By David Fong
They say you never forget your first time.
Jake Current remembers his first time — which happened at the tender age of 16 — as vividly as if happened yesterday.
“I remember we had to keep our cell phones in our lockers back in the day; we weren’t allowed to take them to class with us,” Current said. “I was going down to the weightroom and I stopped by my locker to pick up my phone. When I picked it up, I had a scholarship offer from Miami. That’s how I got my first scholarship offer … it was in a text message. I remember being all excited and calling my mom to tell her about it.”
A decade ago, Current — a 2008 Troy High School graduate — was one of the top high school football prospects in the state of Ohio. As a top-tier offensive lineman, Current received more than a dozen offers from colleges before eventually deciding to continue his football career at the University of Wisconsin.
He also was part of the first wave of a rapidly-changing college recruiting system that has been heavily influenced by mobile technology and the rise of social media. It’s a process that continues to evolve just as fast as the technological advances surrounding it — so much so that the recruits who will sign national letters of intent to college powerhouses today would barely recognize the recruiting process Current went through less than 10 years ago.
During his recruiting process, Current had to worry very little about social media — Twitter and Facebook both were in their nascent days during Current’s high school career — and even his mobile device paled in comparison to what most teenagers carry in their pockets today.
“I remember the only reason my parents got me a cell phone was so that college coaches could text me and call me,” Current said. “It was an old-school TracFone, the kind I had to buy minutes for.”
All of that seems laughable by today’s standards, in which high-profile recruits routinely keep the millions that comprise the fanbases of college football bluebloods on the hook with Tweets and messages making public every step in their recruiting process. Every Tweet and social media post made by a blue chip recruit is bound to be dissected by ravenous followers.
Internet message boards light up with even the most minute of details surrounding a big-time prospect. Did he wear a USC sweatshirt to school today? Does that mean he’s going to be a Trojan? But wait, he also was wearing a Florida hat with it. Does that mean he’s going to be a Gator? Was he wearing Nike or Adidas shoes to school? Because all of that, somehow, matters.
Make no mistake, college football recruiting — which once was followed closely only by the most diehard of fans, who pored over newsletters and magazines distributed by, gasp, the postal service — has gone mainstream.
Today is National Signing Day — which has practically become a national holiday of sorts for some college football fans — and dozens of recruits across the country will announce their college choices on nationally televised broadcasts in front of frenzied gymnasiums filled with well-wishers.
If Current’s recruiting process seems old by today’s standards, Gordon Bell’s must seem absolutely archaic.
In the early 1970s, Bell — also a Troy High School graduate — was one of the top running backs in the Midwest. While he was a more highly sought-after recruit than Current, his recruiting process was, by comparison, practically non-existent.
“It’s like night and day,” Bell said when asked to compare recruiting in his era to modern-day recruiting. “Back then, you didn’t have the wide reach you do now. It was pretty much regionalized. If you were a Midwest kid, you knew you were probably going to go to a Midwest college. Sometimes you would get a letter from USC or some place like that, but that was about it.”
Bell — who now lives and works in Chicago — has first-hand experience with just how much recruiting has changed. His son, Evan, was a heavily recruited high school baseball player who is a freshman outfielder at the University of Memphis.
“It really wasn’t that big of a deal back when I played; it was nothing like it is now,” Bell said. “I remember on my signing day, my mom and dad were there. I think we may have taken my picture on the football field. That was then. There was no big fanfare. It just wasn’t a big deal like it is today.”
Make no mistake, had Bell’s recruitment taken place today, however, it would have been a very big deal. Bell originally committed to the University of Notre Dame early in the process, but would later change his mind and sign with the University of Michigan, where he would earn All-American honors before being drafted by the New York Giants and playing three years in the NFL.
“I originally committed to Notre Dame with (Troy teammate) Joe Allen,” Bell said. “We were going to go there together. Then he changed his mind and decided to go to Florida — and I didn’t really want to go to Notre Dame. So I changed my commitment and signed with Michigan.”
Had such a decommitment from school to go to another taken place today, it would have blown up on social media. Chances are it would have turned acrimonious, as well.
Last spring, Las Vegas high school quarterback Tate Martell announced he was decommitting from Texas A&M University, to whom he had originally pledged. Not only was Martell attacked on his Twitter account, but so was his sister — who, ostensibly, had nothing to do with his decision — was called names not suitable for print in a family publication. Martell would eventually choose to play The Ohio State University.
Such things weren’t much of a problem for Bell, who graduated from Troy in 1972.
“The only blowback I got was from my dad, who was a big Ohio State fan,” Bell said with a chuckle. “He didn’t want me to go to Michigan. But I think a lot of the difference back then was that a lot of people just didn’t know my choice. Most people didn’t know where I was going until I announced it. Everything today is marketed and publicized so much more.”
Not only do fans have far more access to recruits, but so, too, do college coaches, who are allowed to contact players through social media and text messages.
“I remember one time I told my teacher I didn’t get my homework done the night before because I had spent four hours on the phone talking to college coaches,” Current said. “For awhile, it seemed like an every day thing. I was constantly getting phone calls and text messages.”
That, obviously, is something Bell didn’t have to worry about in the 1970s.
“I would get a lot of letters from schools,” Bell said. “I would get phone calls, too, but I obviously didn’t have a cell phone back then, and the coaches had to go through my parents on the phone in our house. If I didn’t want to talk to coaches, I could just tell my parents to tell them I wasn’t there. It was much simpler back then.”
Current said the attention he received was fun for awhile — but it did eventually grow old.
“As an adult looking back on it now, I guess it is kind of creepy to have so many people on the Internet wondering what a 16-year-old kid is going to do and where he’s going to go to college,” he said. “But at the time, I loved it. I relished in it. It was cool to go to on my visits and be treated like a king. But eventually it did get to a point where I was kind of ready for it to be over with. It did get kind of old. It got to the point where I was ready to commit and have the whole thing be done with.”
Bell said he enjoyed his time as a recruit and being fawned over by the likes of Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian and Bo Schembechler — but also knows his recruiting process is unlike anything Current had to go through, which is unlike anything today’s recruits have to go through.
How would Bell handle today’s recruiting process?
“Honestly, I don’t know — I think it’s all relative,” he said. “That’s what the kids today are used to. It’s what they know. It’s become such a big-money thing now. Universities know they can make big money by bringing in the big recruits and building winning programs. It’s so much different than when I was in school.
“I was never the kind of guy who was looking for attention. That just wasn’t the type of person I was. But things were a lot different back then, too. I don’t know how I would handle it if I was a player today. I understand what these kids are going through. I think with all the attention, it’s hard not to get caught up in it.”
Contact David Fong at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @thefong