Has college football recruiting gone too far?

By Robert Gartrell

Hundreds of people gathered at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Springfield, Ohio on July 30. But they weren’t at the sports bar to watch any games.

Instead, they came to watch linebacker Trey DePriest of Springfield High School choose between attending Alabama or Ohio State in 2011.

In front of the enthusiastic crowd and local TV reporters, DePriest announced his commitment to play for the Crimson Tide. Even in the heart of Buckeye country, the fans at the bar were so caught up in the hoopla surrounding their hometown star that they didn’t seem to mind he had rejected OSU.

But to many Buckeye fans outside the restaurant, the event was nothing to be celebrated.

Disheartened recruiting buffs, many of whom had tracked DePriest since he was a freshman, ranted against coach Jim Tressel on Internet forums for failing to sign the stud prospect. Others accused DePriest of being excessively self-promoting.

“People are very passionate about their college football teams, and recruiting is the lifeblood of a college football program,” said Bill Kurelic, a recruiting analyst for ESPN. “If you don’t recruit good players, it’s pretty hard to win.”

Regardless of the reaction, the event itself was a microcosm of the frenetic, year-round spectacle that college football recruiting has become.

Not long ago, colleges didn’t actively recruit players until their senior year in high school, hoping to give them adequate time to develop. When players were ready to commit to a school, they would do so quietly, usually waiting until National Signing Day in early February. And because there wasn’t much news to report throughout the year, college recruiting went largely unnoticed.

That began to change in the mid-1990s, when major programs started hosting offseason football camps for prospective players. The camps gave schools the first chance to scout younger players throughout the year, leading to earlier scholarship offers and expanding the recruiting focus beyond National Signing Day.

“It’s really a race to make an offer and get commitments to the best players,” said Steve Helwagen, managing editor of Bucknuts.com, an independent, recruitment-based website for OSU football. “It’s so competitive right now with all the colleges. Now colleges aren’t worried about making a mistake by offering a kid early. They know they have to beat the competition.”

To control recruiting, the NCAA imposes restrictions on how coaches and schools can recruit. The organization limits the number of times a coach can call a prospect or evaluate the athlete in person. As a result, coaches must be careful about how they pursue recruits.

“There are rules we have to evaluate recruits, and we’ve saved time to have our evaluations consist of a significant number here,” OSU assistant football coach Doc Tressel said of recruiting during the bye week. “It’s the first week of playoffs here. We’ll be at some of the playoff games and doing some things out on the recruiting trail.”

But the biggest development to recruiting came with the advent of the Internet, which changed how scouting was conducted and reported.

Until the late 1990s, recruiting news was spread through only a few print publications, many of which offered phone hot lines for updated information. Analysts covering the scene spent long nights traveling throughout their regions to scout players they learned about from other coaches.

Kurelic, who retired from teaching and coaching high school basketball to cover recruiting in 1988, was one of only a handful of reporters who struggled to work in the fledgling industry.

“I tried it for two years but I just broke even and didn’t make any money at all,” Kurelic said. “I can remember saying that I’d try it for one more year to see if I could make money. But by the third year, I did start making some money, so I continued with it.”

The industry steadily became more profitable in the 1990s and its popularity rapidly escalated when the Internet gave rise to websites that sold subscriptions for access to game film, player rankings and updates, eventually phasing out most of the newspapers and hot lines.

For the coaches, the Internet let them expand their recruiting horizons, as they could observe more players without hectic travel or NCAA surveillance.

The two largest websites to emerge were Rivals.com and Scout.com, which are in a constant tug-of-war on every aspect of recruiting.

“There’s not a lot of consistency across the board,” said Helwagen, who worked for Scout.com before going independent with Bucknuts.com. “They don’t agree on a whole lot. It’s a competition and a feeding frenzy.”

But the discord between the sites hasn’t stunted the growth of the industry. In 2007, Yahoo! bought Rivals.com for $100 million, and Scout.com has more than 2 million subscribers. ESPN also draws a strong following to its recruiting coverage.

Helwagen said one of the greatest attractions of recruiting is its optimism, which tends to hype the best players to almost mythical statures before they set foot on a college campus.

“Generally, the stories are pretty positive, and it gives people reason to hope for the future,” Helwagen said. “There’s always a constant hope that the next Terrelle Pryor or Beanie Wells is right around the corner.”

The lofty expectations fans have for players stem from their ratings, which vary across each site. Based on a five-star scale (in addition to several other rankings), players’ ratings are determined by their on-field productivity, their size and how they test at scouting combines. The college coaches also have input in the rankings, offering player assessments to recruiting services in exchange for information.

But as Kurelic is quick to affirm, the ranking systems aren’t perfect and don’t account for intangibles such as desire, work ethic or even a player’s academic capacity.

“Recruiting is an inexact science,” Kurelic said. “You’re always going to have some sleepers that make it and some kids that you’d think would be great that don’t make it.”

But the flawed ranking systems don’t stop top recruits from going to extreme lengths when announcing their college destinations.

Much has been said about the fanfare surrounding these decisions, from Pryor’s recruiting saga to Kevin Hart of Nevada, who somehow drew a throng of people to watch him make a bogus commitment in 2008. But to the players, the accolades they receive make the recruiting process a rewarding experience.

“It’s nice to get all this attention,” Pryor told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2007. “All the attention can be overwhelming, but I deserve all the attention because of all the hard work I’ve done.”

Many coaches, such as Ted Ginn Sr. of Cleveland’s Glenville Academy, aren’t as quick to embrace the recruiting spotlight.

“You cannot let recruiting interfere with the progress of getting where you’re trying to go,” Ginn said. “Sometimes it goes to the kids’ heads, and you get people from the outside influencing kids, whether it be family members, neighborhood people or friends. They get kind of crazy with it, and start losing on the ends that are more important.”

Ginn, who has coached more than 200 eventual college players, said the recruiting process gives the players an ego that is difficult to restrain.

“Sometimes they leave and they don’t understand what is expected of them at the university they choose,” Ginn said. “And a lot of times they still think it’s recruiting when they get to school. But it’s not recruiting. It’s time to produce. And that can get mixed up with them.”

Kurelic, a former coach himself, agrees that recruiting can go overboard, but said, “the hoopla surrounding National Signing Day is good for the recruiting industry.”

Helwagen said the popularity of recruiting will only grow stronger as technology advances.

“I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” Helwagen said. “I think it’s here to stay.”

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