Camp Clampdown: New NCAA rules will restrict coaches

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John Heller, Post-Gazette
Coach Rege O'Neill, from Edinboro, runs linemen through their paces at this month's Metro Index camp at Pitt's facilities on the South Side.
Click photo for larger image.

University of Iowa tight end Lucas Cox was a star at Springdale High School, but he concedes he is playing Big Ten Conference football largely because of his performance at an offseason football camp.

The camp was the Metro Index camp, which was held annually at University of Pittsburgh facilities on the South Side. There, he got a chance to work out in front of numerous Division I coaches and recruiters who probably hadn't heard of Springdale, much less know where it is.

"Iowa wouldn't even know my name if it weren't for the Metro camp and a couple others like it," Cox said. "But Iowa started to recruit me because of this camp, and eventually they offered me a scholarship. When you play for a small school, you need exposure.

"Camps provided players like me from small schools an opportunity to compete with the big boys, and that's really how I was able to catch their eyes."

Springdale competes in Class A in football, the smallest classification of schools in Pennsylvania. Talented kids from small schools are often overlooked as college coaches devote much of their recruiting efforts to players from bigger schools, where the quality of play is believed to be much higher.

Over the years, there have been many other stories such as Cox's: Players discovered by Division I coaches at football camps such as Metro Index or scouting combines like the ones run by Nike and adidas.

The NCAA, however, has passed new rules that many believe will take away opportunities for athletes such as Cox.

Beginning Aug. 1, Division I football coaches will be prohibited from attending independent football camps and combines, and the independents camps will no longer be able to use college facilities.

Many players pay to go to camps because they offer an opportunity to perform in front of Division I coaches. With no coaches watching, there is little reason to attend.

"The rules are crazy," Cox said. "These camps are about opportunity. The people who will get hurt are the players like me. The big-name guys, the big schools know all about them. It is guys like me that these camps help the most."

The camps -- where players work to improve their skills -- and combines -- where players are tested and evaluated -- might continue to exist in some form. And they still can serve as part of the recruiting process by gathering information on players and disseminating it to college programs. But it is clear the new rules will force camp directors and those companies who run combines to rethink their structure.

Coaches' initiative

The NCAA is often criticized for passing arbitrary rules without much explanation. In this case the organization, with the blessing of the American Football Coaches Association, has given three reasons it believes the rules were needed:

Preserving the quality of life for coaches. This is the top reason given by the coaches association for its support of the new rules. In general, the camps and combines are held on spring weekends, which means coaches must sacrifice free time during the offseason that could be spent with their families.

Maintaining control of the recruiting process. Amateur Athletic Union coaches and major athletic apparel companies have become very influential in the college basketball recruiting process. Football coaches see things moving in a similar direction and don't like it. More and more camps and combines are popping up that are underwritten completely or sponsored by apparel companies and/or Internet scouting services.

Fair competition. Penn State played host to an annual Nike camp, and about 500 blue-chip prospects came to its campus for the one-day event. Coaches of schools that don't have such sponsored events see this as a recruiting advantage. In effect, it is an unofficial campus visit for those prospects.

"Coaches only have so many months to be home on the weekends and enjoy their families," said Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. "We've said enough is enough. There are so many of these camps now that coaches feel obligated to try and get to every one of them in order to remain competitive. The quality of life for our coaches is the primary concern. This is America, if someone wants to host a combine that's their right and we won't stop them. What we're saying is coaches won't be there."

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt echoed the sentiments of Teaff and many of the coaches who attended Metro Index in early May. He said coaches can arrive at the same conclusions about players without wasting time traveling to combines all over the country.

"This is the smartest thing the NCAA has ever done," Wannstedt said. "We can't coach at these camps, we can't talk to the kids or their families, so all we do is stand there and watch a bunch of guys in shorts run over bags for two hours. There is no reason for us to be there. We could get the same info without being there."

Camp competition

One other reason for the rule changes, which isn't offered by coaches, is money.

