basketball coach Necole Tunsil, who led the Spartans to the Class 4A state title in 2011, says some parents “have a difficult time understanding why their child played in middle school or played in Little League and they aren’t playing now.”
Strawberry Crest softball coach and volleyball assistant Mindy Miltner concurs.
“In middle school volleyball, everybody gets a certain amount of minutes,” Miltner said.
“When they come to us, some are like, ‘Coach I didn’t play my 10 minutes.’ Before the season starts, we sit down with the parents and players, go through the handbook, break down that this is not Little League and not club (level) where you can pay me to play.”
“We deal with students who feel they are entitled to certain things,” veteran Tampa Catholic boys basketball coach Don Dziagwa said, “and many of them don’t understand how hard they need to work.”
Those who don’t find contentment quickly move on. Until a rigid transfer policy was implemented by Hillsborough County’s school district last year, de facto free agency among its athletes had grown at alarming rates.
Garcia recalls a parent approaching him at the end of a football season, asking for his help in securing a scholarship for his son. The only glitch: The kid in question, who had transferred from another school, never played a down for Garcia due to academic ineligibility.
Four summers ago, more than 40 prominent county football players transferred.
“I think a lot of kids are always looking for something different,” Fenlon said. “There’s not enough stability …there’s no loyalty anymore.”
In its place, on society’s figurative front burner, simmers this sociological stew.
Gould, the Michigan State professor, says the Internet age helps it boil over. We want instant information, instant gratification. We want to magnify potential, and minimize the process needed to realize it.
“We (as the media) definitely add to (the culture), but just like anything, you’ve got to have strong parents behind you to keep you level-headed,” Newberg said.
“It wouldn’t be any different from a kid in high school who gets an early acting or singing career and has to blend into the same high school social setting.
“You’ve got to grow up a little bit quicker. Some do and some don’t.”
Illustration by the Times' Cameron Cottrill.
Staff writers Matt Baker and Rodney Page contributed to this report. Joey Knight can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JoeyHomeTeam.
Preps hit prime time
How media coverage of high school/youth sports has grown on a national scale
• According to its tax returns, Little League earns $4 million annually from broadcasting fees.
• In 2002, ESPN aired one prep football game (U.S. Army All-American Bowl). Since 2010, its family of networks has aimed to broadcast 25-30 a year depending on matchups and schedule availability, spokeswoman Gracie Blackburn said.
• Since being founded in California in 2002, MaxPreps — the online prep sports site devoted to high school statistics, standings and stories — has grown to include 40 staffers and roughly 1,000 national correspondents. In April 2007, it was acquired by CBS.
• Since 2006, more than a dozen football games involving three Hillsborough County schools (Armwood, Plant, Jefferson) have been broadcast on national TV. Plant alone has competed in 10 of them.
• In March 2011, less than four years after being acquired by Yahoo!, Rivals.com reached 28.39 million unique users.* Considered one of the nation’s top news sources for college football and basketball recruiting, the site was launched in May 2001.
• From June 2012 until the day he signed with the University of Florida on Feb. 6, Wharton cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, widely considered among the top five high school players from the Class of 2013, had his name published in the Tampa Bay Times 105 times. During that same span, Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackling leader Lavonte David’s name appeared 112.
• Less than 30 months after being launched by former Rivals founders, 247Sports, another recruiting-heavy online service, recorded 1.801 million unique visitors.* In May, it was named official recruiting partner of CBSSports.com.
*According to ComScore Media Metrix
About this series
Almost any high school coach around — and we’ve interviewed dozens lately — will agree some thorns have sprouted at the grass roots level. As the millennium continues to blossom, prep sports are evolving in some areas but regressing in others. Media coverage surges even as parental patience dissipates. Club and AAU teams are complementing some sports while killing others. And amid it all, coaches still earn only a few dimes an hour for their toil. Our five-part Varsity Blues series examines the biggest problems in 21st century prep sports and what solutions — if any — can be forged.
Catch up on earlier parts of the series here.