SOME DREAMERS OF THE GRIDIRON DREAM
January 14, 2005
I. The Guru
One and a quarter million teenagers play high-school football across the United States, and one of those teenagers, a senior running back for the Libertyville High School Wildcats, the star of the team, took the handoff on a double-dive. An ambitious young man—"I want to play in the NFL"—he had, in pursuit of his goal, hired a personal trainer and a "speed specialist" and a California-based dietician. Despite the services of this lavish retinue, and despite his performance in game after game on the fields of the northern Chicago suburbs, it was a matter of debate among those people who observe these things for a living whether his talent was the equal of his ambition.
Now, in pads, the ball in his arm, he achieved the corner, he exploded—a furious stride splitting two defenders. On the highest bleacher, above a thousand screaming Wildcats fans, stood Tom Lemming, arguably the nation's best-known observer of these things for a living. When the cell phone in his pocket rang, it more often than not registered the callback number of an assistant coach—Big Ten, PAC-Ten, SEC. A staunch supporter of the player now dashing toward a touchdown, he represented the boy's best chance of obtaining a Division I scholarship and taking a major step toward his ultimate goal. As Lemming looked down onto the field, a defensive back in chase all of a sudden had the angle. The star player dove toward the endzone, but came up short. First and goal Libertyville from the two yard-line.
Two years ago, in Ventura, California, a senior in high school called a press conference to announce his college decision. It was broadcast on ESPN, part of an hour-and-a-half-long special hosted by Tom Lemming and dedicated to college football recruiting. Intense interest surrounded the event, for this particular 18-year-old, a running back, was regarded as the best in the nation, with the ability, people thought, to start as a freshman. In the parlance of the genre, he would have "an immediate impact" on the team he chose. Like a Big Board stock, this boy was "blue chip." Laid out on a table in front of the athlete were three ball caps, each bearing the insignia of a high-profile university team. He had to go with his heart, he announced, and, amid the pop of camera flashes, he put one of the hats on his head.
In 1998, the quarterback for Chicago's Mount Carmel High School, alma mater of the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb, sued his head coach. He alleged that the coach had purposefully inhibited big-time college programs from recruiting him. Before the suit was settled out of court, Tom Lemming, parking his car in his driveway, saw a man lurking in the bushes. The man emerged from behind them and served Lemming with a subpoena—to be deposed as an expert witness. In December of 2003, the University of Nebraska fired its head coach after a season in which the team had won nine and lost three. The Cornhusker powers-that-be, it is widely believed, sacked the coach because, among other reasons, the players he recruited into the program, before they had as much as stepped onto a collegiate practice field, were not thought of highly enough by the likes of Tom Lemming. Tom Lemming arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia, in May 2001, to conduct a photo shoot of the leading high school players in the state for the cover of the pre-season edition of his recruiting magazine. He was there at the request of Al Groh, head coach of the state university football team. To Lemming's evident surprise, the event was catered; chefs in tall hats were cutting up food. "I knew the NCAA wouldn't like this," Lemming said not long ago. "So I told Groh, 'Coach, you gotta low-key it.' There were twenty-five players from the state there, and Groh ended up signing twelve of them. Obviously my photo shoot had lots to do with it."
To a degree that many people invested in these matters find unnerving, Tom Lemming is both the manufacturer and the merchant of the nation's annual college-football recruiting spectacle, which heats up after the completion of the regular season in early December, reaches the boiling point sometime around the Super Bowl, and spills over the edges on the first Wednesday in February—national letter-of-intent day—the earliest that football prospects may officially commit to a university, inking their amateur contracts. Having spent 26 years following this stuff, Lemming has become, at the age of 49, the most influential and most controversial of this strange subspecies of sportswriter, grafted onto a talent scout, known alternately as recruiting "analysts" or "experts" or, without apparent irony, "gurus."
For their Web sites, magazines or newsletters, the gurus grade and rank prep football talent (a notoriously hit-or-miss venture) and then report on which colleges are doing the best at landing the most coveted prospects. They put out lists of the top players at each position, along with the relevant physical attributes of each athlete (height, weight, 40-yard dash time), a state of affairs that brings to mind the buyers at a livestock auction, feeling up cattle. Whichever school signs the largest number of those players will score the year's No. 1 recruiting class. In large part because of the scrutiny the gurus have thrown onto the battles for the country's best high-school players, recruiting has become a "second season," likened by some to the hot-stove league of Major League Baseball, when teams haggle and maneuver for their high-priced trades. Devotees of this sort of thing are called "recruitniks," and they constitute an audience that is not so niche. As the first week of February draws near, The Insiders.com, one of two such sites dedicated to college football recruiting—the other is Rivals.com—receives more than 30 million hits in a day. (Insiders has since been bought and reorganized as Scout.com.)
If the history of intercollegiate athletics can be usefully understood as an extended series of recruiting scandals (the NCAA was formed in 1905-06 in large part to address what was then called "proselyting"), then it should come as no surprise that the recruiting guru has always borne a reputation equivalent to that of an Enron executive. Criticism of the gurus, then, can be boiled down to this: They are self-interested mountebanks who exploit the dreams and talents of youth for monetary gain. (Remove the "mountebank" and the same charge can, of course, be levied at the college programs themselves.)
When confronted with such criticism, Lemming feels a little insulted, probably because that reputation continues to badger him to this day, even in an era when football fans seem to take the presence of recruiting analysts as much for granted as overlong advertisements during the Super Bowl. In Urbana on Thanksgiving weekend, 2003, at the high-school state championship game, several state troopers surrounded Lemming and escorted him off the field under instructions from the president of the Illinois High School Association. Lemming watched the rest of the game from the office of Ron Turner, head football coach at the University of Illinois.
Lemming has three main lines of business. For the Web site of ESPN, he writes a recruiting column and conducts a weekly online "chat," for which he earns something close to $100,000 a year. He has a 900-number hotline, which he has operated since the early 1990s. For $1.79 a minute, recruitniks can dial it up and hear Tom Lemming's recorded voice tell them how their team is currently faring in the wars for the commitments of the nation's top high school players. (Competition from the Internet, however, has nearly killed off that business.) But closest to Lemming's heart lies his magazine, Tom Lemming's Prep Football Report
, which comes out eight times a year and has, according to the guru, only about 3,000 subscribers, fewer than some literary journals, fewer than, say, the Paris Review
. It costs $90 a year. Lemming alone is the reporter and writer. With its frequent typos and unending headshots of boys in jerseys trying their level best to appear gridiron-mean, the Report
looks like the yearbook of a vocational high school where football is the lone vocation. Out of the 117 Division I-A college programs, 102 receive Lemming's magazine, he says. The schools use it, as they do several other recruiting publications, as a kind of initial talent locator, a guidebook for future rosters.
Limited though the circulatory scope of his magazine might be, what makes Lemming the most influential guru in the nation are his relationships with coaching staffs ("Most coaches will go after a player if I tell them the kid is good," Lemming boasts, "because I've been doing this for twenty-four years"); his presence on the masthead of ESPN.com, whose 23 million users make it the nation's largest sports site; and, most important of all, his annual high school U.S. Army All-American Bowl Game, sponsored by that branch of the armed services in a somewhat different kind of recruiting effort.
Though Lemming earns no money from the game, he has a sense of proprietorship over it. He alone selects the two teams, together comprised of 70-odd players, who face off against one another the first week of January, East vs. West, inside the Alamodome of San Antonio. He also has a hand in choosing the 50 Gatorade Players of the Year, honored in each of the states, and the Reebok All-American Team and the USA Today
All-American team, these last three mere honorifics, with no corollary match up on the field. "Every big team that's picked, I pick it," Lemming says. Heavy with irony, the Army game is sometimes called the "Lemming Bowl." This year the contest was televised on NBC, having moved to the network after three years on ESPN, and those 18-year-olds selected to play in the game have received a level of publicity perhaps out of whack with their accomplishments so far in life. "There are guys in the NFL who would kill
for that kind of face time," says one former college coach. When a lieutenant, U.S. Army, shows up at a high school to invite a player officially to the game, a combined pep rally/press conference will likely ensue, with the student body assembled, classes postponed. When the bowl game rolls around, many of the all-stars announce their college decisions on the sidelines, a bit of dramaturgy pre-arranged by their host. Because each of these San Antonio blue-chippers envisions Sunday as their ultimate day of play, the more hype they can generate, the more playing time they can leverage from a college program, the better—and, thanks to Lemming, here it is already, before any college touchdowns are scored, before any ballots are cast, before anyone even puts on a red shirt. He holds the dreams of youth in his hand. Spraying publicity in whatever direction he chooses, Lemming, needless to say, can boost the prospects of a prospect.
He has thus insinuated himself into the "process," as his critics often point out, becoming an integral part of a player's recruitment. Lemming's hegemony has expanded to such an extent that it has led to a lode of speculation and allegation and vitriol. Neverminding college-football fanaticism, which can become emotional to such a degree that its ultimate expression is often violence (see Columbus, Ohio, post-national-championship victory riots, January 3, 2003), when people talk about Tom Lemming they often talk with voices edged with acute opinions. There are also elements of jealousy, of fear, of axes near to the grindstone. Anonymity is the condition under which Lemming's competitors are the most comfortable speaking:
"Tom Lemming is the godfather of this business. He does everything wrong. I have nothing good to say about him."
