More than a million high school seniors have been vying this spring for admission to the nation's crowded colleges. Institutions have talked of turning away as many as five applicants for every freshman they are able to accept. Academic standards have risen to the point where a C-average student very often has little chance of getting into the college of his choice. But if getting into college has never been tougher for most young men, it has seldom been easier for athletes. Just how easy has been made remarkably plain by an NYU graduate-school student, Thomas Affinito, in preparing a term paper entitled High School Athletics, a Passkey to College.
Early last month Affinito, the son of a Meriden, Conn. doctor, created a fictitious high school basketball player named Tom Fini. In Fini's name he sent a letter to the basketball coaches of 11 colleges explaining that the Fini family was moving into the area of the coach's college. Fini said he had been an all-state basketball player in Connecticut for two years, that he was 6 feet 5 inches tall, weighed 200 pounds and wanted to play for the college. Fini said he would "be able to pay for about one-half of my education through savings but will need a scholarship for the rest. Will [name of school] be able to help me out?" Tom Affinito used his own home address for Tom Fini.
Enclosed with the letter was a bogus newspaper clipping (see right), a copy of a fictitious story which Tom Affinito had printed at the Meriden Journal, where he works part time as a reporter. The clipping said Tom Fini averaged 23.4 points a game, that he was also No. 1 man on the tennis team and that he had a straight-C average at Maloney High School (an actual school in Meriden). The description depicted an apparently good basketball player, but one no better than 100 other high school prospects each year.
Within two weeks, on the basis of nothing but Tom Fini's letter and the clipping, this is what happened:
•Two colleges offered Fini full scholarships.
•One college offered a half scholarship to be changed to a full scholarship if Fini became a starter on the freshman team.
•Representatives of three schools telephoned; two others telegraphed; and five wrote Fini within a day of receiving his letter. Every college replied with evident interest.
•Four colleges enclosed admission applications on which was written the name or initials of the basketball coach, plainly put there to show the admissions office it was dealing with an athlete.
Rarely has the intensity and scope of college recruiting been displayed so clearly as it was in the messages that came for Tom Fini, and in the diary that Tom Affinito kept for the three weeks that the coaches sought a nonexistent basketball player.
The letters that Affinito wrote—"Dear Coach," they began, informally, and they included spelling and typing errors for realism—were sent to St. Francis College (Pa.), University of Detroit, University of Richmond, University of Akron, Gonzaga University, Duquesne University, Belmont Abbey, Idaho State University, Memphis State University, Kentucky Wesleyan College and the University of Portland. The schools were selected for their geographic spread and known interest in basketball.
At noon Saturday, April 8, the 11 letters were sent by air mail. "Nothing to do now but sit and wait," wrote Tom in his diary.
Forty-eight hours later, at Monday noon, he recorded: "A call from Pittsburgh came to the newspaper asking for information on Fini. When he could find out nothing, the voice on the phone seemed quite upset. Most likely Duquesne." Duquesne contacted Maloney High School, and later wrote the school about a possible hoax. No other college checked that far before approaching the player.
At 5 p.m. the same day, a telegram for Tom Fini arrived from Bob Vanatta, head basketball coach at Memphis State. "Call me tonight if possible, Mutual 56159, Memphis, Tennessee," it read.
On Tuesday, April 11, the University of Akron called Maloney High School and the newspaper seeking information about Tom Fini.
"April 12—a really big day!" noted Tom in the diary. "Three letters came to my home. They were from Gonzaga, Idaho State and the University of Richmond."
Gonzaga coach and athletic director Hank Anderson wrote Fini: "I am very much interested in your letter and would like to tentatively offer you a full basketball scholarship for next year, which would include board, room and tuition.... I would like to have a little more information about your basketball background.... Also a letter from your high school coach." He enclosed an application form for the Spokane college. It had "T. H. Anderson" written at the bottom of it in ink.
And don't forget tennis
Idaho State was more circumspect. "We have a very fine basketball program here," said Coach John Evans. "I am sure we will be able to work out something which will enable you to attend." He enclosed brochures on the merits of the college, the state of Idaho and the town of Pocatello. Later the Idaho State tennis coach, a U.S. Army captain who teaches military science, wrote Fini on his unit's military stationery noting that "with respect to a scholarship, Mr. Evans informs me that he will be able to take care of you." He reminded Fini that the tennis team, too, was looking forward to his presence. As he did in every case, Tom Affinito answered Idaho State saying he had decided to go elsewhere. Coach Evans wrote Fini in return, wishing him "the best of luck."
The third reply that day came from the University of Richmond. It was, un-typically, concerned with grades. "We will need your grades and this application form completed before I can officially offer you any aid," said Coach Lester Hooker Jr. He enclosed an application form. His name was written on it. (A week later a Connecticut man identifying himself as "a scout in the New England area for the University of Richmond," wrote the basketball coach at Maloney High School and asked him to fill out an enclosed "evaluation report" on Fini.)
