Last summer, on weekends and days off from his job at Wal-Mart,
Pierre Woods, a 6'6", 220-pound defensive lineman who had just
finished his junior year at Glenville High in Cleveland, would
climb into a gray minivan and travel as far as 1,100 miles to go
to football camp. Doritos and sticky buns were the choice snack,
Gatorade filled the cooler, and Glenville coach Ted Ginn drove
the van, which he rented for nearly six weeks. "We spent a lot of
time in that car," Ginn says. "We played a lot of games, and
there was plenty of time for jaw-jacking."
At stake was Woods's college football future. Attending summer
camps run by big-time football schools has become virtually
mandatory for the nation's best high school players, much as
going to shoe-company-run summer camps has been a necessity for
top basketball recruits. Never mind that many of these football
camps violate NCAA rules regarding contact between recruiters and
prospects; coaches see the sessions as essential to landing the
players they want. "It's a real footrace to get prospects into
your camp," says Notre Dame coach Bob Davie. "For some schools
the summer is now the most important time in recruiting."
The numbers back him up: At Ohio State 68% of the players on its
last seven rosters attended the Buckeyes' camp, including the
last five scholarship kickers. About half the signees from Notre
Dame's last four recruiting classes attended its camp. "When I
arrived here eight years ago, I don't think we had one player
signed out of our camp," says Davie. Penn State got 12 of its 20
recruits out of its camp in 1997 and has been averaging 50% every
year since. Similarly large are the numbers from Nebraska (10
former campers among the 17 recruits in its incoming class), UCLA
(10 of 18), Florida State (12 of 28) and LSU (9 of 25).
Woods, projected as a Charles Haley-like defensive end in
college, was courted by dozens of schools before last summer. In
the spring of 2000 he narrowed his choices to 10 or so, including
Georgia Tech, LSU and Tennessee, then began mapping a summer-camp
schedule that would allow him to spend at least a day at as many
of those schools as possible. "The recruiters didn't say I had to
go to camp to get a scholarship, but they wanted me to go," says
Woods, "and I felt like I needed to show them what they might be
getting." He would soon become an expert in this college
Camps stretch through June and July, last from one to six days,
and none include full contact. Some schools have a single
session, like Michigan's six-day camp in June, while others have
multiple sessions that blanket the summer. Texas offers four
four-day resident camps, two five-day commuter camps, two
single-day camps, a kicking camp, a youth camp and a speed and
explosive-training camp. In general, players aged eight to 18 are
charged from $25 to $425, with most of the money going to
athletic departments and assistant and head coaches, many of whom
have a camp stipend guaranteed in their contracts.
The camps are both sales calls and shopping sprees. Despite an
NCAA rule stipulating that schools cannot use camps to evaluate
or recruit players under consideration for scholarships, the
reality is many camps are designed so that coaches can evaluate
and recruit. Camps are scheduled to maximize attendance by
blue-chippers--it's no coincidence that the camps at Miami,
Florida State and Florida are staggered so that an athlete can
attend all three--and when top prospects arrive, they are often
timed, measured and videotaped. Michigan's camp website boasts,
"Annually, there are more student-athletes who receive athletic
scholarships from this camp than any other camp of its kind."
Recruiters tell some players on the fringe that if they don't
come to camp, they have no chance of landing a scholarship. Elite
prospects such as Woods are courted with brochures and letters
from coaches. "In addition to aiding your progress as a football
player, the Sonny Lubick 'Elite' Camp also gives you a chance to
showcase your talent and skills for the coaching staff," reads a
brochure for Colorado State's "elite" camp, which is limited to
100 players who "plan to continue their careers at the college
"The intent of the camps should be purely instructional," says
Steve Mallonee, the NCAA's director of membership services. "They
should not be an opportunity to recruit. But let's face it,
coaches will do what they can to get an edge. If they think
everyone else is [recruiting and evaluating at camps] and think
the rules might not be spelled out clearly, coaches are going to
do it. Our membership needs to come to terms with this issue.
It's clear it is going on."
The NCAA has rarely found schools guilty of rules violations
involving football camps (only three cases appear in the
association's infractions database), largely because it hasn't
looked very hard. As with other alleged wrongdoing, the NCAA
proceeds only after receiving a complaint, and it has gotten few
regarding football camps. The most recent camp scandal came to
light in February, after an internal investigation at Kentucky.
