For Wes Kesner, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior tight end at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, a football scholarship was a way to receive a free education and keep doing what he liked most. Kesner, however, was not enough of a standout to attract much interest from college recruiters, and, as graduation approached last spring, he had only one option -- a junior college in Utah.
Kesner and his family decided they needed help. For $995, they hired the National Collegiate Scouting Association, whose Washington area regional scouting director, Michael Ladwig, began shopping Kesner's highlight tapes and marketing him to colleges across the country. By the end of May, he had an offer from Division II Shepherd (W. Va.). Two months later, and just four days before the start of practice, Eastern Michigan, a Division I-A school, offered him a full scholarship after the player it had signed to play tight end six months earlier failed to qualify academically.
With more and more high school students competing for the hundreds of millions of dollars that colleges devote to athletic scholarships every year, a growth industry has sprung up to coach, market and place budding running backs, strikers, point guards and midfielders to the best deal they can get. For Kesner, it worked perfectly.
"I don't know what we would have done if we hadn't found Ladwig," Kesner said. "We were getting nowhere with what we were doing."
Not every athlete or coach who has come into contact with recruiting services such as NCSA is as ebullient as Kesner. For every student who links gaining a scholarship to hiring a recruiting service, there is a college coach who plays down the services' effectiveness. Some coaches question the objectivity of a scouting report paid for by the athlete. Other coaches simply find the services a bother. And some coaches warn of unscrupulous operators who take advantage of families looking for any edge in the scholarship hunt.
"The college coach is still going to go back and call the high school coach," said Rick Houchens, football coach at Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt, who says an average of 10 to 12 of his players in each graduating class go on to play college ball. "If a kid is going to play for you, you're going to want to know what it's like to coach that kid. Who are you going to ask for that? . . . What the colleges first think [after hearing of a player from a recruiting service] is, 'Why isn't the coach promoting this kid? Is there something wrong with him?' "
Chicago-based NCSA says it had 304 clients in the class of 2002 who received an average of $13,500 per school year in grants and scholarships. There are more than 200 such agencies that can be found with just a simple Internet search, charging between $30 and $2,500, and offering services of varying breadth.
Some agencies create a personal Web page for the athlete and index them on sites made available to college coaches. Other agencies, however, operate as a more hands-on marketer, serving as a liaison between the student and college coaches. The agencies prepare and then fax or e-mail a comprehensive portfolio of achievements to hundreds of schools nationwide. They call college coaches throughout the school year to update them on the student's progress and gauge the school's interest not only in their client, but also in other recruits competing for that particular scholarship.
"You've got to be careful," said Henry Frazier III, football coach at Bowie State. "There are so many services out there that prey on the student-athlete. . . . It's almost a desperate state that [the students] put themselves in to where they'll do anything to play somewhere."
Recruiting agencies get a large share of their business from students other than the top-flight athletes who attract attention from colleges as a matter of course. Agencies such as NCSA handle recruiting's administrative work, such as registering with the NCAA's initial eligibility clearinghouse, staying in touch with college coaches, sending out highlight videos and standardizing times for their clients in the 40-yard dash. They contact coaches en masse, and hope increased exposure will create increased bargaining power for the student-athlete. The aim is a scholarship -- full or partial -- or grants from schools that do not offer athletic scholarships.
"There are people out there who think we're not going to help you," said Chris Krause, president and CEO of NCSA. "They think, 'If I'm on an AAU team, then I'm getting exposure, I'm getting recruited.' That's wrong. They don't realize that [college] coaches are not there looking for the diamonds in the rough. They're all there looking at the same top players. . . . The biggest myth I have to dispel is that 'I'm good, so they'll find me.' "
In 1998, Krause said he studied the recruiting budgets of more than 250 schools, and saw the average amount spent on recruiting for the football and men's basketball programs was about 80 percent of the recruiting budget. Women's sports, on average, only accounted for 71/2 percent of the budget. With that figure in mind, several recruiting services target female athletes as customers.
