The Four Horsemen of Recruiting
National Signing Day 2012 was last Wednesday, capping off months of hype, pandering, and (according to the media but not anyone acquainted with the meaning of the word) “drama.”
Despite the rabid attention annually paid to this spectacle, recruiting hardly differs from year to year. A bunch of 17-18 year olds flip-flop, take official visits to other schools 9 months after they “firmly commit” to one, and essentially screw with fans and media like 5th graders telling their substitute that recess is a hour long and three times a day.
The utter predictability of it all, combined with a rigorous and scholarly analysis of biblical and extra-biblical texts, has allowed The Red and Whack to open the seven seals and foretell the Four Horsemen of
the Apocalypse Recruiting. These harbingers of “can’t miss” recruits that bust, NCAA secondary violations, and outright walking, talking scandals mark every recruiting season, year in and year out.
If Signing Day was a movie of the week on Lifetime or a new sitcom on the CW, these would be your four lead characters.
The First Horseman: The Shady Unk
Behind almost every big-time recruit is a family member, family friend, high school coach, or church pastor deviously plotting to profit off his recruitment. He or she can take many forms, but usually manifests as The Shady Unk, a nefarious uncle who, having spent nearly 18 years as a stand-in father figure to his nephew, is ready to collect some reverse child support.
The Shady Unk isn’t content to simply have Les Miles kiss his ass during home visits. He thinks BIG. You can bet he’s got a plan in place to sell the family’s future ticket allotment on Stubhub, or maybe just squeeze some “gas money” out of Trooper Taylor. Sometimes the pay-for-play is overt. Other times The Shady Unk waits patiently, entrenching himself until the NFL draft, at which point he’ll surely have a bunch of gaudy t-shirts made up with the player’s face and the word “DESTINY” in giant letters on them . . . as well as a contract to “manage” his nephew’s “investments.”
Oftentimes The Shady Unk just wants all the attention to be on himself. He’ll try to take credit for developing the kid’s talent by telling Rivals.com about the one time he threw a football around with him on Easter, even if the kid is a middle linebacker who will never throw a pass. He’ll position himself *just* behind the recruit on signing day, ensuring he has a great picture to show everyone else at the barber shop.
This year’s Shady Unk was unquestionably April Justin, the mother of 5-star safety and Alabama signee Landon Collins. As her son announced his pick live on ESPN at the Under Armour High School All-America game, she frowned, gyrated, shook her head, and otherwise made an ass of herself on what should have been the biggest day of his life.
She clearly knew beforehand that her son wasn’t going where she wanted. Yet, instead of quietly disagreeing with his decision and publicly supporting him, she got her nails and hair did (pretty sure blond isn’t her natural color), wore her favorite pink one-shouldered blouse with giant hoop-and-butterfly earrings, and made sure she looked her best to embarrass her child on national TV.
But she didn’t stop there. Even after her son committed, she called out Nick Saban, her son’s girlfriend, and her son’s girlfriend’s mom. In wreaking so much havoc before her son played a down or even enrolled, the very classy Ms. Justin has set a new standard for aspiring Shady Unks everywhere.
I really hope this kid doesn’t go pro early. In 4 years I really want see the video of his mom and Saban having to pose together at midfield on Senior Day. By the time young Mr. Collins’ college playing days are over, Ms. Justin could make us change “Shady Unk” to “Crazy Ma.”
The Second Horseman: The Poorly-Prioritizing Recruit
I don’t envy recruits. One can’t help but feel a little sorry for these kids making such big decisions while everyone whispers in their ears. When I was 17, my biggest concern was figuring out how to unhook a girl’s bra. These kids have to choose which school and coach can utilize their God-given athletic ability to its full potential, all while dealing with Shady Unks. Often, the young man’s abilities are the best shot his family will ever have to escape poverty, meaning the fate of future generations arguably rests on the unknown outcome of his decision.
Understandably then, a gifted high school athlete has lots of important things to think about during recruitment. An offering team’s scheme, for one. Position depth is another. The track record and job security of the coaching staff is definitely important. A school’s academics and player graduation rate? You bet.
Despite all this, every year a handful of recruits put aside such important concerns to focus on what really matters, like the availability of their jersey number. Or it could be something even more important, like whether their scrub teammate who no one would recruit if it wasn’t just to swing a “package deal” for the good player they’re friends with has an offer (*cough* Da’Rick Rodgers *cough*). These young men eschew considering whether they will start or redshirt in favor of picking whichever school has the choicest selection of New Era caps.
Poorly-prioritizing recruits: The Red and Whack salutes you.
The Third Horseman: The Booster
This one shouldn’t surprise anyone. We all know boosters are out there orbiting every major program, dangling their disposable income in front of an AD like a carrot on a stick. They’re the college equivalent of Jerry Jones or
George Hank Steinbrenner: they hold the purse strings, wield the influence and think they should make the calls on coaches and players. In college recruiting, boosters are forced to operate behind the scenes, lest the NCAA actually be forced to do something about them. But make no mistake, the helicopters, limousines, Hummer limousines, and sexual favors are bought and paid for by big-money alumni.
The lengths to which boosters go to ensure the success of their alma mater’s team would be admirable if they weren’t often in such bad taste. Smart boosters have taken steps to disguise their influence. Take the story of Baltimore Ravens OT and former Ole Miss stand-out Michael Oher in the 2009 film “The Blind Side”, adapted from the 2006 Michael Lewis book. The movie tells the “true” story of a privileged white southern family that adopts a poor uneducated black youth solely out of the goodness of their hearts, guiding him to realize his God-given talents on the gridiron and setting him on a course to NFL stardom. The film, which included cameos by Phil Fulmer, Nick Saban, and even dead-behind-the-eyes Ed Orgeron, was a feel-good box office hit. It was also one of the most disingenuous “based on a true story” adaptations ever to come out of Hollywood.
