A Football Scout Who Does His Prep Work
Sunday, February 4, 2007
SAN ANTONIO -- Bob Lichtenfels paced behind the end zone in the Alamodome, a wad of fine-cut chewing tobacco tucked in his lower lip. Five hundred high school football players auditioned on the field in front of him, and Lichtenfels hoped to assess many of them during the next two hours. He pulled a six-page roster from his back pocket. "Time to go to work," he said.
In his three-year career as a professional evaluator of football talent, Lichtenfels, 34, has learned to make judgments quickly. On average, he believes he can project a player's future in about 30 seconds. Sometimes less. As he watched 16- and 17-year-olds perform a series of basic football drills at the U.S. Army National Combine last month, Lichtenfels marked on his roster in shorthand. Player No. 437 had a stiff neck. No. 565 took timid first steps. No. 269 ran like a future first-round pick in the NFL draft.
Players had traveled from 41 states and three continents for a chance to impress the new kingmakers of football recruiting: Lichtenfels, previously a Pennsylvania steelworker; Jamie Newberg, a former television producer; Tom Lemming, a onetime letter carrier; Greg Powers, co-owner of a pizza shop in Jinx, Okla.; and three dozen other recruiting analysts who work for companies such as Rivals, Scout, ESPN and CSTV.
In the past five years, the recruiting analysts who roamed the Alamodome had benefited from a dramatic power shift. The NCAA instituted new rules to further limit contact between coaches and prospective players, increasing the need for a third-party conduit. Recruiting Web sites turned into a major business, making analysts' information easily accessible. In San Antonio, that shift had turned a group of self-taught experts into semi-celebrities, their endorsements sought by parents, players and coaches. "Everybody knows who I am," Lichtenfels said. "I'm going to have to start putting a mask over my head."
Even while wearing a blue Scout.com hat and matching T-shirt, Lichtenfels felt slightly uncomfortable with the idea that his opinions could, in small part, set players on the path toward Division I notoriety or Division III obscurity in an annual process that this year begins Wednesday, the first day high school seniors can make their NCAA football commitments official. He came to Scout in 2003 with credentials as a lifelong football fan and a nine-year assistant high school coach. Now, three years later, his evaluations are a key cog in the recruiting process. He works 12 months each year, talking incessantly on his cellphone and making 50 to 75 overnight trips so he can rank thousands of high school players and break news stories about their college decisions.
Lichtenfels is in charge of ranking the top 100 players for several states, based on his evaluations of game films and live practices. He rates thousands of prospects on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. Three to four times each year, Lichtenfels meets with three other Scout analysts and revises a national list of the top 100 players.
Scout sent 43 analysts and publishers to the event in San Antonio, cementing its position as a recruiting industry juggernaut. Since its launch in 2001, the Scout company has grown to own 50 magazines and 300 sports Web sites because, a company executive said, "recruiting is like crack, and people can't get enough of it." Scout was purchased by Fox in 2005, and it has almost 250,000 subscribers who pay about $10 each month. Its network includes sites for every professional and college sports team, many of which depend on recruiting news.
Lichtenfels stumbled into a job with Scout in 2003, after the company noticed his frequent recruiting contributions to Internet message boards. He quickly rose to a prominent position, covering football recruiting in the East and Midwest. His peers at Scout, some of them former computer technicians or journalists, joke that Lichtenfels files stories with poor grammar and ill-constructed sentences. But he remains, they said, one of the company's premier football experts.
Lichtenfels considers himself more of a football fan or a coach than a removed journalist and analyst. A former high school offensive lineman who played one season of small college football, he has a large tattoo on his right leg and he walks with the stiffness of a professional weightlifter. He usually wears XXL T-shirts and shorts because, he says, nobody who comes from Robinson, Pa., ever wears a suit. When possible, Lichtenfels likes to participate in drills with the players he evaluates. After he completed a revealing interview with a prospect in the San Antonio media room, he hurled his massive chest at Greg Powers, a fellow Scout analyst, for a celebratory chest bump. Powers, fearing injury, ran the other way.
"You gotta calm down, big boy," Powers said.
"What, man?" Lichtenfels said. "Can't a guy get a little excited?"
In the past three years, Lichtenfels has gone from a Pennsylvania steelworker on the midnight shift to an often-quoted football expert with a regular spot on a Pittsburgh television show. He started at Scout for $1,000 a month, then earned a big enough raise to begin building his $170,000 dream home. He tells friends that he hopes to become a national recruiting analyst in the next few years, which would increase both his paycheck and his budding fame. Lichtenfels's wife, Shannon, sometimes jokes about her husband's growing ego. "Your head's big because you're fat, Bob," Shannon says, "not because you're famous."