A history of recruiting; how coaches have stayed a step ahead
Deryk Gilmore knew the idea had worked when he read that a recruit had referred to himself as "Bonecrusher" during an interview. Gilmore, then the director of player development at Oregon, had assigned each of the Ducks' top recruiting targets for the class of 2004 with a superhero's nickname. Each player got his own logo, and those logos adorned the mailings Oregon coaches sent each week.
Gilmore one-upped himself the following year. "Players want to be larger than life," said Gilmore, who now uses his marketing savvy to help his clients as an agent for Priority Sports and Entertainment. "We had to find a way to make them larger than life."
Gilmore enlisted Oregon students Brett Kautter, Heather Terry and Brian Merrell to create a one-of-a-kind recruiting tool that -- while still adhering to NCAA rules -- would make recruits think of Oregon as the nation's coolest program.
So when Oregon coaches identified their top 20 prospects for the class of 2005, Gilmore and his staff designed custom comic books starring each recruit as the hero who leads the Ducks to a national title. Because NCAA rules at the time only allowed programs to send letter-sized, black-and-white pages to recruits, Gilmore sent each prospect one page a week. After a few months, the recruit had the full comic book. And when that recruit came to Eugene for an official visit, he would find the bound, full-color book sitting on a table, possibly alongside a fake Sports Illustrated cover -- attached to a real copy of the magazine -- featuring the prospect wearing an Oregon uniform and holding the Heisman Trophy.
Recruits loved the books, and they helped the Ducks land several stars. For example, Jonathan Stewart didn't lead the Ducks to a national title the way he did in Snoop: A Hero Is Born, but he did become the school's second-leading rusher in just three seasons. Before they could immortalize the class of 2006 in graphic-novel form, Gilmore and his team received the ultimate backhanded compliment -- the NCAA banned the books.
College sports' governing body decreed that only material created by coaches could be mailed to recruits. The decision prompted Oregon compliance director Bill Clever to tell The Oregonian: "Unless one of our coaches is [Doonesbury creator] Garry Trudeau, it wouldn't be permissible within the spirit of the rule.
When the NCAA squashed their comic books, Gilmore and his staff joined a long line of coaches, boosters, staffers and administrators who have strived to stay one step ahead of those who make the recruiting rules. Since the NCAA's inception in 1906, the organization and its member conferences have enacted more and more complicated regulations to govern the manner in which colleges stock their athletic rosters. And since 1906, coaches and their supporters have always managed to find the loopholes in those rules.
This spring alone, football coaches made headlines for finding such loopholes. Alabama coach Nick Saban, banned along with his fellow head coaches from visiting high schools during the spring evaluation period, had prospects contact him for video chats, which the NCAA -- for the moment -- considers permissible communication. Big Ten coaches called the conference office to tattle on Illinois coach Ron Zook for speaking at high school coaching clinics only to learn that it was permissible. The clinics allowed Zook to get valuable face time with coaches. Meanwhile, USC coach Pete Carroll launched a profile on the popular social networking site Facebook.com. While NCAA rules prohibit Carroll from contacting recruits through Facebook's various communication channels, the rules do not forbid Carroll from unfurling a thinly veiled recruiting poster in a corner of cyberspace that receives heavy traffic from his target audience.
"Every time they change the rules, somebody comes up with something," said Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky, who in previous jobs attempted to help manage the madness as the chief compliance officer for the Southland, Southwest and Big 12 conferences. "Invariably, that means they get right up to the edge of the line sometimes. ... The unfortunate thing is the line is not always clearly defined."