Recruiting services under tighter scrutiny

LSU coach Les Miles
LSU coach Les Miles

As high school and college football teams are set to begin practicing for the upcoming season, everyone from coaches to administrators to reporters to players and their parents are taking a closer look at recruiting services.

The number of recruiting services acting as quasi-matchmakers between prospective college football players and college football programs has grown exponentially in recent years. They have been thrust into the spotlight in recent months because the NCAA has taken an interest in the dealings of Houston-based Willie Lyles and his now-defunct Complete Scouting Services.

The NCAA is investigating whether $25,000 that the University of Oregon paid to Lyles was for legitimate recruiting information - rosters, statistics, video on potential recruits, etc. - or influence peddling in highly sought-after running back Lache Seastrunk’s decision to sign with the Ducks.

Suspicions about Lyles led NCAA investigators to the LSU campus where they questioned Tigers assistant coaches about $6,000 they spent for Lyles’ services. LSU said it provided the NCAA with the information it received from Lyles - poor-quality video and player data (much of it outdated) for junior-college players in Kansas and California.

The information Lyles provided Oregon was mostly outdated. Lyles claims Ducks coach Chip Kelly called him after the fact and asked him to supply anything he could get his hands on as evidence of recruiting info he had sent. Kelly said this week that there are “a lot of misconceptions” about the situation, but he won’t comment further on the case until the NCAA’s investigation and another commissioned by the university are completed.

The $25,000 that Oregon paid and the $6,000 that LSU paid to Lyles are a relative pittance in multi-million dollar budgets, but it shows that a seemingly minor investment can bring about major headaches depending on whether the service is reputable. It’s unclear when or how the NCAA will close the book on the Willie Lyles saga, which continues to hover over college football as the season nears.

Nearly every Southeastern Conference coach, not just Tigers coach Les Miles, was asked about the recruiting services they use during the league’s media days earlier this month.

“We do sort of a quality control on recruiting services every year, just like we do in everything in our program,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “Is this a good service, is it helping us? If not, let’s not spend a lot of money on it.”

Recruiting services have become a standard tool for virtually all the 120 schools in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, but how much is spent varies from school to school.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who built Florida into a perennial national title contender in the 1990s and last season took the Gamecocks to the SEC title game for the first time, isn’t a big proponent of recruiting services.

“I think we were bottom in the league in pay last year,” Spurrier said. “I think we spent $12,000 on recruiting services. I read where a lot of schools spend 2- or 300-grand on it. We didn’t use it that much in the Florida days either.

“I think maybe they can help a little bit, but not too much.”

LSU documents show the Tigers spent $58,784.90 on recruiting services between March 1, 2010 and March 1, 2011, the 12-month period most relevant to football recruiting. Lyles’ $6,000 fee was the fourth-largest among the 11 services. The total spent last season was the least in the last four years. In 2009-10, LSU spent $103,869.57 on 14 services, in 2008-09 it spent $65,280.10 on 17 services, and in 2007-08 it spent $84,220.85 on 20 services.

“We look for film and video anywhere we can find it,” Miles said. “Those people that provide those services, we need to cover a broad area, and we want to evaluate our guys from a bunch of different spots.

“I have not gone to review a prospect without having seen his film. Frankly I look at every guy and I look at their film. If I don’t have the film, we’re not recruiting him.”

The Birmingham News recently cited public documents showing that Alabama spent nearly $220,000, slightly less than LSU, and Auburn spent about $100,000 on recruiting services during the past three years.

In a nutshell, schools pay recruiting services for information on recruits throughout the nation because they don’t have the manpower to see everyone themselves.

“Those services are valuable because they can give you 250 schools of film,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “Just imagine what that high school coach has to go through if he had to stop every time a coach wanted a DVD. It’s too hard. We’re in a fast, fast paced motion right now in recruiting.”

An example of the accelerated timetable for recruiting is that LSU already has 18 commitments for its 25 scholarships for next season with more than six months remaining until signing day.

The consensus among the SEC coaches was that the video provided by the recruiting services is merely a starting point, helping them decide which players are worthy of their attention.

“We aren’t too caught up in who says a guy has two stars or five stars, all that,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We make our own evaluations and decisions.

“We want the recruiting to be in the hands of the high school coach and the player and the player’s family.”

Though recruiting services can point a school toward a player it might not have otherwise discovered, the coaching staffs still have to take it from there.

“I love the old school part of recruiting where coaches go out and find prospects,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “Go out to the high school, talk to the coach, dig them up. That’s my favorite way still of doing it. “

Though the bigger programs obviously have the most money to spend, second- and third-tier programs can use the recruiting services as a way to level the recruiting playing field.

“It gives you a lead on kids in some areas, especially when you’re in a state like ours that does not produce as many players as the other states in the Southeastern Conference,” Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. “We also try to recruit the same areas year in and year out, which our coaches should know. But being in Kentucky, we can’t hit every school in Alabama. We can’t hit every school in Georgia. We just don’t have the manpower.”

A lack of manpower isn’t an excuse for not recruiting nationally in the ultra-competitive SEC.

“When I got the job,” Vanderbilt first-year coach James Franklin said, “I wanted to make sure we could recruit nationally. We have areas that we focus on across the country. The reality is if there’s a good player out there, anywhere in this world, that’s the right fit for Vanderbilt, we’re going to go after (them). We have the ability to do that now.”