Last summer, on weekends and days off from his job at Wal-Mart, Pierre Woods, a 6'6", 220-pound defensive lineman who had just finished his junior year at Glenville High in Cleveland, would climb into a gray minivan and travel as far as 1,100 miles to go to football camp. Doritos and sticky buns were the choice snack, Gatorade filled the cooler, and Glenville coach Ted Ginn drove the van, which he rented for nearly six weeks. "We spent a lot of time in that car," Ginn says. "We played a lot of games, and there was plenty of time for jaw-jacking."
At stake was Woods's college football future. Attending summer camps run by big-time football schools has become virtually mandatory for the nation's best high school players, much as going to shoe-company-run summer camps has been a necessity for top basketball recruits. Never mind that many of these football camps violate NCAA rules regarding contact between recruiters and prospects; coaches see the sessions as essential to landing the players they want. "It's a real footrace to get prospects into your camp," says Notre Dame coach Bob Davie. "For some schools the summer is now the most important time in recruiting."
The numbers back him up: At Ohio State 68% of the players on its last seven rosters attended the Buckeyes' camp, including the last five scholarship kickers. About half the signees from Notre Dame's last four recruiting classes attended its camp. "When I arrived here eight years ago, I don't think we had one player signed out of our camp," says Davie. Penn State got 12 of its 20 recruits out of its camp in 1997 and has been averaging 50% every year since. Similarly large are the numbers from Nebraska (10 former campers among the 17 recruits in its incoming class), UCLA (10 of 18), Florida State (12 of 28) and LSU (9 of 25).
Woods, projected as a Charles Haley-like defensive end in college, was courted by dozens of schools before last summer. In the spring of 2000 he narrowed his choices to 10 or so, including Georgia Tech, LSU and Tennessee, then began mapping a summer-camp schedule that would allow him to spend at least a day at as many of those schools as possible. "The recruiters didn't say I had to go to camp to get a scholarship, but they wanted me to go," says Woods, "and I felt like I needed to show them what they might be getting." He would soon become an expert in this college courtship dance.
Camps stretch through June and July, last from one to six days, and none include full contact. Some schools have a single session, like Michigan's six-day camp in June, while others have multiple sessions that blanket the summer. Texas offers four four-day resident camps, two five-day commuter camps, two single-day camps, a kicking camp, a youth camp and a speed and explosive-training camp. In general, players aged eight to 18 are charged from $25 to $425, with most of the money going to athletic departments and assistant and head coaches, many of whom have a camp stipend guaranteed in their contracts.
The camps are both sales calls and shopping sprees. Despite an NCAA rule stipulating that schools cannot use camps to evaluate or recruit players under consideration for scholarships, the reality is many camps are designed so that coaches can evaluate and recruit. Camps are scheduled to maximize attendance by blue-chippers—it's no coincidence that the camps at Miami, Florida State and Florida are staggered so that an athlete can attend all three—and when top prospects arrive, they are often timed, measured and videotaped. Michigan's camp website boasts, "Annually, there are more student-athletes who receive athletic scholarships from this camp than any other camp of its kind."
Recruiters tell some players on the fringe that if they don't come to camp, they have no chance of landing a scholarship. Elite prospects such as Woods are courted with brochures and letters from coaches. "In addition to aiding your progress as a football player, the Sonny Lubick 'Elite' Camp also gives you a chance to showcase your talent and skills for the coaching staff," reads a brochure for Colorado State's "elite" camp, which is limited to 100 players who "plan to continue their careers at the college level."
"The intent of the camps should be purely instructional," says Steve Mallonee, the NCAA's director of membership services. "They should not be an opportunity to recruit. But let's face it, coaches will do what they can to get an edge. If they think everyone else is [recruiting and evaluating at camps] and think the rules might not be spelled out clearly, coaches are going to do it. Our membership needs to come to terms with this issue. It's clear it is going on."
The NCAA has rarely found schools guilty of rules violations involving football camps (only three cases appear in the association's infractions database), largely because it hasn't looked very hard. As with other alleged wrongdoing, the NCAA proceeds only after receiving a complaint, and it has gotten few regarding football camps. The most recent camp scandal came to light in February, after an internal investigation at Kentucky. The probe found that Memphis high school coach Tim Thompson had been paid $700 more than his fellow coaches for working at the Wildcats' 2000 camp and had received $1,400 from then Kentucky recruiting coordinator Claude Bassett, who called the latter payment a "gift." Thompson—who says he was given only money that was owed to his staff for working at the camp—had paid $3,200 for 16 of his players to attend the camp, a violation of Tennessee high school rules forbidding coaches from underwriting players' summer-camp costs. Thompson's school had to forfeit all of its games for 2000 and pay more than $10,000 in fines and reimbursements.
"You worry that [funneling money to high school coaches to cover camp and travel fees for top prospects] is one more tiring that schools might be tempted to take advantage of," says Bill Conley, Ohio State's recruiting coordinator. Especially when one considers that it's not against NCAA rules—or uncommon—for a high school coach to use his own money to pay for a player's fees and it's not an NCAA violation for a college to hire that same coach to work at its camp. Woods says that he used his earnings from Wal-Mart to cover a portion of his costs; Ginn chipped in a lot. All told, the two had to come up with more than $400 in camp fees and $2,000 for food, lodging and gas.