The probe found that Memphis high school coach Tim Thompson had
been paid $700 more than his fellow coaches for working at the
Wildcats' 2000 camp and had received $1,400 from then Kentucky
recruiting coordinator Claude Bassett, who called the latter
payment a "gift." Thompson--who says he was given only money that
was owed to his staff for working at the camp--had paid $3,200 for
16 of his players to attend the camp, a violation of Tennessee
high school rules forbidding coaches from underwriting players'
summer-camp costs. Thompson's school had to forfeit all of its
games for 2000 and pay more than $10,000 in fines and
"You worry that [funneling money to high school coaches to cover
camp and travel fees for top prospects] is one more thing that
schools might be tempted to take advantage of," says Bill Conley,
Ohio State's recruiting coordinator. Especially when one
considers that it's not against NCAA rules--or uncommon--for a high
school coach to use his own money to pay for a player's fees and
it's not an NCAA violation for a college to hire that same coach
to work at its camp. Woods says that he used his earnings from
Wal-Mart to cover a portion of his costs; Ginn chipped in a lot.
All told, the two had to come up with more than $400 in camp fees
and $2,000 for food, lodging and gas.
A more widespread problem for the NCAA may be the proliferation
of mini-camps for top players, like Colorado State's "elite"
camp. A glance at websites promoting summer camps at Arkansas,
Clemson, South Carolina and UCLA finds no mention of one-day
camps among the sessions. However, when an SI writer called those
schools, he was told they do hold one-day camps that are
restricted to high school players, some to only seniors. "Under
NCAA guidelines," says Mallonee, "a camp can only be limited by
number [of attendees] or by age. It can't be restricted to
certain skill levels. When we are alerted to a brochure like
[Colorado State's], it boils down to what is actually happening
at the camp. If it is an all-star camp or a camp limited to elite
players, then it raises the issues of is that camp open to the
general public. If not, that is a violation."
Joe Paterno didn't foresee such issues when he and two associates
opened what is believed to have been the first camp to assemble
college football prospects, in the summer of 1961. Roy Van Horn,
a high school coach who owned a horse and canoe camp in East
Hickory, Pa., and his friend Lou Hanna, a coach at Corry (Pa.)
High, were looking for a way to fill the holes in Van Horn's camp
schedule when they thought of a football camp. Paterno, then a
Penn State assistant, got wind of the idea through a friend of
Hanna's, and the Northwestern Pennsylvania Football Camp at
Pioneer Ranch was born. "The cost was $60 for a week, and it
lasted two weeks," Van Horn says of the first camp, which drew
about 60 participants.
The camp helped Paterno and the other assistants supplement their
income and allowed them to keep close watch on some of
Pennsylvania's best players. Paterno moved the camp onto campus
in 1974, and today it is the most visible one in the nation. Most
schools attract fewer than 1,000 campers of all ages, but Penn
State's three four-day sessions drew a total of 3,200 kids last
summer, a number even more impressive given that the camp is only
for high schoolers. "Last summer the Penn State camp had every
major [mid-Atlantic-area] prospect: Leon Williams [a defensive
end who signed with Miami], Kevin Jones [a running back who
signed with Virginia Tech], all of them," says Larry Ziemba, a
New Jersey high school coach who worked at that camp and also at
The Penn State coaches admit that they use the summer sessions
to size up prospects. "The camps are like combines now," says
Jay Paterno, the team's recruiting coordinator and Joe's son.
"It's a two-way street. We get a chance to evaluate some players
and see how they respond to coaching, and they get to see if
they like the school and the coaches."
Coaches at every camp insist that their attendees are all treated
equally, but that is a half-truth at best. The players stay in
the same dorms, eat the same food, compete for space in the
swimming pool during free time and get the same T-shirt at camp's
end. Segregation, however, is the rule when it comes to top
players. "All the kids will do the same drills, but the star kids
are lumped together and watched closely by the college
assistants," says Ziemba.
At Notre Dame's 1999 camp, Casey Clausen, a highly recruited
quarterback from Northridge, Calif., was ushered away from other
campers and lined up next to Matt LoVecchio and Jared Clark, two
other touted signal-calling prospects who would sign with the
Irish. Jim Clausen, Casey's father, says coaches filmed the
drills, which he describes as having a combine atmosphere. "The
first day the coaches had us throw outs, posts, slants, hitches
and other routes," says Casey, now a Tennessee sophomore. "The
second day they wanted to see us do more stuff with motion and
with the option."
Many leading players enjoy an extended visit with the head coach
during camp. Clausen got plenty of face time with Davie and his
assistants. The highlight of Lexington, Ky., running back Eric
Shelton's time at Florida's camp last summer was putting golf
balls with Steve Spurrier in the coach's office. During the
Florida State camp Shelton was equally impressed with the
trophies in coach Bobby Bowden's office--and by Bowden's charm. He
signed with the Seminoles.
The sales pitches continue until the very end. "All the camps
were the same," says Woods. "They'd put the best players at the
front of the line, you know, treat us the best. When camp ended
there was a meeting with all the players. After that the position
coach would pull me aside and ask me what I was thinking about
doing, when I might commit. He'd say again that the school was
offering me a scholarship and that the staff would try to come
and see me play and would keep in touch."
