Deryk Gilmore knew the idea had worked when he read that a recruit had referred to himself as "Bonecrusher" during an interview. Gilmore, then the director of player development at Oregon, had assigned each of the Ducks' top recruiting targets for the class of 2004 with a superhero's nickname. Each player got his own logo, and those logos adorned the mailings Oregon coaches sent each week.
Gilmore one-upped himself the following year. "Players want to be larger than life," said Gilmore, who now uses his marketing savvy to help his clients as an agent for Priority Sports and Entertainment. "We had to find a way to make them larger than life."
Gilmore enlisted Oregon students Brett Kautter, Heather Terry and Brian Merrell to create a one-of-a-kind recruiting tool that -- while still adhering to NCAA rules -- would make recruits think of Oregon as the nation's coolest program.
So when Oregon coaches identified their top 20 prospects for the class of 2005, Gilmore and his staff designed custom comic books starring each recruit as the hero who leads the Ducks to a national title. Because NCAA rules at the time only allowed programs to send letter-sized, black-and-white pages to recruits, Gilmore sent each prospect one page a week. After a few months, the recruit had the full comic book. And when that recruit came to Eugene for an official visit, he would find the bound, full-color book sitting on a table, possibly alongside a fake Sports Illustrated cover -- attached to a real copy of the magazine -- featuring the prospect wearing an Oregon uniform and holding the Heisman Trophy.
Recruits loved the books, and they helped the Ducks land several stars. For example, Jonathan Stewart didn't lead the Ducks to a national title the way he did in Snoop: A Hero Is Born, but he did become the school's second-leading rusher in just three seasons. Before they could immortalize the class of 2006 in graphic-novel form, Gilmore and his team received the ultimate backhanded compliment -- the NCAA banned the books.
College sports' governing body decreed that only material created by coaches could be mailed to recruits. The decision prompted Oregon compliance director Bill Clever to tell The Oregonian: "Unless one of our coaches is [Doonesbury creator] GarryTrudeau, it wouldn't be permissible within the spirit of the rule.
When the NCAA squashed their comic books, Gilmore and his staff joined a long line of coaches, boosters, staffers and administrators who have strived to stay one step ahead of those who make the recruiting rules. Since the NCAA's inception in 1906, the organization and its member conferences have enacted more and more complicated regulations to govern the manner in which colleges stock their athletic rosters. And since 1906, coaches and their supporters have always managed to find the loopholes in those rules.
This spring alone, football coaches made headlines for finding such loopholes. Alabama coach Nick Saban, banned along with his fellow head coaches from visiting high schools during the spring evaluation period, had prospects contact him for video chats, which the NCAA -- for the moment -- considers permissible communication. Big Ten coaches called the conference office to tattle on Illinois coach Ron Zook for speaking at high school coaching clinics only to learn that it was permissible. The clinics allowed Zook to get valuable face time with coaches. Meanwhile, USC coach Pete Carroll launched a profile on the popular social networking site Facebook.com. While NCAA rules prohibit Carroll from contacting recruits through Facebook's various communication channels, the rules do not forbid Carroll from unfurling a thinly veiled recruiting poster in a corner of cyberspace that receives heavy traffic from his target audience.
"Every time they change the rules, somebody comes up with something," said Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky, who in previous jobs attempted to help manage the madness as the chief compliance officer for the Southland, Southwest and Big 12 conferences. "Invariably, that means they get right up to the edge of the line sometimes. ... The unfortunate thing is the line is not always clearly defined."
When the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States -- the ancestor to the modern NCAA -- published its first manual in 1906, the rules governing recruiting were crystal clear -- it wasn't allowed.
The six-page manual included bylaws that forbade "the offering of inducements to players to enter Colleges or Universities because of their athletic abilities" and "the singling out of prominent athletic students of preparatory schools and endeavoring to influence them to enter particular College or University." Naturally, schools completely ignored these rules.
The original NCAA embraced the amateur ideal, mandating that schools draw athletes from the general student body. Athletic scholarships didn't exist at most schools. Leaders considered the act of giving a student financial aid on the basis of athletic ability to be as unethical as paying him a salary. Schools, as competitive then as now, discovered they could get the best football players by finding them jobs or by offering under-the-table payments.
Sick of the athletic black market that sprang up as radio broadcasts made college football one of the nation's most popular sports, leaders of the five-year-old Southeastern Conference voted in December 1935 to allow schools to pay tuition, room and board for athletes. "This amendment brings all the assistance heretofore given athletes above board," Kentucky athletic director Chet Wynne told The Associated Press. "It is a progressive step and places the Southeastern above most conferences of the country."
Other leaders, most notably Big Ten commissioner John Griffiths, disagreed. Opponents of athletic scholarships celebrated two weeks later when the NCAA, at its annual convention at New York's Hotel Pennsylvania, passed resolutions condemning athletic scholarships and recruiting. But since the NCAA of 1935 had no enforcement arm, it couldn't stop the SEC schools from offering scholarships.
