Editor Note: This is bumped because it's an insightful fantastic piece. Also, on National Signing Day Hokies asked, "Why not Virginia Tech?"
Last December, ESPN premiered another outstanding documentary in their 30 for 30 series titled "Pony Excess" about the rise and fall of the Southern Methodist University (SMU) football program. If you follow college football recruiting, even casually, do yourself a favor, fire up the DVR and record this program the next time it airs. "Pony Excess" greatly detailed the dark underbelly of college football recruiting in the mid to late 1980s. Many NCAA rules were completely disregarded while money, cars, and girls were some of the incentives used to influence the decisions of 18 year old super star high school athletes. But that was then and this is now, that kind of stuff doesn't go on anymore right?
While attending a Super Bowl party a few weeks ago, I struck up a conversation with a casual friend who also happens to be a high school football coach. During our conversation, the topic of "Pony Excess" came up and I asked my friend, "does that kind of stuff still go on that you know of?" He looked at me and said, "Yes and on a much larger scale." In fact, he told me that this was probably the dirtiest year he has ever seen in recruiting. My friend explained to me that there is so much money and so many stakeholders now in college football, some college football programs are willing to do whatever it takes to recruit at the highest level and it is apparent to him that those programs no longer fear the wrath of the NCAA. During our conversation the coach discussed with me just a few of the things he's seen and some of the methods programs employ to skirt NCAA rules.
Can You Hear Me Now?
The first thing I brought up with my friend was all of the drama on National Signing Day this year. It seemed to me that this year more than ever, kids were making late decisions and suddenly changing their minds at the last minute. My friend explained to me that many programs no longer abide by the rules of the "quiet" and "dead" periods in college recruiting, some college coaches contact recruits when they want and as many times as they want. How can coaches get away with this? Well, in many cases, boosters are providing coaching staffs with BlackBerries that are billed back to the booster or a company owned by the booster. Coaches can call, text, and send emails using these devices and the NCAA has no way of knowing that they exist. In addition, some coaches are apparently giving kids prepaid cell phones that coaches can use as a direct line to the recruit. Since the minutes for prepaid phones are purchased up front, a bill is never issued for the service and the recruit simply tosses the phone when all the minutes are used up. So, despite the fact that January 31st through February 3rd was a Dead Period, some college coaches were likely contacting recruits right up until their letter of intent was signed and faxed to the school of choice.
Straight Ca$h Homey
The next thing I brought up in our conversation was the subject of programs paying players. My friend explained to me that money remains the primary incentive offered to sway the decision of high school recruits and their families however; programs are going away from checks and bank transfers which can be tracked and instead are using prepaid debit cards as the primary tool to put money into the hands of perspective recruits. Cash is even going the way of the Dodo bird after pictures started popping up on the Internet of perspective recruits posing with stacks of money.
4-star recruit and former Clemson football player Kenneth Page is no longer getting paid in straight ca$h after this photo hit the Internet
The money from a prepaid debit card will never show up in someone's bank account and can be purchased just about anywhere. They can also be used just like a standard credit card to purchase just about anything and can even be used to pay standard household bills. A great example of the benefit to using prepaid debit cards is the purchase of plane tickets. Often, in order to convince a top out of state recruits to attend a particular school, plane tickets to each home game must be part of the deal so that the recruit's family can attend his games. Instead of having the booster purchase the tickets for the family, the booster simply sends prepaid debit cards to the player's home which allows his family to purchase their own tickets.
Secret Agent Man
When discussing the subject of money, my friend mentioned that boosters weren't the only individuals who were paying high school recruits, sports agents have also gotten into the act of late. Many fans are under the assumption that sports agents don't become interested in a particular player until after they have become a superstar in college. This assumption couldn't be further from the truth; agents are heavily involved in the recruitment of high school athletes. To understand why one must first realize that college coaches and sports agents share a common goal in that they both want to sign top talent. Both high school and college coaches can carry a lot of influence over some of the athletes that play for them and agents know this. This is why some high school and college coaches are paid under the table by sports agents and why sports agents and their associates (often called runners) will also try to influence certain recruits to play college football for a particular coach. For a college coach, there is a distinct advantage in using agents to influence recruits over boosters. Unlike boosters, it is very difficult to trace an individual who works for an agent back to a particular program which makes it hard for the NCAA to get the solid evidence it needs to nail a particular program.
The last thing my friend left me with was this, "rogue college coaches no longer fear the NCAA, it is to the point that these people are blatant about their actions with no fear of repercussions." To think that the NCAA doesn't have any clue that this stuff is going on would be naive. Quite frankly, most people directly involved in college athletics know who is and who is not cheating. The bottom line is the powers of the NCAA are extremely limited and they are apparently hesitant to use the powers they do have. Unless the NCAA acknowledges that there is wide-spread cheating in college athletics and follows that up by taking the steps necessary to enforce the rules already in place, this culture of cheating will continue.
Coincidentally, while putting together this article for TheKeyPlay.com, I came across some interesting comments recently made by Former University of Florida Head Coach Urban Meyer during an interview for 1070 The Fan out of Indianapolis. During the interview, Meyer absolutely rips the NCAA and some of his coaching peers. Surprisingly, these comments have gotten little play in the national sports media but further support the premise that cheating is running rampant in the world of college recruiting and that the NCAA is doing little to control it. It seems appropriate to end this article with excerpts of Meyer's interview.
"What I've seen the last five years is a complete turn in the integrity of the college coaching profession. It's completely turned the other way. Righ now, it's not good because the risk-reward is 'have at it, do what you've got to do get the great player, go win games and at the end of the day we'll find out what happens down the road...
"You tell me how a young man who is a wide receiver (Dez Bryant of Oklahoma State) and he lied to the NCAA and they took away his eligibility and he was never allowed to play again. And then there's violations in other areas of the country and that doesn't happen."
1070 the Fan host Dan Dakich:
"Coach of Tennessee basketball (Bruce Pearl) did the same thing (lied to the NCAA). Sat out eight games lost a little money and he's back coaching right now."
"And Dez Bryant is out of the profession, I mean college football...
"I actually put one together last year, a recommendation (NCAA rules enforcement suggestions) and sent it to a good chunk of athletic directors and presidents and commissioners. You can have group committees, group hugs, group discussions, you can have whatever you want, at the end of the day if you enforce the law people will have an opportunity to break that rule less.
"If there's a law and it's an unenforceable law, and deep down they don't want to enforce it, you are officially in the wild, wild west and anything goes. We need to revamp this thing."
"I'm probably going to get criticized for saying a few things but I'm good. I'm no longer a football coach and that had a part to do with why I stepped away.
"I'm not the lone wolf here there are some great football coaches that are still coaching. They have to be very careful, politically correct, say all the right things and do all the right things and deep down their hearts getting ripped out because they're at a competitive disadvantage and that's just not right.
"But at the end of the day the people that pay the worst price is the 19-year-old young man knows that it's wrong but still deals with agents when he's not supposed to, taking things from agents and getting recruited illegally. At the end of the day that's going to affect that young man for the rest of his life because a precedent has been set in his mind that taking a shortcut is okay.
"The ultimate mission of college athletics is to develop people for after athletics. The job is not to make money for the university. That's not the number one objective and I'm anxious to help and give my opinion."
All year round The Game within the game is being played and the stakes are high.