Despite the film’s account, the real Tuohy family didn’t invite Oher to move into their home until 2004. That is important because it was in 2003 that Oher was named all-state and rated as a 5-star prospect by Scout.com, which even ranked him the no. 5 O-lineman in the country. During that year, he was still bouncing around between foster families, not surviving solely on the Christian compassion of the Tuohys. The movie ups the inaccuracy by portraying family matriarch Leigh Anne Tuohy (played by Sandra Bullock, who won as Oscar for the role) – a 5’6 middle-aged lady in high heels – teaching the 6’4, 300 lb Oher how to play football. Even Oher himself publicly criticized the filmmakers for taking such insane liberties with his life story.
Finally, the movie glosses over who the Tuohys were and what may have been their non-charitable motivations. Leigh Anne was an Ole Miss cheerleader when she met Sean Tuohy, an Ole Miss star basketball player who, interestingly enough, still holds the all-time SEC record for assists and played briefly in the NBA and overseas. After graduating from Oxford, the Tuohys became very wealthy from Sean’s broadcasting career, Leigh Anne’s interior decorating business, and their investment in fast food franchises. One article I’ve seen claims the Tuohys currently own all or part of about 80 – EIGHTY! – Taco Bells, KFCs, Pizza Huts, and Long John Silvers. They leave Ray Goff and his Zaxby’s money in the dust.
Besides houses, cars, and Christian private school educations for their kids, the Tuohys gave huge sums of money to the University of Mississippi and its athletic department. They were boosters, period. Yet the film barely addresses this, except for its cursory portrayal of the NCAA probe into Oher’s recruitment. Those two scenes towards the end of the movie serve mostly as a plot point, depicting the NCAA as the cynical bad guy (Note: In a rare display of spine-possession, the NCAA actually issued a public rebuke on its website of the movie’s portrayal of its investigation). Hollywood omitted another fact that piqued the NCAA’s interest: just 20 days after Oher committed to Ole Miss, the Rebels hired his high school coach . . . as their new recruiting coordinator. Who was that high school coach? Some guy named Hugh Freeze, who just this past December was named as the new head coach of – wait for it – Ole Miss!
Do the Tuohys represent the worst of the college football world? Of course not. To be fair, they provided significant financial and material support to Oher before adopting him, including hiring tutors to improve his academics so grades didn’t stop him from realizing his athletic potential. Whether they were motivated primarily or just partially by the desire to guide Oher to play for their alma mater, they still helped him tremendously and changed his life for the better. As boosters go, the Tuohys are full-fledged saints.
But let’s be real: Hollywood had no choice but to white-wash the real story of Michael Oher and the Tuohy family. If the filmmakers had told the full story, no reasonable person in the audience could help but watch without thinking that maybe, just maybe, were it not for his proven football talent, the Tuohys would have locked their luxury SUV’s doors as poor Michael Oher walked by, instead of adopting him.
The Fourth Horseman: Nick Saban
You could say the last month has been pretty good for Nick Saban. Not deterred by failing to win his division or conference, he managed to get to the NC game and win his 3rd BCS title as head coach. Then signing day came along and he pulled in what is unanimously considered the number #1 class in the land. And don’t ya know it, Coach Saban did it with honesty and class!
Just ask Justin Taylor, a blue chip safety out of North Atlanta High School. Taylor committed to the Crimson Tide in February 2011. Then in August the senior injured his knee during a game. Taylor kept his head up knowing Saban would honor his scholarship offer, he’d enroll as scheduled, and he’d play in Tuscaloosa when he was 100% again.
Except not. Saban decided that wasn’t going to happen. Nearly 5 months after his knee injury and barely 3 weeks before signing day, Saban informed Taylor there was no longer room for him in the Tide’s 2012 class. He “generously” offered him a grayshirt and a 2013 enrollment as a consolation prize.
If Saban wasn’t be man enough to at hold this kid’s spot and let him redshirt while he rehabbed, he should have at least had the decency to tell him sooner. Instead, Saban kept recruiting until *oops* he gave away the kid’s scholarship. Now, instead of competing for national titles and regularly showcasing his talents to NFL scouts at the school he fell in love with and never wavered from, Taylor signed with Kentucky, a program where of course none of those things will happen.
I’m usually against coaches bad-mouthing other coaches or programs. But I truly hope every SEC HC makes Justin Taylor’s story a part of their recruiting pitch for years to come. Every high schooler (and their family) considering Bama deserves to know what might happen if they trust Saban and tell other schools to stop recruiting them . . . and then get injured before they sign a LOI. If I’m a Tide assistant right now, I don’t know how I answer a Shady Unk who asks me “what happens if he gets hurt?” Unless Richt, Miles, Muschamp, Chizik, et al. keep this story alive, it will eventually be forgotten. But it shouldn’t.
Nick Saban is almost certainly the best college football coach in the world right now. After his third (but surely not last) title, he is arguably one of the top 5 of all-time. Whether on the field or on the recruiting trail, he wins at all costs. Justin Taylor is not the first, and certainly not the last, human “cost.”
But as Nick
Satan Saban will tell you, you can’t make an omelet without lying to teenagers and their families and severely impacting their future football prospects cracking some eggs.