"He's the J.P. Morgan of the recruiting business."
"I feel bad for the kids he's advising. They shouldn't be listening to someone with a business interest in what he's advising."
"I know of college coaches who are upset about him. I can't say who. They're not talking to me to get their names in print. A majority of them would slough it off anyway."
"Don't make me paint the picture for you. I'll just say it's a very powerful thing when you can offer a kid that kind of exposure. It's a very powerful thing, and it gives Lemming a tremendous advantage."
"He's in the ultimate position. He appears to be neutral but when you look at the influence he holds, he's anything but."
Inside the storefront of an Einstein's Bagels, out past the Schaumburg Galleria Mall and among the strip plazas on an avenue called Golf, Tom Lemming sometimes receives his audiences. Seated near the front window at the biggest table in the place, Lemming will meet with, among others, college assistant coaches there to consult with the guru on the progress of key recruits, or the fathers of local high school players, who come bearing highlight tapes in their hands and dreams of free college tuition in their heads. They seek Lemming's advice and, well aware of the publicity machine Lemming can summon, help in getting their sons recruited. More typically, though, Lemming at Einstein's is surrounded by his cronies. All retired, all a generation older than their central figure—a few of them veterans of the Second World War—they eat at this chain restaurant with such regularity that they've come to be called the Bagel Boys. Having spent his adult life gauging the athletic prowess of teenagers, Lemming in his free time seems to prefer the company of old men.
They are a loyal bunch. "People call Tom all the time," one of them said to me not long ago. "They'll drop into the bagel joint one day and say, 'Take a look at my kid.' They call him because once he starts promoting their son, bang!"—and he slapped the table with such force that the coffee jumped from our mugs—"he'll get a scholarship."
Lemming has dark curly hair, a fleshy face, and drowsy blue eyes. Were he listed in his own magazine, the relevant figures would be five-ten, 190 pounds. As he is likely to do in all weathers, he often wears tight black T-shirts of a fabric designed to stretch and conform to his gym-built physique. If it is football season, the slowest time of Lemming's year, the guru is pretty free to structure his day around two-hour weightlifting sessions at the Bally's health club across the street and lunch here at Einstein's.
This past October, in his typical spot at the table, Lemming briefly pondered his position within the business. He said, "I'm the only constant. These other guys come and go. I don't even think about them." After Lemming, only two other men—Alan Wallace, of Laguna Beach, California, and Max Emfinger, of Covington, Louisiana—attempt to cover recruits around the nation as a whole. Neither Wallace nor Emfinger, however, quite have Lemming's scope. (Wallace is known as a West Coast expert; Emfinger reigns in the southeast.) In addition, there exist hundreds, perhaps thousands, of regional specialists—"mini-Lemmings," as they were once described to me by a Lemming partisan—who cover a conference, a locality, a team, either independently or for one of two big Internet fanzine sites, Rivals and The Insiders.
When Lemming is asked to think about these challengers, he suggests that some of them are glorified plagiarists who make their living off other people's research, mostly his. The rest of them he dismisses with a single argument: Their process of evaluation, he says, is fundamentally flawed.
Every spring Lemming removes himself from Einstein's, from Schaumburg, and embarks on his "annual recruiting pilgrimage." As far as pilgrimages go, his is a diffuse one. From late March until just before the Fourth of July, he travels around the country and attempts to find and visit, in person, every high school junior that he believes has the talent to receive a Division I-A football scholarship. In an average year he will meet somewhere close to 800 boys, and give or take, his trips will cover 45 states and 80,000 miles. Whenever can, wherever he can, Lemming loves to tell a road-trip story—lacerating his forearm while changing a flat tire in a Los Angeles slum, visiting a very tall wide receiver named LeBron James and not knowing that the boy also played basketball, popping in on unknown high schoolers named Dan Marino, Herschel Walker, Emmitt Smith, Randy Moss. He is fond of saying that in pursuit of these genii he has driven more than 1.6 million miles.
This, in Lemming's mind, sets him far above the recruiting rabble. "I take great pride in the fact that I'm the only recruiting analyst who 'goes the extra miles' to get a first-hand look at nearly all the top prospects each year," he wrote last March in his pre-pilgrimage column on ESPN. His travels form the keystone of his enterprise, upon which everything else, his reputation, his influence, is built. He says, "I think most people are comfortable asking me to pick their All-American teams because I see everyone. When these other guys pick their All-American teams, you don't know where they're getting their info." Those gurus who do not
personally meet the players they rank are, Lemming seems to believe, like fortune-tellers who read palms over the telephone.
Not only does no other analyst attempt to view in person all of the nation's top recruits—few others see any merit in it. They privately doubt that it's even possible to meet the number of players Lemming claims to meet, a figure that Lemming himself does not seem all that clear on. Depending on the day, I have heard him mention 500 and 700 and even 1000 players. The actual number lies toward the bottom of that range, but is impressive nonetheless. In 2003 he saw, in person, 639 recruits.
It is perhaps useful to know, for comparison's sake, that Alan Wallace, the publisher of Super Prep
magazine, and, after Lemming, the most important guru in the land, works out of his house in Laguna Beach. It is pitched on a hillside overlooking the Pacific. To do his work he rarely needs to leave it. His method of evaluation is to not evaluate. "I'm not a scout," Wallace likes to say. "My goal is to stay out of the way." He relies on a network of sources, mostly college coaches, from whom he learns which players are being recruited the most intensely. Unlike Lemming, who, in the manner of a traditional scout, wants to discover and assess the best players on his own, Wallace views himself as a "reporter" who simply lets the public know which players are garnering the most interest from college teams. Induction vs. deduction, Lemming and Wallace are, at least in terms of locating talent, polar.
Before deciding to publish his recruiting journal, in 1985, Wallace, like Lemming, had no scouting pedigree, no reporting experience. A former lawyer, a civil litigator, Wallace has been Lemming's archrival for nearly two decades. Early on in both their careers, Lemming contributed scouting reports on Midwestern players to Wallace's Super Prep
, but that didn't last long. There has been bad blood between the two almost ever since, as they began to compete head-to-head for subscribers nationally. They once exchanged insults on ESPN in the early 1990s, and the exchange continues today. Wallace says, "I don't know how he presents himself as better than us because he drives his car all over the place. He talks about having an advantage having driven around and seen these kids. Or supposedly
seen them. He attaches significance to that whereas I do not. He's tried to get mileage out of it for the betterment of his own reputation."
Wallace goes on, "If someone told me, 'You have to get in your car every summer and stop at all these high schools to look at little blips of film,' I'd go, 'Absolutely not.' I'm sorry. Driving around the country for four months as opposed to sitting here in the sun and looking out at Catalina Island? Please. When I get a few days I'd rather spend some time with my own pursuits, whereas Tom Lemming would rather hop in that jalopy and drive."
For his part, Lemming says, "They call Alan Wallace a recruiting analyst
? How can he 'analyze' players without ever seeing them? I don't think he's ever left his desk. He may never have seen a game."
Before setting off on his voyages around the country, Lemming must determine which players he'll visit. Through a variety of sources, he assembles an enormous list of the nation's top prospects. He sends out a mass mailing to high-school coaches nationwide, "asking if they've got any big-time players." He talks to local sportswriters, broadcasters, and various other informed observers. He scours all-state teams, all-area, all-city. And like Alan Wallace, he even has conversations with college recruiters. Lemming listens to their comments, but flavors them liberally with grains of salt. "I trust the college evaluators," he says, but he notes that those evaluators have agendas all their own. "If they don't get a kid, he's automatically no good, according to the colleges. If they do get him, than he's the greatest player on earth."
Lemming publishes the results of these road trips in the late-summer edition of the Prep Football Report
, his biggest and most important issue of the year. At 260 pages, give or take, the book contains a thousand or so blurbs on those seniors-to-be that Lemming believes are the best in the country (he makes it clear to the reader which players he actually meets and which he has merely heard about second-hand). Tying it all together is a long desultory piece of narrative nonfiction, of road literature, entitled "Tom Lemming's Travels." It came in last year at around 14,000 words.
May 22, Almeda, California. In Building C of the Hilton Hotel, nearby the headquarters of the Oakland Raiders, Lemming was having trouble sleeping. A party seemed to be going on in the hallway outside his room. This annoyed him. He was in the middle of the sixth and most grueling leg of his seven-leg pilgrimage—his survey of the American West, which, by air and by land, would take him, via commercial airliner, from St. Louis to Seattle to Portland to the Bay Area and then, via Hertz-rented Lincoln Town Car, south to Los Angeles, east to Tucson, north to Phoenix, over the Hoover Dam via traffic jam to Las Vegas, up through the Dixie National Forest and the Fishlake National Forest to Salt Lake City, a skip by airliner over the Divide to Denver and another skip over the plains southeast to Dallas and then on the road once again to College Station then Houston then New Orleans then Baton Rouge and up through Mississippi and three panhandles—Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma—to Norman and Kansas City and Omaha and Iowa City, and then a long straight shot north to Minneapolis, and then east to Milwaukee and then finally south toward Illinois via Madison then Schaumburg and his driveway and home—and many, many stops in between. Twenty thousand miles, twenty days, most of it by car, all the while meeting and greeting 300 prep stars in high schools and motel lobbies and NFL weight rooms and the dining rooms of Cracker Barrels and (once) the depot of a Salvation Army and (several times) the otherwise empty coliseums of land-grant universities. In Building C, he knew what he was up against. He needed the rest he was not then getting. He removed the pillow from around his head and walked into the hallway "to let these people know I did not appreciate hearing every word of their conversations." Rising above him there in the corridor were eight or nine of what appeared to be defensive linemen, possibly dismissed by Lemming as underqualified when they were in high school—poorly ranked, overlooked, junior college. Lemming—"discretion was the better part of valor"—retreated wordlessly back to his suite.
