A history of recruiting (cont.)
Lacewell said the most important recruiting innovation the Oklahoma staff brought to its corner of the world had nothing to do with NCAA rules. "We were some of the only ones," Lacewell said, "who would recruit black players." While much of the nation had already integrated, the schools of the SWC and SEC remained mostly segregated in the late '60s and early '70s. Switzer, the assistant in charge of recruiting Texas, used this to Oklahoma's advantage.
Switzer, who had grown up on the black side of town in Crossett, Ark., related easily to black players and their families. He also didn't hesitate to point out the fact that Oklahoma's rivals remained lily-white. "If you were to sign with a Southwest Conference team," Switzer recalled telling black recruits in Bootlegger's Boy, "just think how lonesome it would be to look around in the huddle and see nothing but honky faces."
At the time, the NCAA didn't restrict coaching staff size, so the Sooners had scouts on staff who provided coaches with detailed reports before they hit the recruiting trail. The NCAA also allowed boosters to aid in recruiting efforts. So when a prospect needed a ride for his official visit, Switzer, who became head coach in 1973, and his assistants had no trouble locating an oil company jet to provide the transportation.
The coaches looked for every advantage they could find. That's how Lacewell wound up in the men's room at a Eufaula, Okla., restaurant one night in 1970. Lacewell had been eying a recruit named Lucious Selmon, and he didn't think any of Oklahoma's rivals knew about Selmon. On the day he expected to sign Selmon, he arrived at Selmon's house and saw Colorado coach Eddie Crowder. Because Lacewell wasn't scheduled to meet with Selmon until later, he went to dinner with Crowder. During the meal, Crowder left the table to make a phone call. Lacewell raced to the men's room. "Hiding in the bathroom, I could listen through the walls," Lacewell said. "I could hear everything he said on the pay phone."
When Lacewell met with Selmon, he began nearly every sentence with the phrase, "I bet coach Crowder told you..." Selmon thought Lacewell was a genius, and he signed with the Sooners. Eventually, so would younger brothers Dewey and Lee Roy, and the brothers Selmon helped Oklahoma dominate through the '70s.
"As much as people would like to think we were cheating because we were signing so many great players, it wasn't to the extent that people thought," Lacewell said. "We were out ahead of some people."
New Rules Bring New Interpretations
The quest to get ahead has led to the creation of new rules to stop specific practices and some suspect interpretation of the rules once they hit the books. For example, Banowsky, the former SWC compliance chief, said the NCAA banned the use of helicopters in recruiting because one SWC school would pickup prospects in a chopper and land them on the 50-yard line as the stadium public-address system blared fictional radio calls of the prospect's future exploits at the school.
In landmark legislation in 1987, the NCAA banned boosters from the recruiting process altogether -- they previously had been allowed to call prospects -- and slashed the recruiting calendar in all sports by about 60 percent. Coaches no longer could babysit committed prospects all the way to signing day. Instead, they had to adhere to strict limitations regarding when and how they contacted recruits. That led to ever more creative interpretations of the rules. While Banowsky served as the chief compliance officer of the Big 12, this case crossed his desk.
"I've had coaches go so far as to rent a limo and drive it up in front of a recruit's house, call the recruit on the phone from the limo and have a telephone conversation with the recruit while the recruit is either in the house or on the front porch of the house and think that it was acceptable because they technically weren't having a a face-to-face meeting," Banowsky said. "They were simply talking on the phone."
A search of news clippings from the period reveals that the coach in question was Colorado's Rick Neuheisel, who was accused of more than 50 NCAA violations -- many involving improper recruiting contacts -- while in Boulder. Neuheisel, now the head coach at UCLA, is the owner of law degree from USC, and he argued that he had not violated the rule in that case. While that argument might have worked in a court of law, the NCAA does not always offer due process to the accused.
"Interpreting the letter of the rule is fine," Banowsky said, "but you can't throw the whole intent and spirit of the rule out the window when you do it."
Sometimes, a coach can use a new rule to his advantage. Two years after the NCAA allowed Division I athletes to get jobs, first-year Memphis basketball coach John Calipari, who inherited a program with a zero graduation rate, asked executives at local giant FedEx if they would provide paid summer internships for some of his players. Those internships gave Calipari an answer to the toughest question he encountered on the recruiting trail. "I have to enter a house with a zero percent graduation rate and promise parents that will change," Calipari told The New York Times in 2001. "FedEx lets me show them their kids will get real work experience." According to a December Forbes story, 25 Memphis basketball players have taken the internship.
In recent years, coaches have stretched their interpretation of the rulebook and violated the spirit of several NCAA rules. Some have steered prospects to diploma mills, and after The New York Times exposed the practice and the NCAA investigated the fake high schools, some coaches began suggesting to parents that if they get their child diagnosed with a learning disability, he might stand a better chance at meeting the NCAA's initial eligibility requirements.
Other coaches have helped push for new recruiting technology, even if they didn't realize it. When Zook was named coach at Florida in 2002, he joked that he needed a waterproof cell phone so he could call recruits while showering. Though Zook has yet to receive one, LG and Sony Ericsson have developed phones that can operate even after 30 minutes of submersion.
Meanwhile, nearly every coach has endeavored to stay within a whisker of the correct side of the line. Oregon's comic books, with their scenes of prospects enjoying future glory, allowed the school to work around relatively new rules that forbade personalized jerseys and scoreboard displays during official visits. Coaches texted until their thumbs ached, but they moved on to other forms of communication when the NCAA banned texting in 2007.
Alabama coach Saban's video chats, which are expressly approved in the NCAA rule book, allow him more face time with prospects than he could have enjoyed had he been allowed to visit their schools. Zook's coaching-clinic appearances allow him to maintain relationships that might have otherwise suffered. Carroll's Facebook page allows him to sell his program in a place he knows recruits frequent.
All great ideas. And at some point, all might get banned by the NCAA.
"I'm sure," Zook said of his idea, "they'll put a stop to that next year."