The Art Of The Salesman: College Football Recruitng With Jeff Reinebold
By Simon Carroll
Simon Carroll speaks to former college football coach Jeff Reinebold about the unrelenting world of recruiting, some of the historic scandals and the challenges smaller programs face to remain competitive:
Don’t be fooled by the academic arena or the amateur classification folks – college football is big business. With just 32 NFL teams in a nation that spans nearly ten million total square miles, maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising; football is the most popular sport in the USA yet many states don’t have a professional team for fans to follow. Do we really think their love for the game begins and ends with the National Football League?
In truth, the collegiate code of the sport began much earlier than the professional one; the universities of Rutgers & Princeton played out the officially recognised first ever game of football way back in 1869. This was a good 23 years before anyone received money to play, and 33 years before a professional league was ever established. Whilst nowadays television viewership of the NFL dwarfs that of college football, the passion for football on Saturdays has always been huge.
And it likely always will be. Aside from those who follow their local team, there are hundreds of thousands of current students and former alumni cheering their school on each week. For many, college football is a religion; it’s in their blood with family ties to these institutions stretching back generations. With these fans packing out hundred thousand seat stadiums every weekend in the fall, money was always going to end up playing a leading role in the growth and success of college football programs.
Show Me The Money
For many of these schools, the football program is the lifeblood of their whole sports education. Without the income raised from football, athletic departments would struggle to fund the other sports – LSU reported $145m in revenue to the NCAA in 2018, with conservative estimates saying that more than $100m of that was contributed by their football program.
That accounted for $55m in profit, whilst the basketball and baseball programs COMBINED made less than $1m. Every other sport made a loss, but the department still came away with $8m in profit.
These astronomical revenue figures are of course only emblematic of the premier college football teams, but the percentages hold true further down the food chain even if the numbers are smaller. And what does this money pay for?
Well, in essence, it buys wins. It funds the best head coaches and state of the art facilities. It allows Oregon to have sleep pods and Texas to have their helmets air conditioned in their lockers. These mod cons attract the best student athletes to their university, which in turn makes a team more competitive. And the more successful on the field, the more people in the stands and the more merchandise sold. Does this sound like amateur sports to you, or a billion dollar industry?
The truth is it’s both. But for the wheel to keep turning, the talent must keep walking through the doors. And with every team raising the bar on campus, the art of recruiting is a priceless commodity. Coaches need to be much more than just x’s and o’s at the collegiate level – they have to be salesmen.
Recruiting 101: How It Works
Every collegiate football program has a number of scholarships to give away to prospective student athletes each year. With the cost of a degree in America averaging almost $100,000 per student, these scholarships are highly sought after.
They offer kids, many from underprivileged backgrounds, an opportunity at an education they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. High school football stars showcase their abilities on Friday nights, with college football coaches going far and wide to seek out the best talent available.
The elite few students will receive dozens of offers from colleges, whilst other hopefuls might not get offered at all and may have to pay for their education like everyone else. The brutal reality of ‘The American Dream’ is learnt from an early age.
There are strict requirements of course, that these prospects must meet. These are after all educational institutions, and the student will need to maintain a certain grade point average (GPA) to qualify for a scholarship. A perfect GPA is 4.0, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA – the governing body of college sports) requires student athletes to maintain a 2.3 GPA to be academically eligible.
The other major component of college football is it’s amateur status. Students do not get paid to play, and whilst this is oversimplifying there basically must be no money or gifts given to them throughout their recruitment or enrolment.
Coaches must sell their programs to students and their families, stressing the positives they believe are most important to them. Be it the facilities, coaching, location, quality of education or playing style – getting a commitment from a coveted recruit can make all the difference for a football program, and indeed the job security of the coaches.
A Cut-Throat Business
Recruiting is an art form, and some are better than others. Jeff Reinebold may be famous on these shores for his work on Sky Sports and his coaching stints in the CFL & NFL Europe. But he’s also got two decades of college football coaching on his resume.
In 2007, as defensive line coach for The Hawaii Warriors, Reinebold was named by Rivals.com as one of the nation’s top 20 recruiters. To this day, Jeff is the only BCS coach from a non-Power 5 team to make this list. To achieve it at a university 2,000 miles off the coast of California makes it an even more impressive feat.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to talk to Jeff on The Collapsing Pocket Podcast regarding his college coaching career:
Competing With The Big Boys
As Ed Orgeron, head coach of Ole Miss 2005-2007 and the subject of Bruce Feldman’s fantastic book ‘Meat Market’ so eloquently repeated, “It’s all about competin’!”. That mantra rings true on and off the field, but for Ole Miss, or LSU where Orgeron recently became a National Champion head coach, competing might perhaps be a little easier.
Established football programs in the SEC or any Power Five conference are blessed with big revenues and high exposure. Their prestige ensures they have a head start for the best talent, particularly in-state. After all, which Alabama kid wouldn’t want to don the famous crimson and run out in front of 101,821 people at Bryant-Denny Stadium?
