The recruiting process, which controls your opportunity to take your game to college, is among the more complex obstacles any athlete will encounter. If you don’t approach it right, you could be left wondering what might have been. For this reason, STACK created the Ultimate Recruiting Guide, a resource you can use to educate yourself on the process and how to use it to your advantage.
If you’re like many athletes, you think the recruiting process just happens—as in, college coaches simply come calling, without your involvement. Rarely is this the case. To help prove the point, we called on two men who had deeply involved and seriously different recruiting experiences: Terrell Owens, the Dallas Cowboys’ Pro Bowl receiver, who came from a small I-AA college program; and Bruce Feldman, senior writer for ESPN and author of a recently published book about the intricacies of recruiting, Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting.
The personal knowledge they share will help explain why the process can be so difficult and why this Guide can be so valuable.
College recruiting has turned into a booming business and spectator sport, as the interest it has drawn, over the past five years, has grown at an eye-popping rate. On Signing Day, 2007, rivals.com claimed a whopping 74.5 million page views—almost five times the number msnbc.com registered for its Election Night coverage a few months earlier. Still, for all the attention, the recruiting process, which for most major football programs involves going from 1,000 names to 25 signees, is the most clandestine operation in sports. Strict NCAA regulations and coach paranoia are two main reasons.
Nonetheless, for the past two years, I was granted unprecedented access to go inside an actual college football recruiting machine, to sit in on every war-room meeting and observe all recruiting calls, film sessions and summer camps for my book, Meat Market. The experience was amazing, particularly for someone who thought he knew a lot about the recruiting business.
The number one thing I learned is that for all the expertise on a college coaching staff, and for all the effort required (it really is a 365-day-a-year effort), recruiting is still very much a crapshoot. I shadowed Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron, who learned how to evaluate talent during his days under Jimmy Johnson and Pete Carroll—two of the masters. Orgeron was USC’s recruiting coordinator when the Trojans landed their 2003 recruiting class, widely considered to be the best collection of talent ever assembled. The group was loaded with All-Americans and future first-day draft picks: Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Ryan Kalil. Yet none of these guys was who USC coaches expected to be the breakout star. Their headliner was a receiver named Whitney Lewis. Trouble was, Lewis never displayed the work ethic or mental toughness to compete for a starting job. Three years later, having never cracked the Trojans’ two-deep, he transferred to I-AA Northern Iowa, while Bush went on to win the Heisman Trophy.
Reality is that athletes mature differently. Maybe you’re a late-bloomer. Or maybe you play in a system or place where recruiters might not get a chance to see you. Or maybe you were having a bad day when they were in your stadium. Pro sports are loaded with guys who supposedly “fell through the cracks” and became sleepers. Terrell Owens, product of Tennessee-Chattanooga, may be the biggest sleeper in recent NFL history. You look at him now and think, “How could all the major college scouts miss that guy?” But back in his high school days, Owens didn’t look like any fivestar athlete.
“I was probably a 4.6 (forty) at best,” Owens says. “Being really scrawny at 6’1”, 180 pounds and not being very fast, I didn’t get many looks. I was fortunate to make the best of the opportunities the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga gave me. You’ll notice around the NFL that there are a lot of Division I-AA guys and guys who didn’t go to big-name schools playing. It’s not where you come from; it’s how you come. If you got talent, believe me, [NFL] scouts will find you.”
These days, virtually every college hopeful has a highlight reel. Owens didn’t. “To be honest, I didn’t have too many highlights coming out of high school, so I couldn’t really put a highlight tape together,” he admits.
Owens got a chance to impress college coaches when they came to one of his high school games to watch a fellow receiver. “They ended up recruiting both of us,” he says. “They noticed me because of him, and brought me on in a package deal. I was very fortunate that I never gave up and made plays at the right time.”
