TAMPA — As high school football becomes more like its college and professional forms — with ESPN cameras stationed throughout stadiums, uniforms bearing Nike swooshes, and more intensive media attention — it's easy for high school coaches to joke about the "free agency" season that occurs every summer.
"There are small-market teams like us," said Leto High offensive coordinator Frank Rose, "and other teams that don't have a salary cap."
Players have always transferred from school to school, but there hasn't been as much documented movement of bay area players as in this offseason. More than 40 high-profile Hillsborough County football players have switched schools — some twice since the end of last season. In Pasco County, transfer numbers are up as well. Rose said one promising lineman recently offered to transfer to Leto if coaches made his car payment.
"And he would have made a difference," said Rose, whose team went 3-7 last season.
It makes some coaches like Tampa Bay Tech's C.C. Culpepper and Chamberlain's Joe Severino keep their best players under wraps. Severino's team won't participate in the popular seven-on-seven summer tournaments because he sees them as a breeding ground for vulture recruiting tactics. Culpepper takes his team to Manatee County.
"I know what goes on there," said Severino, who is entering his first season at Chamberlain but has 15 years of head coaching experience in Hillsborough County. "I don't want my kids anywhere near it."
Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia had eight transfers come in since the end of last season, but he said seven players left, including three who have come and gone since the 2008 season's end.
"I think it's gotten a little more prevalent," Garcia said. "But the bottom line is that no student can withdraw from any school without a parent's signature. The parents have to be a part of it.
"If a parent thinks their kid has a better chance elsewhere, they're going to do it."
State and local administrators say prevalent transfers aren't new. Sonny Hester, the Florida High School Athletic Association associate executive director/chief administrative officer, said transfers have been a problem since 1996, when state law allowed students to be eligible to play sports at schools on a year-to-year basis.
"Transfers and recruiting are two different things," said Hester, formerly athletic director at Jesuit and Brandon. "Recruiting is where someone urges or entices someone to come to their school. Transferring, 99.9 percent of the time, it's the parents exerting their choice."
In Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, public school students have the option, through school choice, to move to any school in the county as long as the new school isn't over capacity. In Hillsborough County, a student can also apply for a "choice hardship," which allows the student to transfer to a capped school. The only other option is moving within the boundaries of a specific school district, but even then a student can't transfer for athletic reasons alone.
Hillsborough County public schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said it's not uncommon for a student to attend five high schools in three years just through moving — across all grades last year there were 13,107 transfers — so unless a move raises a red flag, there's little reason to question it.
Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson believes that number might be low because it doesn't include students who transfer from other districts.
"It's not a new issue," Robinson said. "It is a societal issue. People are going to look for a better opportunity for their children, whether it's academic or athletic or music, to give them a better opportunity to move on past high school."
Then there are players who have attended three schools in a matter of months — like high-profile defensive tackle Eric Hammond, who went from Chamberlain to Hillsborough to Wharton, or running back Cary White (Gaither to Chamberlain to Sickles) or rising sophomore quarterback Greg Windham (Middleton to Chamberlain to King).
"That hurts the high school experience," Robinson said. "I'd like to see kids finish at the school that they started."
Violations difficult to monitor
Hester said the FHSAA receives anonymous complaints of illegal transfers and recruiting "all the time," but few are backed with the evidence needed to launch an investigation.
"We only get probably five a month that are signed," Hester said. "But we get between 40 and 50 e-mails a month saying someone is recruiting somebody."
The same goes for Hillsborough County, where Robinson said he constantly receives anonymous tips about recruiting and transfers. He said in his three years as county AD, he has received only five written complaints signed by the accuser with enough evidence to mount an investigation. He said all were investigated and only two, including the case of former Armwood running back Sir Chauncey Holloway (he received a one-year suspension for falsifying his address), were proved.
Pasco County athletic director Phil Bell said he goes through the 3-inch stack of school choice applications each year and will follow up on any that jump out at him.
Bell said it's fairly rare, but "we don't want any situation where, after the fact, somebody points fingers that somebody was transferring for a reason that they shouldn't have been, or somebody was encouraging a student-athlete to go to a school."
Robinson said some schools, including those with prominent football programs, have administrators check out addresses multiple times for transfers who moved into the district to make sure they're legitimate.
"The Plants, Armwoods and Hillsboroughs, they know they're under a microscope," Robinson said. "So those administrators double check and triple check. Is it foolproof? No. Will people still lie sometimes? It's possible. But these are school administrators, not investigators."
Plant linebacker/running back James Wilder Jr., son of former Bucs running back James Wilder Sr., transferred from Chamberlain after moving with his mother into Plant's district. He said Plant administrators have visited his house multiple times.
"There are a lot of transfers," Wilder said. "Most of them might not be doing it for their education, they're doing it for football. But my mom wanted what's best for me so we moved here.
"Plant is a good school and it's good in football. It's the best of both worlds."
Hester said it's important to differentiate between transferring and recruiting.
"It's the transferring people don't like," Hester said. "You don't hear about recruiting that much. Sir Chauncey Holloway wasn't recruiting. We said if he would flip on Armwood we'd give him a break. Both him and the dad said no, it was their attempt to get him in a better football situation. I'm convinced 99 percent of the time that's what it is, it's parents shopping their kids to Armwood or Plant or wherever the hot school is so they'll have a better chance of getting a scholarship."
Technology an issue
In the days of the Internet, high school athletics have never received more attention, or been more scrutinized.
"There was recruiting 20 years ago," Garcia said. "But you didn't know anything about it until the programs came out and you saw the rosters."
Blogs report the latest transfers, online message boards frequented by coaches pitch promising scenarios about players for all to see, and text messaging has created another difficult-to-trace way for coaches and players to contact each other.
"The phrase we use is any communication," Hester said. "That would cover Web boards or text messaging, things like that. Anytime a kid or parent contacts a coach and wants to talk about their program, the coach has to immediately send them to someone responsible for registering the student. They can't talk to them."
Plant City coach Jason Strunk said players have showed him text messages from other coaches, but said it doesn't stop there.
"Sometimes coaches will come up to kids at a track meet," Strunk said. "It's all over the place. I don't get involved in it because I want to build a program with the kids I have. I told my coaches that if I hear about them calling a kid, I will fire them on the spot."
Little action among players in Pinellas
While transfers are abundant in Hillsborough and Pasco counties, there has been little movement among football players in Pinellas.
Some coaches say that is due to the $13,000 fine and three-year postseason ban the FHSAA levied against St. Petersburg Catholic in 2006 for three counts of recruiting and four counts of illegal practices. SPC eventually had the fine and postseason ban reduced.
"I think what happened to St. Petersburg Catholic got a lot of attention and opened some eyes," Dixie Hollins coach Mike Morey said. "It took them a long time to get that fine and ban reduced. Coaches are more aware that if you recruit, it could be costly."
Students at Pinellas County public schools can be ruled ineligible if they participate in offseason summer workouts at a school not in their zone, then transfer there during open enrollment. The exception is if a student works out at a school in the summer while on the waiting list for a magnet program and is accepted into that program before the first day of classes.
"The county has done a good job of educating and communicating what you can and can't do as far as transferring," Pinellas County athletic director Nick Grasso said. "There's a strong signal here to not recruit. And if you do, there will be consequences."
Staff writers Izzy Gould, Joey Knight and Bob Putnam contributed to this report.