A Plume of white smoke on the Vatican Skyline means the college of cardinals has chosen a new pontiff. Employees in the sports information office at the college of Gators, a.k.a. the University of Florida, also associate a plume of smoke with decisions of great importance. At least they have ever since that football signing day in February several years ago, when fans throughout the Southeast, eager to find out exactly which high school prospects would be going to Gainesville, overloaded a special telephone line set up to impart that information. "The answering machine had been going nonstop for six or seven hours," says Florida assistant athletic director John Humenik. "All of a sudden I smelled something burning. It huffed. It puffed. Finally it just gave up."
Florida's smoldering answering machine stands as a monument to a particular breed of college football and/or basketball fan that has proliferated ominously over the past decade. And as college recruiting has developed into a spectator sport, an entire industry of scouts and touts has sprung up to serve the recruiting fanatic. Remember how those pulpy football and basketball preseason magazines were once chockablock with ads for betting services, muscle-building elixirs and obscure martial arts ("The power of death in your index finger, or your money back!")? Now they brim with come-ons for the myriad ways the recruiting fan can get his information fix—by fax or by phone, by glossy magazine or smudgy samizdat.
And even after the prospects sign with their respective schools, the recruitaholic's thirst remains unslaked; he'll speculate endlessly about the relative merits of each college's crop rather than wait four years for a hard answer. "It would be interesting to do a study of the recruiting fanatic's psyche," says North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, who labors annually to deflate expectations raised for his incoming freshmen. "These people get more excited when we sign somebody than when we win a game."
Consider the phenomenon from the perspective of the following:
•The fan. To some, a blue-chip prospect can be dearer than family. "There's a guy in Paducah who calls me once a week," says Jerry Tipton, who covers Kentucky basketball for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "It seems there's nothing else in his life. Once, he cut a conversation short because he had to go to the doctor's office to pick up his wife. Of course, when he called back later that day, I asked how she was. 'She only has bronchitis,' he told me. 'I thought she'd caught pneumonia from our nine-year-old son.' I mean, his wife's got bronchitis, his son's got pneumonia, and he's calling me about recruiting?"
•The coach. Last fall, newspapers in Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City all reported that a top basketball prospect had narrowed his choice to three schools, Kansas among them. "I'd never met the player, never been to his school, never even contacted him," says Jayhawk coach Roy Williams. "But the papers picked it up from some recruiting service and printed it as gospel. It seems like it's gotten to the point where a coach can go 0-27, but if he signs big-name recruits, his job is safe."
•The recruit and his family. Before their son Russell, a 6'4", 270-pound offensive lineman, chose North Carolina in 1991, Henry and Phyllis Babb, of Wilson, N.C., encountered the usual petitioning from colleges, including a church-affiliated school whose recruiter once rang up at 10 o'clock on a Sunday morning. But nothing hail prepared the Babbs for the fans. "We got calls from people we hardly knew, not to mention from people we didn't know at all," says Henry. "In every kind of social context—weddings, funerals, church and parties—people asked where Russell was going." When Russell suddenly found himself the last major uncommitted prospect in, the state, it was, Henry says, "like being the only lightning rod in a storm."
•The recruitaholic's employer. Richard Wilhelm, who manages a Paine Webber branch office in downtown Cincinnati, has learned to deal with the obsession of one of his employees, financial planner Todd Harden. Wilhelm cheerfully overlooked an episode that occurred one spring day two years ago, when a Kentucky high school star was to announce his choice of school and Harden stole out of the office, got in his BMW and drove around town trying to pick up a Louisville radio station broadcasting the press conference live. Then one day Wilhelm noticed the huge volume of phone calls from his office to 900 numbers. Harden readily fessed up that the calls were to a recruiting hotline. "I didn't want Dick to think I was calling some sex line," he says.
