One Saturday earlier this month at the University of South Florida, more than 250 players from six states gathered for a seven-on-seven football tournament. Their teams didn't represent individual high schools, though; instead, battles raged between all-star teams comprised of skill-position players from different geographic regions hand-selected by independent coaches or writers from Scout.com. In 11 months, most of the participating players will sign Division-I scholarship offers, and for those who follow the NCAA's other big-money college sport, all of this should sound eerily familiar.
"It's AAU football," Brett Goetz said.
Goetz should know. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., stockbroker coaches Joyner's team, the South Florida Express. In February, 55 of South Florida's best players, all of whom BCS conference schools will likely recruit, showed up to try out for the team. Goetz chose the best 24 to take to the seven-on-seven Badger Sport Skills Pass Camp. Run by New Level Athletics in conjunction with Scout.com, the tournament is one of four nationally -- Rutgers, Ohio State and Las Vegas are the three other sites -- that bring together all-star teams instead of dividing players by high school team. In only their second year, the tournaments have already attracted the nation's best prospects. Baron Flenory, New Level's co-founder and a regional manager at Scout.com, estimated that 90 percent of the skill-position prospects who played in either the Under Armour or U.S. Army All-American games this past January played in one of his tournaments in 2008. "This year," he said, "we'll have 99 percent."
Flenory, a former New Hampshire defensive back, readily admits he would love to create an offseason football circuit similar to the one that rules basketball recruiting. On the basketball circuit, Nike's Peach Jam tournament is the crown jewel. The tournament in Tampa may as well have been called the Guava Gridiron, because it was organized exactly the same way: all-star teams from different regions -- in this case, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Mississippi and the larger metropolitan areas in Florida -- taking part in pool play followed by a single-elimination tournament.
Flenory, the son of former Duquesne basketball star B.B. Flenory, said his professional idol is Sonny Vaccaro, the godfather of grassroots basketball. "I love what he did," the younger Flenory said. "I think he's a genius." After several conversations during the nascent stages of Flenory's grassroots football operation, Vaccaro came away impressed with the 25-year-old. What impressed Vaccaro most was Flenory's desire to help players who weren't already big-name recruits. "He's basically an outsider," Vaccaro said. "He started from scratch, and he did it the right way. And he did it without being a big name and without having a big-name player."
Flenory understands his ambition will be met with skepticism and trepidation thanks to the reputation of grassroots basketball, which has been tainted by dirty recruiting and by coaches who exploited players for personal gain. Some worry that if grassroots football takes off, it would empower the "street agents," who in the past have shopped players to schools in relative anonymity. With a system similar to basketball's, those street agents could conceivably form their own traveling teams.
That's what worries Illinois coach Ron Zook, who pointed out that most high-school coaches are not allowed to coach seven-on-seven tournaments because of state association rules against extra practices. Zook worries that diminishing the influence of high school coaches combined with the NCAA's stringent restrictions on contact between prospects and college coaches will make it even more difficult for college coaches to make informed recruiting choices. "Once you begin to take the high school coaches out of the mix, then we're getting into the same thing as basketball," Zook said. "The NCAA must feel that what goes on in basketball is OK."
Of course, AAU football is a bit of a misnomer. The Amateur Athletic Union does sponsor football, but those leagues cater to younger children. The AAU is not affiliated with these tournaments, just as it is not affiliated with many of the more popular grassroots basketball tournaments. Still, "AAU basketball" has become the catch-all term for offseason tournaments involving traveling teams.
Flenory originally set out to run a skills camp. He believed the 40-yard dash doomed his own recruitment, so he has banned the run from any event he organizes. He also believed his model was superior to the recruiting service and shoe company-sponsored combines that measure 40-yard times, vertical jumps and shuttle runs. The idea for the tournaments sprang from a moment during a skills camp Flenory and partner Kashann Simmons put on in Somerset, N.J., in 2007. Players from New Jersey and New York had spent much of the day talking trash, so when it came time for the seven-on-seven period of the camp, Flenory and Simmons matched a team of New Jersey players against a team of New York players. When future Oklahoma receiver Dejuan Miller caught a bomb to win the game for New Jersey, Flenory and Simmons knew they had struck gold.
"Fans, parents and kids started chanting 'New Jersey' and ran to the middle of the field," Flenory said. "We had to stop the camp. ... Everybody looked around and said this is the next biggest thing."
At the time, seven-on-seven tournaments were nothing new. For the past decade, high school coaches have sent their skill-position players to various tournaments to polish their timing, throwing, catching and coverage skills. But those tournaments are tied to high school teams. Adidas sponsored a series of school team-based seven-on-seven tournaments in 2008 that drew more than 4,000 players. Nike, meanwhile, invited some of the best high school teams in the country to its Oregon campus for a tournament last year. In Texas, a consortium of state coaches run the State 7on7 tournament with the blessing of the state's high school sports association. While high school coaches aren't allowed to coach their teams, they are encouraged to watch their school's team to ensure everyone is following the rules. Wylie Independent School District athletic director Mark Ball, a member of the tournament's board, said the tournament builds stronger high school teams, something a gathering of all-star teams does not.