The NCAA addressed the issue again in 1948 with the passage of the Sanity Code, which allowed schools to pay the tuition of athletes provided the aid wasn't withdrawn if the athlete chose not to play. Coaches were allowed to recruit off campus, but they weren't allowed to offer any financial aid. The NCAA threatened to expel member schools that offered any additional subsidies to athletes. Not long after, the NCAA sent questionnaires to schools to determine whether they had followed the code, and seven schools -- Virginia, Maryland, Virginia Military Institute, Virginia Tech, The Citadel, Boston College and Villanova -- admitted they had broken rules.
Officials from the "Sinful Seven" argued that they weren't the only guilty ones; they were just the only ones that had told the truth. Before the 1950 NCAA convention, The New York Times predicted the SEC, the Southern Conference and the Southwest Conference might secede from the NCAA if the seven were expelled. The expulsion vote fell 25 short of the required two-thirds majority.
The failure of the Sanity Code forced the NCAA to reinvent itself. In 1951, schools voted to allow athletic scholarships and recruiting. Under the leadership of executive director Walter Byers, the NCAA gradually added rules and staff, including an enforcement arm to ensure schools followed the new rules. Some of those rules were a direct response to complaints from member schools.
In the late 1940s, SEC basketball coaches groused about Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp's recruiting style. Rupp didn't like to beat the bushes to find players, so he asked the best players to come to him. According to a 1950 Time magazine story, "each year dozens of slat-shaped aspirants from all over the U.S. trek to Rupp's office in Lexington, many of them at their own expense, to try out for Rupp's team." The NCAA eventually banned tryouts for prospects in Divisions I and III.
A few years later, in the NAIA, College of Idaho coach Sammy Vokes came up with an idea that would inspire coaches at every level of college sports. Vokes, whose team had taken in a grand total of $2.40 in gate receipts for one game in his first year, convinced school officials to admit athletes who fell well short of admissions standards at other schools. Those athletes included Elgin Baylor and R.C. Owens, who led the Coyotes to the 1955 Pacific Northwest Intercollegiate Conference title. Other coaches noticed and followed suit. Eventually, the NCAA curbed the practice by declaring minimum academic standards that today consist of a sliding scale combining high school grade point average and an SAT or ACT score.
As the years passed and the NCAA rulebook grew thicker, coaches had to get more creative if they wanted to land the best players and stay out of the NCAA's doghouse. In the late 1960s and throughout '70s, no group of coaches walked this fine line better than the football staff at Oklahoma. Though former Texas coach Darrell Royal and others accused Oklahoma's Barry Switzer of a number of dirty tricks on the recruiting trail, in many cases, Switzer and company simply used existing rules to their advantage. In one critical policy decision, they broke an unwritten rule and reaped the benefits.
One example of the Oklahoma coach's genius involved a 1968 Southwest Conference rule that allowed conference staffs to visit a recruit only once. Oklahoma, a member of the Big 8, was bound by no such rule. So Switzer, then a Sooners assistant, essentially lived three days a week at the home of Abilene, Texas, quarterback Jack Mildren. According to his 1990 autobiography, Bootlegger's Boy, Switzer spent many an evening at Mildren's house watching Dolly Parton and Porter Waggoner on television alongside Mildren's parents. One night, as Switzer helped Mildred's mother, Mary Glen, with the dishes, Texas A&M coach Gene Stallings and his staff arrived for their one visit with Mildren. As Switzer walked past the Aggies coaches, he turned and called back to Mildren's mother. "Why don't you just leave these dishes and go visit with them?" Switzer said. "I'll come back and help you finish them later."
Two hours later, Stallings and his assistants walked out to find Switzer waiting. Switzer finished the dishes, and he signed Mildren, who became the first great Wishbone quarterback at Oklahoma. The SWC quickly repealed the rule.
The Oklahoma staff used the SWC rulebook as a shield whenever possible. Larry Lacewell, a longtime Switzer assistant who also served as head coach at Arkansas State and as the Dallas Cowboys' director of player personnel, said the Sooners loved the fact that the SWC had its own Letter of Intent. When a player signed with an SWC school, he was off limits to coaches from the other SWC schools, but not to coaches from schools in other conferences.
"We'd get them to sign with Baylor or TCU," Lacewell recalled with a laugh. That way, Texas and Texas A&M couldn't recruit them, but Oklahoma could.
Lacewell said the most important recruiting innovation the Oklahoma staff brought to its corner of the world had nothing to do with NCAA rules. "We were some of the only ones," Lacewell said, "who would recruit black players." While much of the nation had already integrated, the schools of the SWC and SEC remained mostly segregated in the late '60s and early '70s. Switzer, the assistant in charge of recruiting Texas, used this to Oklahoma's advantage.
Switzer, who had grown up on the black side of town in Crossett, Ark., related easily to black players and their families. He also didn't hesitate to point out the fact that Oklahoma's rivals remained lily-white. "If you were to sign with a Southwest Conference team," Switzer recalled telling black recruits in Bootlegger's Boy, "just think how lonesome it would be to look around in the huddle and see nothing but honky faces."
