Recruiting has been the lifeblood of college football teams for decades, and in the last 20 years it has evolved into a multi-million dollar business involving individuals and companies with no official connection with the schools who do the recruiting.
The general public is engrossed by the vagaries of recruiting and they even have a nickname: "recruitniks." However, Blue White Illustrated contributing writer Lou Prato isn't one of them.
In his February column for the printed edition of BWI, he tells about his inside look at Penn State's recruiting during the latter years of Joe Paterno's coaching tenure and the recruiting of such recent Nittany Lions as Sean Lee, A.Q. Shipley and Tony Hunt…
By Lou Prato
Special to Blue White Illustrated
I'm not a recruitnik. In fact, I still believe all the time and energy the general public spends following the recruiting of still naive, susceptible adolescent high school football players is not only a foolish waste of time but irrational.
Come on. Turn off the computer and iPhone and take the family to Chuck E. Cheese or a PG movie. Treat your wife to dinner at a fancy restaurant. Go to a museum or read that book you don't think you have time for. Or simply quit cheating on your boss and do what you were hired to do.
Maybe the livelihood of the coaches and their families at your favorite college football team depends on these mostly egocentric kids and their sometimes equally pretentious parents. But if you screw up at your job or miss your daughter's piano recital because you're so concerned that the next Heisman Johnny is going to sign with your team's arch-rival, then maybe you need to see Tony Soprano's psychiatrist.
Now, before all you true BWI recruitniks start overwhelming the message boards with your diatribes and venom, insisting that I be fired or tarred and feathered, I am jesting - partially.
Actually, I look at the recruitnik world as just another facet of modern entertainment, like fantasy football, watching television or spending a night or two every week with a lap dancer at a strip club.
Unlike most of you reading this, I've seen the recruiting process up close, and frankly it was quite revealing, and a lot of fun, too.
When I was the director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum in the early 2000s, Penn State would occasionally host a pre-dinner reception in the museum lobby for the recruits and their families during the height of the December and early-January recruiting period. We'd open the museum for them to go through. My wife, Carole, and I would mingle with the recruits and parents, talking about the museum exhibits but also bantering with the players about their personal lives, such as where they were from and how many brothers and sisters they had. After about an hour, Carole and I would join everyone for dinner in the Mount Nittany Club on the fourth floor of Beaver Stadium.
Later, when I would hear coach Joe Paterno tell inquiring reporters what he told the recruits at those private affairs, I would shake my head in assent because he described what my wife and I heard. The media was skeptical, but it was true. We couldn't talk about it back then, but we can now.
Carole and I would be assigned to sit at one of the tables with usually one coach and a couple of players he was recruiting. Once we were all seated, but before going to the buffet line, Joe would speak, standing informally at one side of the room and never on a podium. Joe would talk for about five minutes or so but wouldn't stay for dinner. During his off-the-cuff remarks, he would tell the players that after dinner they would be going off for the night with their player host, who usually was not at dinner, and their parents would go to his home on McKee Street where they would "enjoy an adult beverage or two."
I can still remember what he always told the recruits. What follows are not his exact words but it went something like this:
"Penn State is a great university and I can guarantee you and your parents that if you come here you will get an outstanding education and if you study hard and go to class you will graduate. I cannot promise you that you will start or even play a lot. That is up to you. On the field and in the classroom. This is not a place for everyone and maybe not for you. Many schools put their recruits up in fancy hotels and throw them lavish parties. We put you in the dorms with our football players because that's where you'll live when you play for Penn State, not some hotel. And you can ask our players anything you want to about being part of our football team, the good, and maybe the not so good. We're not trying to fool you."
Joe would go on about Penn State's tradition in football, sometimes mention the practice facilities and quality training and medical staff, and throw in a wisecrack here and there, usually picking out a specific player or two for his sometimes subtle zingers. I remember one time he teased defensive lineman Ed Johnson, who was from Detroit, about his clothing and long hair and about having had a lot of Johnsons on the team in the past, and then made a jest about the bad reputation of Johnson's hometown.
And Joe seemed to always end his brief remarks with a line like this:
"So enjoy your dinner and have fun tonight with your player host - but not too much fun."
Before leaving, he would stop at each table and kibitz a little with the recruits and parents, and then he was off.
The table conversations were often the most intriguing part of the night, and by the time we left, Carole and I both would have a feeling who was going to sign with Penn State and who wasn't. I can remember a bulky looking, relatively small kid in 2003 from Moon Township, near the Pittsburgh airport, being recruited as a defensive lineman. He was cocky and coming up with a lot of wisecracks, and his nametag had initials as his first name. Five years later, A.Q. Shipley would win the Rimmington Trophy as the best center in college football.
