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RECRUITING TACTICS CAN BOMB

Sometimes, a comment meant to flatter a prospect can backfire against a college.

The recruiter, described by Largo senior Leonard Johnson as a white male between 40 and 50, approached the versatile Packers quarterback recently and let the vernacular fly.

What up, cuz. What's goin' on?

Presumably, the recruiter thought he was being engaging.

Johnson took it as disparaging.

"If it's coming from a brother, like an African-American saying it to another, we understand that language," said Johnson, who is black. "But if it's ... a Caucasian and they emphasize the 'dog' or the 'cuz.' ... In a way it is (disrespectful)."

As Johnson's anecdote attests, the pursuit of a Division I football prospect by fiercely driven coaches not only can be relentless, but downright shameless. Whether it's copping a foreign lingo, calling at obscene hours of the night, or even crashing a banquet, many coaches who play by the rules nonetheless will stop at nothing within the boundaries of what is legal.

Johnson said coaches have called him as late as 11:50 p.m.

Plant City right tackle Mark Popek, who has committed to USF, said two Illinois coaches purchased tickets to the Raiders' season-ending team banquet, presumably to make an impression.

They made the wrong one.

"I was pretty (ticked) off about that because that was kind of a team thing," Popek said. "Unless you tell them, 'Hey, don't do this,' they'll just do it."

Such are the ethical battles waged almost daily this time of year by those under fierce pressure to land a constellation of five-star prospects. The NCAA has extensive recruiting guidelines, including how often a coach can visit a senior prospect (six times from Nov.25, 2007, to Feb.2, 2008, even for dead periods) or phone him (once a week starting Sept.1, with no limit starting Nov.25, except for dead periods).

But within those guidelines, coaches can hemorrhage their dignity while seeking that transfusion of elite-level prep talent into their program.

"You know, this is the most bottom-line business in the world," said Tom Luginbill, national recruiting director for ESPN's Scouts Inc.

"The lifeblood of college football is recruiting, and the lifeblood of these coaches is to win, and the only way to win is to get the best players. So I think that oftentimes coaches, regardless of who they may be or where they may be at, can ... compromise themselves a little bit for the sake of getting that one prospect."

When former Armwood prep All-American Mike Pearson made his official visit to Ohio State, he said then-Buckeyes coach John Cooper singled out an OSU sophomore on the roster and asked Pearson if he thought he was better than that player.

"I'm like, 'Coach, that guy's a sophomore and I'm only in high school,'" recalled Pearson, who went on to play at Florida and in the NFL.

"And he says, 'Of course you're better than that guy. That's why we're recruiting you.' I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute, what about when I'm a sophomore and a high school senior is here. Is he going to say the same thing to them?' So that kind of raised a red flag."

If flattery's not involved, extravagant promises often are. Johnson, who was visited by eight colleges last week, said he has been promised everything by recruiters, from his jersey number of choice to a starting job.

"I get a lot of those," he said. "It's like, 'You're starting, whatever you want to play; we just want you here, buddy. We'll take care of you when you get up here. You'll have to want for nothing.' I don't want to go into depth because I don't want to say the wrong thing, but it is a lot."

So where do coaches draw the line? In a business where the rules are clear but ethical standards aren't, exactly when is integrity or dignity compromised?

"The dignity (of a coach) comes from the promises you make," said former Alabama and Georgia Tech coach Bill Curry, now an ESPN college football analyst.

"If you start waffling and saying things that can't be true, such as 'You'll play in the NFL,' or 'You'll play as a freshman,' that destroys your dignity."

USF recruiting coordinator Carl Franks concurs, saying he never has promised a recruit a starting job and never has made an official visit in which he felt he left his dignity at the front door.

But some might ask if Florida coaches left theirs at the front gate of the Armwood-Miami Washington playoff game in December.

At that contest, two of the five University of Florida coaches in attendance spent most of the contest in the bleachers, sitting on opposite sides of Hawks offensive tackle Matt Patchan's parents. At an ensuing home visit, Gators offensive line coach Steve Addazio put on an apron and helped Patchan's mom, Deanne, prepare some beef tenderloin.

Franks, for one, sees no problem with such actions - as long as the family welcomed them. And Patchan committed to UF.

A recruit was won over. Was self-respect lost?

And in a business where second place may as well be last place, does it matter?

"The big thing with coaches is, you lose your dignity when you start making promises you can't keep," Curry said. "The parents know it, the kids know it, and they see right through that."

Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3350.

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