At the time, the NCAA didn't restrict coaching staff size, so the Sooners had scouts on staff who provided coaches with detailed reports before they hit the recruiting trail. The NCAA also allowed boosters to aid in recruiting efforts. So when a prospect needed a ride for his official visit, Switzer, who became head coach in 1973, and his assistants had no trouble locating an oil company jet to provide the transportation.
The coaches looked for every advantage they could find. That's how Lacewell wound up in the men's room at a Eufaula, Okla., restaurant one night in 1970. Lacewell had been eying a recruit named Lucious Selmon, and he didn't think any of Oklahoma's rivals knew about Selmon. On the day he expected to sign Selmon, he arrived at Selmon's house and saw Colorado coach Eddie Crowder. Because Lacewell wasn't scheduled to meet with Selmon until later, he went to dinner with Crowder. During the meal, Crowder left the table to make a phone call. Lacewell raced to the men's room. "Hiding in the bathroom, I could listen through the walls," Lacewell said. "I could hear everything he said on the pay phone."
When Lacewell met with Selmon, he began nearly every sentence with the phrase, "I bet coach Crowder told you..." Selmon thought Lacewell was a genius, and he signed with the Sooners. Eventually, so would younger brothers Dewey and Lee Roy, and the brothers Selmon helped Oklahoma dominate through the '70s.
"As much as people would like to think we were cheating because we were signing so many great players, it wasn't to the extent that people thought," Lacewell said. "We were out ahead of some people."
The quest to get ahead has led to the creation of new rules to stop specific practices and some suspect interpretation of the rules once they hit the books. For example, Banowsky, the former SWC compliance chief, said the NCAA banned the use of helicopters in recruiting because one SWC school would pickup prospects in a chopper and land them on the 50-yard line as the stadium public-address system blared fictional radio calls of the prospect's future exploits at the school.
In landmark legislation in 1987, the NCAA banned boosters from the recruiting process altogether -- they previously had been allowed to call prospects -- and slashed the recruiting calendar in all sports by about 60 percent. Coaches no longer could babysit committed prospects all the way to signing day. Instead, they had to adhere to strict limitations regarding when and how they contacted recruits. That led to ever more creative interpretations of the rules. While Banowsky served as the chief compliance officer of the Big 12, this case crossed his desk.
"I've had coaches go so far as to rent a limo and drive it up in front of a recruit's house, call the recruit on the phone from the limo and have a telephone conversation with the recruit while the recruit is either in the house or on the front porch of the house and think that it was acceptable because they technically weren't having a a face-to-face meeting," Banowsky said. "They were simply talking on the phone."
A search of news clippings from the period reveals that the coach in question was Colorado's Rick Neuheisel, who was accused of more than 50 NCAA violations -- many involving improper recruiting contacts -- while in Boulder. Neuheisel, now the head coach at UCLA, is the owner of law degree from USC, and he argued that he had not violated the rule in that case. While that argument might have worked in a court of law, the NCAA does not always offer due process to the accused.
"Interpreting the letter of the rule is fine," Banowsky said, "but you can't throw the whole intent and spirit of the rule out the window when you do it."
Sometimes, a coach can use a new rule to his advantage. Two years after the NCAA allowed Division I athletes to get jobs, first-year Memphis basketball coach John Calipari, who inherited a program with a zero graduation rate, asked executives at local giant FedEx if they would provide paid summer internships for some of his players. Those internships gave Calipari an answer to the toughest question he encountered on the recruiting trail. "I have to enter a house with a zero percent graduation rate and promise parents that will change," Calipari told The New York Times in 2001. "FedEx lets me show them their kids will get real work experience." According to a December Forbes story, 25 Memphis basketball players have taken the internship.
In recent years, coaches have stretched their interpretation of the rulebook and violated the spirit of several NCAA rules. Some have steered prospects to diploma mills, and after The New York Times exposed the practice and the NCAA investigated the fake high schools, some coaches began suggesting to parents that if they get their child diagnosed with a learning disability, he might stand a better chance at meeting the NCAA's initial eligibility requirements.
Other coaches have helped push for new recruiting technology, even if they didn't realize it. When Zook was named coach at Florida in 2002, he joked that he needed a waterproof cell phone so he could call recruits while showering. Though Zook has yet to receive one, LG and Sony Ericsson have developed phones that can operate even after 30 minutes of submersion.
Meanwhile, nearly every coach has endeavored to stay within a whisker of the correct side of the line. Oregon's comic books, with their scenes of prospects enjoying future glory, allowed the school to work around relatively new rules that forbade personalized jerseys and scoreboard displays during official visits. Coaches texted until their thumbs ached, but they moved on to other forms of communication when the NCAA banned texting in 2007.
Alabama coach Saban's video chats, which are expressly approved in the NCAA rule book, allow him more face time with prospects than he could have enjoyed had he been allowed to visit their schools. Zook's coaching-clinic appearances allow him to maintain relationships that might have otherwise suffered. Carroll's Facebook page allows him to sell his program in a place he knows recruits frequent.
All great ideas. And at some point, all might get banned by the NCAA.
"I'm sure," Zook said of his idea, "they'll put a stop to that next year."