A more widespread problem for the NCAA may be the proliferation of mini-camps for top players, like Colorado State's "elite" camp. A glance at websites promoting summer camps at Arkansas, Clemson, South Carolina and UCLA finds no mention of one-day camps among the sessions. However, when an SI writer called those schools, he was told they do hold one-day camps that are restricted to high school players, some to only seniors. "Under NCAA guidelines," says Mallonee, "a camp can only be limited by number [of attendees] or by age. It can't be restricted to certain skill levels. When we are alerted to a brochure like [ Colorado State's], it boils down to what is actually happening at the camp. If it is an all-star camp or a camp limited to elite players, then it raises the issues of is that camp open to the general public. If not, that is a violation."
Joe Paterno didn't foresee such issues when he and two associates opened what is believed to have been the first camp to assemble college football prospects, in the summer of 1961. Roy Van Horn, a high school coach who owned a horse and canoe camp in East Hickory, Pa., and his friend Lou Hanna, a coach at Corry (Pa.) High, were looking for a way to fill the holes in Van Horn's camp schedule when they thought of a football camp. Paterno, then a Penn State assistant, got wind of the idea through a friend of Hanna's, and the Northwestern Pennsylvania Football Camp at Pioneer Ranch was born. "The cost was $60 for a week, and it lasted two weeks," Van Horn says of the first camp, which drew about 60 participants.
The camp helped Paterno and the other assistants supplement their income and allowed them to keep close watch on some of Pennsylvania's best players. Paterno moved the camp onto campus in 1974, and today it is the most visible one in the nation. Most schools attract fewer than 1,000 campers of all ages, but Penn State's three four-day sessions drew a total of 3,200 kids last summer, a number even more impressive given that the camp is only for high schoolers. "Last summer the Penn State camp had every major [mid-Atlantic-area] prospect: Leon Williams [a defensive end who signed with Miami], Kevin Jones [a running back who signed with Virginia Tech], all of them," says Larry Ziemba, a New Jersey high school coach who worked at that camp and also at West Virginia's.
The Penn State coaches admit that they use the summer sessions to size up prospects. "The camps are like combines now," says Jay Paterno, the team's recruiting coordinator and Joe's son. "It's a two-way street. We get a chance to evaluate some players and see how they respond to coaching, and they get to see if they like the school and the coaches."
Coaches at every camp insist that their attendees are all treated equally, but that is a half-truth at best. The players stay in the same dorms, eat the same food, compete for space in the swimming pool during free time and get the same T-shirt at camp's end. Segregation, however, is the rule when it comes to top players. "All the kids will do the same drills, but the star kids are lumped together and watched closely by the college assistants," says Ziemba.
At Notre Dame's 1999 camp, Casey Clausen, a highly recruited quarterback from Northridge, Calif., was ushered away from other campers and lined up next to Matt LoVecchio and Jared Clark, two other touted signal-calling prospects who would sign with the Irish. Jim Clausen, Casey's father, says coaches filmed the drills, which he describes as having a combine atmosphere. "The first day the coaches had us throw outs, posts, slants, hitches and other routes," says Casey, now a Tennessee sophomore. "The second day they wanted to see us do more stuff with motion and with the option."
Many leading players enjoy an extended visit with the head coach during camp. Clausen got plenty of face time with Davie and his assistants. The highlight of Lexington, Ky., running back Eric Shelton's time at Florida's camp last summer was putting golf balls with Steve Spurrier in the coach's office. During the Florida State camp Shelton was equally impressed with the trophies in coach Bobby Bowden's office—and by Bowden's charm. He signed with the Seminoles.
The sales pitches continue until the very end. "All the camps were the same," says Woods. "They'd put the best players at the front of the line, you know, treat us the best. When camp ended there was a meeting with all the players. After that the position coach would pull me aside and ask me what I was thinking about doing, when I might commit. He'd say again that the school was offering me a scholarship and that the staff would try to come and see me play and would keep in touch."
"How close are you to committing?" It was a line Woods heard at nearly every school on his camping tour. He heard it first at Toledo, which was more of a courtesy stop because he wasn't serious about joining the Rockets. Then came the 500-mile round-trip drive between Cleveland and Knoxville so that Woods could spend a day working out for the Tennessee coaches at the Volunteers' camp. "There were some really good players down there, guys from Florida and Georgia and all over, but I thought I did well," Woods says. "I tried to not let up, not even for one drill, because you know they are looking at kids and seeing how hard they work." The camp ended with a meeting in assistant coach Mike Barry's office, during which coach Phillip Fulmer stopped by and said that the Volunteers were impressed with Woods as a player and a person. When Woods left Knoxville, he was leaning toward the Vols.
A day at Pittsburgh's camp about a week later did little to move the Panthers up Woods's list, and visits to Iowa and Indiana also failed to get Tennessee out of his mind. The Hoosiers hurt their chances by coming on so strong at the end of camp that Woods felt uncomfortable. "The Indiana coaches tried to pressure me to [orally] commit before I left," he says.