Hoax or fantastic tale?

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Think of the strangest recruiting story you can remember. Got it? It's about to get topped.

Kevin Hart, a 6-foot-5, 290-pound offensive lineman from Fernley (Nev.), held a press conference Friday at Fernley High to announce where he intended to play college football. The local newspaper covered it. So did local television stations. It came down to a tough choice between Oregon and Cal, Hart told reporters, but in the end, he had decided he would sign with the Bears on Wednesday. It was a big moment; no athlete at the school had gone to a Division I school directly from high school, according to the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal.

"[Cal] coach [Jeff] Tedford and I talked a lot, and the fact that the head coach did most of the recruiting of me kind of gave me that real personal experience," Hart told reporters at the press conference.

Several hours later, BearTerritory.net, a Rivals.com site that covers Cal sports, reported that no scholarship had been offered and that no one on the Cal coaching staff had been in contact with Hart or Fernley coach Mark Hodges. According to the Gazette-Journal, school officials spent part of the weekend trying to discern exactly how Hart came to believe he had scholarship offers to Oregon and Cal. The NCAA was called, Nevada Interscholastic Athletics Association executive director Eddie Bonine said. Hart, reached Monday by SI.com, declined comment. So did Hodges, citing an ongoing investigation. No one from Cal or Oregon can comment on Hart because NCAA rules forbid employees of member schools from commenting publicly about recruitable athletes.

Is it possible someone pulled off an elaborate hoax and made Hart believe he was being recruited when he wasn't? It's easy to guess that Hart invented his recruitment, but if he did, why would he hold a press conference and risk the potential embarrassment of being exposed? That part doesn't make sense.

A little easier to understand is how a player and a family might not have understood how the recruiting process works. A player offered a scholarship would have received volumes of mail from the school. He also would have received a visit from an assistant coach and probably the head coach. School officials would have ensured the player sent his transcript and test scores to the NCAA Clearinghouse for examination. These things are obvious to those who follow college football passionately, but not necessarily to those who don't.

If it was a hoax or practical joke, Hart may not have legal recourse. Lyon County Sheriff's Department Capt. Tom VanDalinda arrived at work Monday with a stack of messages from reporters asking about his department's investigation into the case. VanDalinda said he could find no incident report concerning the case, and even if the department found someone had impersonated a coach, VanDalinda said he isn't sure there is a crime on the books with which to charge the offending party.

"I can't see how we would be involved, because I don't know what crime would have been committed," VanDalinda said. "Either someone is impersonating a recruiter or a fantastic story has been told."

In case you haven't noticed, my mailbag submission form went live last week. Naturally, I wrote something almost immediately that ticked off one of the most passionate fan bases in college football.

I'm sure, in the course of doing this job, I will write stories that anger fans of many schools. That's the nature of the business. Unfortunately, I didn't intend to do it with the story I wrote Friday comparing the negative recruiting in college football with the negative campaigning in the presidential race. In the story, I compared SEC coaches' annual trashing of one another's programs to the sniping between the candidates for the Democratic nomination. I pointed to an example where a little negativity worked and Alabama coach Nick Saban wound up signing a player previously committed to LSU. Here's a sample of the mail I received:

From Rob in Atlanta: "Your one fact for Saban and negative recruiting was him saying his staff was better than another staff? For this, you put him on the front page of the site and the first picture in the article. It was nice when journalism was based on facts rather than just jumping on the most convenient target. You hit a topic in the article that should be explored to great depths but you took the easy way out -- this is a fluff piece -- all headlines and no substance."

Rob's was one of the nicer e-mails. But he makes a valid point. I should have cited other examples, like this one. Last year, LSU signee Terrance Toliver told a Houston television station that Florida coaches kept telling him LSU "doesn't qualify its players." Gators coach Urban Meyer told SI that neither he nor his staff would single out LSU, but something Meyer or one of his coaches said obviously left Tolliver with that impression.

Now, Florida fans can send me nasty e-mails. That's OK. I'm used to those. Before I came to SI.com, I covered the Gators for The Tampa Tribune for four years.

Still, I don't think Gators, Trojans, Buckeyes or Mountaineers fans can top the Tide when it comes to sheer venom. My new favorite angry reader e-mail comes from Mike in Bessemer, Ala. Here's the complete text: "How long will it take you to realize that you suck?"