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Change needed as prospects struggle to pay for unofficial visits

Sharrif Floyd introduced himself to the nation in January at the U.S. Army All-American Combine in San Antonio. Floyd, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound defensive tackle from Philadelphia's George Washington High, blew away evaluators with his strength and explosiveness. The performance put Floyd on the recruiting radar of every major program in the nation.

Unfortunately, Floyd couldn't afford to explore all the opportunities that had just opened. Many programs wanted him to come for an unofficial visit or swing by their summer camps. But Floyd, who works part-time for a landscaping company to help put food on the table at home, didn't have the money to book flights across the country. Without baked goods, he wouldn't have even made it to San Antonio.

When Floyd received the invitation to the Army combine, he knew he had to go because a great performance there would bring in scholarship offers from across the nation. So he went to the office of guidance counselor Dawn Seeger. "I sat down with my guidance counselor, who is like a mother to me," Floyd said in a July interview. "We didn't know how I was going to get there." Seeger had an idea. The next time the two met, Seeger pointed to bags loaded with boxes of brownie mix.

"We're baking brownies," Seeger told Floyd.

And so they did, eventually raising more than $200 to help Floyd get to San Antonio. This summer, Floyd used his flight to Orlando, Fla., for Football University's Top Gun Camp as a jumping-off point for several unofficial visits. George Washington coach Ron Cohen drove Floyd to several schools in the Sunshine State. Before he left the South, Floyd flew alone to Columbia, S.C., to visit South Carolina. Then, a friend of his coach drove Floyd to Athens, Ga., to visit Georgia.

The trips stretched Floyd's finances to the limit, but he wanted to see what opportunities lay beyond driving distance of his home, and he worried that if he didn't take the unofficial visits, schools might lose interest. Athletic departments could help players such as Floyd by lobbying the NCAA to allow earlier official visits, but they elect not to.

Every year, coaches whine that the recruiting process is speeding up too much. They complain that they don't have time to get to know the players and make informed decisions. They bemoan each new spate of early commitments, yet they take commitments earlier and earlier every year.

The NCAA doesn't allow players to take official visits until the start of their senior year of high school. By Labor Day weekend -- the first weekend most high schoolers would be allowed to take an official visit -- the members of the current Associated Press top 25 had an average of 15.1 publicly committed players, according to data obtained from Rivals.com. NCAA rules allow schools to bring in a maximum of 25 scholarship football players each year.

So if schools are going to fill at least three-fifths of their classes before the first official visit is allowed, wouldn't it make sense to allow players to take a few visits in the spring of their junior year or at least during the summer? Wouldn't that be more fair to the low-income families who can't afford to schlep their sons across the country? Wouldn't that take away the incentive to cheat and have a booster pay the player's way? Wouldn't that be more fair to schools such as Nebraska, which doesn't have a recruiting base within driving distance? No, coaches say.

"So many guys at that point are still struggling academically to get their work done," Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said. "I don't think it would be very good timing to start it that early. There's already enough stuff that we do that early in the recruiting process. To add the official visits, it would make a more difficult schedule for the coaches."

If Kiffin doesn't support it, no one will, because Tennessee would stand to benefit tremendously from earlier visits. The Volunteer State produces great whiskey and Cracker Barrel biscuits, but it doesn't produce an abundance of great football players. So Tennessee must recruit in California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas to find players. Of those states listed, only Georgia players have a manageable drive to Knoxville. Kiffin also had to deal with a series of headaches during preseason camp as the NCAA investigated how Volunteers' freshman Bryce Brown paid for trips to several schools the summer before his senior season. Brown was cleared of any wrongdoing, and Tennessee never was accused of wrongdoing.

Still, every year, players being recruited by a number of schools do take money to pay for trips. As long as players feel they have to make trips they can't afford, there will be an incentive to cheat.

One coach was stunned to learn of the hidden expenses of the recruiting process when his own son grew into a prospect. Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett spent much of the summer accompanying his son, Clint, on unofficial visits and camp trips. Clint, a quarterback at Tallahassee's North Florida Christian High, eventually committed to the Seminoles, but not before visits to Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, Louisville and South Florida. "I don't think the average person could do a whole lot," Trickett said. "My hat's off to the parents who do. I could probably pay for two years of college with the money I spent."

Pam Mathis is one of those parents. Mathis, whose son, Dior, is a star cornerback at Detroit's Cass Tech, wants her son to examine all the opportunities presented to him. So she and her husband have accompanied him to camps throughout the country and on unofficial visits to Oregon and Miami. Mathis said she and her husband tagged along because there was no way she would allow her son to travel across the country without parental supervision. As for the added expense, Mathis considers it an investment in her son's future. "You don't want him to make a wrong decision," she said. "There's a whole lot of opportunities."

But some players don't have the financial means to examine every school on their own dime. In July, Floyd said he wanted to look at USC, but he couldn't afford the plane ticket. Fortunately for Floyd -- who is scheduled to take an official visit to Florida this weekend -- the Trojans remained interested enough to offer him an official visit during the season.

No brownie-baking required.

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