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College hopefuls find tireless promoters in prep coaches

Running back Ricky Ponton is the quickest player Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia has been around. Vernon Daniels is one of the best cover cornerbacks Garcia has coached. Long-snapper T.J. Wilson is in a class of his own.

Garcia knows all three could contribute to a college football program. Getting the word out, however, is a full-time job.

"It is enormously time-consuming," Garcia said. "We work as hard in the recruiting process from December through probably June 1 as we do from August to December coaching the football team."

High school coaches are the megaphones through which players project their potential. They make phone calls, splice videotape, host college coaches and prepare players for interviews, sacrificing much of their time and, in some cases, money.

When it comes to the recruiting process, they are part Don King, part Steven Spielberg, part Miss Manners.

"Whatever the family wants me to play, I'll play," Jesuit coach Bill Schmitz said. "Whether it's advice, making phone calls, whatever."

The work coaches do behind the scenes before national signing day, this year on Feb. 4, plays a large part in helping players find places to continue their education and playing careers.

"The first year I played, I wasn't getting my name out to colleges," said Countryside wide receiver Jermaine Filer, who is considering South Florida, Kansas State and Marshall. "But now I am. (Coach John Davis) kept putting my name out and giving colleges my highlight tapes."

For coaches, the recruiting cycle starts in the spring. That's when Division I schools identify the players they want to follow as seniors.

As many as 70 Division I schools visit Hillsborough High each spring to watch practice. Garcia receives an equal number of requests for videotape. At the least, schools want to see tape of two games. Along with the tape, Garcia encloses a roster and information sheet.

"And that's just Division I," Garcia said. "Then, you've got D-II, I-AA, junior college and D-III."

Davis reviews all 10-12 of his team's games when putting together a tape. If a player looked good on a play, it goes on the tape. Knowing college coaches could have as many as 40 or 50 tapes on their desk at a given time, Davis front-loads his tape with highlights in the hope of grabbing their attention, then includes two complete games at the end.

Davis doesn't have the luxury of editing machines, so it takes four to five hours to put together a single tape using the two VCRs in his office. If the recruit plays on offense and defense, the process can take twice as long.

Like a resume, the tape is only the beginning of the college search. If a school is interested, a representative might request a transcript or another tape. If the high school booster club is not willing or able to pick up the cost, it falls to the coach to pay for videotapes, postage and long distance calls.

Though most high school coaches are well-intended, some go too far.

In 2001, Memphis Trezevant coach Lynn Lang and assistant Milton Kirk pushed defensive tackle Albert Means toward Alabama in exchange for $200,000 from a Crimson Tide booster. Both pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges in connection with the scheme. Alabama received five years' probation and Means transferred to Memphis.

Area coaches agree honesty is the best policy when dealing with colleges. If a coach talks up a player who doesn't meet expectations, the college is less likely to listen the next time the coach calls touting one of his players.

"You really can't oversell a player," said East Bay coach Brian Thornton, "because if you do, you're hurting your credibility."

If trust is established, coaches can develop relationships that can help both parties for years and even benefit other high schools.

"If I know what a college is looking for and if I don't have it and I know another school in the area does, I'm going to turn them onto that," Thornton said.

The process starts during a player's junior year. In December, Schmitz met with his junior players' parents and asked three questions: Does your son want to play in college? Where would he be willing to play? Where do academics fit in?

Then he told them what opportunities were available. In the 1970s, the NCAA first limited the number of scholarships at each school to 125. Division I schools today are allowed 85. Since there are around 110 Division I schools, that means about 4,400 fewer scholarships than 30 years ago.

"It's very selective on the colleges' part and very competitive on the high school athletes' part," Schmitz said, "and I don't think a lot of people realize that."

Contact from colleges lessens during the season, when schools can speak with coaches but are prohibited from talking to players. After the season, recruiters can visit weekly to talk to players right up until signing day.

Coaches, who might make a couple of thousand dollars a year as their stipend, take calls from colleges, reporters or recruiting analysts seven days a week. Schmitz said he regularly finds between six and nine messages on his answering machine, all recruiting related, after returning from class. A coach from a West Coast school once forgot about the three-hour time difference and called Garcia at 1 a.m. His wife told the coach to call back during business hours.

Davis prepares his players for coaches' visits by teaching them etiquette. Each year, he meets with his seniors and tells them how he expects them to act: "I don't want you coming in looking sloppy. Shake the man's hand like a man, look him in the eye, ask him questions, answer his questions."

High school coaches or their assistants often are among the last people players call before they leave for a recruiting trip and the first when they return. For Chamberlain's Brandon Williams, that person is wide receivers coach Al McCray.

"He coaches me on what to do when I get up there," said Williams, who is considering Iowa State and Akron. "(He says), "Go up there, have a good time. You'll know where you want to be by how you vibe with everybody, how you feel about the atmosphere.' "

As signing day nears, smaller schools begin calling in hopes of landing recruits who fall through the cracks.

"There is a school that young man can go out there and play football for everyone," Davis said. "It may not be Florida or Florida State or Notre Dame, but if he wants to play football, we've just got to go out there and find the right situation for him."

Those schools don't have the budgets or full-time recruiting coordinators of Division I schools, which results in more work for high school coaches.

"Those big-time guys don't need a lot of push," Davis said. "Once coaches get on them, that kind of takes care of itself. The guys that need help are the I-AA, Division II guys. Those are the ones I spend most of my time trying to get placed."

One time saver is the annual small school recruiting fair, to be held Feb. 14-15 at East Bay and Feb. 16-17 at Lake Wales. Representatives from about 25 schools are expected to attend, meet with coaches and view videotape.

Academic requirements are the same for Division I and I-AA schools, but Division II and III and junior colleges have their own sets of rules. Coaches have to know the differences.

To make sure their players meet academic requirements, Davis' staff creates files on each during his freshman and sophomore years and keeps track of the courses a player needs to qualify.

The most frustrating part for coaches is having a Division I player with Division III grades or an Ivy League student with junior college talent.

"I tell our players, "If you're going to work hard for us and do the things we ask you to do and be in the weight room and do all that running, I feel it's my job to help you get placed out there,' " Davis said.

No matter how much work is involved.

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