- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Approximately 2,000 high school seniors will put pen to paper today and sign NCAA national letters of intent, securing football scholarships at Division I schools across the country. One of those prep signees likely will be Syracuse native Travis Tolbert, the personification of the pitfalls involved in the college recruiting game.
Tolbert's convoluted story reads like a sports version of "Catch Me If You Can." In reality, Tolbert is a 6-foot, 185-pound safety from Henninger High School with average speed, pedestrian skills and sub-par grades. But on the Internet, he's 212 pounds of pure platinum a 4.4 speedster with a 2.5 GPA, a propensity for delivering punishing hits and an awesome array of prestigious suitors from Ohio State to Alabama.
"I guess I started to realize something strange was going on last spring when we started getting all sorts of mail for Travis from the top college programs in the nation," said Bob Campese, the football coach and vice principal at Henninger. "I had Marquise Walker here a few years ago. He went on to Michigan and set all kinds of receiving records there, and now he's in the NFL, so I know what a big-time D-I player looks like. And suddenly Travis is getting more interest from schools and more publicity from local papers than Marquise did.
"I'm wondering what's going on. I'm thinking, 'What am I missing?' Because, frankly, Travis is a JUCO or Division II talent at best. People are asking me about the best strong safety in the state, and I'm looking at a kid who isn't even the best defensive back on the team. His 40 time is 4.5 and change, and he's got some decent strength. But the natural football ability just isn't there. And he's not even going to graduate. He's nowhere near having his core course work done."
Eventually, Campese realized the misinformation about Tolbert was coming from the Internet, where an impressive volume of pro-Tolbert posts on varying sites had at one time convinced the recruiting service TheInsiders.com to list Tolbert in its national top 100. Respected recruiting analyst Max Emfinger plugged Tolbert, sight unseen, as a top safety. And TheInsiders.com contributor Mike Bakas named Tolbert to his All-East first team.
Trusting such services and reports, schools like Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Alabama and Florida invited Tolbert to make university-funded official visits.
"You can see how it could happen," said one duped college coach, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "There are so many kids out there that we can't possibly see them all. Of course we all look at the Internet. It's a tool. If you see a name once or twice, no big deal. But when it keeps popping up, you have to take some of it on good faith and assume the kid can play."
Tolbert, who did not return calls from The Washington Times, provided updates on his recruitment for services like Rivals.com, which still has him listed as a two-star prospect. He took at least one free recruiting visit (to Michigan State), told reporters he had taken other (unconfirmed) trips to Ohio State and Michigan and has discussed the pros and cons of each school on recruiting sites like any other high-profile recruit.
Most schools eventually discovered the scam. Florida, which owns three planes and has a $48million aviation budget for athletic recruiting, had the foresight to call Campese the day before Tolbert was scheduled to visit Gainesville on Jan.25.
"I wouldn't say I blew the whistle on him, but I did tell anyone who cared to call the truth," Campese said. "I guess in a way you have to admire the kid's ingenuity. I'm almost certain he made all the Internet posts himself. The whole thing is a remarkable case study in self-promotion and the hazards of Internet information."
So who is a recruiter or a recruiting analyst to trust in the information age?
"If you can't see a kid yourself, then you have to talk to a lot of people you respect and who have seen him," said Dave Glenn, the editor of ACC Area Sports Journal. "Maryland signee Wesley Jefferson is a good example. He's a linebacker from Gwynn Park who is definitely the real deal. With most prospects, no matter how highly they're ranked, there is almost always someone who has some doubts. Not with Jefferson. To a man, every coach and analyst who has seen him just raves. He's just a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine with E.J. Henderson-type superstardom written all over him.
"It's true that you have to be careful with the Internet. But for the most part, we've gotten pretty good at identifying the real big-time guys. The real trick for the coaches is signing them."
Coaches will go to outrageous lengths to try and sway impressionable 17- and 18-year-olds to sign with their programs. And though the NCAA forbids them from discussing potential recruits, players often share the details of their visits.
Florida, for instance, takes official visitors straight from the airport to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. There, recruits descend into the team locker room, dress in full Gators garb (helmets included) and run onto the field amid piped-in crowd noise as their names are called by the school's PA announcer.
At Tennessee, recruits emerge from one of two private jets to find orange Hummers waiting to chauffeur them around Knoxville.
At Virginia, Al Groh is fond of drawing up plays for recruits, showing each player exactly how he plans to use him in the Cavaliers' scheme.
At Miami, the South Beach nightlife is incorporated into every visit.
"All I would tell any recruit is to make sure you take all five of your official visits," said Reynaldo Hill, a prized JUCO defensive back who committed to Florida last month. "Even if you know where you are going, take all five trips. Because, man, it's fun being wined and dined like that."
Given such competitive courtships, schools often step on or even across the ethical threshold to secure the services of particularly coveted recruits. LSU, which is expected to sign the most impressive class of players today, earned commitments from the two final gems in its recruiting crown last week thanks to just such dubious, though legal, tactics.
Just two days after two of Louisiana's top players (O.P. Walker High standouts Craig Davis and Daryl Johnson) committed to Miami, LSU coach Nick Saban offered O.P. Walker coach Frank Wilson a spot on his staff. Not surprisingly, both Davis and Johnson then decommitted from Miami and pledged themselves to the Tigers.
"Is that dirty pool? Sure," one SEC coach said of the move. "But it's not really a surprise. The pressure to produce is intense, and recruiting is the dirtiest part of this business."

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