Ladwig said that NCSA's client base is up nearly 50 percent from last year with more student-athletes signing up. In two years, NCSA has accrued more than $1.5 million in revenue.
College coaches, however, often dismiss recruiting services, calling them more of a bother than a benefit.
"Anytime they charge you money to market you, I'd be a little skeptical about it," said Mike Locksley, an assistant football coach at Maryland and the team's recruiting coordinator. "I still go on the recommendations of high school coaches. I get e-mails all the time, though, [from recruiting agencies]. I have 20 stacks of papers saying that there are these 5-11, 220-pound offensive linemen that you have to see. . . . We take a look at them, but we pretty much go off of our own recruiting services."
Information from recruiting services "really doesn't catch our attention," said George Mason baseball coach Bill Brown, who is entering his 22nd season. "Those are pretty close to worthless. We're going to recruit kids who are mentioned by high school coaches or summer coaches. This new technology may help get a kid a look, but to get deep into the recruiting process, we have to see a kid with our own eyes."
Frazier said: "We get paid to go out and sign athletes. Anything that charges you to get you noticed, I'd like to know what they're doing. If you're good enough, we're going to know about you because that's our job."
While recruiting services can say that a large majority of their clients receive scholarships, it is difficult to prove how many students earn them as a result of the agency's work.
"I remember we were recruiting two kids," Frazier said, "and we were very interested in them. Then, a couple of months later, I got their [materials] faxed over [from a recruiting agency]. We didn't sign them [because they went to other schools], but if we did, it wouldn't be because they told us about those kids."
Chris Dunn, the Northern Virginia area director for National Scouting Report, a 21-year-old company that employs 150 scouts nationwide, says college coaches should embrace agencies like his.
"If coaches feel threatened, then they're missing the boat," Dunn said. "Put yourself in a [college] coach's shoes. If your job is to find talent, wouldn't you want as many resources as you can to get the information?"
Since the athletes targeted are not the elite performers, their targeted colleges, too, will not be among the most coveted. Krause says his agency pairs students with Division II and III schools as much, if not more often, than with Division I schools. The bottom line, he says, is that a student is going to college for free or a minimal cost, and is playing his or her sport of choice.
"The outstanding blue-chip players, everyone knows who they are," said Mike London, assistant football coach at Virginia and the team's recruiting coordinator. "This kind of service might help the borderline kids. . . . It'll always have a place for these kids."
Another recruiting service, College Bound Student Alliance, based in Lakewood, Colo., does not limit its efforts to student-athletes.
"We're not in the business of trying to find NBA players," said Douglas Rother, CBSA's president and CEO. "We do get blue-chip players, but our focus is trying to get kids into college. We also find a tuba player for Carleton [Minn.] or a water polo player for Stanford. . . . The market for this is huge."
CBSA has more than 150 scouts in 48 states and had 12,000 clients in the class of 2002, each of whom paid $1,000 for the service. Rother says CBSA earned $12 million in revenue in 2001.
"About $6 billion [in scholarships and grant aid] goes unused each year because kids don't know that it exists or how to apply for it," Rother said. "There's so much available as merit aid that you just need to meet the qualifications for a particular school."
Other recruiting agencies are less comprehensive, and less expensive. Some simply put an athlete's profile on a Web site that college coaches can access. Other services, such as former Washington Redskin Eric Williams's Applied Sports Technology, test the athletes' physical abilities themselves, marketing their services to colleges as an objective measuring stick for scholarship candidates.
Williams has developed a measure he calls "effectiveness quotient" -- a combination of physical, psychological and positional scores on various tests given at an AST combine -- for each player. AST puts this information, along with a school transcript, standardized test scores, and up to 10 plays of game film, on its Web site, which is accessible by both the student and recruiters.
"We tried to come up with a process that brought the athlete a value as a player," said Williams, who charges each student $129 for an online profile, plus $25 for each participation in an AST-supervised combine. "We saw scores of kids who could run like the wind, but couldn't play football. . . . There are so many questions on character, and character is coming more into play than a kid's 40[-yard dash] time."
