Recruiting process works to adapt to NCAA rules, technology
By Trey Miller
During a football season more than half a century ago, Penn State assistant coaches traveled 38 miles to Williamsburg, Pa., to scout a promising high school quarterback. They liked what they saw, and so one of the assistants, Joe Paterno, persuaded the prospect he should enroll at Penn State.
And that was how Galen Hall was recruited in 1957 to play for coach Rip Engle’s Nittany Lions. He came to the attention of Engle’s staff by word of mouth, which is the way most college coaches found out in those days about high school players with potential to play at the next level. Those players often were from the colleges’ backyards, as Williamsburg is in Penn State’s.
The system may have been low-tech, but in Hall’s case it worked beautifully: Hall came to Penn State as a freshman in the fall of 1958 and became the starting quarterback in his junior and senior years, leading the Lions to a 15-6 record with victories in the 1960 Liberty Bowl and 1961 Gator Bowl. He played professionally for the Washington Redskins and New York Jets. Then he went on to a long coaching career that included stints as head coach of the University of Florida Gators and NFL Europe’s Rhein Fire. Now, he is 71 and back in Happy Valley as the Lions’ offensive coordinator.
Today, as college recruiters cast a net over a wide geographical area, they rely increasingly on Internet scouting services that sell the information they gather.
And that has attracted the attention of the NCAA. The governing body of college sports is concerned that some of the scouting services are going beyond merely providing information to football fans about athletes – and that, for a fee, they are helping colleges recruit specific prospects.
That led in April to the NCAA’s decision to ban college coaches from subscribing to the premium, for-fee sections of websites such as Scout.com and Rivals.com. These sites provide information on college recruits and football teams, including rankings, video and team news, for fans of college football all over the country.
A month earlier, Yahoo! reported that the University of Oregon paid more than $28,000 to two owners of scouting services who had connections to high school athletes being targeted by the Ducks. The pair separately allegedly did more than write about recruiting. They were accused of being active participants in delivering players.
The NCAA is investigating if the $25,000 Oregon paid to Will Lyles, who ran a scouting service called Complete Scouting Services in Texas, influenced the recruits’ commitment to Oregon. If so, it would be an NCAA violation. NCAA rules say colleges can’t pay someone who represents a university’s athletics interests by helping the program reel in high school recruits. This would classify him as a booster.
Baron Flenory runs a 7-on-7 camp with New Level Athletics in Texas, where highly-rated athletes can come play against other teams of seven. These events are not scheduled by a player’s high school, and are often coached by somebody who puts the best seven players from an area on a team. These players then compete in 7-on-7 camps around the country to showcase skills to potential recruiters. Flenory was also paid more than $3,000 by Oregon for a service of his own.
Emily Newell, an NCAA spokeswoman, said in an e-mail, that the NCAA is concerned that these types of services are “being used as leverage in the recruiting process.”
Stolberg described the ban of Rivals and Scout as “collateral damage” in the NCAA’s efforts to curb services such as Lyles’.
There are two types of recruiting services. Services like Rivals and Scout focus on providing information on recruits for fans as a media service. Other services, such as Lyles’ Complete Scouting Services, provide yearly packages with in-depth analysis of the nation’s high school players to sell to college coaches. These services have the job of assisting players in getting scholarships by telling players to do what they ask and the service will help them get recruited.
Before the ban on services like Rivals and Scout, it was unclear if these sites were included in Bylaw 13 of the NCAA rulebook, which bans schools from receiving video that is not related to a player’s high school games.
“Initially, a lot of people said, ‘Well, Rivals and Scout aren’t really included in this. They’re so commonly used,’” said Matt Stolberg, Penn State’s associate athletic director of compliance.
Originally, the Big Ten told its schools they could continue to pay for the use of Rivals and Scout’s sites if they were already paying the $10 per month subscription, which can also be purchased by a fan for the same price. In June, though, the Big Ten conference office sent an e-mail to compliance officers telling them to no longer subscribe to Rivals and Scout.
“In my view, the NCAA is so short-sided on this. I don’t that they have a real grasp of what they’re dealing with,” said Mark Brennan, the editor of Fight On State. “The difference would be there are businesses out there whose goal is to help kids get scholarships. We view ourselves as a news organization. To me, it’s a situation where they dropped a nuclear bomb to kill an ant.”
Some services run the 7-on-7 camps and combines. The specific purpose of these camps and combines is for a player to show his talents to recruiters. Also, recruiters like Lyles go to camps to watch highly touted athletes who attend.
The NCAA wants to take a stand against the 7-on-7 competitions, because coaches of some 7-on-7 squads have relationships with high-profile high school athletes and on occasion have a hand in where the players go to college.
“A company sponsors a 7-on-7 football team and they hire a coach and he picks the top 24 players and then that 7-on-7 team goes to camps all over the country and competes against other 7-on-7 teams,” said Phil Grosz, publisher of Rivals’ affiliate Blue-White Illustrated.
