Years ago, I sat in coach Bo Schembechler’s office as he finished a phone call with a recruit. His voice was unnaturally high and soft, and a smile seemed pasted on his face. When he hung up, he banged the handset into the base and declared, “God, I hate this recruiting (stuff)!”
I can’t imagine Bo in the era of private jets, video messaging and Twitter. I don’t want to. Recruiting was bad back then. It is beyond description now. Big football schools can regularly spend nearly a million dollars each year — some more than that — to sign a couple dozen recruits. It doesn’t always make them victorious. From 2010-14, the University of Tennessee averaged nearly $232,000 spent on recruiting for every win it produced, according to USA TODAY.
That’s pretty bad return on investment.
But money might be the least offensive part. The behavior of coaches is embarrassing. Grown men act like lovesick teens outside a window, willing to serenade, drop to their knees, hire a mariachi band or rip off their clothes to get a yes.
And the players, some still too young to drive, are getting just as bad.
Ascending to absurdness
Earlier this month, we witnessed National Signing Day. Once this was nothing more than a line on football programs’ calendars. Now, thanks to ESPN and recruiting tout services (who follow kids like racehorses), National Signing Day is televised across the land, giving cause for overpraised high school athletes to play games with school hats before finally pulling one on — as students, family and TV cameras look on. (This, by the way, takes place on a school day. But why bother with attending class when you can command a news conference?)
This year on signing day, a Texas player actually filmed himself jumping from a plane, parachuting through superimposed college logos, then pulling open his jumpsuit to reveal an Ole Miss T-shirt.
To say this is inappropriate is to be a decade too late. The message about the importance of sports today is insulting to the whole concept of education. There are no news conferences for science majors when they choose a college. No future math major ever skydived into admission.
And recruits now evidence a worrisome sense of entitlement. Last week, a Georgia student named Jeremiah Holloman “decommitted” from Michigan. Holloman, a high school junior, visited U-M a few months ago, committed to taking a scholarship in 2017, sent out the big news to his social media, and then, apparently unhappy with how often he got “communication” from U-M — a junior in high school! — announced last week he’d changed his mind.
“I’m a free agent,” he wrote.
That says it all. A kid still a year away from his senior prom already sees himself as a commodity open to all bidders.
Not about education anymore
But what can we expect when schools pursue prep stars like a Holy Grail? Here are true examples of the lengths to which college coaches have gone to sign a high school player: send 105 letters in a single day; arrive via painted helicopter; create personalized comic books; drive an 18-wheeler to a recruit’s home; send out fake celebrity tweets celebrating the player; sleep over at the kid’s house.
That last one made national headlines when Jim Harbaugh recently did it. Harbaugh also accounted for nearly $136,000 worth of private jet use in a 12-day span in the first month of his hiring as Michigan’s new coach last year, according to USA TODAY. He makes no apologies, calling it a business and fun, even as he piles up critics.
And Michigan — a school that prides itself on high academic standards — registers no complaint with such sports excess, perhaps because 1) Everybody is doing it and 2) The football program is back to winning.
As the athletic director of Tennessee told the SportsBusiness Journal a few years ago, when defending his recruiting costs against a $200-million athletic department debt, “We’ve got to get football healthy. … That’s our economic engine.”
And all this time, you thought it was education. How naive.
Still, somebody should show these kids — and their coaches — the statistics on how many top recruits ever go on to successful NFL careers. Of the top 20 prep recruits of 2007, half never even got drafted.
I think back to Bo complaining about having to be nice on a phone call. Hey, at least he never had to sleep in the family guest room, or wait for a future defensive back to fall out of the sky.