By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
It was quite a scene in the Fernley (Nev.) High gym on Friday. A 6-foot-5, 290-pound football player, seated at a table with his coach beside him, was making his college selection before a cheering crowd. On the table before him were a pair of baseball caps -- one from the University of California and one from the University of Oregon.
The player reached for the blue Cal hat, bent the visor, and placed it on his head, signifying that he was accepting a scholarship to play at the school and would officially sign his letter-of-intent today, the first day senior high school football players can do so. Television crews and a newspaper reporter were present for what was believed to be the first Division I college athlete from the town of Fernley (pop. 19,700).
Hours later, the feel-good story began to fall apart.
Neither California, Oregon -- nor any of the handful of other college football programs mentioned by Kevin Hart -- had offered him a scholarship. In fact, some of the schools he mentioned had never put his name into their databases to send players recruiting literature.
The cause of the confusion remained unclear yesterday. But the incident called attention to the growing fanfare surrounding the national signing period in which highly sought-after high school athletes are appearing at staged events on television or before large crowds in gymnasiums to announce the school of their choice.
The financial stakes are huge -- a four-year scholarship for an out-of-state athlete to Cal, for instance, is worth approximately $100,000 -- and the demands on teenage athletes are expanding in an arena in which recruiting sites are among the most visited sports sites on the Web and cable networks vie for the right to televise announcements of top prospects. Today, several universities will charge admission to events during which their coaches will talk about their latest haul of players.
Yet what happened last week in Fernley, about 30 miles east of Reno down Interstate 80, appears to be unprecedented.
"Strangest thing I've ever heard," said Dave Williford, an Oregon athletic spokesman.
"When you're a high school kid, you so badly want to be recruited and sign so you can go play, and if you're a parent you feel the same way," said Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler, who played tight end at New Mexico State University and previously was a high school football coach and assistant principal. "To have this high school, which has never had a Division I athlete and now it's not real? It's too bad. It's disappointing."
Hart, his family, Fernley Coach Mark Hodges and Fernley school officials have refused to comment this week as media attention surrounding the case has grown. Recruiting Web sites first raised questions about Hart's commitment hours after Friday's signing ceremony.
George Hart, Kevin's grandfather, yesterday said only that the family is "in a sequestered-type position" as it awaits the outcome of the multiple investigations.
In addition to Cal and Oregon, athletic representatives from Oklahoma State and Illinois -- teams that Hart told the Reno Gazette-Journal he also considered -- said their coaches had no knowledge of Hart.
"We're still gathering information," NCAA spokesman Stacey Osbourn said. "Generally in situations like this -- not that there are a lot of them -- we would talk to some folks to figure out if any violations took place, either on behalf of the prospective student-athlete or our schools."
NCAA rules prohibit college coaches from talking publicly about specific recruits, making rumor and innuendo currency. Some high school coaches, accustomed to having colleges recruit their players, know how to deftly navigate the process. For uninitiated coaches and uninformed parents and guardians, the recruiting process is an awakening.
But rarely, if ever, has a scenario such as Hart's emerged. At Friday's ceremony, the player was willing to talk about how he narrowed his choices to Cal and Oregon, and specifically mentioned Cal Coach Jeff Tedford.
"Coach Tedford and I talked a lot, and the fact that the head coach did most of the recruiting of me kind of gave me that real personal experience," Hart was quoted in the Reno Gazette-Journal.
The local sheriff's department, school district and the NCAA all are investigating the matter.
"Was the kid [duped] by somebody impersonating somebody and that got him to where they were?" said Eddie Bonine, executive director of the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association and a former principal at Fernley High. "There are some red flags for me: One, at no time did any coach or representative speak to the head coach at that high school; two, you would ask, has the student-athlete, thinking he's going to be a Division I athlete, did he pursue the NCAA Clearinghouse since his sophomore year? That didn't happen. Or did the student-athlete make this all up and got in too deep and couldn't turn it around?
"Either way you shake it, it's not pretty. And very strange."
When word began to circulate Saturday that something was amiss with Hart's commitment to California, the player went to the Lyon County Sheriff's Department to file a report. According to Mike Lange of the sheriff's office, Hart said he had attended a football camp where a person claiming to be a recruiter had loaned Hart money. Hart said he paid the man back between $500 to $700 more than the initial loan but did not find out the man was not affiliated with any schools until after committing to California, Lange said.
"It would be fraud, obtaining money under false pretenses, something along those lines," Lange said. "From what I understand, there is not a whole lot of evidence from this kid, so I don't know how successful an investigation will be. But we will see what we can do."
If Hart did take money from a man he thought was a representative of a university, that could have affected his amateur status, Bonine said. If that is the case, Fernley could have to forfeit games from a season in which it finished 8-4 and reached the state semifinals.
Meantime, investigations continue. The Lyon County School District issued a statement yesterday saying that its preliminary findings were unable to verify that the colleges in question had ever offered Hart a scholarship.
"We have to wait and see what the outcome is before we start making decisions," said Bob Kanaby, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. "Once that takes place, people can make their opinions on things. It certainly is one of the most unusual things I've heard of."