Rivals’ Penn State affiliate Blue-White Illustrated, which is co-owned by Yahoo!, and Scout’s affiliate Fight On State, which is co-owned by Fox, are websites that provide information about potential recruits to fans. Their revenue comes from fans’ subscriptions. The sites are both credentialed as media representatives by Penn State University, and their writers attend games and press conferences. They report on recruits and games for fans, unlike services such as Lyles’, which do it for only college coaches.
If Brennan loses a coach’s subscription, it doesn’t really hurt. There are 11 coaches on Penn State’s staff. Assuming they all subscribed, Scout would lose only about $110 a month. And, as Infante said, Rivals and Scout are owned by big companies, which don’t need the money from coaches to survive. Subscriptions to these sites number in the thousands, just for fans of one school alone.
“If we were depending on subscriptions to the Penn State coaching staff, we would be in real trouble,” said Brennan.
Bob Lichtenfels, a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said it doesn’t affect him either.
“At the end of the day, do you think Tom Bradley [Penn State’s defensive coordinator] is going to offer a kid because Bob Lichtenfels says he should? If they do, they’re probably not going to be coaching very long.”
The Big East Conference, Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference have asked the NCAA to change the rules because they want to be able to pay for video of 7-on-7 competitions and combines. To delete that section would take a two-thirds majority vote by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors and membership groups, according to Infante. The NCAA will meet in January to discuss the proposal. It could be effective immediately if passed, or it could be effective in April when the NCAA meets again.
Since the NCAA has added stiffer regulations to recruiting, Lichtenfels said college coaches often do not have ample time to evaluate high school players and get to know them on a personal level.
“It sucks. It doesn’t suck for the Terrelle Pryors, but it sucks for the Drew Astorinos, the kids who maybe got a chance because they did get seen somewhere,” Lichtenfels said.
Astorino, a mid-level recruit coming out of high school, has made a name for himself as a starting safety at Penn State. Pryor, on the other hand, was a unanimous No. 1 ranked recruit in 2007, coming from Jeanette High School in western Pennsylvania. He signed with Ohio State and is now in the NFL.
Pryor was in the middle of the NCAA investigation of Ohio State after he and other Buckeye football players were accused of selling memorabilia and receiving free tattoos from a local parlor.
It all Started in 1976
According to a master’s thesis by Molly Yanity, an instructor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, Dick Lascola started what is widely considered the first recruiting service in 1976. He sent out fliers of the top junior players in Southern California to college coaches. In 1980, Max Emfinger started a service that ranked high school players from 1 to 900, and he passed recruiting information to fans using a pay-per-minute phone system.
In the mid-2000s, Tom Lemming took recruiting to the next level by scouting youngsters across the nation, according to Yanity’s thesis. He produced a 300-page magazine and sold it to fans along with a package of newsletters for $90.
Since browsers made the Internet easily navigable in 1995, recruiting service websites have boomed. In 1997, RivalsNet was created by James Heckman, resulting in more than 400 sites that covered recruiting for different college and professional teams sponsored by RivalsNet. According to Yanity’s thesis, this later became Rivals.com and accumulated more than 700 team-sites. When Rivals went bankrupt in the early 2000s, Heckman started Scout Media. Rivals, which was under new ownership, was revamped and sold to Yahoo! for what was reported as $100 million in 2007. Scout Media was reportedly purchased by Fox in 2005 for $60 million.
The increased use of the Internet in the 1990s is what Phil Grosz and Galen Hall said changed recruiting into what it is now: making information easily accessible.
Grosz got in the business with Catch Line Fever, which would later become Blue-White Illustrated, in 1980. He realized that recruiting information was something the average college football fan wanted to know.
In the late 1970s, Grosz went to high school games in Philadelphia. A graduate of Penn State, Grosz would pass names of prospects he saw play to Sever Toretti, who oversaw Penn State’s recruiting for all intercollegiate athletics.
Grosz would sell information about high school football players to about 20 or 25 schools. Grosz did not charge Penn State. To create his reports, Grosz would call high school coaches and recruiters from across the country and get information on athletes.
Baron Flenory, who runs the New Level Athletics Elite 7-on-7 camp, doesn’t think the NCAA banning college coaches from subscribing to services like Rivals and Scout that provide video of players outside of their scheduled high school competition will inhibit prospects being found because of YouTube and parents coming out to tape young players.
A Shifting Model
“People are innovative enough and there’s so much technology out, that they’ll just kind of shift the model of getting that information out there,” said Flenory.
Flenory had to stop packaging a recruiting service he used to produce. Originally, his company, New Level Athletics, would analyze how good players were based on how they performed at the camps NLA ran. Then, his company would produce a publication to sell to college coaches.
After starting the camp, according to Flenory, the NCAA established a bylaw that if someone runs a camp, he can’t sell a service to a college if he is going to use its facility, and all of the camps were hosted at college facilities. The venue was more valuable for his business, so he stopped producing the recruiting service.