Owens was lucky to have a star teammate who was attracting attention. If you aren’t as fortunate, recruiting services can help you get the word out. And for sports without big recruiting budgets, these services can allow a women’s basketball coach in Texas to search and learn about a shooting guard in California, without the cost of a plane ticket or hotel.
It’s all about giving yourself every possible advantage, whether that means leveraging a star teammate as T.O. did or marketing yourself through the internet. Throughout this special section, you’ll get a crash course on the recruiting process and some helpful tips that usually get left out in the margins, from the recruiting lingo to the financial opportunities to the best ways to make a good impression on and off the field.
But before jumping into that, here are few crucial points I learned from my time at Ole Miss.
The quickest and surest way to land a football scholarship is to show up and dominate at a team’s summer camp. If you’re not on that program’s radar but you have a great day, you’ll be high on their recruiting board by the time you head home.
Orgeron always loved to talk about the gems they discovered at USC’s summer camps. Mike Patterson was a chunky, unfit defensive lineman who was so shy that he barely said two words to anybody when he came to Trojan camp. But Orgeron observed how he was surprisingly quick off the ball and really good with his hands (a product of his wrestling background), and that he seemed very driven. Orgeron started calling Patterson “Baby Sapp,” as in Warren Sapp, and the more love he showed Patterson, the harder the lineman seemed to go. USC offered Patterson a scholarship when no other school paid much attention to him, and Baby Sapp eventually became an All-American and first-round draft pick.
While working on Meat Market, I saw a few cases of no-star recruits who left a one-day camp with a scholarship offer. While money is the ultimate prize, camps provide more. Coaches get to “eye-ball” everyone and learn who’s a legit 6’2” and who’s really 5’11”; to see how fastyou really are—not how fast someone on the internet says you are; and to observe how you perform their drills. Meanwhile, you get to be coached, just as if you were in their program, and, for better or worse, they can make a truer evaluation of how athletic and competitive you are and how quickly you can grasp new things— which is much more vital than I would’ve thought. Ultimately, that becomes one of those “intangible” elements that often hint at why a two-star athlete can become an all-conference player and, perhaps, why a four-star player can’t get off the bench. After all, nothing frustrates a coach more than a blown assignment due to a mental mistake.
Coaches believe they are working with raw materials; so the more evidence you can provide them, the better off your candidacy is to make their teams. His wrestling background helped sell USC on Patterson. For receiver Mike Williams, it was his basketball skills. Florida, FSU and Miami all had their doubts that the Tampa native possessed the athleticism to play big-time ball, but USC coaches were convinced when they saw Williams on the hardwood in a high school game. Athletes who run track help themselves, too, because meet times are deemed more legitimate; basically, you’re turning a subjective element into a more objective one.
Terrell Owens was not only more marketable to smaller colleges than he thought, but he could also contribute to their basketball teams; and playing basketball allowed Owens to hone his receiving skills. “Obviously, playing basketball helped me with some of the things I did on the football filed,” Owens says. “It helped me with my agility. I got faster by playing basketball, and it got me mentally tougher, too.”
MAKING THE GRADE
The most underrated aspect of the recruiting process is character. And now, it counts more than ever, because the NCAA has implemented its APR system, which punishes schools for kids who don’t pan out. But gauging character is not always easy to do. Coaches will make a lot of judgments from your academic transcript, because they think it shows how committed a student-athlete can be. To many coaches, there is a big difference between a kid who struggles in the classroom, but works hard and tries, and a kid with good grades but who is a pain to show up for classes, tutoring sessions and team meetings.
Just remember: you’re always under the microscope. Coaches are always evaluating and looking for reasons to pick one player over another. I don’t think there was one official visit weekend during my time at Ole Miss when coaches didn’t “gong” a prospect because of a character issue. Maybe the prospect didn’t make eye contact when meeting staffers. Or maybe he drifted off while sitting in the back of the room during a team meeting. Or maybe the player’s host thought he wasn’t serious about being there. Character counts, so you need to prepare like you’re going to a job interview because, well, you are.