LINCOLN — The Wild West is coming soon to college football recruiting. Or maybe it's Wall Street. Or Social Darwinism. Whatever name you want to slap on the massive rulebook changes approved by the NCAA probably will fit.
College coaches wanted a streamlined rulebook that cut a lot of the mystery out of contacting recruits. The NCAA wanted a way out of enforcing rules that were becoming increasingly impossible to enforce. So on Jan. 19, an 18-member NCAA Division I Board of Directors delivered. Consider this meat market much more deregulated.
High school players, parents and coaches might want to find some heartburn pills.
Starting Aug. 1, 2013:
>> College head coaches and assistants can call and text high school prospects an unlimited number of times per day. They can also send an unlimited number of private, direct Facebook and Twitter messages.
>> Recruiting support staff — who don't coach the players but serve in player personnel roles, setting up visits, creating prospect lists and the like — can evaluate film and identify prospects, and then contact players via phone, text, Facebook or Twitter. It also opens the door to the true in-house scouting departments and general managers in college football. Look for bigger-budget schools to target ex-players, high school coaches and even some small college coaches to put in their personnel department.
>> The “baton” rule that allows only some of the assistant coaches to be on the road recruiting at one time is gone. Now, all of them can be on the road at the same time.
>> Current football players and incoming prospects can now work summer camps and get paid for that work. As an example: If Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel wanted to work with quarterbacks at the 2014 Texas A&M summer camp, he could.
>> Size restrictions on printed materials sent through the mail are gone. Media guides don't have to adhere to a page limit, either.
Some changes — like dumping the baton rule, or allowing players to help in camps — are likely to get widespread support. But individual schools can appeal to override the measures, and I'd expect more than a few will go after the proposals favoring unlimited contact.
I don't support or oppose the proposals so much as I'm aware of what a suddenly deregulated market can become. It's a fount for creativity and a license to outwork the other guy. It's also a gateway for get-rich-quick schemes and consumers getting caught in the squeeze of competitors dueling for their business. The unlimited calls/texts/messages proposal means that most coaches will take the “more is more” approach to developing a relationship with prospects. Imagine a player receiving 30 “good luck!” texts from 30 different assistants before his Friday night game, 30 more “great game!” texts Saturday morning, 30 more “watch us play tonight!” text messages Saturday afternoon and 30 more “Did you see our game?” texts Sunday morning.
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And when it comes to recruiting support staffs contacting kids, schools could, in theory, hire so many employees you could call and send mail to any player in America.
Ever heard of a Wall Street chop shop? Call this a chop block shop. It's not what I'd do. But a school like Texas — with extraordinary resources — certainly could try. And once the bar is set, a school has to decide: Can we keep up? How? With what money?
You'd like to think the free market would police itself effectively. That a model for ethical efficiency — that toes the line between productivity and proper manners — quickly emerges.
But when have coaches ever been known as paragons of moderation? When have fans ever wanted them to be? Coaches work 20-hour days fueled by energy drinks, fast food and film sessions. They'll attack these changes like they'd attack anything: with a healthy fear that the other guy is doing more.
And remember who the “discerning consumers” are in this deregulated market: teen athletes and their parents. And most of these parents are going through this for the first time. You're asking that client base to put wise limits on their exposure to recruiting tactics, which is a little like asking a young couple who dream of owning a home to be completely wise to adjustable-rate mortgages and predatory lenders.
Who has the advantage in that relationship? You already know. Alabama.
Nebraska's not sleeping on this issue. It'll adjust. But finding that sweet spot for winning kids' hearts — while treating them with respect — just got much harder.
Back to the final weeks of the 2013 recruiting cycle. Nebraska seems poised for a top 20 class, which, given the size of it, certainly should be the case. The Huskers appear ready to get richer at positions where talent was already healthy — running back and linebacker — while they'll rely more heavily on scouting and development among offensive and defensive line commits.
Drama is part of the business, so current commits Dominic Walker and Marcus McWilson stand on center stage, waffling between NU and SEC schools with new coaches. Walker appears to have a commitable offer to Auburn that he's chewing on, while McWilson will take an official visit to Kentucky over the weekend.
I look at the two situations differently. Walker was a late December commit who has a high school teammate, also a wide receiver, heading to Auburn. McWilson's been on board with Nebraska for nearly a year. His high school teammate, linebacker Courtney Love, is already enrolled at NU. His visit to UK seems like a late epiphany spurred by new head coach Mark Stoops who, like Bo Pelini, also graduated from McWilson's alma mater, Youngstown (Ohio) Cardinal Mooney, and assistant Vince Marrow, who recently left Nebraska as a graduate assistant.
Stoops has every right to plumb his alma mater for prospects, but the profile for Kentucky football — second-fiddle to Wildcat hoops, longtime SEC doormat — isn't likely to change in four years. My hunch is McWilson sticks with Nebraska while Walker warms to Auburn coach Gus Malzahn's spread, no-huddle attack.
Nebraska will be holding its first junior day for the 2014 recruiting class on Saturday. Look for good local attendance from scholarship possibilities like Lincoln Southeast guard D.J. Foster, Millard North defensive back Clay Fisher and Millard West defensive end Harrison Phillips; some walk-on prospects; and perhaps a few kids outside of the region.
That was NU recruiting coordinator Ross Els' intent when he set up the early date.
“To get people from around here was our first goal,” Els said. Generally, he added, kids start their year of recruiting by checking out local schools. Later in the spring, look for Nebraska to host players from a wider region, with the usual emphasis on the spring game and a national Big Red Weekend over the summer.
That the Huskers are looking to tailor the event to the best local prospect suggests there's still a priority on winning inside the 500-mile radius, even if Nebraska struck out on some of the top prospects in Iowa, Kansas and Missouri this year.
The 2014 in-state crop looks as good as any since the 2008 bunch, which produced Baker Steinkuhler, Sean Fisher, Notre Dame signee Trevor Robinson and Iowa corner Shaun Prater, among others. Only Foster — a 6-foot-2, 330-pound three-star, according to 247Sports — has a Husker offer right now. In Kansas, Iowa and Missouri, the 2014 prospect list looks strong, too. Missouri appears a little down from 2013, but Kansas and Iowa boast better players.
“It makes our job a heck of a lot easier,” Els said of a potentially strong local talent pool. “Those are the kids people want to see play here.”
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