"How close are you to committing?" It was a line Woods heard at
nearly every school on his camping tour. He heard it first at
Toledo, which was more of a courtesy stop because he wasn't
serious about joining the Rockets. Then came the 500-mile
round-trip drive between Cleveland and Knoxville so that Woods
could spend a day working out for the Tennessee coaches at the
Volunteers' camp. "There were some really good players down
there, guys from Florida and Georgia and all over, but I thought
I did well," Woods says. "I tried to not let up, not even for one
drill, because you know they are looking at kids and seeing how
hard they work." The camp ended with a meeting in assistant coach
Mike Barry's office, during which coach Phillip Fulmer stopped by
and said that the Volunteers were impressed with Woods as a
player and a person. When Woods left Knoxville, he was leaning
toward the Vols.
A day at Pittsburgh's camp about a week later did little to move
the Panthers up Woods's list, and visits to Iowa and Indiana also
failed to get Tennessee out of his mind. The Hoosiers hurt their
chances by coming on so strong at the end of camp that Woods felt
uncomfortable. "The Indiana coaches tried to pressure me to
[orally] commit before I left," he says.
Woods found the camps more stressful than he had expected. "I was
going in there trying to be relaxed, but how can you be relaxed
when you know everyone is watching you?" he says. "It's hard to
stay focused because all the camps are the same. You run the 40,
you jump, and at some you lift. But I felt I got the exposure I
College camps can be a rude awakening for players who think they
belong in a major program. In the spring of his junior year Chris
Hancock, an all-section linebacker at Barstow (Calif.) High, was
offered a scholarship by Nevada. His coaches urged him to accept
before the Wolf Pack looked elsewhere for an oral commitment, but
he had bigger ideas. "Nebraska was my dream, so I guess I hoped I
would go to their camp and get noticed," says Hancock, who paid
$390 to enroll in the Cornhuskers' camp and fly to Lincoln. "It
didn't work out that way." He didn't impress Nebraska, and by the
time he got back in touch with Nevada, its scholarship was no
longer available. Hancock will enroll at Victor Valley College in
Victorville, Calif., this fall and try to play football at a
bigger school next year.
At the other extreme are players who go to camp and perform
unexpectedly well. An example is Casey Clausen's younger brother,
Rick. The younger Clausen hadn't started a varsity game in his
first three years of high school--to be fair, it was largely
because Casey was on the same team--but he went to the LSU camp
last summer and came away with a scholarship offer. Recalls Jim,
his dad, "Rick threw only about five balls, and [LSU coach] Nick
Saban walked over and said, 'What do we have to show you, and how
close is he to committing?'"
The parents of quarterback Chris Leak say that Wake Forest
offered their son a scholarship after watching him perform at the
Demon Deacons' camp in 1998. At the time, Leak was 14. Whether
Chris, who'll be a junior this fall at Independence High in
Charlotte, signs with Wake Forest remains uncertain, but without
question summer camps allow coaches to recruit kids barely out of
grade school. "The combines [player-evaluation sessions that
college coaches can attend], the camps--those things have sped up
the recruiting process," says UCLA recruiting coordinator Gary
Bernardi. "Everything has changed."
One thing hasn't changed: the whimsical nature of high school
kids. Coaches put time and effort into getting a kid to camp only
to be reminded that wooing teenagers is sometimes no more
effective than a rain dance. Consider the outcome of Pierre
Georgia Tech and LSU thought they had a good chance of getting
Woods when he closed his summer camping with visits to the
schools in late June and early July, respectively. That Woods
rode the 1,100 miles each way to Baton Rouge indicated he was
particularly serious about the Tigers. While he loved the food
down South--particularly the shrimp sandwich he had in
Louisiana--he didn't like either school enough to move so far from
Cleveland. He dropped both LSU and Georgia Tech from his list.
In the end, after traveling roughly 6,000 miles to seven camps in
seven states, Woods signed in February with...Michigan, whose
camp he never attended. He stopped by Ann Arbor while returning
to Cleveland, fell in love with the campus and later made
Michigan one of his official visits. Woods disappointed a lot of
college coaches, but he wound up a happy camper. "Going to all
those camps was still worth it," he says. "I used them to figure
out what schools weren't for me."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM PENNINGTON Prospecting The camps allow coaches like LSU's Saban to get a close look at players--and let players show off their talent.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN F. GRIESHOP (2) Buckeyes start here Two thirds of Ohio State players in recent years have gone through camps like this one (left and below).
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Irish-eyed LoVecchio (left) and Clausen were lined up together at Notre Dame's camp and filmed while performing passing drills.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM PENNINGTON [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE Road warrior Woods (left) drove with Ginn to seven camps in seven states, but in the end he parked his talents at Michigan.
Coaches insist that camp attendees are all treated equally, but
that's a half-truth at best.
A highlight of Shelton's time at Florida's camp was putting golf
balls with Steve Spurrier.
Camps allow coaches to start recruiting players who are barely
out of grade school.