This is the fourth of five excerpts from “Bo,” by Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler and Free Press columnist Mitch Albom. Today’s excerpt deals with recruiting. Thursday, in the final installment, Schembechler offers his assessment of the Bill Frieder flap.
Recruiting is the worst part of college football. I no longer look forward to it. I can’t wait until it’s over. It makes me feel like a pimp.
You would be appalled at the things I have to do to recruit. A man my age. And you are listening to someone who does it cleanly, who doesn’t cheat, who refuses to buy players. I am not the only one. There are plenty of honest coaches out there. But the need to win is so great now that certain coaches swallow their pride, certain administrations look the other way, certain payoffs are given — and a player’s word doesn’t mean a damn thing anymore.
I’m sick of it.
Back in the mid-’70s we recruited two kids out of Camden, N.J. One was Art Still, a defensive end who now plays for the Buffalo Bills. The other was Derrick Ramsey, then a quarterback, later a tight end for the New England Patriots. They came to visit Michigan. Looked over the campus. While they were riding with Tom Reed, my assistant coach, in his Ford Granada, one of them said, “Hey, is this the best kind of car we’re gonna get at Michigan?”
Tom shrugged it off. But we knew something was up. Soon after I got a call from their high school coach.
“Are you interested in Still and Ramsey?” he asked.
“Well, yeah, they’re great players,” I said.
“You understand that these boys both live with me,” he said. “I’ve put a lot of money into them. We’re going to have to take care of things if you want them at Michigan.”
“What are you talking about?”
“They’ll cost you five big ones apiece.”
I paused. “Now, repeat that again. ‘Five big ones apiece?’ “
“What do you mean by five big ones?”
“You know, $5,000?”
“You want $5,000 for two football players?”
“No, $5,000 for each one. Ten thousand dollars. Coach, we’re talking about two All-Americans.”
“Well, let me ask you a question. Where do you think I would get $10,000?”
“Come on, Coach. You’re at Michigan. You can get all the money you want.”
I made sure to repeat this again. “You want me to pay you $10,000 for Art Still and Derrick Ramsey?”
“That’s exactly right.”
“And then you’ll see to it that they choose Michigan?”
“Well, I’ll have to think about that. I’ll get back to you.”
” OK. Bye.”
He hung up. And I flicked off the tape recorder. I had taped the entire conversation. I could’t believe the brashness of this guy. He’s their coach! And he’s asking for $10,000 on the phone!
I gave that tape to the NCAA. I said, “I think you guys might be interested in this.” What happened after that, I cannot tell you. I don’t know if Still and Ramsey were ever going to see any money from that little deal.
I do know both went to Kentucky.
And their coach is still in college ball today.
I’m going to state my position right at the start. I will not cheat. I will not buy football players. I find it demeaning enough to fly to some kid’s home, a thousand miles from Ann Arbor, only to learn that he forgot about the meeting. Or to sit there, ready to offer a free education at one of the finest schools in the country, and see the family refuse to turn off the televisionset. I am 60 years old, and I try to retain a certain amount of dignity.
Besides, if a kid can’t see the value of what we’re offering at Michigan without having a car thrown in, the hell with him.
As a result, I end up walking out on some of the finest talent in the country. I’ve seen all kinds of payoffs, big and small. New clothes. New shoes. My assistant coaches have gone to visit houses, arrived just after the other coaches have left, and seen five new sweat suits on the bed. Or a new car in the driveway, conveniently leased from a local businessman for one dollar a year.
Once, Elliot Uzelac and I were recruiting a star running back in Florida
(he now plays in the NFL). On the first visit, he lived in a poor apartment in a poor neighborhood. A few months later, when we went back, he was suddenly living in a new house, in a nice suburb.
“What happened?” we asked the family.
“Oh. . . . we just moved,” they said.
Good-bye. He went to another major university. And I don’t give a hoot if he can leap out of a building. I don’t want that kind of a kid in my program. If it means turning away the best running back in the nation, so be it. Once you pay a kid, he owns you. And pretty soon the rest of your star players expect the same treatment. And pretty soon someone is blabbing to the NCAA. And pretty soon you are history.
You can buy yourself a national championship if you want, but you better be prepared to get out of town as soon as the parade is over.
How did things get so crazy? How did recruiting grow into such a cutthroat business? Well, first, let’s get a few things straight. I would say that 75 percent of recruiting today is still up-front and honest. The parents ask intelligent questions, the kid is bright enough to know what he wants, a decision is made, cleanly, and the athlete signs with the school.
The other 25 percent is a mess. Coaches make promises. Kids make demands. The competition is at a fever pitch, and the whole process spirals out of control.
Who’s at fault? First, consider the school and its administration. It wants the football team to be successful, because successful football means a ton of money — enough, in many cases, to fund the rest of the athletic program.
Next, consider the coach. He knows he has to win fast to please the administration — or else he loses his job. He might be able to build a solid team if they gave him five full years to start from scratch and recruit cleanly. But they are too impatient. Ask Gary Moeller. He went to Illinois, tried to do it cleanly, and they fired him after three years — even though he was on the verge of turning the program around.
Now, in light of all that, consider the high school star — particularly a running back or quarterback. My god, how valuable he suddenly becomes! Coaches are drooling. He can help them win. So he begins hearing from colleges in his junior year. Not a little. A lot. Telephone calls. Letters. Pretty soon, he can’t go anywhere without being asked, “Made up your mind yet?”
Against this backdrop, the athlete and his family often go from thankful to bossy. Early in December, I might call this kid on the phone and he’ll say, “Oh, my god! Coach Schembechler. Oh, geez, this is great!”
I call him the end of January, two months later. “Yeah. Bo, how are you doing? How’s it goin,’ man?”
Last spring, I was visiting the home of Bryan Fortay, one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country. Lives in New Jersey. Nice home. Nice family. But his father was the type who gets real involved in the recruiting process. Not long after I arrived, he sat back in his chair and said, “Now, Bo, if Bryan agrees to Michigan, are you willing to issue a press release stating he is your quarterback and you will not recruit any other quarterback prospects?”
I was dumbfounded. “No,” I said, “why should I do that?”
“Because the other schools did it.”
“What other schools?”
“Miami and Alabama.”
He pulled out two letters. Both were on school stationery. Both were signed by the offensive coordinators. Both said, in effect, “We’ve got the greatest prospect in the country. He’s exactly what we were looking for. There is no other quarterback in the country we’d rather have, so we will not recruit any others.”
It was all there. Miami and Alabama. I couldn’t believe it. “Well,” the father said, ” what would you do?”
I took a deep breath. Then I told him. First of all, I don’t give out press releases. Secondly, let’s face it. If it’s publicity you’re looking for, you’ll get it by signing with Michigan. Every newspaper in the country will run some mention of it.
“Well, what about other quarterback prospects?” the father asked.
“What about them?” I said. “If you think I’m withdrawing my offers to them, you’re wrong.”
I was really getting annoyed. I mean, what’s this all about, anyhow? A marketing campaign?
“You know what’s really sad about those letters?” I said to Mr. Fortay.
“I’ll be damned if I want somebody to put that kind of pressure on my son. Every time he takes a snap, he’s supposed to be great. Is that what you want for your child?”
I guess it was. He chose Miami.