Each spring around the country, hundreds of aspiring college football players gather at regionals hosted by The Opening, the most prestigious recruiting showcase in high school football, in hopes of impressing coaches, seeing how they stack up compared to other top talents and ultimately, earning one of a few coveted spots at The Opening’s main showcase, held each July at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. If you’re eager to see the future of football, The Opening, both the main event and the regionals, is a great place to hang out.
Last spring, I drove up to Seattle for the Northwest regional where, at the end of the day, former NFL player and current Opening coach Bucky Brooks gathered players around him for a final pep talk. During his conversation with all these impressionable teenagers, Brooks, who was selected in the second round of the 1994 NFL draft, discussed the responsibility of being an athlete and what it means to represent your team, program and community with respect. He added that part of that respect included never putting your hands on a woman and understanding that every time, no means no.
Then, he said something that caught me off guard: He told the players surrounding him that we had just seen a big-time coach lose his job because his players didn’t respect women. There were consequences for not following the rules, and we were seeing it in real time. Brooks was referring to Art Briles, who just two weeks prior had been fired when the Baylor sexual assault scandal blew up and a media firestorm ensued.
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While I appreciated the sentiment of Brooks’ message—that as an athlete you are held to a higher standard, and you need to act accordingly—I disagreed with his interpretation of what had happened. First, Briles was not fired because of what his players did, he was fired because he tried to cover it up. Second, yes, sometimes there are consequences, but other times, that threat rings hollow. For proof, we need only look to last week’s NFL draft.
Joe Mixon, an elite running back prospect who was caught on video punching and breaking the jaw of a fellow Oklahoma student, was selected in the second round. Dede Westbrook, a former standout receiver at Oklahoma who has been accused of multiple acts of violence against the mother of his children, got drafted in the fourth round. Former Florida defensive tackle Caleb Brantly, who was charged with battery just two weeks before the draft after allegedly punching a woman and knocking her unconscious, was the first pick of the sixth round.
These three are hardly the only examples of players who have committed some horrific act of violence only to find themselves in a position to make millions of dollars because they’re good at their sport. They’re just the latest.
And so I wonder, what message is being sent to all those kids who gathered around Brooks last year at The Opening, and what message is being sent to the thousands of young men who watched the draft and—if they were watching on ESPN—saw what Mixon did shortly after his name was called? (ESPN played the video of Mixon’s assault after he was selected.)
Two days before the draft, I called Brooks to ask him, does he ever worry that his words fall on deaf ears? And isn’t Mixon proof that really, consequences don’t always exist in the way we claim?
“I think it goes deeper than that,” Brooks said. “We tell kids, ‘You should know better.’ Well, why? Who is setting that example for them? Have they been surrounded by role models who teach them how to act?”
Brooks’s point, and I agree with him, is that before we decide to lock a kid up and throw away the key—or boot him out of the sport—we need to ask questions to learn more about that kid’s background. I can get on board with that. I maintain, though, that at 18 you are legally an adult. You can serve your country, vote and smoke cigarettes. And so you should know better than to put your hands on someone, especially a woman. Still, trying to find the root of the problem is always a good start.
And yet, Brooks also acknowledged a universal truth that kids see play out every day: “Talent trumps a lot of things,” he said. “And talent gives you a lot of opportunities to get it right. Fair or not, that’s just how it is.”
The NFL is a business, of course, (as is college football) where coaches are paid to win games and championships, not churn out sterling members of society. Coaches talk about ‘”doing the right thing,” Brooks said, but that’s not what they are evaluated on. He pointed to the example of Charlie Strong, who was praised for coming in and cleaning up a rotten culture at Texas but was nonetheless given the boot when he compiled a 16–21 record in three years in Austin.
Brooks also brought up what I thought was an interesting, and ultimately discomforting, point: The economics of coaching have changed dramatically. In the past, like when the 46-year-old Brooks first started playing, coaches got involved because they wanted to help kids and influence their communities. But now, as football has blown up financially and there are millions of dollars to be earned by coaches, agents, players and more, sketchy and slimy people have seeped into the coaching world, anxious to latch on to a talented youngster whose coattails they can ride (and whose money they can take). “It has to start at a grassroots level,” Brooks said. “As coaches, we have to be invested in the kids, not their talent.”
Suffice it to say it was not an uplifting conversation. However, I’m going to remain hopeful. As a society, we are talking so much more about sexual assault prevention and education. Led by the efforts of advocates like Brenda Tracy (Set the Expectation) and Alexis Jones (Protect Her), football players and coaches are pledging to change the culture within their sport. Leaders and coaches at major high school events like The Opening and Elite 11, the quarterback showcase and camp that works in tandem with The Opening, are talking with athletes younger and younger about the influence they have within their communities.
“As a coach you have to have your finger on the pulse of hot-button issues,” Brooks said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘How can I help young people understand what is going on in our society right now and react appropriately?’”
Yogi Roth, a Pac-12 Network analyst who works annually with Elite 11, is passionate about changing preconceived notions athletes have about how they’re supposed to act. “I feel really strongly about this stuff. If you hit a woman, you lose your right to be the role model for a 12-year-old,” Roth said. “But we also have to ask these kids, who decided that locker rooms have to talk about women in a degrading way? Quarterbacks are the dudes. They can change everything.”