"Now I'm not normally a shrinking violet in these situations, for at the age of 48 I can still bench press 340 pounds," Lemming goes on in "Travels." "However, if you had seen the size of these young men you could understand my hesitancy to engage them in any kind of confrontation." In town for rookie camp, the young men were all Raiders.
If possible, Lemming would like to gather as many of a state's "blue chippers" as possible at a central location. For his photographic backdrops, he naturally prefers football stadiums. On Memorial Day last year, Lemming mustered 49 of the top 50 players from Southern California to the Los Angeles Coliseum, home field for USC, and took the picture that made the cover: "We Love L.A.," read the headline. Due to name recognition, Lemming always expects a large draw at these events. When he arrived at the campus of North Carolina State in February last year, he says, "The top thirty juniors in the state were there. With me setting the whole thing up, it pretty much guaranteed that all the players showed up. All thirty of them. They came to meet the coaches and get showed around campus."
It was just this kind of situation, with Lemming's arrival in Charlottesville in May 2001, that fostered such a target-rich environment for University of Virginia Head Coach Al Groh, in which he received commitments from 12 out of the 25 players who came to be photographed and interviewed by Lemming. The photo shoot caused a minor uproar. At a speaking engagement recently, delivered to a luncheon of 250 red-clad University of Wisconsin boosters, Lemming recounted the aftermath of the incident. "When I got back to Chicago, I got a call from Frank Beamer," the head coach at Virginia Tech, and therefore Al Groh's in-state rival. "He was a little angry. He said, 'I'm gonna turn you into the NCAA! You gave them a big boost!'" Lemming was somehow able to pacify Beamer and got him off the telephone. "But then he called up me the next day. And he said, 'Tom, can you come down to Blacksburg
Laughter from the audience.
Lemming seems to believe that his annual campus photo shoots have induced the NCAA to amend its rules of conduct regarding the recruitment of players. He told the Badgers boosters, rather ambiguously, "I know there's even some legislation with my name on it." Later on, attempting to clarify that comment, Lemming told me that it wasn't the NCAA, but maybe the Southeastern Conference, maybe the Atlantic Coast Conference, who had introduced, in Lemming's words, a "Lemming Clause" to its recruiting rules. Officials at the SEC and ACC, however, have never heard of a Lemming Clause.
But they surely have heard of Tom Lemming, whose photo shoots have indeed caused a number of coaches to lodge complaints, Frank Beamer included, the two conference officials told me. But, they say, there is no fresh legislation. The NCAA rules governing recruiting are byzantine, but in the area of campus visits, the rules are essentially this: Recruits are only allowed to visit five campuses per year (in what's called an "official visit") during which they're able to meet coaches face-to-face. Recruits can make as many unofficial campus visits as they please, but are prohibited at these times from speaking to anyone on the actual coaching staff. Therefore, if someone should wish to take pictures of people who happen to be football recruits standing near Old Main, the NCAA cannot prohibit that; but it can
prohibit coaches from coordinating the photo shoot with the photographer, and perhaps wandering over to a 4.4 defensive back with "lock-down" cover ability and, say, pointing out to him the comeliness of the university's co-eds.
Musing on the Virginia photo shoot, Lemming explained to me, "I've been doing those for 24 years, but I'm more high-profile now, I guess, so I attract more attention. I can't do every college each year, so people get mad." The Virginia coaches, he said, "didn't do anything illegal. They didn't make any contact with the kids. But, regardless, I wanted to do it like I always do it. Go into each campus early, talk to the players, collect their films, take their pictures, and leave. I don't even tell the colleges I'm coming, because I don't want them butting in."
Lemming makes his home somewhere in the northwest suburbs, in a municipality he would rather not reveal (not Schaumburg, but close), for fear that fans, as they have in the past, will determine where he lives and call on his place for vehement and somewhat unhinged discussion on the current recruiting efforts of, say, the Wolverines, the Hawkeyes, the Irish, the Illini. The house sits down a curving tree-lined drive amid vast rolling developments of widely spaced, many-eaved McMansions. Lemming's is faux-Tudor. Returning there after his last trip of the year, Lemming spends the summer inside his study, white carpeted, white painted, a white board running the length of one wall. Here he watches the highlight tape of each player he has deemed worthy of scrutiny and writes the blurbs that constitute his pre-season yearbook. "On Film—Ryan proves to be an outstanding athlete with an exceptionally quick first couple steps, a burst that allows him to apply pressure on the QB, excellent balance and body control." He dictates directly onto a cassette recorder; the tapes are later transcribed by "a girl."
On a scale from one to five, Lemming then allots stars to each player according to a system defined in his magazine. Five stars, for instance, means a boy has received offers from nearly every college program that knows he exists, according to Lemming's criteria. But he adds a good dose of speculation to the proceedings: in his opinion, a five-star recruit also has the ability to start as a true freshmen at a top 25 program, a statement that is far more subjective than simply totting up scholarship numbers.
Lemming has an ongoing and ever-changing "hot list" of what he deems the top 100 players in the country, regardless of position, and from this group he will eventually select the 70 or so kids who will make up his U.S. Army Bowl teams. Jocks of this rarified caste often get so worked up over their position on and off the hot list that they behave like movie stars courting the Academy. In October, Lemming moved a wide receiver named Xavier Carter, of Melbourne, Florida, below another named Early Doucet, of New Iberia, Louisiana. Somehow Xavier Carter caught wind of the downgrade. He took umbrage. "This came in the mail today," Lemming said, and he put a DVD into the tray of his computer. Onto his plasma-screen appeared the image of a football field under the lights. Palm trees rose beyond the field. The highlights were set to a hip-hop soundtrack. Xavier Carter runs a legitimate 4.3, so legitimate that he will try out this spring for the United States Olympic Team. In all likelihood he will run in Athens. Touchdowns seemingly by the dozen unfolded on the screen. Punt and kick returns were sprinted into touchdowns, interceptions were snagged and returned for touchdowns, long bombs were leapt for and caught in the endzone, short passes were stretched downfield into long tackle-breaking gallops that wove sideline to sideline like a cosine graph for touchdowns, reverses that seemed to carry Carter in the wrong direction for 20 yards sent him winding back the other way like a compass finding true north for touchdowns. He turned corners like the light. He fielded a punt at the two yard line. The other team shouldn't have done that. Nothing touched him save desperate fingertips. Carter's gambit seemed to have paid off. Lemming exclaimed, "This is just the first five games of the season! The defenders aren't even close to him. He might be one of my candidates for MVP. Oh wait! That guy got him!" Carter miraculously just missed the endzone, tripped up short. "Well, he's a wide receiver," Lemming said. "They all go down easy."
Of course this ranking business is entirely speculative and, many people say, highly specious. Recruiting has been rather prosaically likened to a "beauty contest—it's in the eye of the beholder." One man's future All-World is another man's future law student. Whether it's Lemming or one of the Internet sites, which have similar star systems and top-100 lists, the player rankings make it seem as though every five-star recruit is destined to have his likeness cast in Canton bronze, while the one-star will, if he's lucky, make a career out of impersonating the opposition on a scout team.
(N.B. Xavier Carter, who accepted a scholarship from Louisiana State, ultimately washed out on the football field, quitting the team, though he's since become one of the world's best track sprinters; he was, LSU fans say, a track star attempting to impersonate a football player.)
The rankings are especially dubious, furthermore, in the realm below the obvious talents upon whom everyone agrees and among the "tweeners," as they're sometimes called. For the college recruiter, the tweener strides the fulcrum between risk and reward, between cost and benefit. Far, far more athletic than the average high-school footballer, these players nonetheless have some perceived liability, some gridiron weakness, however slight, be it size or speed or agility. Tweener can also mean a talented player, but one who does not possess the prototypical attributes associated with certain positions—too small for linebacker, say, and too slow for safety, he's somewhere in between. The question of whether or not a tweener will effectively contribute at the highest levels of football often involves highly subjective qualities: "heart" and "desire" and "inner strength" and "natural leadership"—what are sometimes called "the intangibles."
When confronted with the ambiguities of their field, recruiting analysts will take pains to point out that theirs is an "inexact science," which is to say that there is precisely no science about it. Subjective, political, anecdotal, parochial, much of what the analysts use to make their judgments about individual players is as thin as an arm tackle. It also leaves open the question of coaching.
For all these reasons, the gurus have been called "coach killers." Because many fans and alumni are hyper-aware of how their teams' recruits are ranked, if a coach is able to enlist gaggles of five-star players every year, and this does not translate into a reasonable amount of wins, beware coach. Conversely, if a coach fails
to bring in gaggles of five-stars, beware coach.
