IMG Academy coach Kevin Wright has been around impressive high school football programs in the past. His previous stops include Warren Central and Carmel, which annually compete for state titles in Indiana. • But even Wright, hired March 30 to replace Chris Weinke, marveled at the sheer size of IMG during a recent tour of the Bradenton campus with a college coach. • "We were driving around and just shaking our head at how big this place is," Wright said. "From that standpoint, just going around and seeing all the buildings in place, it's hard not to be in awe." • IMG sits on 584 acres — more than double the size of the University of Miami's campus in Coral Gables. It is not just in size that IMG mimics major colleges, it is in stature, especially with the cornerstone of its high school athletic colossus: football.
The academy boasts a state-of-the-art weight room, a 40,000 square-foot athletic center with locker rooms that rival any NFL team, practice fields, a stadium that seats 5,000, modernized classrooms and dorms — all part of a $198 million expansion project.
For most of its existence, IMG (International Management Group) served as a sports agency that eventually courted the tennis and golf set, and provided training for college prospects preparing for the NFL scouting combine.
In the past two decades, the jock empire ventured into more traditional high school sports, offering soccer and baseball in 1994, followed by basketball in 2001 as part of its academy division.
But the crown jewel came with the addition of football in 2013. IMG pulled out all the stops during its construction phase. Armed with the best facilities in the state, the caliber of athletes it attracts also has opened eyes.
The current football roster is a constellation of five- and four-star prospects, and is wide-ranging with players from 20 states and seven countries.
"The media often focus on five-stars, but we focus on developing each student-athlete," IMG athletic director Greg Phillips said. "Our kids are getting noticed no matter where they are on the roster, and our depth of talent allows for tremendous daily competition and personal growth.
"We have 10-plus college coaches from all over the country here regularly and that's because these coaches see how we prepare these kids to contribute at the next level. Many students across all our sports take advantage of their development and exposure here to ultimately gain admission to programs they previously thought were not an option."
But Division I coaches blanket practices at other high schools around the state as well. And before landing at IMG, many players already had high rankings and plenty of attention from major D-I programs.
So what is the appeal of an independent program that is not eligible to play for a state title?
Getting ahead of the curve
Defensive back Saivion Smith enjoyed a meteoric rise at Boca Ciega and Lakewood high schools, nabbing offers from Clemson, Florida, Florida State and Ohio State. But he transferred to IMG in July, mostly for academic reasons.
"I already had a list of big-time colleges that were after me before I got here," said Smith, an LSU commit ranked the nation's No. 2 cornerback in the 2016 class by 247Sports. "The college-like atmosphere (at IMG) was big. High school kids in the summer are usually going to sleep in all day and then go to work. I was waking up at 5 a.m. to go lift. Then I had practice at 7 a.m. It takes some time to get used to that, and you have to juggle football and schoolwork, too.
"At Lakewood or anywhere else, you get the football side of it, but here you get the school side of it, and you're living away from home because you can't live at home and go to college. There's absolutely no regrets. It's going to pay off."
The education is touted as intensive with a challenging college-style curriculum that requires homework nightly in every class. The tuition is expensive, ranging from $54,300 to $68,500 a year for boarding students, though financial aid is offered on a limited basis.
But not every player is ready for that intense focus on college preparedness. Just last month, sophomore offensive tackle Calvin Ashley returned to Orlando Dr. Phillips after a brief stay at IMG. Considered one of the top offensive linemen in the country, Ashley told the Orlando Sentinel that he was homesick and that the daily grind at IMG was too overwhelming.
"It's a very hard structure that gets you ready for college," said former IMG quarterback Deondre Francois, who will play for Florida State in the fall. "It's really, really tough. When I get to college, it should be easy. As a freshman, I should already be adapted to the college life."
IMG reaps the benefits from its harvest of blue-chippers on national signing day. In its first two seasons, IMG had a combined 34 players who signed letters of intent to play in college.
"We want to create a healthy environment where these kids can be challenged both academically and athletically," said Weinke, the former Florida State quarterback and 2000 Heisman Trophy winner who guided the IMG program through its first two seasons before leaving to become quarterbacks coach for the St. Louis Rams.
"If we're going through the process of identifying the right type of kids, I don't think it should come as a surprise (about having so many guys sign with Division I programs)."
Targeting local talent
IMG has raised its profile thanks to an influx of area standouts. Besides Smith, this spring's roster includes Shavar Manuel (formerly at Blake High), TJ Chase (Plant City), Tony Jones (St. Petersburg Catholic) and Malik Barrow (Tampa Catholic) — all ranked among the top 300 players in the 2016 class by 247Sports.
The departure of so many locals has drawn the ire of area coaches who will not schedule IMG because they feel players are influenced to go there. East Lake coach Bob Hudson refuses to attend IMG camps and has asked the school to remove him from its email list.
