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Books | Sports

November 6, 2007

Football Prospecting

'Meat Market' author Bruce Feldman takes Gelf deep inside the strange world of college football recruiting.

David Goldenberg

If you're going to write a book about college-football recruiting, it should probably involve Ed Orgeron. As Pete Carroll's right hand man at USC, Orgeron was responsible for bringing in the 2003 Trojans class, which is widely considered to be the best recruiting class in modern college-football history. He's also one of the most outlandish coaches in the game. Whether he's shirtless and challenging players to take him on in the locker room or chugging Red Bull and offering up indecipherable Cajun maxims, Orgeron is an outsize character and a writer's dream subject.

Bruce Feldman
"You have this subculture of recruiting fans who'd rather talk about the guy five years from now than the guy they already have."

Bruce Feldman

After Orgeron was made head coach of the Ole Miss program, ESPN writer Bruce Feldman decided to follow him down to Oxford, where for one year Feldman was granted open access to Orgeron's recruiting war room. In his book Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting, Feldman documents the incredible lengths that Orgeron and the Ole Miss staff go to as they sift through film of prospects, and then spread out around the country to try to beat better-known schools in the competition for the services of four- and five-star recruits.

In the following interview, Feldman tells Gelf about his year with Coach O, how the internet is changing recruiting, and whether coaches in general are getting better at figuring out who will be successful in big time D-I football. (You can hear Feldman and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Thursday, November 8, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: How did you convince Orgeron and the Ole Miss staff to let you follow the recruiting process?

Bruce Feldman: I guess I had a pretty good reputation with some other coaches he knew. I had been out at USC a bunch of times and got to know him a little bit when he was here coaching under Pete Carroll. But it really felt like I was going undercover. I kept on thinking to myself, "Man, my access is so great; I'm sitting in on every meeting." I was afraid at some point someone like the chancellor or the athletic director or some compliance guy was going to shut me down, but it never happened.

GM: Did they make you sign anything? Did you have to promise to be nice?

BF: No, the one thing I told them was that I wouldn’t publish anything before Signing Day. It's a sensitive subject. Other than that, they were great. They never said, "You've got to leave the room," or "You've got to do this." I would get in there at 5:30 in the morning and I sat in on every meeting. My access was like a once-in-a-lifetime deal for me.

GM: You also mention other things, like one recruit's Dad's cockfighting operation, and Orgeron doing coke back in the day. Even people talking shit about [Florida Coach] Urban Meyer. I was surprised what you got away with that.

BF: There were a couple of assistants on his staff who were definitely saying stuff I wouldn’t expect them to say for public consumption. They were really, really open.
A lot of times you'll see something that says "all access." A lot of times it's not; people are acting a certain way while the reporters there for a couple of days. I had been there for so long that I think after a while people just let their guards down.

GM: People say they can't understand Coach Orgeron when he talks—did it take you long to figure out what he was saying?

BF: If you go to some foreign land and people are speaking too fast, eventually you get up to speed. Orgeron has these catchy expressions that I've never heard before and they stop you a little bit. When I would drive the hour back to the Memphis airport, I'd have his voice burned into my brain and I'd think, "I need to get home." It was almost like you had too much to drink the night before.

GM: Is Orgeron publicity-savvy? Do you think that he thinks books like The Blind Side [about Ole Miss left tackle Michael Oher] and Meat Market will help his recruiting efforts?

BF: Orgeron really is who he is. A lot of head coaches—in order to do what they do—they have to turn it on and turn it off. I think there's definitely a big phoniness quality to a lot of head coaches in different sports. To get to that point, I think you have to be a little disingenuous.
With Orgeron, he doesn’t make any bones about who he is. Some of the stuff other people would be uncomfortable being portrayed as, he doesn’t shrink from it. I don’t think there's a ton of savvy in that regard, but I think players connect with it. They see through some other guys' BS, but they latch onto him. He'll shoot from the hip and say what he thinks. Is it polished? No, he's really rough around the edges. That's just his nature.

GM: Do you think that these books do help his recruiting efforts?

BF: I think the one thing it does help him with is it shows people how hard coaches in general work and how hard that staff in particular is working.
The perception of him in terms of the media is so different at Ole Miss than it was at USC. There, there was like a charm to the gravelly Cajun accent and the big in-your-face kind of guy. In Mississippi, the people are scared of him.

Ed Orgeron

Ole Miss Coach Ed Orgeron. Courtesy

GM: Does it have to do with the cultures in the different areas?

