By Rachel Cohen/The Associated Press
The high school janitor could be one of the most important people in college football recruiting.
Coaches must evaluate more than just 40-yard dash times and tackling technique when they decide whether to offer a scholarship. A player’s success often rests as much on whether he works hard in practice and stays out of trouble off the field.
“It’s a big deal because the character and quality of the person directly correlates to how much better that guy will get in your program,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said.
And the people who offer the best takes on that guy’s character may be the folks he passes in the hallway every day.
“We obviously want kids who can play, but we’d much rather have a little less talent and more character,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.
On Wednesday, high school stars around the country will sign their letters of intent to play college football, as fans breathlessly await the final decisions and pore over the rankings. Yet look back four or five years, and many of the highly rated recruiting classes will have produced more busts than All-Americans.
Sure, in some cases it will turn out that the player wasn’t fast enough or strong enough to thrive in big-time college football. Coaches watch video, attend games and hold summer camps to try to determine that.
A hazier task is seeking to predict how a teenager will mature over the next several years. And coaches lament that they don’t get to spend much time with recruits to gauge that.
“If you have people involved, there are going to be mistakes and errors,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said recently. “You’re projecting young people, and young people change. You take them and put them in a different environment — some of them adjust, some of them don’t. Some take the next step, some of them don’t. Some of them lose their focus and get distracted. There are girls and there are parties.”
The NCAA recently loosened its rules to allow coaches to communicate more with prospects through phone calls and text messages, with the changes taking effect Aug. 1. Assistants can also now spend more time visiting high schools.
But a proposal was tabled that would have let coaches start contacting recruits beginning July 1 between their sophomore and junior years. The current rules don’t permit communication to begin until after 11th grade.
Coaches are still not allowed to make any contact during certain periods and are limited in how much time they can spend with players in person. The head coach gets only one off-campus visit with a recruit.
So they have to get creative.
“You go into the schools — I’ll go to the janitor and I’ll ask the janitor about the young man,” Freeze said. “I ask the cafeteria workers and the guidance counselor. And you get a good feel when you have a year to recruit a kid and you see him in every different type of environment, whether it’s in the home setting or on our college campus. It’s all types of scenarios.
“If you have a year to recruit a kid, you’ve got a chance to be pretty accurate in the evaluation of his character.”
Flood will talk to the athletic director’s secretary, a teacher — even a random student in the hall. He’ll pull aside a kid and ask if he knows the recruit: “What do you think? Is he a pretty good guy?”
“Find the people that aren’t associated with athletics,” Flood explained. “You’d be amazed. They give you their opinions pretty quickly. You can usually read their body language.”
Schools like Rutgers that recruit more regionally than nationally may have a bit of an advantage when it comes to getting to know a player, Flood said, because the local kids are able to make more unofficial visits. But even from afar, modern technology can tell you quite a bit about a person.
Take heed, Facebook-frenzied teens. College coaches are monitoring your social media feeds.
“You can find out a lot about these young people,” Flood said. “They’re not as guarded as you think they should be.”
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo and Sports Writers David Brandt and Pete Iacobelli contributed to this report.