"It's always been a kind of laugher to me that fans buy into this shtick, that the analysts know more than the coaches. It's just ludicrous," says Bill Buchalter, a sportswriter for the Orlando Sentinel
. Buchalter used to run a service for college coaches, selling them a "name book," essentially a list, without stars, of what he judged to be the top 300 to 500 prospects in Florida. He goes on, "When I'm out giving speeches about college recruiting, the first thing people ask me is, 'How come our coaches are not recruiting this four-star player, and they are recruiting this three-star player?' And I say, 'Well. Let me ask you this: Who's giving them the stars?'"
III. The Mailman
In 1975, when he was 20 years old, Tom Lemming dropped out of Western Illinois University, from which he hadn't received a scholarship for anything. At speaking engagements today, which he does frequently in the early autumn months at booster clubs around the country, Lemming likes to say, "Believe it or not I was a pretty good football player in high school." The line is evidently meant to be facetious. Lemming's football career had, in fact, peaked in the junior varsity. At Reavis High School on Chicago's Southside, where he grew up, the second child of a truck driver, Lemming as an underclassman dabbled at wide receiver and, on the baseball diamond, at pitcher, first base, center field. He lettered in nothing.
When, four years later, he ran off the first issue of his eponymously titled Tom Lemming's Prep Football Report
, a twelve-page wrap-up for the 1978-79 recruiting season, he was basically a hobbyist. His experience in appraising athletic ability amounted to an intense passion for the sporting world, mostly baseball, and only the Cubs. Athletically excluded, mooning about for a career after leaving college behind, after a year backpacking through Europe, Lemming thought he could work as a major league scout for the Cubs, or put out a fanzine that would cover the club's farm system. Even more than wins and losses on the field, something fascinated him about unearthing raw athletic ability and bringing it into the light.
But the team wasn't hiring, the Cubs' fan base at the time seemed too limited to support yet another fanzine, and he turned to other fields of opportunity, namely the farm system for college football. Lemming knew enough about recruiting to know that no one knew much about it. Unlimited in the number of athletic scholarships they could dole out, college coaches could spend as freely as a trust-fund baby. The best programs hoarded talent—four deep, five deep at each position on the roster. They also kept things quiet; no one knew who was who until they stepped onto the field as freshmen. Lemming thought maybe he had found his niche. Prototypes were scarce: only a few generalist journals that covered high school sports at large and a pamphlet that ranked the incoming recruiting classes of the major teams, put out by Joe Terrenova, of Dearborn, Michigan, a Notre Dame alumnus and marketing man for the Ford Motor Company.
The first thing Lemming did was seek out Terrenova in Dearborn for advice on how to get started. The second thing he did was drive to a few Midwestern campuses and introduce himself to coaching staffs. "I called myself a recruiting writer and told them I had a newsletter going," he says. "Bo Schembeckler looked at me like I was from outer space." Dan Devine, Notre Dame's head coach in the late 1970s, didn't want him anywhere near campus. Joe Paterno wouldn't allow him through the front door, and still won't. By and large they believed his briefcase contained vials of snake oil. Access to coaches' offices would not yield until many years later, when the low-level assistants he'd met on these early visits, more amenable to Lemming than their bosses, closer in age to him, and more involved with grassroots recruiting anyway, rose through the ranks and eventually replaced their bosses—Lloyd Carr at Michigan, Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, Gary Dinardo at Indiana, Gary Barnett at Colorado, Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, Mack Brown at Texas. Lemming enjoys dropping their names today, as if in revenge for his treatment at the hands of the close-mouthed, old-school and legendary coaches they succeeded.
Recently at Einstein's, Lemming related an anecdote. "Years after Bo retired, I was in Lloyd Carr's office. And Bo came in and he saw me standing there and he said, 'You know, Tom, you never did like Michigan.' And I said, 'No, Bo, I liked Michigan all right. I just didn't like you.'"
All through the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lemming's newsletter earned him no profit, nor did it even cover his costs. For a time he had precisely one subscriber, a 45-year-old Ohio State fanatic who lived with his mother in Oak Park, and for seven years he would need to support himself by working as a printer for an envelope company, as a paper salesman, and as an employee at the United States Postal Service, zip code Arlington Heights. He thus earned his first nickname—The Mailman—obviously pejorative and used widely then, as now, to question the legitimacy of an autodidact, an amateur, an overeager fan—a mailman who called himself a scout.
Perhaps a little sensitive to this, Lemming now denies that he ever delivered letters. "Yes, I worked at the post office. But I wasn't a mailman
. When I started out, I had to do anything to keep me going, anything to survive."
George Perles is among those who have used the mailman nickname with frequency. Head coach at Michigan State from 1983 to 1994, of the same generation as Schembeckler and Lou Holtz, a good friend of Woody Hayes, Perles recently paused for a moment from his work as chairman of the Motor City Bowl to muse on the concept of the recruiting guru. "These people, these recruiting analysts, they're not going to like what I have to say, but it's true. They have their favorites." It is Perles's theory, and perhaps his experience, that if a college coach "schmoozes" a guru, grants him access to the team's recruiting dish, the guru will do his part to increase the overall ranking of the coach's incoming players. Quid pro quo. Since momentum plays a major role in all this—a star athlete would rather join a team "talented" enough to make a championship run—the gurus can thus affect a college's ability to draw in the goods. "If a coach takes you to lunch, schmoozes you, maybe buys you a few beers, you're going to rank his recruits higher, right?" Perles said. "If a coach doesn't cater to these guys, then he gets his class rated down by someone with a full-time job doing something else!
"But George don't have to cater to 'em anymore," Perles went on. "And he didn't then, either. You think Bo or Woody catered to those guys? You put your head into a wall you think Bo catered to 'em. Or Woody. What kind of head coach would I be if, instead of my own coaches, I listened to some guy who works at the fire department? I like firemen; they put out fires."
Mr. Perles was reminded that Lemming was a mailman.
man!" he said. "That's right! Here comes your mailman with your letters. What's he do now?"
"He does some work for ESPN."
"ESPN? Big shot. Tell him I said hello."
Despite these early travails, Lemming soon widened his purview to include players not just in Chicago, but the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic, the East Coast. He began his road trips in the fall of 1979. Today, he mentions ceaselessly the car he used to make those early pilgrimages. A Chevette, it had no air conditioning. At some point someone stole its radio, and Lemming had to make his drives with only his thoughts to occupy him. "Those first few years were strange," Lemming says. "It was just you and the tedious road, thousands and thousands of miles of cement." For lack of funds, he often slept on the backseat. The process of locating players was also arduous, and weird. He spent a lot of time feeding dimes into pay phones outside high schools. Every summer, at the end of a journey, Lemming thought about giving up—a perennial emotion that besets him even today—and at one point, for a brief period in 1980 or 81, he did. "To give you an idea of how business was when I quit," he sometimes will say during a speaking engagement, "I was the only one in the country who knew
I had quit." But he was back on the trail the next year. His personal life suffered. He was married in 1983 and divorced ten years and one son later. The boy is now the age of a recruit. He lives with his mother in Tampa, often accompanies his father on this or that leg of a Tom Lemming pilgrimage, and does not play football.
After completing a road trip, Lemming would haul back to Chicago trunk loads of videotape. Because of this, assistant coaches started making his house an annual recruiting port of call. Dave Roberts, today in charge of running backs at South Carolina, was among the first to recognize that Lemming could direct coaches to prospects as easily as he could the mailboxes on a route. Others, notably the staff under Mike White, who became head coach of the University of Illinois in 1980, followed suit—the same Mike White who was busted by the NCAA for recruiting violations, and fired in 1987. "We sort of got our start together," White told me recently, from his office on Arrowhead Drive, where he now works for the Kansas City Chiefs. On White's staff at Illinois was a young assistant who Lemming got to know particularly well. His name was Billy Callahan, recently fired as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, recently hired in the same capacity by the University of Nebraska. Every year during the "May evaluation period," when programs begin to check out the new blood and identify those players they wanted to go after, 50 and 60 coaches a year would gather in Lemming's basement to watch the tapes that he had collected. It saved them time. Lemming brought them drinks, made them food. He sat silently in a corner and watched as the coaches debated the relative merits of a player. Lemming says that this is how he learned to evaluate. Among the assembled there were amiable disagreements. "It's like, do you prefer a blonde or a redhead? What's your preference?" Dave Roberts told me. "Some like a 300-pound lineman, others like their linemen 260. Some people are lookin' for a six-five quarterback, others are lookin' for six-foot QBs who are athletic. Some like their linebackers thick—others like 'em thin and lean." On several occasions, Lemming says he was able to accompany a coach on an "in-home visit." The sine qua non of the recruiting sales pitch, normally as secretive as the sacrament of confession, this is when a coach should Always Be Closing. Lemming says that he was invited there by the players' parents. He says that he sat with Bo Schembeckler (despite their differences), Mike White, Joe Morrison. He says, "I'd take notes and watch them recruiting."
By 1986, Lemming was finally earning enough money from his magazine to quit his day job. Interest in recruiting among garden-variety fans had started to grow, especially when the NCAA began putting limits on the number of football scholarships a university could grant, narrowing it from unrestricted to 105 to 95 to the current 85 per team, making competition for the best athletes fiercer than ever. The tightening of scholarship limits was partly in response to Southern Methodist University, which made headlines in 1985 with recruiting violations so brazen (the governor of Texas was involved) and so sad (hookers were as well) that it made people forget that organized football had begun, at Yale, at Harvard, in the late nineteenth-century, with the hiring of "tramp athletes," whose affiliations with those universities were about as amateur as certain quarters in Amsterdam. (The NCAA was formed in 1906 partly to outlaw the recruiting activities of football-mad institutions such as Yale, whose program had created a double-secret slush fund of $100,000, which it used on gifts for high school prospects, entertainments for the coaching staff, and trips to the Caribbean for all.)
