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Battling the specter of recruiting

There's a dark cloud of smoke advancing across the state, threatening to envelop, and maybe even choke, the Florida high schools. Coaches know about it. They fear it. And some principals outright admit what it really is.

"I can assure you, this is not just talk. We have a crisis," said Norman Shearin at the Florida High School Activities Association annual meetings last week.

The crisis is high school recruiting.

Unlike college, high school coaches, booster clubs, or any other agent of the school cannot entice students to attend their school. Recruiting might be illegal according to FHSAA by-laws, but according to principals and coaches around the state _ and in Pinellas county _ private and public high schools find a way to get around the rules.

"You've got 10-15 schools in this state blatantly recruiting," said Shearin, principal at Boca Raton Community High School.

In the past three years alone, the FHSAA has recorded cases of violations in Miami, Jacksonville, and, as recently as March 1990, at Pinellas Park High School. (Girls' basketball coach Ed Jackson was accused of having "questionable conversations" with parents of students not living in the Pinellas Park zone. But investigations from the county school board could not find him in violation.)

The other crisis that emerges from recruiting is the infighting _ the bitter, petty battles among the member schools accusing each other of violations. Coaches court players who would not necessarily live in their district. Teams establish dynasties and coaches cry foul.

The big problem is they often cry without showing the milk on the floor. Proving the allegations is the stumbling block.

But now, the FHSAA thinks it has found a solution, a drastic solution that no other state has resorted to yet.

Enter the Enforcer..

The FHSAA decided last week to hire a special investigator who will prove accusations and place schools on probation, fine them and even suspend entire athletic programs, much like what happens to schools in the NCAA. If this person can't be the terminator, then at least the investigator will be a deterrent, the FHSAA hopes.

"Before, we had no time or the staff to devote to this," said former commissioner Fred Rozelle. "We couldn't dig deep enough."

Before, principals were responsible for "cleaning their own house" _ investigating allegations brought against their school. In some cases, the county school board, superintendent and athletic director would join in and then a report would be sent to the commissioner of the FHSAA.

But with the appointment of the special investigator, the buck will go past the commissioner, Ronald Davis. He can now decide whether a case is worthy of special investigation and will then appoint this person _ possibly a retired NCAA, FBI or IRS investigator trained in probing and proving.

One state _ Ohio _ hires an attorney from time to time, but not a trained investigator, according to Duane Warns, assistant commissioner of the Ohio High School Athletic Association. The need for this type of enforcer here, though, begs the question: "How rotten are things in the state of Florida?" Is Florida progressive or regressive?

And this leads to a subsequent question. If things are so bad, if recruiting is causing so much distrust and destroying the spirit of competition, then will the seemingly progressive act of hiring a retired NCAA agent be the solution?

"I just don't see how one person can cover the whole state of Florida," said Dan Wright, boys basketball coach at Lakewood, who nevertheless hails the advent of an investigator as long overdue.

"Now maybe we'll be doing more than looking at it. We won't sweep (allegations) under the table or just give a reprimand."

"I think it's an excellent move," said Fred Dyles, basktball coach at Gibbs, pleased that an investigator might stop the injustice that he says he sees but would not relate in detail."(Recruiting) is being done big time here."

Bob Hosack, Pinellas County director of centralized athletics, maintains that Pinellas hasn't reached a crisis stage yet, and while he gets phone calls weekly about violations, the last written report he received was about the 1990 Pinellas Park issue.

"That was tough to prove because there were parents involved and so many conflicting stories," he said.

Hosack, and his colleague in Hillsborough County, Wayne Williamson, are both hoping the mere presence of an investigator will reduce the number of unsubstantiated claims.

The FHSAA hasn't yet worked out the details, such as where to find the person and how to pay him or her. The FHSAA has decided, however, that a school found in violation could pay up to $2,500 in fines (not to mention probation and possible suspension), which would cover the part-time salary of the investigator.

But if the school is found innocent, the FHSAA is also thinking of dumping the financial burden on the accuser.

Perhaps this would have an adverse effect. People might remain mum if they can't get the perpetrators to speak definitively. And a true problem might go unreported.

The effect the investigator will have is unclear now, and will be until the first case. Nonetheless, the FHSAA has taken a step into the smoke, a haze as thick as the rumors and contentions it's trying to dispel.