There were three other recruits we sat with at those dinners whom I will never forget. For some reason, I seem to remember a December 2002 or January 2003 dinner in the second floor recruiting lounge. We were sitting with Fran Ganter and he was talking to a recruit I didn't recognize. The kid left for the buffet line and I asked Fran who he was. "That's one of the best running backs in the country," he said.
"Oh, so that's Austin Scott," I replied, thinking of the Pennsylvania back from the Allentown area who had offers from dozens of schools around the country.
"No," Fran said, "that's Tony Hunt from T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and he's better."
Hunt renounced his commitment to USC when the Trojans signed Reggie Bush and became a Nittany Lion instead. He not only beat out Scott, but when he finished his career at Penn State in 2006, he was the Lions' second (and now third) all-time rusher with 3,320 yards (and 25 touchdowns).
One evening in 2001, we found ourselves sitting with Channing Crowder and his mother. Crowder, a Super Prep All-America linebacker from Sandy Springs, Ga., was the son of Penn State's first African-American co-captain, Randy Crowder, a first-team All-America tackle on the great undefeated 1973 team that featured Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti. Randy and his wife had divorced years earlier, but his son, who was being wooed by several Southeastern Conference teams, still wanted to take a look at Penn State, because he was born in State College when Randy was on Paterno's coaching staff for two years (1983-84).
We were left alone with the Crowders a couple of times when Penn State's coaches went to the buffet line or to see other recruits, and they talked candidly about their visit, almost as if we weren't there. As Carole and I were leaving the stadium later, we agreed that Paterno could forget about Crowder. We were right. He originally committed to Georgia, but went to Florida instead and was the Gators' co-captain and an All-SEC player as a senior.
There is one recruit who stood out above all the rest, linebacker Sean Lee. In 2004 we were seated across from Sean and his father, Craig, an attorney in the Pittsburgh suburb of Upper St. Clair. What surprised us the most is that both he and his dad were wearing a coat and tie. That was not the normal dress for these recruits, who sometimes were there in blue jeans, a loose sweatshirt and tennis shoes. Yes, there were other recruits who occasionally wore sports jackets, but to this day, I cannot remember any other recruit with a tie, too.
One more thing: The conversation we had with both Sean and his dad was much more sophisticated than our encounters with most other recruits. It was my wife who put it best later: "There is a father with a lot of class, and his son has it, too." Although injuries kept Lee from becoming a first-team All-American, he was an outstanding leader and a fan favorite who went on to become a starter with the Dallas Cowboys.
Certainly recruiting dinners have changed under Bill O'Brien. I know the dress of the coaches is much more casual, and I don't have a problem with that. It's a new generation with a new man in charge. I would be bothered if the recruits and coaches wore their ball caps inside and especially at dinner, but I know I'm old-fashioned about that.
But back to you recruitniks. My favorite recruitnik is a big-time Alabama fan I first met in the Washington bureau of ABC News in 1998. John Cochran is retired now, but he was a correspondent for NBC and ABC for decades. His wife, Barbara, had just become the president of the Radio Television News Directors Association, and I was the longtime volunteer treasurer. I was in Washington one evening in early February that year to have dinner with Barbara, and John was joining us.
Barbara and I went to the ABC bureau across the street from the Mayflower Hotel, and the newsroom was bustling, as it always is prior to the evening newscast. John was in his cubicle intently peering at his computer screen when we walked over. I thought he might he working on a last-minute news story or that perhaps there was a breaking news story somewhere around the world that he was reading. John looked up, gave us a slight wave and said, "You have to give me a couple of minutes. I'm checking on our Alabama signees, and we just picked up a recruit we didn't expect."
Barbara, who was not a football fan before she married John, said simply, "That's John."
Since then, John and I have become friends, and whenever we talk we start out with Alabama-Penn State football. John and Barbara were part of the official Alabama party on game day at the national championship game in Miami this year, and we hosted the Cochrans for the Alabama game at Beaver Stadium in 2011. John has been very supportive of Penn State since the Sandusky scandal broke and we keep in touch by email.
In fact, two days before this year's national signing day, John sent me an email at 4:06 p.m. with the subject line "Hackenberg was on ESPN minutes ago." The message simply said "replaying on ESPNU."
Now, there is a true recruitnik.