BF: I think it does. I definitely think it has something to do with that. Around USC, Carroll has charmed a lot of people. Orgeron was an element of that. In Mississippi, there isn’t anyone that plays off that locally. There is skepticism in that regard.
But most importantly, after three or four years, it comes down to this: is your team winning? I've learned from following college football all year round that the difference between turning the corner and winning and losing is a lot slimmer than we could ever imagine.

GM: Speaking of which, lots of people are talking about the parity within D-I football this year. Is that a result of recruiting? Will it change the way recruiting happens?

BF: I think it's a couple of things. Back in the day, Alabama or Texas could stockpile scholarships to take kids so that their rivals couldn’t even get them. But now there are scholarship limitations. This is going to sound disingenuous because I work for the company, but I think ESPN to a large extent has had a big role. In the late '70s or '80s, you'd get one game a week. Now there's so much exposure to different teams. As a recruit, you could play anywhere, and people will see you. They can find out about you. The NFL used to have sleepers, but I don’t think there are sleepers anymore, simply because there's so much exposure across the board.
I also think that there are so many more recruits who are out there to be seen. I think not everybody can take them all.

GM: Do the presence of internet fan sites contribute to the parity?

BF: I don’t play fantasy sports, but I love recruiting and I look at Rivals and Scout all the time. It's fascinating to me. It helps give exposure to so many more kids. The only problem is that a lot of the information out there about stats and grades comes from the kid's high-school coach or from the kid himself.

GM: Why are there so many online recruiting reporters? Is there money to be made?

BF: The hits that they get on signing day compared to other major sites is unbelievable. [Editor's note: According to Feldman, last signing day Rivals drew 74.5 million page views.] It's such a cottage industry that has boomed in the last few years. You have this subculture of recruiting fans who know everything about all these kids—and that’s what they are, kids. There's a fascination with "who's next." They'd rather talk about the guy five years from now than the guy they have.

"Every school in the top 25 has a few knuckleheads who are draining the program."
GM: I've found that among major college-football fans, there are two types. There's the type that definitely follows recruiting and then there's the type that says, "I'm going to root for whoever ends up coming to my team, so why should I bother worrying about this stuff?"

BF: I think there's more of the first than the second now. That's changed so much in the last five years just in terms of the knowledge that's out there. You go to any message board and they have a section about what's going on with the team and then another section of pure recruiting. You could drop the name of a kid that's not even committed to a certain team on their board and you'll get 500 comments. That's the only reason why Notre Dame folks have any hope this year—they're talking about the recruits they know about for next year. It's a little bit off, but if it gets these fans through the day and gives them hope, then I guess for the coaches and the people around the team it serves a purpose.

GM: In last week's New York Times Magazine, there's an article about how many recruits are hiring high-end videographers to help them create their highlight reels. Do these reels help rich kids at the expense of poor kids? Or do coaches know the difference between production value and talent?

BF: At Ole Miss and at USC, they don’t take highlight tapes. They want game tapes. There was this one big white kid at a small school in Mississippi. He was playing quarterback against tiny kids, running all over them. He reminded me of Matt Jones. His highlight tape was fun to watch. But nobody offered that kid a scholarship based on that. The tape's only a small part of it. You've got to go see him play in person. You want to get him in camp. You want to talk to the people around him to figure out: how tough is he? How much does he love football? You can get people's attention with highlight tapes, but I don’t think people are offering guys scholarships based on a fancy highlight tape.
Those coaches really don’t know how good he is until they get him in camp. What if he's kind of shaky mentally? Or if he can't learn their system? Or if he runs a good 40 but can't change direction that well? Or if he's not tough and he won't hit somebody? Then he probably won't play. I think that all of those intangibles factor in.
And now, because of the APR, if you have a shaky kid academically—if he's got a good ACT but bad grades—that's a red flag there. Is he going to go to all his classes? Is he going to go to his tutoring sessions? Is he going to show up on time? Or are we going to have to chase after him? I was there last year when they had some kids the position coaches had to chase after. It's a huge drain on them, and I know it goes on at every school besides the academies. Every school in the Top 25 has a few knuckleheads who are draining the program.

GM: And are coaches getting better at identifying those knuckleheads during the recruiting process?

BF: They're getting a little better, but at the same time, they get really tempted. If you've got a lot of potential, you've got more wiggle room.

"If Steve Spurrier's telling you you're a big deal, what kid's not going to get caught up in that?"
GM: And how about talent in general? Are coaches getting good at figuring out who's going to do well at the D-I level?

