‘Where are you from?’: The pre-internet age – when 5-star recruits weren’t household names

Two decades before becoming a regular at Scott Van Pelt’s Midnight SportsCenter, “Stanford Steve” Coughlin became a mini-celebrity for other reasons. A highly recruited Connecticut tight end in the 1996 class, Coughlin was named National Player of the Year as a senior by respected recruiting magazine SuperPrep.

“I didn’t even know what SuperPrep was,” Coughlin said. “I remember my recruiter at Stanford, (Mose) Rison called, and he said, ‘Congratulations!’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said you’re SuperPrep National Player of the Year. I’m like, ‘Oh, cool.’”

If he were a modern candidate, Coughlin would have had his own page on Rivals and 247Sports by his sophomore season of high school and the accompanying prestige of a four- or five-star ranking. The general public could have logged in at any time and learned that he planned to make official visits to Stanford, North Carolina and UCLA

Instead, he remembers attending a camp in Notre Dame the summer before his senior year where, despite holding scholarship offers from SyracuseBoston College and others, the coaching staff had no idea who he was.

“And then after the first 7-on-7, (offensive coordinator) Bob Davie pulled me aside, he’s like, ‘Hey, where are you from?'” Coughlin said.

In 1996, the internet was still in its infancy. Recruiting junkies could subscribe to a niche publication like SuperPrep, which charged $65 for three issues a year, or Tom Lemming’s Prep Football Report. Or they can call one of the analysts’ 1-900 numbers, which costs $1.49 a minute to listen to the latest updates.

But most fans’ greatest exposure to the top high school players in the country came through public interest, such as USA Today, which published its weekly top 25 teams and a post-season All-America team; Parade, a weekly hidden in the Sunday papers that names the All-Americans and Player of the Year; or ESPN’s “Scholastic Sports America,” where a young Chris Fowler or future Monday Night Football reporter Melissa Stark toured the country interviewing the country’s high school stars.

And most recruits had no idea where they grew up nationally unless they were mentioned by one of those outlets — most likely during their senior seasons.

“Sports Illustrated had its” Faces in the crowd (column),” said former Virginia and NFL Terry Kirby, who was considered the nation’s No. 1 in 1989, is walking back, “and I remember my photo being there. It was like ‘OK, wow.’

“You had absolutely nothing (else).”

Almost everything about the way recruiting works has changed since the original version of Rivals.com was first launched in 1998. Not just for fans, but for the coaches and recruits themselves.

Unlike today, when coaches begin to evaluate their prospects as freshmen in high school, most players were not noticed by recruiters until their junior or even senior season. There were no combine or mega camps full of four and five stars.

Former Stanford quarterback Randy Fasani, a native of Loomis, California who graced the cover of SuperPrep as the No. 1 player in 1997, recalls signing up for a Stanford quarterback camp prior to his junior season in an effort to get his name out there. to make .

“I entered that camp as an unnamed person and didn’t know any of the coaches,” he said. “And in the process of a multi-day weekend camp, they moved me from group to group. At the end of camp, Coach Tyrone Willingham called me and my parents to his office and offered me a full-ride scholarship.

Today, coaches can pull out Hudl and access game videos of almost every high school player in the country. Prior to the internet, coaches learned largely through word of mouth who the top players in other regions were. Or by reading Lemming’s magazine Prep Football Report. Driving across the country every spring and summer meeting recruits and collecting VHS tapes, Lemming was generally more familiar with the best prospects than most coaches.

“Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, just about every college coach in the country came to my house (in Chicago),” said Lemming, who published his first issue in 1978. “I’d have TV monitors in my basement and coaches would come down and just watch a lot of guys on tape. They’d fly to Chicago and be able to see 300 or 400 men in two days.”

As an assistant in the Big 8 in the 1970s and ’80s, future Hall of Fame head coach Jim Donnan recalls sending questionnaires to high school coaches asking if they had college-level players that year.

“We tried to look for national guys all over the country, but then you had to follow up,” he said. “Some of those schools had spring training, so you could go and see. Otherwise send me some film – and it was 8mm or 16mm film.”

But it wasn’t just the coaches who re-learned every year. Often the first time a high school player realized he was a big deal outside of his own city or state was when a guru like Lemming or SuperPreps Allen Wallace first contacted them for an interview. Which mostly wasn’t until their last season.

“When I was a sophomore, being a player of the week in the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer was a big deal,” said the former Ohio state and NFL star Robert Smith, a native of Euclid, Ohio. “Until my senior year (1989) there was no internet, I had no idea it was going national. We (Euclide) played in the first national high school game against St. Ignatius.”

Not that big name recruits weren’t overloaded with attention. Handwritten letters from coaches came in the mail. Or they would call your house and have Mother hand over the phone. Or they come to your school unannounced.

“I remember playing basketball and you look up in the stands, you see (Virginia) coach (George) Welsh, you see (Notre Dame’s) Lou Holtz, you see (Alabama‘s) Bill Curry, you see (Penn State‘s) Joe Paterno,” Kirby said, eventually choosing Virginia Clemson

“(Nebraska’s) Tom Osborne would send a cover letter any day,” said Coughlin, who chose Stanford over North Carolina.

There was no social media, which meant no means for recruits to provide their own updates to fans – top 10 images, photos of campus visits, a slick pledge edit. Although the Gatorade Player of the Year 1994, Future Washington QB Brock Huard enjoyed something of a precursor to the print era of Twitter — he wrote a weekly journal for USA Today during his final season. A teacher edited it and faxed it to the newspaper for him.

“It was social media before there ever was social media,” said the Fox Sports TV analyst, who chose Washington over UCLA. “I didn’t hold back.”

Huard, now 46, got a glimpse into contemporary recruiting through his cousin, Sam Huarda five-star QB in the class of 2021 who has committed to Washington as a sophomore and is entering his second season with the Huskies.

“I found myself thinking, how would I have processed and handled the chaos of it and the attention of it and the pressure of it?” said Brock Huard. “I was a pretty sensible and analytical man, and 30 years later I couldn’t imagine getting into that situation and dealing with it.”

A recruit’s life was a lot easier when the coaches barely knew your name, the newspapers didn’t care enough to write about your every move, and America’s unhealthy-obsessed recruiting junkies had no message boards to pimp you up.

(Randy Fasani photo: Tom Hauck / Allsport)

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