There is no level playing field in recruitment. Jeff talked through his time under June Jones in Hawaii, and how they were able to build the program into one that went undefeated in the 2007 regular season and got invited to the Sugar Bowl:
“When you look at the history of Hawaii it’s gone through cycles. There were times under Dick Tomey (1977-1986) & Bob Wagner (1987-1995) where Hawaii was really outstanding. Guys like Rich Miano & Jesse Sapolu who both played in the NFL and much more talent besides. Travis LaBoy went to the NFL from Hawaii. And when I was there with June, we had three linemen drafted and more running backs than USC. But the key was, a lot of these kids were Polynesian, from Hawaii, or had family from Hawaii -some connection with the island. The successful teams kept talent on the island. They understand the culture, they’re raised with discipline. The main body of our team was built with these guys”.
On The Road
As for the ‘arms & legs’ of the team, June Jones & his staff had to get creative. Before the age of the internet, a lot of potential went under the radar and fell through the cracks, allowing smaller division 1 teams to recruit one or two stars before their abilities became common knowledge. Prospects from the more remote areas of states, or from tiny high schools, were less likely to be household names.
Those days are long gone. With the arrival of recruiting websites such as ‘Rivals’, ‘Scout’, and ‘MaxPreps’, nothing is kept a secret for long. These sites chart the recruitment of every eligible high school football player, noting team visits and which way players are leaning.
Some of these sites allow subscribers to enter data or prospects to enter tape or details programs may not have access to. In the blink of an eye, these sites weren’t just monitoring college football recruiting, they were enabling it. As of today, almost every division 1 football team has an account with Rivals; another tool in the pursuit of a better recruiting class.
Whilst at Hawaii, Jeff needed to venture further afield to add the final pieces to the roster:
“We had a great core to the team, but we had to find speed off the island. So we recruited fertile pockets of the mainland. We went to Texas and came back with five defensive backs – four of them were starters. Bryce Mullins, a receiver, we found in Lancaster in the desert outside of California. We had to be creative, but we also had to get guys who would fit in with the unique culture of the island”.
Unsurprisingly, not all recruiters or football programs have been as genuine as Jeff and Hawaii. The history of college football is littered with high-profile cases of recruiting violations, and of course the biggest of them all was the SMU Mustangs of the early eighties.
Every team in the South West Conference (SWC) was offering recruits financial incentives to commit to their school. And as excellently documented in ESPN’S ‘The Pony Excess’, Southern Methodist University were exposed on multiple counts in an era when the NCAA was trying to get tough. They were given the death penalty and ultimately missed two years of football, something which set the program back twenty years. The Head Coach back then was Ron Meyer, who Jeff had previously worked under:
“Ron came over from UNLV and his first year at SMU they’re just getting pounded, and he wasn’t going to put up with it. What you need to remember is that anything Ron did, everyone else was doing – he was just better at it. He walks in with his big smile and slicked back hair and his fancy car, and it’s like nothing these kids have ever seen. Even though NCAA rules said he wasn’t allowed to directly talk to a prospect, he would have conversations with coaches about them whilst the kid was in the room. And at the end of the meeting, he’d head up to the notice board where every other college coach had pinned their business card, but he’d pull a dollar bill out of his wallet and write ‘Ron Meyer’ on it. That was how the mystique began.”
Needless to say, single dollar bills weren’t the sums of money that got SMU in trouble. Aided by mega-rich former alum Sherwood Blount, the Mustangs went about attracting the best talent with more than just Ron’s famed charm. Blount bankrolled hundreds of thousands of dollars given to prospects, either in signing bonuses or a weekly ‘payroll’.
The NCAA were aware of this and punished SMU with exclusion from bowl games for two years – a warning shot for them to clean house. This warning went unheeded as administrators felt if they cut all illicit payments immediately they would have a mutiny on their hands. The payroll continued, and it took just one wayward linebacker to spill the beans before the whole scandal broke. The death penalty was issued and college football changed forever.
Blount was one of the first known ‘boosters’ of college football. Boosters is a term given to people who help fund the coffers of an athletic program. Most boosters behave within the rules and work with the colleges – Phil Knight of Nike is a famous contributor to The University of Oregon and has helped fund numerous buildings on campus.
The problem for teams trying to play by the rules is that these boosters don’t answer to the athletic director or head coach. And if they decide to offer discreet incentives to prospects then there is little a compliance department can do to stop it. But the school will still suffer the consequences – in the early 2000’s Nevin Shapiro filtered money to almost 100 prospects at Miami. The Hurricanes were placed on probation for three years as a result.
Staying On The Straight & Narrow
From Reggie Bush having to give back his Heisman Trophy for accepting illicit payments, to reports of wild sex and drug parties for recruits in Colorado under Gary Barnett, to academic fraud at North Carolina – the history of college football is drenched in controversy.
