Illinois coach Ron Zook believes college football's ruling class has enacted a law to keep the serfs from joining the landed gentry. Alabama coach Nick Saban, the man the rule was instituted for, hates it. USC coach Pete Carroll thinks his rivals have handcuffed him because they're lazy. And while Zook, Saban, Carroll and their ilk sit in their offices this spring, a silent majority of head coaches will breathe easier.
A few coaches are seething because of a new NCAA rule that forces head coaches to stay home during the April 15-May 31 evaluation period, when college coaches swarm the nation's high schools to eyeball players and schmooze prep coaches. Those head coaches say the rule eliminates a valuable chance for coaches to gather information about players they're recruiting. College coaches weren't allowed to talk to the actual prospects during the spring, but they could talk to their coaches, teachers and guidance counselors. Also, college head coaches could build relationships with high school coaches, which could come in handy down the road.
The angry coaches don't blame the NCAA, though. They blame their colleagues. The NCAA only followed a suggestion from the American Football Coaches Association, whose Division I-A membership voted this winter to ban head coaches from the road during the period. Ostensibly, the ban will keep head coaches from violating the NCAA's "bump rule," which allows coaches to exchange nothing more than pleasantries with prospects. Zook, however, believes the rule will benefit coaches at established programs while hamstringing those who must build or rebuild a program.
"That gives the haves a little advantage over the have-nots," said Zook, who inherited an Illinois program in 2005 that had lost 19 of 23 games and took it to the 2008 Rose Bowl. "For the guys who would like to be out there selling a program, it's hard to do."
Apparently, not many coaches want to get out there and sell. AFCA executive director Grant Teaff told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that more coaches were concerned with violations of the bump rule. "When we sent out info on this regarding head coaches off the road in the spring, there could have been an override to the rule," Teaff told the paper. "It takes 30 coaches to override a rule. We only had 14 of 120 coaches who filed for the override."
Meanwhile, the man blamed for the "Saban Rule" stews in Tuscaloosa. Last year, Saban was accused of violating the bump rule during several visits to South Florida high schools. In one case, Lake Worth High quarterback Star Jackson told The Palm Beach Post he spoke to Saban for "a couple of minutes." Saban, who denied breaking any rules, got lambasted for allegedly engaging in a practice common among coaches.
"A lot of guys don't like to recruit. They see it as a necessary evil," Saban said. "I like the relationships with the players, with the coaches. I like watching football practice."
So do coaches believe the violations will stop now that Saban and other suspected bump-rule outlaws are chained to their desks? If they do, they're dreaming, Zook said. "If a recruit is talking to a head coach, then he's talking to an assistant coach," Zook said. "That's illegal also. I don't know where it stops."
Zook has long espoused that Jimmies and Joes, not Xs and Os, win football games. He recruited the nucleus of Florida's 2006 national title team, and after getting fired in Gainesville, made a wise decision. Given the choice to coach at Ole Miss or Illinois, Zook surmised that he could win in the less athletic Big Ten by recruiting SEC-type speed. And since Illinois is the flagship public university in the nation's sixth most populated state, Zook, in his first spring on the job, visited more than 100 high schools.
Carroll built USC's program in a similar fashion. Urban Meyer did the same thing when he replaced Zook at Florida, sometimes logging three flights and three rental cars in the same day visiting high schools, where he often questioned female faculty members to learn how the players he was evaluating treated women.
The coaches who hate the rule say they'll miss this kind of evaluation the most. The chance to ask face-to-face questions of teachers and guidance counselors helped them make more informed decisions about which players to take. They know they'll get blasted if a player they recruit gets arrested, and they'll get fired if they bring in too many thugs. By vetting those recruits they feel they can reduce the knucklehead quotient.
Now, excluding unofficial visits paid for by prospects' families, head coaches may have two face-to-face meetings with the players they recruit: at the on-campus official visit and once off-campus between November and Signing Day in February. By then, Saban said, it's too late to vet.
"That's recruiting," he said. "That's not evaluating."
Even the guy who should be thrilled about the rule hates it. Jimbo Fisher, the Florida State offensive coordinator slated to succeed Bobby Bowden, is allowed on the road this spring to evaluate players who will know him for most of their careers as their head coach.
Fisher will gladly take advantage of the loophole he's been offered, but he worries what will happen when he ascends to the throne in Tallahassee. He will have to trust his assistants to make most of the character and talent judgments about his players, but his job will be on the line if those players don't pan out. "When do I get to know him?" Fisher said. "When do I get to see him? I think they're making a huge mistake."
Naturally, the aggrieved coaches haven't spent the spring sharpening their golf games. They've looked for ways to keep recruiting in spite of the rule. Earlier this year, Carroll launched his own Facebook profile, essentially unfurling a USC recruiting poster in an area of cyberspace frequented by high-schoolers. Last week, Zook and several staff members conducted a free coaches' clinic at Chicago's Mt. Carmel High. Zook wasn't allowed to visit high school coaches, so he gave them a reason to come to him.
Meanwhile, Saban used his extra time in the office to have a completely legal face-to-face conversation with a recruit. Saban's face was aimed at a computer-mounted camera in his office, and so was the face of Athens (Ala.) High defensive end William Ming, who sat in front of a computer at his school's distance learning lab.
"You could see [Saban's] facial expressions and hand gestures just as if you were sitting across the desk from him," Athens coach Allen Creasy told the Birmingham News. "It's the next-best thing to being there in person."
According to the NCAA, a video conference counts as a phone call. And prospects are allowed to call coaches as many times as they please. So when Ming logged into the Web address left at the school by Alabama assistant Curt Cignetti, he may as well have been dialing Saban's cell number.
Expect the Carrolls, Zooks, and Sabans of the coaching world to keep devising ways to reach players in spite of their colleagues' attempts to stymie them. Because while the rule may prevent some coaches from being outworked, it won't keep them from getting outsmarted.