Selling the drama
Top schools go too far with lavish recruiting trips
Posted: Monday February 2, 2004 2:25PM; Updated: Monday February 2, 2004 2:25PM
Here's a shocker. As we come up on the day for football recruiting geeks -- National Signing Day -- folks at the NCAA and college sports administrators are fretting over excesses lavished on coveted recruits during campus visits. Well, no kidding, the system is littered with vague, goofy rules and a cast of envelope-pushing coaches facing daunting pressure to sign a top class.
Our personal favorite is by-law 22.214.171.124, the one that talks about transportation that can be afforded a teenage prospect on an official visit. The use of a limousine or helicopter is spelled out as clearly prohibited. Commercial airfare can't exceed coach. But guess what, it's OK to gas up the university's private jet, if lucky enough to have one, and fly a prospect to campus, as Florida State is said to have done with stud linebacker Willie Williams. (More on his courting later.)
This isn't to blame Williams or the kids who play the system, either. And rest assured, the hustle probably isn't much different if the prospect's tripping at FSU, Southern Cal, Michigan or any big-time program. From here, though, the whole process seems sadly out of touch with reality (but hey, this is recruiting, right?) and in need of a healthy makeover.
It seems as though colorful recruiting tales fill the air as Signing Day approaches on Wednesday, only more so this time around. We're told it is to the point where the Division I recruiting committee plans to review what's transpired recently and offer some recommendations.
Here are a few of the reasons:
You find Minnesota in hot water because some of its players truck recruits to Déjà Vu, a strip club, during official campus visits. And not everyone is impressed. Top recruit Lydon Murtha cited the practice as a reason for backing out of his commitment.
You find Florida State squealing on arch rival Florida, accusing the Gators of nickel-and-dime stuff like the pep band performing the school fight song for recruits, campus security flashing their lights escorting a bus load of recruits to the stadium and head coach Ron Zook perhaps talking to a recruit after a high school playoff game at Florida Field. If anything was said, it failed to resonate, as defensive tackle Aaron Jones is Tallahassee-bound.
And you find Williams, the top prospect in Florida, chronicling his recruiting journey for the Miami Herald in wonderfully delicious detail. The kid tells of grown men, million-dollar head coaches, dreaming up lavish, 48-hour campus visits that have the makings of great reality TV. And probably ought to make the coach's own wife envious.
The trip Williams made to Auburn was actually modest compared with others, though during his two-night hotel stay he encountered "the biggest bed in the word'' and a bathroom with its own waterfall. School cheerleaders showed up before he boarded a bus to the airport, shouting, "We want you Willie! We want you!''
He describes his trek to FSU as something out of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. A private jet (he was the lone passenger), treated to hundreds of dollars worth of steaks and lobster tails at Tallahassee's most elegant restaurant, bedding down in the city's finest hotel. To top it off, he was promised No. 17, the retired number worn by former Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward -- "For you Willie, we'll bring it back,'' coach Bobby Bowden told him.
Not to be outdone, Miami coach Larry Coker himself chauffeured Williams from the prospect's Carol City home to campus in a white Cadillac Escalade. He stayed not in a dorm room, but in the Mayfair House Hotel in Coconut Grove. (His room featured a Jacuzzi on the balcony.) He ate at some of the area's nicest restaurants, feasting on three lobster tails and two steaks at one dinner. And the real traffic stopper -- a police escort on a bus trip for recruits to the Orange Bowl.
Is this real? No way.
"These kinds of practices are part of the drama of recruitment,'' suggested William Friday, co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. "It really is something the institutions should not engage in, because it is not the way life is. It is false practices and it creates the wrong impression. In a way, it abuses these young athletes because they think that is the way it is going to be, and it never is.''
Then again, the schools and coaches do nothing to police their own excesses. And the NCAA has bigger things to worry about. I witnessed this firsthand several years ago chronicling the recruitment by Georgia Tech of then Brooklyn basketball whiz Stephon Marbury, who was flown to Atlanta in a private jet, fed at fine restaurants and housed at a swanky hotel (his father cleaned out the mini-bar and stuck Tech with the bill.)
According to my reading of by-law 13.5.1, schools can entertain a prospect "at a scale comparable to that of normal student life.'' Well, college kids must be living especially well these days. It used to be you visited campus to gauge what you might be signing up for. Now the volume has been turned up on recruiting trips to where they're pure fantasy.
"It's a case of not just putting the prospect in the nicest hotel, but the nicest room in the nicest hotel,'' said Jamie McCloskey, assistant athletic director for compliance at Florida. "And if we're going to provide a meal, we're going to provide the best restaurant and the best meal. If one school does that, it sets the standard, and if you're trying to convince the prospect to go to your school, you want to provide the prospect with an experience similar to what he got at this other school.
"From my perspective, it has gotten out of hand.''
That might be the only thing you'd get the staffs at Florida and Florida State to agree on. And the same is true of Arizona-Arizona State, Texas-Oklahoma and rivals everywhere.
We say a tad of common sense might go a long way, and probably even make the coaches happy. Just lay down the rules, spell them out for everyone and enforce them. It's simple stuff like: This is the dorm where a prospect can expect to be housed if he attends a specific college -- and where he'll spend his recruiting weekend. This is the dining hall where he'll take his meals -- including this weekend.
And, of course, don't be leading recruits to strip clubs.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.