Looking at it in context however, staying ‘clean’ during recruiting is difficult. The NCAA, as a governing body, has a rulebook that would take a scholar a year to digest. There are specific dates that recruiting is allowed throughout the year. Teams are given a set amount of visits coaches can make to households. There are official and unofficial visits from prospects to schools, all of which have to be recorded. The most innocuous of actions can result in a slap on the wrist from the NCAA, as Jeff found out himself:
“I was recruiting this one kid and I had been in their home – I had a relationship with the family. That day I’m recruiting another school in the same city and I pop into a Burger King for a bite to eat on the way to another home visit. As I’m leaving this kid’s mother walks in, and I talk a little to her, ask how her family is, you know. I didn’t know she was supposed to be at Rice University with her son. They arrive late and when asked where they’ve been the kid goes “my mom was talking to Coach Reinebold from SMU”. Rice reported it, and I was dragged in to explain myself, just for being cordial to a recruit’s family.”
To avoid accidental violations and navigate the minefield of NCAA rules and regulations, most big programs now have a compliance department. They help coaches understand the boundaries within they are allowed to operate. Something as genuine as picking a prospect up from the airport for a visit or buying him a bottle of water may be a violation, and under heavy scrutiny schools are having to get better with complaince.
A major area of contention is qualifying academically – many recruits are removed from ‘big boards’ because they cannot maintain the GPA needed to go to college. In the past, rules have been bent or blatantly broken trying to keep a student-athlete ‘academically eligible’.
Some schools have forged grades or had private tutors submit work to help their football stars stay on the field. The use of Junior Colleges, or JuCo’s, is commonplace; basically used as a finishing school for borderline recruits who still have work to do. Whilst this tactic may comply with the letter of the law, I’m pretty sure this scenario is not what was envisioned when Princeton played Rutgers more than 150 years ago.
With this in mind, wouldn’t it be prudent of the NCAA to simplify things a little? Remove the grey areas and reduce the ability for rogue programs to bend the rules? Because, to this day, Jeff suggested that nefarious methods of persuasion are still being used:
“I’ve never played dirty to bring in a recruit, nor have any of my colleagues in all my stops. But you know when you’re up against a program or a coach who has. You just know.”
How To Win By The Rules
When Jeff followed June Jones to SMU in 2008, things were bleak. It had been twenty years since the death penalty, and Mustang football was a far cry from the days of Eric Dickerson & Craig James.
There was a stain on the name of Southern Methodist University. They didn’t have a full complement of scholarships until 1992. Once in one of the most prestigious conferences in college football, the SWC had dissolved. SMU was no longer a premier program. They had one winning season before new athletic director Steve Orsini embarked on the reclamation project.
Playing fair, SMU had no hope of competing with the other colleges for the best talent in the state of Texas. Jeff was wide receivers coach, and whilst the so called ‘blue chip’ prospects like Limas Sweed headed to Austin, The Ponies were forced to look for certain traits in less heralded recruits to build their roster:
“Some of the guys who were overlooked by the big teams in Texas, we liked. If you were a prima donna, you weren’t gonna play for us… Cole Beasley was a high school quarterback. He was short, but we liked his toughness & nobody could tackle him when he took off. Aldrick Robinson was the 800m state champion who couldn’t catch anything but was willing to learn. And Emmanuel Sanders – you couldn’t break him. Nobody would outwork him, out-compete him. We sent four receivers to the NFL, and all made their mark.”
And Limas Sweed? Seven receptions for sixty-nine yards over a four year stint in Pittsburgh, albeit with a Super Bowl ring to his name. He’s been out of the league nearly a decade.
The Future Of College Recruiting
By the time June Jones, Jeff Reinebold & the rest of the coaching staff were done at SMU, the program was back on track. Three straight bowl games and a Conference-USA title was a phenomenal feat considering the monumental task they faced upon arrival. But as much of a feel good story as this is, is it reasonable to think that smaller schools can compete fairly when recruiting against the powerhouses of college football?
Money will always be a factor. How can it not be when the majority of these student-athletes hail from nothing? The pressure to provide for their family makes it very difficult for them not to be attracted by offers of money, cars or houses.
With this in mind, how long can the NCAA keep the sport amateur? We have already seen student-athletes use the legal system to pursue monetary compensation for image rights. And when you see the sheer amounts of money these schools are making off the back of kids who sometimes can’t afford clothing, then something needs to be done.
Until that point, and even then, the art of recruiting will still win the day. Those few coaches who are able to capture what it truly means to run out on Saturdays in front of thousands of fans and sell it to a starry-eyed eighteen year old. Those recruiters who can convince concerned parents that their son is in safe hands and will leave with an education and a shot at a better life. And those programs that are good to their word, who deliver an experience befitting of the promises they made in living rooms across the state…
Forget your sleeping pods and air-conditioned helmets. The sales pitch wins every time.
Feature Image Credit: 3DownNation.com
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.