Universities stage camps, too, and the instructors are the school's coaching staff. These camps are big money-makers for football programs and often mean bonuses for the coaches.

There is competition for campers between the independents and universities.

Many of the combine-style camps such as Nike and adidas are free while others, such as Metro Index, can cost a family anywhere from $150-$1,000, depending on who is running it and its length. Meanwhile, camps the schools run must charge according to NCAA rules, which can be anywhere from $30 for a one-day clinic to $700 or more for a full week of overnight camp.

By prohibiting coaches from attending the independent combines and camps, the NCAA has ensured that the only way players can be seen by a Division I coaching staff at a football camp is to attend one run by a Division I program.

"When we first started 26 years ago, this wasn't an issue because there were so few camps like ours," said Joe Butler, who runs the Metro Index camp. "Now parents are forced to make choices, and they are looking to get the most bang for their bucks. At Metro, we've had coaches from 100 different schools watching; at a team camp, there is only one staff watching, and they can only offer 25 scholarships each year.

"The rules force kids to pick a few schools and hope to make a good impression at their camps."

Cox's father, Bruce, said the proliferation of scouting combines made for some difficult choices for parents, but at least he knew that whatever camp his son attended, he would be seen by a lot of coaches.

But with the new rules in place, Lucas would have had to make tough choices about which school camps to attend because of the cost.

"If you are from Woodland Hills or Central Catholic, or you are a big-name blue chipper, these camps aren't necessary because schools know who you are and where to find you," Bruce Cox said. "But trying to get exposure from a Class A school can be tricky. Lucas competed against the best kids from the bigger schools at football camps and showed what he could do. These camps put kids on an even playing field."

End of independents

Although the rules don't outlaw camps -- Teaff was very clear on this point -- Butler believes they will be a death blow to camps such as his. The combines, such as adidas and Nike, will survive mostly because it is information they provide -- the 40-yard dash times, strength test results, etc. -- that coaches are really after in the first place.

That's one reason Wannstedt, and many other coaches, disagree that the new rules will change the recruiting process or deny athletes such as Cox the chance to get seen.

"I think these camps are excellent," Wannstedt said. "I'm all for kids attending them. Those unknown kids, those diamonds in the rough, the small-school kids -- they will still be discovered because we'd still get the information at the end of the camp. We'd then invite them to our camp and take a much closer look at them."

Teaff added: "Coaches have made it clear that they want more than anything, honest and accurate information on the players. So I think these camps can still be a valuable tool in recruiting. We're just taking some steps to ensure they don't become the only tool."

While it is clear the rise of the camps run by apparel companies and scouting services have prompted the rules changes, it is unclear how much influence those entities have on the recruit ing process.

While some players have been discovered at the combines, Wannstedt said most of them aren't getting scholarship offers until they attend a school-run camp. It's there that coaches interact with each player, and that closer look helps them make a more educated decision when it comes time to offer scholarships.

Still, Teaff said coaches are fearful that the recruiting process is headed where college basketball is now: Summer camps and leagues, AAU coaches and the apparel companies are too influential.

"What our coaches wanted to do was sort of nip the whole thing in the bud, so to speak," Teaff said. "We wanted to be proactive on this front. The direction it is going is not a good one. If it works for basketball, who are we to say don't do it, but what we are clearly saying is that we don't want football recruiting to become dominated by scouting services, outside influences and other corporations. We don't want that to become the norm in our sport."

Butler said he understands those fears but believes the rules are too broad and hurt camps such as his, which are not just combines, but skill improvement camps as well. Next year, he knows, his camp will be a tough sell because there will be no Division I coaches watching workouts.

Lucas Cox, like many other players, tends to agree.

"I'm not sure what will happen and I know the NCAA has its reasons for passing rules," Cox said. "I just wish they'd have thought this one through a little more because there are just too many success stories from these camps to ignore."

John Heller, Post-Gazette
Derrick Gooden, left, works the bag with help from Norwin's Brad Rogers.
Click photo for larger image.

Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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