An Ethnography of Collegiate Recruiting

Publisher’s Note: This article originally appeared on CFBHuddle as the first of an intended three-part series. Now that I have my own domain, the remainder of this article will be finished here on Hyrule Huddle. While a couple quotes and a good amount editing were done by Kyle Kensing, the original idea and years of research prior to posting were carried out by me, which is why it is being finished on this site. Many thanks to Kyle for his contributions. 

College football recruiting exists as a game-within-the-game, with a final score given out each February on national signing day. So much in the recruiting game occurs behind the scenes, most of which the majority of fans will never see.

For better or for worse, coaches are commonly judged more for how their recruits perform as college football players than for how they develop as men. Thus, for coaches, the primary focus of recruiting is singular: winning.

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Genuine relationships build from there, but initial motivation in a coach showing a prospect begins with the prospect’s ability to help the coach’s team win.

Prospects face three fundamental choices when selecting a suitor: commit to a coach or coaching staff; commit to a university; commit to teammates and friends.

Any other motivating factors are tied to these three cornerstones, all of which can be fluid. Thus, teenager recruits are forced to balance being students, football players and experts in interpersonal relationships.

“You just don’t know who has the kid’s best interest in mind,” said CBSSports.com reporter Ben Kercheval. “There’s the coaches, but they just want the kid for winning. They just want to sell it on the kid and if they get fired or move on then, oh well, shit happens and the kid is just expected to deal with it.”

Recruits must also learn to how to just deal with “it” — whether “it” is a coach being fired or leaving for another job, a program recruiting without genuine interest, etc.

All the while, these recruits are faced with various pressures: pressure from fans. Pressure from the assorted coaches pitching them. Pressure from family and friends. The inherent pressure of choosing a college — arguably the most stressful endeavor of any teenager’s life.

Josh Webb’s “An Ethnography of Collegiate Recruiting” aims to provide deeper perspective into this unique process.

FROM MIDDLE SCHOOL TO COLLEGE

On the condition of anonymity, a 2017 5-star recruit told Hyrule Huddle that the processes are now beginning at a time when even most are still figuring out how to navigate the social scene in their own middle schools — never mind planning for relationships five and six years in the future.

“The recruiters recognize those kids at such a young age and build a relationship with them throughout the years. They’re going to have favorites,” the 5-star prospect said. “Early on — I’m talking seventh, eighth grade years — that’s when they really set the foundation for all the recruiters to start a relationship with them and get to experience what [the recruiting process is] going to be like.”

Kercheval says that process beginning at an earlier age is not necessarily a good thing, noting the maturation process — physical and emotional — one undergoes from middle school through high school.

“We’re creeping into an entirely too young of age for recruiting,” he said. “When a six or an eighth grader has a recruiting profile on Rivals or whatever, the kid is not even a football player. He’s just a kid. He’s a no-star recruit because he’s in the seventh grade, no one knows what he’s capable of doing [in high school and beyond].

“That’s the stuff that weirds me out,” he said. “When you include the fact that we live in an age of promotion and exposure, I think these sorts of problems go hand-in-hand, like the chicken and the egg argument.”

Using the example of former USC head coach Lane Kiffin offering current West Virginia wide receiver David Sills when Sills was only 13 years old, Kercheval outlined how the relationship had pros and cons.

The recruit takes on more of the cons. The pros skew more to that coach doing the recruiting.

“I get that it’s non-binding and it technically doesn’t hurt anybody,” Kercheval said of these types of offers. “You’re not signing away your life or anything, but the last thing you ever want to do to a kid is to give him tunnel vision that he’s going to be a USC Trojan when he’s 12 years old. More often than not, it never works out in that fashion.

“Three years later, Lane Kiffin is no longer there and now there is a new coaching staff and they’ve no interest in whoever this 14-year-old is. Now he’s potentially missed out of a year or two of early recruiting.”

Such was the case for Sills, who remained verbally committed to USC for four, turbulent years, which Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnston detailed last summer.

“Now that’s just an example, just a one-percenter,” Kercheval notes of Sills and Kiffin. “[But] the one thing I think is wrong with recruiting in general is…kids are impressionable anyway, and they [are] more impressionable the younger they are.”

And the practice of recruiting prospects at a younger age is on the rise. Just last month, Alabama offered a scholarship to eighth-grade linebacker Jesus Machado. Syracuse did likewise with eighth-grade running back Don Chaney Jr.

Recruiting’s demographics are skewing younger.

GETTING DISCOVERED

Whether a middle-schooler or an unheralded prospect entering his senior year of high school, recruits focus on landing that crucial first scholarship offer.

Outside of blue-chip athletes, that part of the process can often be the most confusing, frustrating, and trying time of their young lives.

Between the money spent on development, camps, and traveling to visit these schools, there are times when it can feel more like buying into a pyramid scheme than pursuing a life’s dream.

Landing on a program’s radar proves difficult enough. A player can offer everything a coach wants – talent, potential, grades, attitude – but without exposure, none of that matters.

Gaining exposure is a challenge all its own, especially for prospects outside of the typical recruiting pipelines.

“Other kids come from talent hotbeds in different recruiting states,” the 5-star prospect said. “The attention is already there and they don’t have to do much beyond show up and show out to get those looks.”

In order to overcome those odds, recruits turn to 7-on-7 tournaments, satellite camps, and on-campus training clinics to improve their odds.This leads to the introduction of a new variable, one that can be impossible for some recruits to overcome: the financial burden of attending these events enough to be seen by the right eyes.

And even then, getting that all-important offer is no guarantee. A 2016 3-star recruit who went through the process told Hyrule Huddle he believed the primary purpose of these events are for the coaches to discover players they want.

“There’s a lot of underrated players that they won’t even give the time of day to see if they’re even good enough or not to give them a chance,” he said.

Unfortunately, that leads to other kids getting a lot less instruction even though they’ve paid the same amount of money.

“Each camp is like $70,” the 3-star lineman prospect said. “I’ve gone to multiple and it does add up. I feel that if some colleges were to make it free it might help them look better from what people are saying that they only do these camps for recruiting and stuff like that.

Travel expenses on top of camp admission fees can total well into the thousands for prospects trying to get on multiple coaches’ radars. Once exposed to a coach, a prospect now is playing catch-up to those already with exposure – those recruits who garner attention as seventh and eighth graders.

Rob Boydstun, a recruiting analyst with Oregon’s Scout affiliate, noted similar concerns about disproportionate focus and coaching given to already-established recruits on the summer-camp circuit.

“There’s a limited amount of coaching available,” Boydstun said. “The kids that you can tell are 4 and 5-star kids probably get more one-on-one attention because the coaches can see that they’re going to be the recruit that just need fine tuning in order go to the next level.

“Maybe a coach sees a kid and thinks he’s not going to be playing Div. I ball or someone who needs a lot of work,” he added, offering the other end of the spectrum. “They’ll talk to those recruits, don’t get me wrong, but we need to be honest that all of these kids are paying for the same level of instruction, and I just don’t know if the coaches can provide that with the volume of kids that go to these camps.”

A future entry in this series takes a deeper look at the camp circuit, but these examples provide a quick glimpse into the stress a prospect faces in simply marketing himself for recruitment.

Prospects go through the wringer before ever committing to a scholarship offer — which presents its own set of stresses.

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