According to Brad Hostetter, Associate Director of Membership Services for the NCAA, no recruiting agencies have violated any NCAA rules. He said the NCAA gets "a number of calls from the general public from individuals who want to start these services." Hostetter said these people are told of NCAA bylaw 13.15.3, which compels recruiting services to provide their information to all schools desiring it so as not to give one school a recruiting advantage.
NCAA rules also aim to prevent recruiting services from becoming an extension of professional agents. For instance, a recruiting service's fee for each client cannot be linked to the amount of scholarship received.
"They can use the services as long as the fee provided is not contingent on them receiving a scholarship," Hostetter said. "One thing the services have to be careful of is [not] interjecting themselves into the recruiting process. Where you can go overboard is a school's coach calls an agent and tells him that they are interested in a student. At that point, the school has asked the recruiting service to help in the recruiting process."
Hostetter said he did not know of any instances where a recruiting service was alleged to be connected with an agent, acknowledging that such a relationship would be difficult to police because it would most likely be created on a handshake basis.
'Doing This Ourselves'
The demands of the recruiting process intimidated Mike Malagari, which led him to hire the service, Tomorrow's Athlete, for his daughter, Danielle, midway through her sophomore year in 1999 at Good Counsel High in Wheaton. The agency was based in Montgomery County and run independently by Peter Kenah.
"I liked it because I had complete control over what was going on," said Mike Malagari, who paid $700 for the service. "But [Kenah] still knew all about the process. The way he sold us on it was he talked about going to [Danielle's] club [soccer] games and then getting letters and videos off to  schools. He said there would be constant follow-ups with the coaches on her stats."
Tomorrow's Athlete came on the recommendation of one of Danielle's club soccer teammates. Laney Rosin, the 2000 All-Met Player of the Year, had signed up and landed a scholarship to Michigan.
Kenah "was a nice, young, personable guy," said Robbie Rosin, Laney's father. "He was one of those guys who, if you had a good idea, he'd do it. We talked a couple of times a day, and by the time we [signed with Michigan] I was just so impressed. . . . It was the best experience I could have asked for."
But Kenah admitted that he assumed too heavy a workload. Each of his clients required too much individual attention during heavy recruiting periods and he was unable to take on enough clients to make it a worthwhile full-time job. By the end of Danielle Malagari's fall junior soccer season, Kenah shut down Tomorrow's Athletes -- and returned part of the Malagari's money, he said.
Mike Malagari said Kenah "never returned a cent. I asked him to return just part of the money, just to cover some expenses, and that was when he stopped returning my calls. He switched his phone number."
Kenah, now the girls' basketball coach at Whitman High in Bethesda, said he did not require clients to sign contracts. He added that he has thrown out most of the records from his business since he shut it down, so he cannot tell if the Malagaris were one of the families that did. Mike Malagari says he made the mistake of not receiving a copy of the contract he says he signed with Kenah, and thus, has no legal recourse.
"He took our money and disappeared," Mike Malagari said. "It was a live-and-learn situation. He was a young man with grandiose ideas who took on more than he could handle."
The Malagaris, however, turned to the Internet to help Danielle land a scholarship. They spent the rest of Danielle's junior year learning which college programs were within her reach and then gathered as much information as they could about those schools.
"I found 25 schools," Mike Malagari said, "and from that we found the top 15 and learned all that we could on each school -- roster balance, who was coming back, who was graduating, what courses they offered. We learned something about every school, and that impressed a lot of coaches when we talked to them."
Danielle Malagari signed with Maryland and just completed her freshman season with the Terrapins, playing in 10 games.
"The one thing we learned by doing this ourselves was that my daughter learned where she could play," Mike Malagari said. "The North Carolinas, the Floridas, she couldn't play there. The recruiting services blew themselves up, making it seem like they could get her to play anywhere."