And it plays out early on signing day itself. As LSU's Wednesday party is just beginning, Jackson, a 6'4", 300-pound offensive lineman, joins teammate Kareem Mitchell in the athletic offices at Moss Point High to conduct a scene that will be replicated hundreds of times on this day in other schools and in some homes. At several minutes past eight, Jackson, a USA Today high school All-USA, and Mitchell sign letters of intent to attend Louisiana State, affixing their signatures with so much seriousness that athletic department secretary Phyllis Dunn chides them, "Could y'all smile? This is supposed to be fun." Moments later the signed letters squeak through a fax machine at the LSU Field House, and the players' names are scrawled in black grease pencil on two white boards that will list the names of all 28 signees by day's end.
And it plays out all day long. In a cramped office on the second floor of a private home overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Laguna Beach, Calif., Allen Wallace, publisher of SuperPrep magazine, is chaotically running his operation on its most significant day of the year. Two phones ring ceaselessly; Wallace's assistant updates the status of various recruits, while Wallace fields media queries, of which there are many. At noon, Pacific time, a reporter from Louisiana calls for Wallace's take on LSU's class, and Wallace issues a swift-patter summation that concludes with his ranking of the Tigers: "Sounds to me like the perfect formula for number tennnnn."
The truth is that the science of ranking recruiting classes is less exact than the science of recruiting itself, which is less exact than the science of scrambling eggs. Consider: Of the 73 players named first-team All-America by the Associated Press during the last three years, just 12 were previously honored as first-or second-team All-USA by USA Today in their senior year of high school (chart, page 27).
What is most insidious about the process of ranking athletes and classes is that it is not so much evaluation as association. Of the three recognized national experts—Wallace, Max Emfinger (Houston) and Tom Lemming (Chicago)—Wallace watches the fewest tapes of players and Lemming the most, but all of them accrue volumes of information on who's recruiting whom. If, for instance, big-time schools like Nebraska, Florida, Florida State, Notre Dame and USC are recruiting a prospect, the player is given a high ranking. When one of the schools signs that player, its class rank is improved, based largely on the fact that the school, and others like it, was recruiting that player in the first place. The theory is that four or five schools can't all be wrong, when, in fact, they often are.
And what does it mean to have your recruiting class ranked, say, No. 2 in the country? Wallace seeks to distance himself from his list the moment it is printed, insisting that it is not intended as a projection of future success but as a scoreboard of who did best today. "The recruiting victory and the final [wire-service] rankings a couple of years later are separate and apart," Wallace says. "One shouldn't be linked to the other." Which is silly, because the sole purpose of recruiting is to accumulate good players to win games in the fall. Without the games, recruiting is meaningless.
But coaches consult the recruiting experts' rankings and talk often to these gurus. DiNardo presented Lemming's list (on which LSU was rated third) at his signing day shindig. "These guys know who is highly recruited," said DiNardo. "My thinking is, if you're high on the list, you've got a shot to be pretty good. It's all about improving your chances."
It's a calculated crapshoot, not a guarantee. Coaches understand this. Fans do not. Fans devour rankings and expect results. Wallace is never more correct than when he says, "A lot of people want to read this stuff." Signing day itself is the culmination of a lengthy process that leaves most recruits jaded and coaches spent. It is a strange scenario at best: Grown men lusting desperately after high school kids. In essence it remains a chase. Coaches are not allowed to visit recruits after the Sunday before letter-of-intent day. After that, the recruit can count on the telephone ringing continuously until he faxes his letter to the college of his choice. As pressure builds and choices blur, dozens of strange, small dramas are played out across the country.
As Tuesday night became Wednesday morning in the hamlet of Quitman, Ga., last week, Marcus Stroud sat alone in the darkness of his family's kitchen. A 6'6", 266-pound defensive end, Stroud says he had planned to play at Georgia but committed to Florida after Bulldogs coach Ray Goff was fired in November. New Georgia coach Jim Donnan came back at Stroud in January, attacking from three angles: the chance to start (versus a likely apprenticeship at talent-rich Florida); the chance to play next to his cousin, Travis Stroud, a junior defensive lineman; and the chance to play in his home state between the fabled hedges at San-ford Stadium. Stroud was shaken and uncertain. It was 1:15 a.m., and Florida would be expecting his letter in a matter of hours.
"These guys, the recruiters, they're good, professional salesmen," Stroud said. "We're just kids. And I'm really confused. At this point, I might just take a Georgia hat and a Florida hat with me to school, and maybe I'll just flip a coin." He brought just one hat and signed with the Bulldogs despite a late-morning phone call from Gators coach Steve Spurrier.
Durell Price, a 6'1", 220-pound running back from Sylmar, Calif., who rushed for 4,176 yards in his three years on the varsity, took his indecision even further. Early Wednesday afternoon, Price went with his mother to Sav-on Drugs in Sylmar, two minutes from his house, and gave the clerk a signed letter of intent to fax to Ohio State. Price left the store and didn't return home until 5 p.m., when he received a message from Ohio State assistant coach Tim Spencer that the fourth page of his fax had not been received and thus the letter of intent wasn't valid. Spencer asked that Price please fax it again.