Flenory said the ruling hasn’t affected his 7-on-7 camp yet, and it had its best registration it had ever had, with around 1,000 players. He said prospects are more excited to get as much exposure as possible now. Flenory said the ruling was a “blessing in disguise.”
“From the camps’ standpoint, it’s 7-on-7,” said Flenory. “7-on-7 gives the opportunity for third-party coaches or non-scholastic coaches the opportunity to have an influence on a kid’s recruiting.”
The rankings of prospects come from people like Lichtenfels, who focuses on the Northeast. Former steel inspector Lichtenfels got into recruiting the way Grosz did. He went to games in Pittsburgh, and began posting about kids he saw on message boards for Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia. He ended up working with Pitt and Penn State through Scout, and he said his football background is crucial for the job.
Lichtenfels played two years of football at Thiel College in Greenville, Pa. He coached at the high-school level for nearly 10 years. He said he then fell into the 365-days-per-year, 100-hours-per-week job that he has now with Scout. In a year, he will watch about 60 games and scrimmages.
“The only time I don’t have my phone is in the shower, because you never know,” said Lichtenfels. “I’ve been coaching Little League games and stop in the middle of it because I had to write a story.”
Lichtenfels ranks anywhere from 500 to 1,000 players in his region and figures his top-10 will be in the five-star range. He then meets with other scouts from across the country to discuss who is the best player by watching film and sharing input. The quality of competition is factored into the rankings. For example, the No. 3 defensive end from California, Florida or Texas might be better than the No. 2 player at the same position from the Northeast, as there are more players and better competition in the warmer climate areas. The group then compiles a master list, granting the consensus top-50 players a five-star ranking.
“Those 50 guys are pretty much your no-brainers,” said Lichtenfels. “There’s a difference between them and everybody else.”
Players 51 to 300 are all given four stars. Players 51-75 “are pretty damn close to being in the top-50 themselves.” Lichtenfels said that you would struggle to find differences in players 75 to 300, explaining that just because an athlete is ranked No. 75 doesn’t mean he is any better than No. 250 because their skill sets are nearly equal.
Size also is a factor. Some prospects hit their growth spurts early, and then drop off as other players catch up to them. Others come out of school at 240 pounds as a tight end and then gain 30 pounds of muscle mass when they get into the weight room in college.
“Most college coaches will tell you if they take 25 kids, if they get seven or eight guys contributing, they’re happy,” said Lichtenfels. “If they get more than 50 percent, they’re looking at a potential conference championship class.”
Not an Exact Science
But these rankings are far from an exact science. Study habits, time management skills, adjusting to being away from home and having a knack for trouble can all factor into how young players perform at the college level. Lichtenfels can’t evaluate these things, even though he might be dealing with prospects for three or four years.
“You build a kinship with them,” said Lichtenfels. “You get to know them and the families.”
Nate Bauer, a Penn State graduate and writer and reporter for Rivals’ Blue-White Illustrated, said he understands why the NCAA would be trying to control something like what may have happened at Oregon from happening within Rivals and Scout. Grosz and Brennan are also Penn State graduates, and Bauer is willing to bet that 90 percent of college sites that are affiliated with Rivals and Scout are basically news services about college sports that are owned by alumni.
But, at Penn State, Bauer and Brennan said the issue isn’t as prominent. Penn State is as secretive about information as any school. Coaches don’t talk about recruits and bar reporters from practice.
“I’d being lying if I said that that wasn’t a problem to some extent,” said Brennan. “I’m very confident in saying that it hasn’t happened with us locally. I’m kind of proud of that.”
Sites like Blue-White Illustrated and Fight On State do make money if Penn State does well because fans will be more likely to follow the team. If Penn State goes to a big bowl game, it translates to more money for these sites. But, if the site is not objective, the company will be viewed as less credible as a news service.
“You completely lose your credibility if you don’t maintain a sense of being unbiased,” said Bauer.
And, for guys like Lichtenfels, if he gets to know a kid and gives him a generous ranking suspecting that the athlete won’t work out, he could lose trust among subscribers. That could lead to losing his job.
“Is it worth losing what you do over a friendship with a kid? I’m not in this business to make friends,” Lichtenfels said.
It is yet to be determined if the problem with recruiting services will be solved. Grosz said “the cat is already out of the bag.”
“I’ll bet you 10-to-1 that 90 percent of the colleges around, they just have somebody buy it for them,” said Grosz. “A person can just donate information to any school. There’s an easy way around that NCAA rule.”
Penn State assistant coach Hall said the basic aspects of recruiting, like meeting with players and going to watch them play, haven’t changed over the past half-century; it is just national now instead of local. Assistant coaches are still responsible for areas and they are still allowed home visits, just as they were when he was recruited. What has changed is the interest in and coverage of recruits. The media are much more involved.
“I think kids are going to continue to get recruited earlier and earlier,” said Flenory of New Level Athletics.