There has never been "purity" in college athletics, and therefore no "loss of innocence"—and least of all in football, the biggest money-maker and campus marketing device of any sport. As all recruiting analysts do, Lemming argues that his presence through the years has shed light onto the inner workings of college recruitment, and has lent that unseemly world a transparency it had theretofore lacked.
"Back when I started, the schools kept everything hidden," he says. "The best schools stockpiled talent, and they didn't want anyone to know who they had, who was coming to the school. They kept the names of their recruits private until they had signed on the dotted line." In Lemming's mind, with the guru on the case, the players, the public, have become wise to the ways of the wily recruiter. According to Lemming, he has helped protect the naïve jock from getting duped.
The counter-argument, of course, is that recruiting analysts have simply stepped, along with everyone else—the coaches, the boosters, the players with NFL dollar signs for pupils—into the muck.
IV. Notre Dame
On the Internet fan message boards—at Bucknuts and Hornfans and TigerDroppings and BorderWars; at GatorBait and Wild West and NDNation and GoBlueWolverine—when the discussion turns to college football recruiting, a good deal of that discussion will likely turn, as well, to the character and career of Tom Lemming. The people who participate in these Internet sports forums, though they constitute Lemming's primary audience, his paying public, seem to view him with the special contempt that an addict holds for his pusher. Last year, a poster on an Ohio State message board initiated a poll, posing the question, "Is Tom Lemming a jack@$$ recruiting analyst?" The results were less than favorable. Throughout the college football world, paranoia creeps, resentment festers, and toward Lemming the citizens of the boards vent their disquiet, all [sic]:
"Could Lemming be sabotaging our recruiting?"
"Sorry for the graphic description but…. I wouldn't p*ss on that guy if he was on fire."
"As an analyst he's average to above average. Problem is he is a self aggrandizing blow-hard whose ego is off the scale."
"I don't really understand it ESPN hires what they consider the best he is no moron or else ESPN wouldn't align themselves with him."
"Didn't ESPN align themselves with Rush Limbaugh? He's a moron."
Lemming is aware of the irony of his bind. He says, "In the world of recruiting, if you say anything negative, fans immediately think you hate their school and like some other school."
From the recruitniks, Lemming received his second nickname, also pejorative, which seems to have derived from the guru's frequent appearance on ESPN from the inside of a turtleneck sweater. They call him, simply, "the Neck."
Gurus in general take a lot of heat from college football fans over the perceived playing of favorites. In other words, fans are forever accusing the gurus of being fans themselves. This is what is referred to as being a "homer" or "fanboy." Alan Wallace is accused of being a supporter of Southern Cal, from which he was graduated in 1971. With Max Emfinger it's Texas A&M. With Jamie Newburgh, the chief guru at The Insiders.com, it's the University of Florida. With Lemming, among his competition and among the fans of rival teams, it is a widely and deeply held belief that he is an unequivocal homer for Notre Dame. Given the slightest opportunity—which often occurs, given his proximity to recruits—he will use his position to steer a phenom directly into a golden helmet. Or so the assumption goes. His motivation to do so, these people seem to argue, is similar to that of any over-eager booster handing a recruit the keys to an Escalade. But this is overly simplistic. Whatever the truth of Lemming's denial of having an emotional bond to the team, he does not deny having had a pragmatic one.
"I'm Irish Catholic and from Chicago so that's probably why people think I was into Notre Dame. But it's also because I saw a business opportunity. It hasn't hurt over the years to say that you're a Notre Dame fan. They're the most powerful team in the country. If you're in the business of putting out magazines to college football fans, you go to Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State people, in that order. Especially in the Midwest. A friend of mine, he's a recruiting guy, and he's a big Ohio State fan. But he claims publicly that he likes Notre Dame, because he knows better. He knows it will help him increase his business."
Notre Dame, of course, resides in a category all alone. Regardless of some wretched performances on the field in recent years, its fan base dwarfs that of many NFL franchises (and includes, full disclosure, me, who received an undergraduate degree from the place in 1997.) National in scope, the program's popularity makes it a market rich for the tapping, but the ways in which Lemming has chosen to tap that audience have been called into question, maybe even by the guru himself. A few years ago, on a local Chicago television sports show, several viewers I spoke with say they heard him admit that he would never rank a Notre Dame recruiting class below twentieth in the country. The last time he did so, he lost too many of his subscribers. (Lemming denied to me that he ever said this, and denies that he's ever exaggerated Notre Dame's rankings.)
Accusations of Fighting Irish cronyism, as opposed to homerism, have also been aimed at Lemming. In 1986, when Lou Holtz arrived in South Bend, he brought along with him an ambitious assistant in his early 20s by the name of Vinny Cerrato, previously a low-level staff member under Holtz at the University of Minnesota. It was there that Cerrato first met Tom Lemming. At ND, Holtz named Cerrato his recruiting coordinator, where he would quickly make a name for himself as the premier talent appraiser and campus salesman in all of college football. The day after signing day he would fly to Ft. Lauderdale, where, at the home of an alumnus, he would lounge in the pool and conduct congratulatory interviews with sportswriters around the country. For four consecutive years he assembled the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, a consensus among the gurus, with Lemming, of course, leading the way. A remarkable 46 of those recruits ended up playing in the NFL. The extent of Lemming's role in all of this is certainly debatable, but Cerrato and the Mailman were as tight as a client and his banker. "Vinny Cerrato and I talked all the time back then," Lemming says. "We talked every day."
Speaking from the Northern Virginia headquarters of the Washington Redskins, where he works as the Director of Player Personnel, Cerrato told me, "Tom helped me a ton, especially in the springtime. If he was out visiting kids and they mentioned Notre Dame, he would call and alert me. If a kid didn't have Notre Dame on his list, and he had good grades, Tom would let me know that this was a kid I needed to check out." Although Cerrato grew up in Minnesota, he speaks with a drawl reminiscent of East Texas, an accent that football coaches seem to hold as a professional desideratum, like airline pilots intoning over the intercom in Chuck Yeager West Virginian. It is not uncommon, Cerrato says, for gurus to have predilections for the staffs of particular colleges. "They all have certain teams they'll help out, which is totally natural. But I think now, because Tom is more national, he doesn't help Notre Dame anymore; I don't know that he has anyone he helps anymore."
After Cerrato resigned in 1993 and Holtz resigned in 1996, Lemming's relationship with the Irish program grew cold. It has now frozen over completely. "I'm not close at all to Notre Dame anymore," Lemming says. "I've talked to one guy there twice all year. I talk to guys at other schools twice a week. Six or seven years ago I started backing off because people were saying this stuff about me being a homer. Plus, I wanted to become national."
But there might be another reason for Lemming's distance from the Irish program. Ty Willingham's administration is notoriously chilly with the press, and the access Lemming now has to Notre Dame recruiting information may not equal his access elsewhere. "With all the hype and celebrity status in the recruiting process," Willingham has said, "we have to be more media conscious." To borrow George Perle's phrase, Lemming might not be getting catered to. After an initial meeting with Willingham last spring, Lemming says he has not seen him since. In the head coach's office, the guru claims not to have had a particularly enthralling time. "You almost fall asleep listening to him," Lemming says. "Nice guy, though."
Lemming, at times, seems to suggest that Notre Dame might do well—for the sake of its recruiting—to give him a call. In his ESPN column this year, he has repeatedly criticized the ability of Willingham staff's to close the deal and draw in the highest-level talent. "Notre Dame is doing lousy this year," he said to me. "Their recruiting is not like it used to be. It's not as aggressive." At least this year, the evidence indicates that Lemming might be right. Notre Dame has indeed missed on a number of its own favorite prospects, including its highest priority quarterback, Brian Brohm, who chose to attend the University of Louisville. On the other hand, no other guru has been as vocal as Lemming about Notre Dame recruiting. (Which, in turn, might suggest just how big of an Irish fan Lemming might be. The staunches fans, after all, are often the staunchest critics of their own teams.)
In South Bend, meanwhile, Willingham's staff is diplomatic, perhaps understanding the repercussions of not catering. "Tom does a great job providing a great service," says Jimmy Gonzalez, who holds the mandarinic title of Director of Football Personnel Development and, as such, is Willingham's recruiting coordinator. When asked what he thinks of Lemming's criticisms, Gonzalez says, "He's stating his opinion. Everybody's got a right to an opinion, you know?" Long pause. "To be honest with you, I don't know what he says. I don't read the papers. I don't read that stuff." Long pause. "I've only been here since March."
Recently, Lemming expressed his opinion on the university enrollment plans of a defensive lineman named Ryan Baker, an Army Bowl invitee, who was on the fence between Purdue and Notre Dame. "He can miss if he goes to a college program that doesn't know how to use him," a Boilermaker fanzine quoted Lemming as saying. "If he goes to Purdue, he's a can't miss. I'm not going to knock anybody so I'll just say, if he goes to Purdue, he can't miss . . . I talked with him down in San Antonio, and he said Notre Dame just ignored him all year and came after him after they lost everyone else."