"In all honesty, I think coaches do not want to schedule (IMG) because they feel their players will be recruited," Clearwater Central Catholic coach John Davis said.
Davis was the only coach within a 100-mile radius to schedule IMG in its first two seasons before dropping it this year. Now, the Ascenders have just three teams from the state — Plantation American Heritage, Cocoa and Miramar — on the fall schedule.
"I've never been afraid to schedule anybody," Davis said. "I'm not trying to go 10-0. We were competitive both years we played, but you have to wonder how long that will last when they continue to keep bringing in four- and five-star guys from all over the country, all over the world really.
"We're trying to play high school teams. This is essentially a college team."
But IMG does not always get the players it wants.
The school missed out on a pair of area five-star receivers, East Lake's George Campbell and Tampa Catholic's Nate Craig-Myers.
Campbell, now at FSU, said IMG found his email address and started sending him information about camps and tours. He also said players from IMG talked to him about going there.
"(IMG) recruited me hard," he said.
Two years ago, Campbell took a tour of IMG with his uncle Ahmad Jackson. Before the two made it back to Interstate 75 on the way home, Campbell had already made up his mind to stay at East Lake.
"IMG is a beautiful campus with some of the best facilities in the country," Campbell said. "But aside from that, they didn't have anything else they can offer me other than some good training. They're not playing for a state title. That's what I wanted.
"Plus, it's too much college preparedness too soon. Think about it. If you're a freshman, you have to live there for four years. That's four years away from your parents. Then you have another four years away from your parents in college. That's eight of the most important years of your life when you're still growing that you're away from your parents. It's too much."
Craig-Myers said he thought about going to IMG before he transferred from Pasco High to Tampa Catholic entering his junior season.
"IMG is more of a college atmosphere. I want to be able to enjoy my senior year, get the whole feel for it — prom, graduating with my friends," said Craig-Myers, a five-star recruit who recently decommitted from Auburn. "I'll have a chance to do the same things they do at IMG in the next four years. It's a great opportunity for (the ones that go), and I wish the best for them."
Reining in IMG
Tampa Catholic coach Mike Gregory, who lost Ohio State commit Barrow this year, said IMG coaches have been calling Craig-Myers, trying to entice him to their campus.
Gregory, whose own football program recently went through a state investigation into recruiting allegations but was ultimately cleared, thinks it's time for the Florida High School Athletic Association to look at IMG with the same magnifying glass it applies to other high schools.
"I think something is going to have to be done to kind of level that playing field a little bit," he said
But the FHSAA doesn't appear to see any problems with IMG's tactics.
As an independent member school, the Ascenders are ineligible to play for an FHSAA state title. The setup is similar to the one the state organization has with Montverde Academy, a powerhouse basketball program in Lake County that was ranked No. 1 in the nation this past season.
"We basically try to look at the business model of schools such as IMG and Montverde and try to work with them," said FHSAA administrator Seth Polansky, who is in charge of school membership and renewal. "The biggest thing we try to do is make sure there is not an unfair advantage in the state series (playoffs). That's why those schools are independents given the way they are able to bring in athletes from all over the country."
But some coaches worry about that business model and whether the big bucks poured into creating a program like IMG's spoils the purity of high school sports.
Matt LePain was one of the first area coaches to lose players to IMG. While at Palm Harbor University, he saw receiver Shane Dixon and linebacker John Tauber transfer out. Dixon signed at Division I-AA Youngstown State and Tauber is a preferred walk-on at Miami.
"I wouldn't hold it against a kid if he wanted to go. If his parents want to pay $66,000 a year, or go for free, whatever the case may be, and get supposedly world-class training, then more power to him," said LePain, now Dunedin's coach. "The problem is we're now taking a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kid and throwing him into a business. It's no longer fun.
"And that's what football has become — a business. It's no longer about the team concept. It's about the individual and what can be done for him. That's the perception that IMG, among others, has created."
Looking at the bigger picture
IMG's aspirations are not really about team success. Instead, Phillips said, the goal is to make sure players are challenged every day, "whether in practice or game situations."
Still, the talent acquired over the years has placed IMG on a lofty perch. The Ascenders are ranked among the top 25 teams in the nation and have a legitimate shot at moving to the top spot by the end of the 2015-16 season.
Despite playing only a handful of state teams, IMG still has a tough schedule with seven games against nationally ranked teams, including road trips to Desoto High in Texas and Bergen Catholic in New Jersey.
"When you're good, nobody wants to play you," Wright said. "(But) this is the type of schedule that is going to prepare our kids. Every week will be a challenge. It's also part of the whole college preparedness that is a big emphasis. The kids will have to get on a plane, stay in a hotel and get up the next day to play a game.
"That's something most high school kids do not have the opportunity to do."
Staff writer Kelly Parsons contributed to this report. Contact Bob Putnam at email@example.com. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.