The mania of college football recruiting in the South is peculiar. Like fantasy football, recruiting is an outgrowth from the game that somehow manages occasionally to supersede it. If you're not careful Feb. 7, National Signing Day for college-bound prospects, you might get the idea that winning on the field is mainly in service of wooing teenagers.
If you're the type of person who bothers to take an interest in recruiting at all, it's an all-or-nothing business—information is obscure, and opinions, rankings and speculation on prospects vary widely enough to make the descent into message board wormholes and Web site subscriptions a fast one. The effect can be something like the jock equivalent of "Dungeons and Dragons," complete with inside lingo, references and near-indecipherable attributes. (Jemariey Atterberry, for instance, is a ** CB, Pos. #62, 5-10, 162, runs 4.47, soft verbal but no LOI, according to Scout.com. Translated, the Kosciusko High senior is a fast but small cornerback who has said he will attend Mississippi State, but has yet to sign a binding "letter of intent." If you want to know his 3-cone and short shuttle times or the dates he visited various schools, it can cost you.)
The recruiting information industry is lucrative and growing, however unscrupulous, and Feb. 7 is its annual Super Bowl. Many alumni and supporters host "Signing Day Parties," where incoming faxes are cheered like touchdowns. In the South, and in Mississippi especially—which has probably produced more top 100 recruits in the past two years per capita than any other state—this is no joke.
The business' notables—Scout, Rivals, Tom Lemming, Max Emfinger, PrepStar foremost among them—are pretty fat targets for snarky writers (ahem) and higher-minded detractors. You may have missed last week's reports that witnesses before the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics warned of corrupting pressures on recruits who follow the Web rankings and of a process in which "the elite athletic prospect has become completely commoditized ... hedonistic, materialistic and individualistic." Sports sociologist Harry Edwards, former UC-Berkeley professor and current adviser to the University of Florida's national championship squad, told the commission he has seen "parents out there who are pulling guns on coaches" to increase their kids' playing time and scholarship opportunities.
Whether recruiting Web sites have made certain 18-year-olds more "hedonistic, materialistic and individualistic" than 18-year-olds at large is debatable, though it probably is true that the desires of the "elite prospect" are more frequently sated than those of their less athletic peers. But few prospects are "elite." Most are normal kids with some degree of local fame. The Jimmy Clausen figure—golden boy California quarterback from a private high school program tailored to his skills, third and most hyped in a line of heavily recruited brothers, who announced his commitment to Notre Dame for the 2007 season before he'd even taken a snap as a high school senior—is an exceptionally rare one. In Mississippi, where virtually none of our best-known heroes—Walter Payton, Brett Favre, Jerry Rice, Steve McNair—stood out much among hundreds of similarly regarded prospects, we know the value of the diamond in the rough, too.
Plenty of highly touted players have come and gone, enough to prove that over-the-top publicity was not invented with the Internet. In 1983, Willie Morris wrote "The Courtship of Marcus Dupree," about the highly sought after Philadelphia star who turned out be a bust. Thirty years before, Bear Bryant was writing the book on bending recruiting rules at Texas A&M and Alabama, and in 1931, an enterprising sportswriter could have chronicled shocking excess in "The Courtship of Bruiser Kinard," about the future Ole Miss all-American and Hall-of-Famer. The Carnegie Foundation fruitlessly called for reforms in college football in '21 and '31, to end the influx of dollars and the press coverage threatening to turn the sport's amateur students into corrupt, quasi-professionals. It's the same demand another Knight Commission will make another 10 years from now.
So maybe the critics of recruiting gurus have it wrong—maybe it's a sign of tremendous health that American society provides enough wealth, leisure and freedom from physical labor for adults to pay for the privilege of poring over multiple assessments of every wide receiver in a five-state radius. After all, the rankings published by the pros are remarkably good predictors of on-field collegiate success. Or else the Knight Commission is right, and Tom Lemming represents the eighth sign of the apocalypse. Either way, you can hate the game if you must, but not the player—however difficult that may be when it comes to Jimmy Clausen.