If George Perles's theory is correct—that Lemming and his ilk speak kindly of, and scratch the back of, only those programs who grant them appropriate access—than comments such as these could be read as a form of retribution.
"Never!" Lemming said to me after I'd mentioned that theory, and a look of deep aggrievement crossed his face. "This is a game of opinion. Almost every team is open with me. Not many won't talk to me. One of them is Penn State, and I always try to give them the benefit of the doubt. The only reason I've been in this business 25 years is because I've been fair."
V. The Dreamers
The kickoff falls into the hands of the star of the team. His jersey says No. 9, and his name is as mellifluous as his movements on the field—Santino Panico. The stadium's announcer has long ago realized this, and twenty times in a game the PA system will blare, "San-teeeee
He starts upfield—five yards, ten yards. Up in the bleachers, stationed at around the 50 yard line of the Walter R. Johnson Sports Complex of Libertyville High School, his father booms:
"C'mon kid! C'mon kid! Get to the outside! Get outside!
" The kid does not get to the outside, tackled before he can do so. Fifteen yards on the return, and Mr. Panico is frustrated. "Block for him!" he hollers. "You gotta block
This is Libertyville's first playoff game of the post-season, vs. Antioch High School, Halloween night. As always, Santino Panico will be on the field for nearly every one of the game's 48 minutes. He plays both ways—safety and sometimes cornerback on defense, running back and sometimes lined up as a receiver on offense. So far this year he has gained more than 2,000 all-purpose yards. By the end of the post-season he will have led his team to a bitter runner-up double-overtime finish in the Class 7A state championship game, he will have scored more touchdowns in a year than any player in the history of the Libertyville Wildcats, he will have been named to every regional all-star team possible—city, area, state—he will have been crowned as the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year, and he will have been invited by Tom Lemming to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, the most significant honor of them all because, with its telecast on NBC, Panico's play will be seen by college recruiters the nation over.
Despite having already performed well enough to earn him this paragraph of accolades, Panico as of Halloween has received precisely one scholarship offer—from Ball State University, of Muncie, Indiana, whose stadium, open on one end to a neighborhood street, a sidewalk, someone's lawn, someone's trees, does not dwarf the Walter R. Johnson. By comparison, his teammates in San Antonio will have received dozens of scholarship offers from Division I schools, most of them from the country's top 25 programs. The most sought-after prospects will have received up to 70 and 80 offers, and got them as early as their sophomore year. But there is hope for Santino Panico. Should he play well on NBC, his prospects might brighten, and rapidly.
Making sure that this remains possible is, of course, Tom Lemming, who at this moment is standing prominently among the Panico entourage. Having known the Panicos for going on a year, he now considers himself among their friends, a common enough situation for Lemming when it comes to the families of area recruits. "Panico is Libertyville's big-play guy," Lemming says. "Without him they're nothing."
Just then, as Lemming speaks, a gadget play develops—No. 22, the Libertyville halfback, takes the pitch and starts to run. Then he stops. He looks downfield. He rears back to pass. He has a receiver—not Panico but some role player or other—wide open in the endzone. No defender is within ten yards. The ball floats down to the receiver's hands. The ball hits his hands. The ball hits the ground. Up in the bleachers, the crowd gasps; down on the field, the boy remains wide open. He gazes for a prolonged existential moment up into the heavens above Libertyville, Illinois. He appears as if he may not live this one down. Lemming comments on the play. "They should have thrown that one to Santino. He's got good hands. He had the best
hands at the Iowa camp, and there were hundreds of kids there." The boy to whom they did throw that one wanders back toward the sidelines staring at his feet.
Since he was eight years old, Santino Panico has been getting the ball, by throw, by handoff and by turnover. His coach in Pee Wee league, Glen Kozlowski, a former Bears wide receiver, knew what he had on his roster. "We won many a championship with Santino," says the Coach, in the stands at the Libertyville game. "He was the kind of kid, you fed him the ball." Romping his way over the rest of the sixth grade, Panico decided, with Kuzlowksi's encouragement, that he would one day play in the NFL. In the seven years since Panico made this decision he has not had occasion to heap his dream—with the firemen, the movie stars, the major leaguers—onto the discarded dream pile of most of the rest of the adult population. "Some kids have illusions," he says. "But I looked to a few of the NFL players at that time—Jerry Rice and Bill Romanowski—and I asked myself: 'How I can be like them?'"
Since the age of 11, he has not had a sip of Coke. He has not had a slice of pizza. "Nothing fried," he says. "No fast foot, no white bread, no sweets. No food with hydrogenated oils or fats." He has been running and lifting weights the same amount of time. "I've never seen anything like it with regard to his desire," says John McNulty, Panico's personal trainer. When Panico entered high school in 1999 he advanced his exercise into the 21st century. His father hired McNulty, who also has on his client list several Chicago Bears and a few Division I players preparing for the NFL combine. Iron is no longer pumped. Panico's training is "sports specific." It is "high-intensity, high-explosive," short bursts of extreme effort repeated over and over, and he does it six days a week, in season and off. He does his own grocery shopping, in the organic section of the Libertyville Jewel. He will eat eggs only from the hens of the Amish. "Regular eggs, you cook them, they taste good. These, they're horrifying. They taste like shit." He will occasionally make himself sick on raw ones. His dietician, whom he consults long-distance in California, works for Charles Poliquin, the fitness guru, who specializes in "explosive-power training." This is what Panico wants. "My training will make me explosive, fast, big. It gives me speed and power. And power hurts and speed kills." He has started for Libertyville since his coaches summoned him from the sidelines when the team reached the playoffs during his freshman year. He can now play two ways for an entire game without so much as breathing deeply.
Antioch scores first, Antioch scores second, 0-14 Antioch off two Libertyville fumbles. The natives have achieved restlessness. Mr. Panico owns a contracting business. He stands well below six-feet, wears large owlish eyeglasses, and has a voice like the horn on an eighteen-wheeler. Friendly and demonstrative under normal circumstances, Mr. Panico, when observing a Libertyville game, withholds the friendly, maintains the demonstrative, and seems to become all mouth. "If they had anybody that could block on this team, Santino'd get thirty yards every time
!" Down onto the field below he roars, "C'mon you gotta throw a block
!" After the first play of a drive later on, a run that goes nowhere, he raises his eyes to God in the sky. He could be a man on Mt. Sinai. "Can they throw a block or what
When Antioch scores its second touchdown, the stands on the opposite side erupt. Girlish screams, whistles, hoots, hollers—the sounds seem to come from miles away. On this side of the field, groans and then silence. The Wildcats return glumly to the sideline, their faces aimed at the grass. Mr. Panico points out his son. No. 9 is nodding his helmet up and down and saying things into the ear holes of his teammates's helmets. "He's up, he's up," his father announces. "Santino will never give up. Because he knows I'd kick his ass
if he did!"
Libertyville with the ball is driving. Whenever there's a big play, whenever, it seems, there's a pause in the action, the recorded vocal utterance of some species of big cat growls over the PA system of the Walter R. Johnson, and it growls now—a caged polecat. Libertyville has the ball on the 38 yard line. For the first time this drive, a play goes to Panico. It's the double dive. One voice rises above the rest, husky, urging, slow. "Get outside and go! Get outside and go!" His son beats the defensive back to the corner; he bursts. The endzone belongs to Santino Panico. The crowd rises as one to its feet. But then another defender appears, sprinting with the angle, nearing and nearing the goal line. Panico must sense the enemy's presence. To avoid him, he dives. From the five-yard line he lays out, airborne, like a swimmer at the sound of the gun. The touchdown is in question. The crowd is insane. He didn't quite make it, but close enough for mass celebration. Panico on the sidelines is swarmed by his teammates. His father says, "Santino's got 'em jacked up! Hey! You see that?" The next play achieves the score, 7-14 Antioch. The PA howls.
Antioch misses a field goal. Libertyville gets the ball back. Minutes pass, the going is tough, and the ball is still on the Wildcats' side of the field. It is third down; they need three more yards. The half is almost over.
Lemming says, "They know who's getting it."
Mr. Panico says, "I tell Santino all the time. I tell him, 'To get these first downs you have to have desire. That's what you have to have. Desire
Someone pipes up with the coach's perspective. "This is the easiest way to scout. On third down, either Panico gets it, or they're going to . . ."
He does not finish the sentence. Taking the handoff, Panico rips up the middle through the beef of the line untouched. Fifty-three yards later, a step before crossing the goal line, he is caught again from behind by a defensive back. On the next play, though, a Wildcat ball carrier enters the endzone, one-point game, 13-14. Libertyville misses the extra point, but no one seems to care. On the shoulders of Panico and his two big plays, the game has now turned. Antioch is indeed in trouble, and Libertyville will ultimately win the game, 28-14. The PA meows with vigor. Men standing nearby the elder Panico look at him and smile. Admiration near envy is in their eyes.
At halftime Lemming leaves for the bathroom. As he descends the steps, Mr. Panico calls after him blissfully. "Who set up those touchdowns, big guy?"