Let’s hope those young quarterbacks—and really, any player at any position—who watched the draft last week is taking the same attitude.
Welcome to the first week of our new recruiting column, which I have affectionately dubbed the Recruiting Roundup because I love alliteration. Each week I’ll bring you a variety of recruiting-related items, including a topper on a particular person or trend, a Q&A with someone involved in the recruiting world, a news-y item so you can be in the know and a look back/update on a recruiting story from the last 15 years or so since we started following this whole craze. Of course, I want to hear what YOU want to read about so at any time, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jokes and recipes appreciated, too.
SI: For close to a decade you’ve worked behind the scenes in recruiting with player personnel departments at Oregon State and Nebraska, both times under head coach Mike Riley. How has your job changed now that you’re on the front lines, as you're evaluating, visiting and talking to kids on a regular basis?
Gunderson: The job before was mostly organization, trying to get coaches moving in the right direction. Personally, I’ve never had a kid commit to me; they always need a coach to attach to, someone they believed in and wanted to play for. Before I was just trying to set the situation so a coach could get the kid to choose our school. Now I’ve got to sell these kids. It’s more about personal touch and convincing them I’m the right fit to coach them here at San Jose State.
SI: You had a lot of resources at Power 5 schools. Besides the budget change, what’s been the biggest adjustment? Do you feel you have to be more creative now?
Gunderson: The recruiting calendar changes a little bit here. Kids we’re excited about now, guys who we feel like we’ve discovered and recognized early, well once those Power 5 schools’ offers come in, a kid may have 25 offers by the time it’s all said and done. There was a kid recently, we were one of his first offers, but then suddenly Alabama and Michigan are on him, and that’s all happened within the span of about two months. At this level, you have to do all your background work and know those Power 5 schools are going to be tough to beat, so you’ve got to be ready when it’s your turn. And always, you’ve got to have your next man up.
Gunderson: [laughs] It’s not just about the kids we’re recruiting. That video made people aware of us and understand that this is going to be fun and different. Being out on the road, high school coaches are saying to us, “Man, it looks like you guys are having a lot of fun up there.” And it is fun right now. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but it’s a good feeling to come to work and know it’s going to be fun, to go to practice every day and be excited. When I leave work at the end of the day, I have a smile on my face—and so do our players. I think that video showed that. There were a lot of smiles on those kids’ faces.
SI: When you think back on your experience of being recruited to Oregon State, what would you tell kids about that process?
Gunderson: I thought I made the right decision for the opportunity I was given. You know, a lot of kids have this idea that they want to pay at the highest level and they should. We hope every kid coming here has that desire, but I think they often shun the idea of the “smaller” schools. They say, “Oh I’m not going to worry about talking to these coaches at this FCS program.” But those lower-level offers and FCS offers, they turn into Group of Five offers, which turn into Power 5 offers. And one thing we saw from the NFL draft last week is that you can get there from anywhere. You just need to find the right opportunity for you.
For me, one thing I did well is that I went to a place where I knew I was going to be happy even if football didn’t work out. I was an engineering major—and look at me now, I know—and I knew even if my coach got fired or left, I would be happy. Well, five days after I signed, Dennis Erickson took the 49ers job. What I told my kids here is that even though I wasn’t playing a lot, I had a great college experience, and I want to provide that same environment for them. I want them to love it here, regardless of their playing time.
SI: If you could tell every college football prospect in the country one thing, what would it be?
Gunderson: I would tell every single kid that you should be spending your time on the field, lifting, running and studying football, not emailing and DM-ing coaches. I think kids spend way too much time trying to get recruited. They should be spending that time playing the game they love.
The Ducks were hopeful their once high-flying program would get a shot of energy by hiring former South Florida coach Willie Taggart. The program once known for #WinTheDay has been taken over by a coach who likes to encourage people on Twitter to #DoSomething.
Clearly, prospects from across the country have been paying attention. Since Oregon’s spring game last Saturday, the Ducks have secured eight commitments, including from the No. 41 player in the 2018 class, safety Steve Stephens of Fresno, Calif. The commits have ranged in hometown—there are guys from North Carolina to Colorado to Florida—and age. On May 1, Dominck Wood-Anderson, one of the top tight ends in junior college, also pledged his loyalty to Oregon. Looks like the Ducks #DidSomething.
After the NFL draft, people always want to talk about how many picks were three-, four- or five-star recruits coming out of high school, often gathering data for a “recruiting rankings don’t matter” claim. What’s typically lost in those arguments is the fact that there are way more two- and three-star recruits than four-stars and five-stars to begin with; not everyone can be the elite of the elite.
In the wake of last week’s draft, I thought it would be more interesting to look at the top-ranked played from each class since 2002, when Scout.com started player rankings, and what happened when their draft day came around. As you’ll see, the recruiting rankings aren’t always a perfect indicator of draft expectations, but the top recruits generally deliver on their hype to an extent.