"You're really looking for what your purpose is," Ball said. "Our purpose is for kids to be able to play together in the summer, to work on parts of their defense and parts of their offense. They also can build camaraderie that will help them during the season."
High school coaches surrounded the fields at the tournament in Tampa, but none were allowed to coach. As Plant (Tampa, Fla.) High coach Robert Weiner watched a team featuring a handful of his players face the South Florida Express from behind the end zone, former Plant and University of Miami quarterback Robert Marve coached the offense. Meanwhile, coaches from a team stocked with some of Georgia's best players were told on arrival that they couldn't coach lest they run afoul of their state association. Flenory wound up coaching the Georgia team.
Some worry independent coaches will form teams for personal benefit. In basketball, coaches have sold players to schools or used their relationship with a player as leverage to get a college job. Recently, Baylor hired Dwon Clifton, star recruit John Wall's travel team coach, as its director of player development. Meanwhile, the highest paid assistant in Kansas State's basketball program is Dalonte Hill, who coached former Wildcats star Michael Beasley's travel team before beginning his collegiate coaching career at Charlotte.
Goetz, the South Florida Express coach, said he wants neither money nor a college coaching job. "These days, there's a lot more joy out here" than at work, the stockbroker said. Goetz's journey into the world of recruiting began when he helped run an Optimist's Club youth football league in Miami Beach. Two years ago, Goetz helped one of the league's alumni, Dr. Krop (Miami) High linebacker Etienne Sabino, navigate the recruiting process. After Sabino signed with Ohio State, other South Florida players asked Goetz's advice. Last year, someone from Scout.com called Goetz and asked if he would assemble a team for the seven-on-seven tournament in Tampa. That team included cornerback Brandon McGee, who signed with Miami, and defensive back Vladimir Emilien, who signed with Michigan. The members of this year's team are drawing interest from teams in all six BCS conferences.
Goetz already has seen more independent coaches emerge, and he expects even more to as the tournaments get bigger. "People were fighting to get kids on their teams this year," he said. "It's almost like recruiting in college now. Everybody's trying to get the best guys."
Florida coach Urban Meyer warned against painting independent coaches with too broad a brush. Many, he said, do have the players' best interests at heart. Still, Meyer always worries when someone besides a player's parent or high school coach has an influence on that player's school choice. "Anytime there's a third party involved, you have to be cautious," Meyer said. "At Florida, we try to recruit the coach, the family and the player."
The most infamous third party in college football recruiting circles isn't a fan of seven-on-seven tournaments. Brian Butler, the trainer who managed Tennessee signee Bryce Brown's recruitment, said he prefers drills to glorified touch football. "For me, it's all about the training," Butler said. "I don't do the seven-on-seven. People have asked me to. We'd have a pretty good team."
Those who do support the tournaments insist a few natural roadblocks could keep grassroots football from earning the same seedy reputation as its hardwood counterpart. First, seven-on-seven is not real football. While basketball purists would argue that the me-first game played on the travel hoops circuit isn't real basketball, at least post players can participate. Seven-on-seven football eliminates line play completely, taking away nine of the 22 positions on most football teams. "The difference is in the games," Vaccaro said. "We can play 1,000 games in grassroots basketball. They can't have live contact."
Also, college coaches aren't allowed to attend seven-on-seven tournaments. In basketball, coaches swarm elite tournaments during evaluation periods. During games at last year's Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., the coaches in attendance included Kansas' Bill Self, Gonzaga's Mark Few, Kentucky's Billy Gillispie and dozens of others. "The NCAA won't allow college coaches to be at these events," Flenory said. "The NCAA won't allow these to be invite only. ... There's so much out there stopping it from becoming an overflow. This can be a 100-percent quality event."
That quality is what draws most of the players. Tevin Brantley, a receiver/defensive back from North Carolina, came to the tournament because he wanted to face the best players from the nation's most talent-rich state. "Florida's supposed to have the fastest guys, the biggest guys," Brantley said. "I want a piece of the action." As Brantley spoke, 6-6, 305-pound Leon "Earthquake" Orr walked past. Told that Orr, a New Port Richey, Fla., resident who has committed to play on the line at Florida, will play tight end as a senior at Gulf High this fall, Brantley smiled. "See?" he said.
College coaches pay attention to what happens at the tournaments. After the Rutgers tournament, recruiting interest spiked for 6-3 receiver Eric Williams of Fairless Hills, Pa. Williams, who plays in a run-heavy offense at Pennsbury High, torched defensive backs for an entire weekend as writers from various recruiting services watched. Word got back to college coaches, who put Williams on their recruiting lists. Florida's Meyer said his staff considers the outcomes of individual matchups at the tournaments in its recruiting evaluations. "It depends who we're getting the reports from," Meyer said. "Some we don't take seriously. Some we take very seriously -- if we know the person providing the information."
In the coming years, coaches across the country will have to take the all-star seven-on-seven tournaments more seriously. During the tournament in Tampa, a writer from Rivals.com said he'd suggest to his boss that their company stage a similar series of tournaments. The shoe companies won't be far behind, either. Love it or hate it, grassroots football has arrived.
"That's what we're going to turn it into," New Level's Simmons said. "It gives kids another alternative to combines. Why would they go run the 40 when they could come here and play for their state?"