Recruiting's New M.O.: Modem Operandi
Athletes Use Internet As Route To Coaches
By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Talent wasn't the problem. Though his team went 1-10 his junior year, Hooks still made all-conference as a defensive lineman, and his senior year promised better. But North Pitt has only 900 students, and Hooks said it's "a long way from the road, way out in the country and there aren't too many coaches that are going to find it."
Hooks never thought salvation could come from a computer. His family owns one, but it doesn't have a modem. Even if it did, Hooks said he wouldn't know how to use it. But the Internet has become the newest matchmaking tool for college coaches and high school athletes. And though Internet services are far from perfect and have yet to be an established, accepted part of the recruiting game, Hooks decided to take a chance.
Prodded by his high school trainer, he paid $69 to Online Scouting Network to list statistics, personal information, test scores and grades that can be accessed by coaches. Some services -- including OSN for an extra $80 -- are capable of posting short video clips. The information is not available to the general public. Coaches use a sign-on and password, which must be requested on a school letterhead to be accepted by most services.
It's the Future'
Recruiting Web sites, often fan forums that incubate rumors about which player will go to which school, have been around throughout the Internet's relatively short history. But services that athletes in sports from archery to wrestling can use to market themselves directly have emerged recently.
"I guarantee it's the future," OSN President Tim Jemison said recently. "After a coach's wife goes to bed, he can narrow it down at his computer and find a sleeper. It doesn't get easier than that. I'm not trying to get rich doing this, but I think I can."
OSN was created two years ago as the first Web site of its kind. While Jemison was watching a Michigan-Penn State football game, he was chatting via e-mail about Nittany Lions Coach Joe Paterno's outstanding recruiting class. Then it hit him: Why couldn't Paterno find recruits with a computer?
After two years of development and a long search for investors, Jemison's brainchild became reality, supported by the bankrolls of such athletes as Ryne Sandberg of the Chicago Cubs, Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers and Joe Carter of the Toronto Blue Jays. "I can relate to this," Carter said. "I'm from a small town, and I can remember what it was like to try to get noticed, no matter how good you were. It seemed like a natural."
OSN of Somerville, N.J., says is has more than 1,000 coaches and 3,000 athletes in its system and does not charge coaches for access. The Scout, located in Silver Spring, does not charge athletes and says it has more than 20,000 in its system, which is accessible to coaches for $200 for three years.
Other services are popping up. ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen and entrepreneur Edward Taylor, for example, have developed SportsTrac.COM of Tulsa. They will charge athletes $39.95; coaches will have free access.
"It's going to save the smaller schools with smaller budgets a whole lot of time and money," Howard men's and women's swimming coach E. Newton Jackson said. "Actually, I'm kind of upset the word is getting out. You think I told anybody? I'm really good friends with some of my colleagues, but I'm not going to tell them to use it. If you don't take any advantage you can, you're crazy. And what you can do with this is make a more educated guess."
Jackson, the only African American swimming coach in Division I, has extra trouble recruiting swimmers for Howard, a historically black school. He said he will recruit swimmers of any color, but harder-to-find black swimmers are the most likely to sign. In the past year, Jackson has contacted more than 30 athletes he discovered by using OSN.
"I haven't signed them, but I found them," Jackson said. "It definitely helps you find something specific -- like a black, male 200-yard breaststroker. It assists you; it doesn't do the work for you. But it is really beneficial from that standpoint."
Services are geared toward coaches such as Jackson, who need to be efficient with recruiting dollars and have a harder time locating talent, and players such as North Pitt's Hooks, who aren't likely to play for a big-name program. Large Division I schools with big budgets don't need and won't use the Internet to find blue-chippers.
"There are very few secrets at this level," University of California recruiting coordinator Mike Sondheimer said. "We know who we're going to be looking at."
We Don't Use It at All'
Some say coaches, most of whom are older and inexperienced with computers, don't use the Internet anyway. Jackson said he received his first university computer just two months ago and "more kids know how to use the Internet than adults. Most coaches only know the old way."
The Michigan basketball program, for example, has Internet access only on its secretary's computer. "We don't use it at all," assistant coach Brian Dutcher said.
"Users have to beware," said Jeff Duva, a former quarterback at Hawaii who is president of Collegiate Sports America, another online scouting service. "Not a lot of coaches and schools are online, so kids pay money and don't know if anyone is even going to see it. College coaches aren't going to get out and check 10 Web sites. They don't even know how to work a browser."
Services are for "the kids that couldn't get recruited by small schools, because they are hard to find or aren't superstars," Duva added. "If you're a superstar, you don't need us. We are targeting women's athletics and the kids who want to play small sports at big schools or big sports at small schools."
Among the advantages of the Internet is its low cost, widespread access and ability to be updated quickly. The hundreds of recruiting newsletters that bombard schools every day are extremely expensive to mail and often include dated statistics and preferences -- and even old heights and weights. Most services include a limited number of updates in the fee.
"We're dealing with 16- and 17-year-old kids here," said Greg Rosenberg of Ultimate Hoops, a recruiting magazine that recently has gone online. "Things are going to change quickly. So if you can cut down on the paper you mail, and if you can make adjustments without redoing a whole batch of magazines, you've got a gold mine."
Anyone with a computer, a knowledge of programming codes and an interest in sports can become a service or newsletter. Duva said several sites have "come along quickly and fizzled out." But some have stayed, leaving the entire industry searching for ways to establish credibility.
Print publications that have gone online use their brand names. "The coaches already know us," Rosenberg said. The new services rely on quality, both of information and presentation.
"There are thousands of techno-geeks out there with slick-looking Web pages but bad information," OSN's Jemison said. "You've got to be reliable. You've got to look good, be easy to use, be helpful and, most of all, relay the information just as the athletes give it to you."
Howard's Jackson said Web sites are "just the first step. If there is documentation that catches your attention, it can be verified quickly." Jemison calls the Internet the "great equalizer; no one gets an unfair edge."
But others in the recruiting business see the Web pages as potentially misleading. Doyle Baseball School, which has a Web site solely for marketing, runs camps that display players to college and pro coaches. The school evaluates players but does not make the results available on the Internet. Coaches must call and speak to a school representative.
"The kid's numbers may not be good, but he might have a heart of gold," said Nancy Bass, Doyle's administrative director. "How do you put that on a Web site? How can you tell that from something on a computer? We would much rather have the coaches come to us themselves."
For Some, It Works
For Jack Wimsatt of Washington, it was worth the gamble, however. His daughter, Sarah, will play field hockey at St. Joseph's in the fall and used OSN. Wimsatt said he wasn't sure her use of the service helped at all in recruiting, but he was also sure it didn't hurt.
"It's like buying a lotto ticket," Wimsatt said. "Maybe somebody will say, Golly. This is who I'm looking for.' "
That's what Hooks, from North Pitt High, was hoping would happen as he sat waiting and waiting and waiting. He had a tremendous senior year, earning all-state honors on a 9-3 team. And suddenly, after enrolling with OSN, going to the mailbox became fun. He filled three shoe boxes with letters.
Hooks was found. He will play offensive and defensive line at East Tennessee State this fall. Though Coach Paul Hamilton said he heard about Hooks through word of mouth, he checked out the Internet afterward. Still, Hooks is forever thankful to the Internet -- even if he can't work a computer.
"I don't know what happened, if all this helped me a lot or not," Hooks said. "But it got letters sent to me from everywhere -- Florida State and people like that. All I know is that some people found me, I'm going somewhere and I wasn't before. And when I get to college, I'm going to learn how to use that computer."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company