Press 1 and (for 95 cents a minute) you too can hear which campuses the top prospects will be visiting this weekend. Pass through the South and the local newspaper is likely to have exhaustive football recruiting coverage. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution began compiling lists of the top 25 prospects in Georgia, the Southeast and the nation in 1984, expanded those lists to 30, then 35, and now names 50 in each category, which still leaves readers pining for more. Go through Indianapolis in July, during the holy week in which the Nike All-American camp for blue-chip basketball prospects takes place, and you might run into pilgrims like Joel Francisco and Kurt Robles, a couple of Long Beach State students who three summers ago each spent more than $800 of their savings to witness several days of college coaches watching high school basketball players scrimmaging. "Everyone wants to say they saw the great players before they were great," says Greg Katz, a basketball recruitaholic from Santa Ana, Calif. "It's the same reason people go to movie premieres. You want to be first and then go tell your friends."
Because a single signee can make such an outsized impact in basketball, the most intense fascination is focused on that sport, which has two signing days, one in November and another in April. Analyst Dick Vitale feeds that interest, talking up schoolboy stars during ESPN telecasts, perhaps because he runs out of droppable names of collegians by halftime. Further, as recruiters have targeted prospects at an earlier and earlier age—Indiana junior Damon Bailey and current high school seniors Rashard Griffith and Rasheed Wallace attracted the attention of college coaches in junior high—fans have trained their sights accordingly. "All of this is to the detriment of the kid, says Indiana coach Bob Knight, who regrets the role he played in drawing so much attention so early to Bailey. (In 1986 Knight attended some of Bailey's games when the youngster was only an eighth-grader.) "I didn't realize the scene it would cause. It was a huge mistake."
Georgia football coach Ray Goff shares Knight's concern about recruiting hoopla. Indeed, he's so fearful of its effect on prospects that he has changed his opinion on freshman eligibility, from for, to against. "NCAA rules say a prospect can get one phone call from staff each week [between Aug. 15 and Nov. 30]," Goff says, "but there's nothing in there about recruiting publications and the like. Those people have more contact with prospects than college coaches do. [All the stories they write] make for good reading, but they put pressure on young people that they don't need."
Jim Lyon, a Tennessee alumnus who is active with the Big Orange Club of Atlanta and publishes his own recruiting newsletter, concedes Goff only half his point. "There's obviously a potential negative in how [the hype] might affect the prospects," says Lyon, "but they'll have to learn to live with success sooner or later anyway. Besides, it's not so much a matter of whether they play their first year but whether they play as advertised when they do play. Doing away with freshman eligibility wouldn't stop the recruiting frenzy."
That frenzy is fed by several factors besides freshman eligibility. One is the timing of the recruiting seasons, which each provide an off-season diversion in the same way trade talk enlivens baseball's hot stove league. Another is the wait-till-next-year syndrome that fans fall victim to when they realize their school won't win a title. More than anything, however, the trellis for the who's-going-where grapevine is erected by the NCAA, whose rules prohibit schools from saying anything about a recruit other than confirming interest in his matriculation. "Because we can't talk about it," says Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, "[the recruiting news services] all talk about it for us."
And do they ever talk. This correspondent spent a season slinking abashedly through the precincts that recruiting junkies frequent. I subscribed to nine recruiting publications, pored over countless newspaper notes columns and monitored so many talk shows that I started to hear the words "turn your radio down" in my sleep. Twelve months later I felt not only as if I sorely needed to get a life but also as if I had somehow helped keep several thousand teenagers from getting one.
I started to use verbal as a noun and a verb. When I wanted to get my verbals (or verbal commitments) aurally or find out who might be verbaling to whom, I called mnemonically obliging numbers like 1-900-370-PREP, 1-900-7RE-CRUI and 1-900-CAN-HOOP. I learned that a player named Booker Washington "has good hops" and that another, Eric Eberz, "has serious ups." I learned the fine distinction between a Near Super and a Big Timer from a North Carolina talk-show regular named Brick Oettinger (although it occurred to me that getting the skinny on the ACC sharpshooters of tomorrow from someone named Brick is a little like getting stock tips from a guy named Crash). And the surname of Prep Football Report publisher Tom Lemming had me wondering whether, if you placed a 6'6" lineman with a 4.5 40 at the bottom of a cliff, it might be possible to lead several thousand lunatics to their death.