This year, Lemming has attended three Libertyville games. He often watches Chicago area football contests during this, his off-season, to inspect the junior class. Most of the seniors he knows well enough already. He first saw Santino Panico play football in November 2002, when he received a DVD through the mail. Highlights from the boy's sophomore and junior campaigns, the film was shot by a professional videographer, and it came from the Panico family. They'd heard of Lemming through a friend, who told them what the guru might be able to do. Panico, however, was not banking only on Tom Lemming. One hundred and seventeen highlight tapes of his senior year campaign went out into the mails, addressed to every program in Division I.
"Last week I threw fifty tapes away," Lemming has said. "And the week before that I threw away between fifty and a hundred. They keep coming in. I always delegate a lot of time to watching film. If a kid or parent or coach sends me a tape I feel obligated to watch it. Not all of it! Maybe five minutes of it—I can tell within a minute or two whether a kid is good or not. First I look at his size; if he's not big enough, it doesn't matter. Then I look at his feet, his quickness, his athletic ability. Speed is everything."
In the spring of 1986, Tom Lemming chose not to travel to Wichita, Kansas, to meet a running back, fast and dexterous but, at five feet, seven inches, undersized. Not many college recruiters did either; Northwestern chose to grant its last scholarship to his slightly larger linebacker brother. Oklahoma State, the Heisman Trophy, the first junior ever to enter the NFL draft, 15,269 career professional rushing yards—Barry Sanders this year was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. Both ways, Lemming has had his "misses," as analysts call recruits who bust or non-recruits who achieve greatness out of nowhere. Because the latter are far more embarrassing, far more public, and seem to indicate fatal flaws in the professional skill of the talent scout, Lemming says he made a promise to himself long ago. "After Barry Sanders, I decided I would never slough off anyone again."
Panico just barely reaches six feet. Listed by the analysts at 200 pounds, he weighed in just before Christmas at around 180; playing both ways through the season had burned off some stone. There is no hair on his head; he shaves it every Sunday. His smile is gregarious. A wide and sloping Roman nose grows out from his face and seems to carry everything else with it. A natural charmer, a salesman, a comic, he will likely be the most talkative person in any given room. In late December, USA Today
ran a story, dateline San Antonio, a "round table" with eight Lemming Bowl invitees, Santino Panico among them. The interviewer withdrew an NCAA rules manual and said, "I trust all of you have read this." Panico was the first to speak. "Don't touch it," he said. "You might violate it." In the winter of his junior year he was timed dashing 40 yards in 4.7 seconds—considered slow by the gurus for a running back or a defensive back, Panico's two positions. But with his majestic discipline, Panico had "heart," he had "fire, he had "that love for the game." He occupied the realm of the "tweener."
Regardless of Santino Panico's lack of traditional Division I qualities, Lemming felt compelled to seek out more information—the shade of Wichita peering over his shoulder. He saw more tape, and he took father and son to lunch for a discussion. "He told me that if I just believe in myself and work hard, I'll have a great year," Santino Panico recalls. "And that's all I did. Work, work, work." Also, Lemming told him that he "needed to get his speed up." Just as there are ways to make oneself "smarter" for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, so are there are ways to make oneself faster for the 40-yard dash. Panico went out and found Dave Buchanan, a speed trainer—the football equivalent of Kaplan. Literally put through his paces, he worked off some tenths-of-a-second, and this summer, at a camp at the University of Wisconsin, he ran an electronically timed 4.52, and a handheld 4.49.
In his pre-season Football Report
, Lemming diverged wildly from every other guru around and gave Panico four stars. He also wrote that Panico had "All-American ability" at safety. He called a few coaches in the Big Ten—Indiana, Wisconsin, Penn State, Illinois, Iowa—to put in a good word on Panico's behalf. He used the typical tweener argument—"This kid is a diamond in the rough." By September 2003, when it was clear that Panico was putting together the best season, by far, of his career, Lemming bestowed upon Panico a prize so coveted that the guru will regularly receive calls from the fathers of five-star players with extravagant statistics angrily inquiring as to why their sons have not been so bestowed. ("This Army game kills me," Lemming says. "All these dads calling me up, asking me why their sons aren't in the game.") Panico would play in San Antonio.
The major flaw common to every analyst, according to Jim Heckman, president of The Insiders, is that "they all fall in love with these kids. They think their parents are real nice. They get biased toward the kids they see a lot and come to know, and any recruiting expert who says that's not the case is lying." Santino Panico has been called "a figment of Tom Lemming's imagination." Tim O'Halloran, otherwise known as Edgy Tim, proprietor of EdgyTim.com and a former commodities trader at the Chicago Board of Trade, is now the Illinois contributor to the Rivals.com network. Perhaps Tom Lemming's stiffest local competition, Edgy Tim has given Panico two stars and a "5" rating. A player with a "5" rating, as defined by Rivals, is a "Division I prospect; considered a mid-major prospect; deemed to have limited pro potential but definite Division I prospect; may be more of a role player." This praise is feint. Edgy Tim explained to me, "Um, obviously he proved this year that he's an outstanding high school football player. I think he's a Division I player, no doubt about that. But there's some disagreement about how high a level. As far as his level—his offers are determining that, and where they're coming from."
Where they were coming from, after Ball State in October, was Eastern Michigan University and Indiana University, which ended 2003 with a record of 2-10. Wyoming, Stanford, Miami (of Ohio), Northwestern and pretty much the rest of the Big Ten looked at but did not touch Santino Panico. If Panico's NFL dreams weren't yet on the line, they were at least breaking the huddle. Before departing for San Antonio, he said, "I'll go to some school in Podunk if that's where I can get the playing time and show the right people what I can do." The University of Podunk had yet to offer.
At Tom Lemming's most recent All-Area Chicago football banquet, an event that he hosts every December, a dozen or so coaches from universities around the country arrived at the Grandview Ballroom of the Elmcrest Banquet Hall, there to scope the flesh. Forty players were honored, 20 seniors and 20 juniors. One of the guests was the recruiting coordinator of a famous college program. In his lapel this man wore a golden brooch in the shape of his university's unmistakable monogram. When he arrived at the banquet, Lemming immediately ushered the recruiter over to the Panicos, father and son. The recruiter was polite. He shook hands with the two of them, he chatted. He went to his seat, ate his pasta, and when Panico was called up to receive the inaugural Chris Zorich Award, given to Chicago's "hardest-working" player, the recruiter glanced at a colleague who happened to be sitting at the same table, and he shook his head.
Later, I asked the recruiter for his thoughts on Panico. Eyes hooded and staring straight ahead, he responded blandly, as if the answer were obvious. "He's not at that level."
"Chris Zorich, Mark Allstadt, Barry Sanders—none of them were 'at that level
', either!" says Tom Lemming, adamant, defensive, inside Einstein's. "He dominated the league! If you can tell me anyone anywhere who's a had better year than Santino, I'd like to hear it." He reels off Panico's long list of senior-year tributes and says, "So it's not just me
that thinks he's good."
The importance of the Army Bowl was not lost on Panico. "This is a major opportunity I'm going to take advantage of," he told me a few weeks before heading to Texas. "I'm more excited about it than any football game ever, except the state championships. I mean, this is going to be an honest test, against the best players in the country." He expressed gratitude. "Tom Lemming stepped up. Without him I wouldn't be getting looked at as heavily as I am by some schools. So I owe a lot to him. Besides my family, he's been the main ingredient to my success."
As far as ingredients in the process of recruitment go, Lemming over the years has been added to a lot of different soups. Mike White, the former head coach at Illinois, says, "I think Tom befriended these players. Because of Tom's personality he developed a rapport with them. Tom was beneficial for us if he felt a guy fit at Illinois. If he felt a kid fit at Illinois, he wasn't afraid to tell a kid so. Tom was very honest with players. He could influence players—not telling them to go here or there or to this school or that—but if Tom had a feeling about a coaching staff or a program, he'd tell the recruit and make the process easier."
Like graduates of journalism schools, all recruiting analysts wax sanctimonious about their "duty" to maintain an appropriate distance above the fray, to "report" rather than "become" the story. Objectivity and neutrality are the buzzwords. But, of course, the closer a guru gets to a recruit, the greater the possibility that the guru will somehow influence a recruit's decision, and if not his decision, perhaps the timing of his making of the decision. "We don't offer any scholarships—the colleges do," is a chestnut delivered by every guru when they face the claim that they may effect the college choice of a prospect or, vice versa, a college's choice of a prospect. Although Lemming naturally denies that he has ever pumped a program—"Parents ask me all the time, 'Off the record, where should we go.' But I never answer"—he more than anyone else feels comfortable playing the role of the guidance counselor and, at times, of the scholarship broker.
Lemming takes great pride in his role in helping boys obtain free tuition at programs large and small, even if the boys know nothing about his help. He often mentions Chris Zorich, the former Notre Dame and Bears nose tackle, as an example of a tweener he plucked from obscurity, and a linebacker named Ben Kotwicka. After Lemming talked him up, he went on to play for West Point. The guru sometimes suggests, however, that he is content to do his good work behind the scenes. He does not need to collect any laurels. He seems to feel that that would be garish.
"I'm all about honor and doing the right thing," Lemming says. "Honor, truth, justice."
Lemming recalls one such case of anonymous charity, in which he helped Vinny Cerrato, in January 1991, land a few players. The Notre Dame admissions department had, Lemming alleges, gone on a "purge," nixing for academic reasons a host of Cerrato-recruited players. Lemming says that he gave Cerrato 12 names. Included on that list was Jeremy Nau, a linebacker at Mt. Carmel High School. Lemming allowed Cerrato to watch some Mt. Carmel game film that he had on file, and "Vinny offered him from there."