BF: I think so. You think that there are fewer chances for guys to slip through the cracks. But one of the best players in Ole Miss's class this year is a guy named Lowan Scott—and nobody offered him a scholarship until December 20th of his senior year. But he was heavy, and he got a new coach his senior year, so no one was talking about him. The light bulb came on way late.
There are always going to be those kids. Lofa Tatupu was a nobody when he showed up at USC, then within two years he's a Pro Bowler in the NFL. There's always going to be guys they miss on.
In USC's class of 2003—considered to be the best recruiting class in modern history—the guy they thought was going to be the headliner of that class wasn’t Reggie Bush, it was Whitney Lewis. Whitney Lewis caught two passes before he transferred to Northern Iowa. He's never been heard from again.

GM: Are there positions in general that are harder to judge? Quarterbacks have traditionally been the hardest players to grade in terms of how they'll play in the NFL. Is that the same for high-school players as well? Or am I reading too much from a few Jimmy Clausen games?

BF: The experience of being talked about so much messes with the kids' heads. I saw that with Steven Garcia last year. He was doing a blog for the Tampa Tribune, and all of these South Carolina fans and Ole Miss fans and even Oklahoma fans are pitching him and telling him all of these great things. He comes from a solid family, and yet within two months he gets arrested twice at South Carolina. I'm not saying that if he wasn’t a football player that wouldn’t have happened, but he thinks he's a big deal because everyone around him is telling him he's a big deal. If Steve Spurrier's telling you you're a big deal, what kid's not going to get caught up in that?

GM: Is recruiting getting cleaner in general? Are there going to be fewer Logan Youngs in the world now?

BF: I think it's a little cleaner, because there are more regulations and there's more attention on it. I still think that there are cases where a kid is on his recruiting visit and he's walking around and he's getting smacked on the back by all the fans who know who these kids are and when they're going to be there. Then somebody smacks him on the leg and all of a sudden he looks in his pocket and is like, "Whoa, I just got $1,100. Where did that come from?" I think you see a lot of that. I'm sure you see cases where somebody's dad asks some coach or some power broker for a job. I think that kind of thing definitely goes on. Yeah, there are more eyes on it, but there's also more attention focused on these kids and the people around them think that they should be getting something. It's dangerous. It's a ripe situation.

GM: But you think it is getting better…

BF: I talked to a lot of old coaches from the old Southwestern Conference. Things that would be outrageous now were common 20 years ago. One coach told me they basically kidnapped a kid to make sure that he would sign with them. It just doesn’t seem as much like the wild wild West as it did way back then.

"I think that people will start to realize that you can't tell too much if you fire a guy after two or three years."
GM: It seems like there's this disconnect between success in recruiting and success on the football field. There's a two- or three-year gap.

BF: Some of the kids counted in recruiting rankings never get to school. Jerrell Powe is the first 15-star player in the history of recruiting. He was five-star two years ago, then five-star last year, then five-star this year. He's not on the field. Last year's class of recruits has really been a good class, but it's weird because Brent Schaeffer is a five-star—he hasn't lived up to it at all, and Jerrell Powe isn't on the field. Greg Hardy and Dexter McCluster were three-star players—those are two of their best players and they were afterthought guys. It was almost the reverse of what you would expect. I even see it this year—Lawon Scott was a two-star guy and he's one of their better players.

GM: Is Orgeron too focused on recruiting?

BF: No, I don’t think so. I think what really hurt them is they can't get [former Texas quarterback] Jevan Snead on the field fast enough. They do not have a legitimate SEC quarterback and they don’t have enough linebackers. Last year, Orgeron booted off six guys and four of them probably would have played this year. You see that he just doesn’t have enough players.
He was recruiting, thinking, "Alright, I'm going to be here for four years. Let's build with a lot of high-school players."

GM: But now that the lifespan of coaches at certain universities has plummeted, don’t they need to focus on getting results right away?

BF: I wonder if it's going to teeter back the other way. I remember [Rutgers Coach] Greg Schiano was getting ripped up and down by the New York media and pretty much everyone was writing his eulogy. Then two years ago, all of a sudden it turned and now he's a hot commodity. And now you've got [Mississippi State Coach] Sylvester Croom, who has never won until his fourth year. Now it seems like they're respectable. It used to be that the only example you could come up with as a guy whom people were patient with was [Virginia Tech Coach] Frank Beamer. Now you can give a lot of examples of coaches who were on the hot seat and people were patient with them and now maybe it will work out.
I think that people will start to realize that you can't tell too much if you fire a guy after two or three years. The Tyrone Willingham situation at Notre Dame is unique, but I still think that if you pull the plug on someone after three years, it's hard because they don’t really have any of their players who have matured. It's basically, "What did you do with the last guy's team?"

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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