As I tried to sort out the heights, weights, strengths, weaknesses, grades, school preferences and, sometimes, girlfriends' school preferences of such future college football and basketball stars as Laneal Cross, Laray Hardy, Lasean Howard, LaSalle Lyons, Laploise Crumsby, LaRoi Glover, Ladwaun Harrison, Lavon Lamb. La Ron Moore and LeJohn Vivers, I made the acquaintance of someone named David (and mercifully not LaDavid) Benezra. He's a Los Angeleno who, under the pseudonym Ian Rockfish, contributes his insights on the basketball stars of tomorrow to several publications and does so in a peculiar piscatorial vernacular that he was kind enough to walk me through.
"All big guys are tunas," he says. "A big tuna is a big big guy. Take Darnell Robinson (a 6'11" senior from Emery, Calif., who has signed with Arkansas). He's a big tuna. He's also a studfish."
"A studfish is a player who's in total command of his game. Randy Livingston [a 6'4" senior from New Orleans, who is going to LSU), he's a studfish. Now, there are also rockfish, chocolate rockfish and all-encompassing chocolate rockfish. A chocolate rockfish is roughly the same as a studfish. Michael Jordan, he would be an all-encompassing chocolate rockfish."
Why chocolate, exactly?
"That's not a racial designation. An Iranian who can really play, he'd be a chocolate rockfish, too. I use chocolate because it's popular. Everybody likes chocolate."
But not everyone likes the way the recruit-sheet business has been growing. "It's the new Amway of the world," says Bill Ellis, publisher of Southern Basketball Report. He admits that not all publishers are on the level and says there has been some talk of forming a trade association to enforce standards. So commonplace is the practice of cribbing information from the competition that some publishers intentionally stick phony names in their reports so they can cry, "Gotcha!" should a rival rag pick them up. "And you have some unscrupulous people who get involved to try to sway kids in deciding where to go to school," says Ellis. "I know that happens. I've seen that happen."
One of the liveliest feuds involves Bob Gibbons, who gave up an insurance business in Lenoir, N.C., seven years ago to start his well-regarded All Star Sports scouting service for basketball coaches. He quickly added a gossipy newsletter for fans and three years ago a 900-number service. "It's already a meat market," Gibbons recently told the makers of the documentary film Hoop Dreams. "I consider myself the best butcher on the block."
"If a top prospect has a cough," says Gibbons's sworn enemy, Louisville's Clark Francis, "I'll know about it in a couple of days." Francis's Hoop Scoop empire includes a newsletter, a magazine and a 900 number that logs more than 200 calls a day during the busiest camp week in July. Not long ago Francis called Gibbons "this self-appointed know-it-all" in print.
In fact, all these guys are self-appointed, and they're all know-it-alls. And that's only natural, given that the biggest sin in their business is to permit a vacuum to exist where an evaluation might be. In the rush to advance those opinions, more than one tout suggested that Walter (Dinky) Proctor would reinvent the cornerman's role at N.C. State when he signed there in 1982, while completely whiffing on David Robinson at Navy; others had Billy Ray pegged as the next Bart Starr when he enrolled at Alabama in 1986, while Neil O'Donnell slipped untrumpeted into Maryland on his way to the NFL.
Most of the recruiting rags, alas, confine themselves to an eye-glazing recitation of clichès and stats, and steer clear of the delicious specifics of recruiting: the sometimes bacchanalian campus visits, the models and makes of the fancy cars that prospects are driving. California-based Super Prep is no exception, although every spring it publishes an engaging debriefing of the nation's top football signees called "Recruits on Record." Here you could have learned that, far from having been turned oft because Illinois coach John Mackovic had left for Texas after the 1991 season, Chicago schoolboy linebacker William Morris chose the Illini precisely because Mackovic departed—because, as Morris said, "I felt he was a phony and he bored me"—and that Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill slammed down the phone when in-state tight end prospect Kris Mangum told him he had chosen Alabama.
There was a time when reverberations from a slammed-down phone wouldn't have been felt beyond the coach's office walls. But nowadays a coach doesn't merely throw that receiver down on his own behalf. He throws it down for thousands of crestfallen fans, too—fans who must console themselves with the knowledge that there are lots of other rockfish in the sea.