Jeremy Nau and his family, however, see it a little differently. Pat Nau, mother of the former linebacker, who works as a receptionist at Mt. Carmel, asserts that Frank Lenti, head coach at the prep school, and Pete Cordelli, at the time a Notre Dame assistant coach, brokered the deal that got her son the scholarship. It is worth noting, though, that Lenti and Lemming have for years been engaged in a feud. The guru has criticized the coach for not promoting his players enough, and the coach accuses the guru of purposefully ignoring Mt. Carmel athletes. It's perhaps not surprising, then, that Nau and his family strove to avoid Lemming during his recruitment. "We were warned about him from another coach here," Pat Nau says. Lemming "was always calling the house, calling the house. He was very pushy."
When I told Lemming about Pat Nau's view of things, he erupted. "Nau getting into Notre Dame was a hundred percent Tom Lemming! And she never even called to thank me! I've made thousands of phone calls for kids and got them scholarships over the years if I think they're good enough, and most of them thank me. But this mother, nothing
. She said, 'Tom Lemming had nothing to do with it.' Well, why wasn't he offered until January of his senior year? I gave
him to Notre Dame. Nau's mother knows nothing. Except that he was offered by ND. Nothing got passed Vinny Cerrato. He was Notre Dame's recruiting coordinator
. He ran the whole show."
Today Nau works as a trader on the Chicago Board Options Exchange. Lemming says, "Everything Nau got came through me, a guy he's never even talked to, a guy he probably never even knew helped him. Where was he gonna go? Ball State? Maybe
Illinios? All he's got now, all his Notre Dame contacts, it's because of me."
At the Alamodome on January 3, 2004, Santino Panico played for 40 minutes, lined up on both offense and defense. At receiver, he caught a slant over the middle for a total of three yards. At strong safety, he made five tackles. But for most of the game, the ball failed to come his way. He could be seen on TV only in glimpses, at the periphery of the action, milling about upright at the piled-up conclusions of plays. With two minutes to go in the game, however, he applied a devastating hit to Lemming's number one tight end prospect. The impact resounded into the rafters. "People were going crazy," Panico recalled recently. All in all, he considered the outing a success, despite having touched the ball only once. He said, "With the kind of speed that was out there, and how big those guys were, I think it was my first college game."
He will play his second college game as a Cornhusker for the University of Nebraska. While in San Antonio, Tom Lemming received a phone call from his old friend Bill Callahan, who had just assumed his job as head coach of that storied program, replacing Frank Solich, fired after a 9-3 season. Similar to Penn State, Solich's Nebraska had not been one of those programs to strive for a relationship with Lemming, and no doubt Callahan's new job has given Lemming some satisfaction. Callahan took the job in early January and, far behind his competition in the pursuit of prospects, he was in need of players, and fast. He asked Lemming for a list of receivers, and, in Panico's words, "He asked for someone who's smart and could get open." Two weeks following the Lemming Bowl, No. 9 flew to Lincoln and listened to Callahan say, as Panico recalls it, "I believe in you. I think you can play. Maybe some other people don't believe in you. But I do. You've got all the intangibles." He received his fourth scholarship offer, and he accepted.
During the Lemming Bowl, Tom Lemming sat in the booth alongside a crew of broadcasting benchwarmers that NBC had enlisted to announce the game. The Alamodome was empty at the endzones. To boost the arena's occupancy, several army units had been bussed in, and their members watched the game in camo fatigues from the stands. Asked about his process for choosing the All-Americans, Lemming made sure to mention his "four months" of travel, and said, "I try to select the very best players in the country. The guys that will project as major college stars and eventually as NFL stars."
Some people, however, feel that Lemming may have left something out of that rather vague calculus. Lemming with his Army game can make a player famous, and his critics sometimes wonder about his ability to hold an invite over a teenager's head and bargain from the boy whatever he chooses—the scoop on where a player will commit, say, or a commitment announced during the show by a highly prized recruit deciding between a half dozen top programs.
"Today they test their talent and announce their futures," intoned an NBC announcer in the introduction to the telecast, hinting at the reason as to why a major network had agreed to cover the game at all. Nine players made their announcements during the game, withdrawing from a red Russell Athletic duffel bag the cap of the program they had chosen. Recruitniks were tuning in by the millions, especially those fans who were waiting to hear whether a player had committed to their team. At the Russell bag, commenting to a sideline sportscaster on the rationale behind their college choices, some of the players wore braces. "With no further ado, I'd like to be tellin' everybody in Kansas that I'll be a Kansas State Wildcat," said Nick Patton. "I'd like to thank my grandfather and my athletic director Dave"—inaudible—"and God. And thank you for this wonderful opportunity." A blue-and-gray Kansas State hat went sideways onto Nick Patton's head.
Not until around ten years ago did such mise-en-scene become the norm. Players will now routinely announce their decisions with a press conference, in high school gymnasiums, in cafeterias, the school band playing the fight song of their chosen team. Sometimes players will wait until signing day to alert the world of their decision. The longer the player holds out, the higher the drama rises. Of course these boys are merely basking in the celebrity that the gurus, and the fans, have foist upon them.
Lemming's role in all of this is fairly clear. He freely admits that he counsels the nation's top players to wait as long as they can before committing to a school, under the guidance-counselor rubric that one should visit all the campuses and make an educated decision about where one feels most at home, etc. "He's always made it clear that he's opposed to early commitment," says Taylor Bell, the high school sports beat reporter for the Sun-Times, now semi-retired. "But that's not what the colleges want, that objective advice. Colleges are always putting pressure on kids, telling them, 'You're going to lose this opportunity if you don't commit to us now.' We've always tried to tell kids: 'Remember one thing. If you're as good as you think you are, the college will wait.'" When Bell says "we've," he means himself and Tom Lemming, whom he's quoted so much and so often over the last 20 years that his editors once questioned the scope of his sourcing.
As Lemming's critics like to point out, the guru's noble stand against the tyranny of early commitments has possibly been influenced by his showman's sense of how to turn a dollar. Since his business is built on drumming up interest in the collegiate destinations of blue-chip teenagers, the longer a recruit holds out, the more attention Lemming will receive, and the more his business will thrive.
Two years ago, this pageant of last-second declarations came back to bite Lemming, when Lorenzo Booker, a five-star running back out of St. Bonaventure Preparatory School in Ventura, California, held a press conference and double-crossed the guru. About a month earlier, Booker had scored two touchdowns in the Lemming Bowl. Now, he was ostensibly down to four schools—Florida State, Notre Dame, Southern Cal and Washington. For several days before national signing day, the Booker family had been in "lockdown mode," when a player and his closest advisors shut the doors and unplug the telephones so that they may come to a decision in peace, free of the last-second bids of college coaches and the badgering calls of sportswriters and recruiting analysts seeking to "break the commitment." Booker finally came to his decision on, of course, signing day, February 2002. Rumors were everywhere. The message boards were a ticker tape of Booker's reputed vacillations, with shares of Notre Dame and Florida State rising the sharpest. ESPN's "Sportscenter" played video clips of the boy's high school highlights. Ty Willingham, Notre Dame's new coach, hired just a month earlier, and Bobby Bowden, head coach of Florida State, made their final pitches. Via overnight FedEx, Willingham had sent the running back a Photoshopped photograph of a Heisman Trophy, its nameplate engraved, "Lorenzo Booker / University of Notre Dame." Bobby Bowden had sent a picture of the Seminoles' enormous offensive line. A message read, "These are the guys who are going to be protecting you the next four years."
But before Booker could go in front of the cameras in his high school gymnasium, users of Tom Lemming's 900 number—a good percentage of them Notre Dame fans—heard the guru say that he had spoken with the running back, and that the running back had chosen the Fighting Irish. The fans had made their 900 calls the night before signing day. It had evidently not been a problem for Lemming to infiltrate the Booker family lockdown, though some of Lemming's critics believe it might have been less infiltration than flat-out guess, and an attempt to placate the ND fan base.
Today, Lemming attempts to distance himself from the fracas. He has his own theories on what might have changed the recruit's mind, but, he says, "With Booker, I wasn't really involved with it. Except that I was on the air when he switched." The press conference was broadcast on a special 90-minute edition of ESPN's "Sportscenter;" the network has not had a signing-day show since. As host of the special, Lemming sat inside ESPN's Bristol, Connecticut, studios, beside the college-football anchor Chris Fowler. According to Lemming and others, sometime before the press conference, Booker called the show's producers and informed them of his choice, so that ESPN might immediately get the winning head coach on the line for a celebratory interview. The producers began typing up questions for Ty Willingham, and Lemming went ahead with what his 900 users already knew. On the air, to millions of recruitniks, Lemming announced that Booker was going with Notre Dame, not surprising since one of Booker's high school teammates, James Bonelli, an offensive lineman, had already committed to play there.
Minutes later, in front of the microphones and the cameras, Booker hung up a telephone and said, "James told me one of the reasons he went to Notre Dame was because it was the school he always wanted to go to. His heart was there. He didn't care who the coach was. Just the fact that he got to go to the school he dreamed of going to pretty much did it for him. So I've got to go to . . . Florida State."
The running back put the FSU hat on his head, and Sportscenter cut back to Lemming.