That night another telegram arrived from Memphis State's conscientious Vanatta. "Call me collect;" it said. A wire was sent back saying Tom Fini had made other plans.
"April 13," Affinito's diary continued. "Three more letters arrived today. They were from Kentucky Wesleyan, Detroit and a New York insurance man writing on behalf of Belmont Abbey."
Basketball Coach T. L. Plain of Kentucky Wesleyan not only had a scholarship for Tom Fini but an incentive plan. "Your qualifications certainly portray the type of athlete we are attempting to recruit," the coach wrote. "We will offer you a half scholarship (tuition, fees and books) on the basis of the information that we received. In the event that you become a starter on our freshman team we will place you on a full scholarship."
The University of Detroit answer came from an assistant coach. He sent an application form (with the coach's initials on it, of course) and said he needed it returned as soon as possible in order that the registrar could examine Tom Fini's grades. "I feel quite certain that we will be able to give you some financial aid if you are accepted for admission," the letter said. A paragraph calling for $5 to accompany the application form was scratched out on the form's instruction sheet. Unlike other students, Fini could apply free.
The New York insurance man asked Tom Fini if he could be in the lobby of the New York Athletic Club on Saturday, April 29, at 12:30 p.m., to meet Belmont Abbey Coach Al McGuire. "Please reply," he added.
No mail came for Fini the next day, but Tom Affinito had to use part of it explaining to the principal of Maloney High School and the publisher of his newspaper what he had done. He had not told them before, hardly anticipating the barrage of response he would receive. "We all parted best of friends," he wrote in his diary.
Big offer from a small college
"April 17—St. Francis College got into the act today," the diary continued. "At noon a telegram arrived from Dr. W. T. Hughes, a dentist who is also the basketball coach." The doctor asked Fini to telephone him. A letter was sent saying Fini had other plans.
But four days later a registered letter arrived for Tom Fini from Dr. Hughes. It read: "Tried to reach you by phone. Also sent telegram.... Can't seem to reach you. Call or write if you are still interested." And a week after that came a last letter from the St. Francis coach. It contained a flat offer:
"Would like to have you with us at St. Francis College. Can offer room, board, tuition and fees. We are only 75 miles from Pittsburgh, and we are one of the nicest small colleges in the country. A picture of our next two dormitories being started now, enclosed."
On the St. Francis application form Dr. Hughes had written his name. Beside the name were the underlined words, "Basketball Player."
In the meantime, two telephone calls had come one night from the coach of the University of Portland. "I was not home and my father answered both calls," wrote Tom in the diary. "One came about midnight and the other at approximately 1 a.m. The coach was upset that he couldn't reach Tom Fini. My father wasn't exactly in a happy mood after being awakened twice." A local clergyman later received a letter from the coach asking about Fini.
With Portland accounted for, every school on Thomas Affinito's list had shown its interest in furthering the higher education of Tom Fini. In his term paper for his NYU course (pre-college guidance) Affinito called attention to the speed with which the coaches had responded, citing it as "evidence that athletic recruitment is a highly competitive business. More descriptively, it is a rat race. Coaches are paid to win, and fired if they don't. Obviously they didn't want to waste time and have to bid with several other colleges for Tom Fini's services....
"In any case, it seems incredible that a college should offer a scholarship on the limited information they had on Fini—a phony news story and a letter from the boy....
"One of the college bulletins sent to Fini read: 'Aid is awarded to students on the basis of need, scholastic ability and good character.' This school knew nothing of Fini's character, need or scholastic ability."
It was not Tom Affinito's purpose—nor is it ours—to embarrass, specifically, the schools included in his survey. As proof of the fact that practically all colleges today are in the recruiting rat race, Tom included in his term paper a letter sent out recently by one of the top Ivy League colleges.
"It appears as if we can never avoid a crisis," the director of freshman athletics wrote to the school's alumni, "and this time of year is no exception. The coaching staffs are furiously at work hard-selling our school. The Office of Admissions and the Department of Financial Assistance are now feeling the full weight of our recruiting activities...."
What happened in the case of Tom Fini should surprise no sophisticated observer. The best high school basketball and football players report that they get 100 such offers before selecting a college. But the case of the mythical Tom Fini dramatizes the degree to which offices of admissions and departments of financial assistance "are now feeling the full weight of recruitment activities."
We suggest Tom Affinito's professor give him an A on his term paper.
STUDENT AFFINITO wrote on the subject, High School Athletics, a Passkey to College.
BOGUS NEWS STORY lauding fictitious Tom Fini was sent to basketball coaches by Affinito along with a letter of application. Story included an old picture taken from paper's files. The players' faces were blocked out by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED to avoid embarrassing them.
RUSH OF REPLIES from colleges included these scholarship offers and application forms. The forms were signed by coaches so the admission office would know Fini was an athlete.