With signing day on Wednesday, recruiting news is bigger than ever – especially in DGB-crazed Arkansas. But who are the men bringing us all this nonstop recruiting info? What draws them to this recruiting news niche? And why has the field grow so fast? Finally, how do the recruits and their families under the microscope feel about the process? I spoke with the father of Razorback commit Deatrich Wise, Jr. and found some of his statements remarkably candid (for more, read “The Recruit” section below) Get all this background and more from the following piece, originally published in the September issue of Arkansas Life:
One of the fastest growing sports news beats is recruiting, where millions of fans want to know what hundreds of top high school athletes have to say about their favorite program. In Arkansas, the prime gatekeepers of this information power some of the state’s biggest sports sites. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s recruiting blog had 700,000 views in a month. Hawgsports.com, which covers all aspects of Razorbacks sports with a focus on recruiting, topped five million page views in January 2010, the month before National Signing Day on February 3rd.
These recruiting gurus constantly interview the athletes and churn out articles hitting on basics – weight, height, bench press, vertical jumps, 40-yard dash, schools visited, impressions made by coaches. Eight times out of ten, it seems, you can bank on a kid giving props to the UA business school and/or football team’s weight room.
The content may seem redundant, but there’s more at play. This is a trade built on dreams. When the recruit picks up the phone, he hopes his words bring a scholarship, a degree and career.
For the ever-hopeful Arkansas fan, though, these words can evoke something far more visceral: visions of an entire state wrapped in cardinal red, the last seconds of a dream season ticking away, all those goose-bumped arms slowly rising, falling, while one “Woo Pig Sooie” atop another cascades across the Ozarks, ringing into the night.
On many nights in the early 1980s, Otis Kirk fell asleep listening to the voice of Max Emfinger, one of the nation’s first full-time football recruiting analysts. Radio sports talk shows featured Emfinger, whose background was in Texas football, because he knew enough about other states’ athletes to rank the best prep players nationwide. Sports fans, it turned out, absolutely ate this stuff up.Kirk said his fascination with such prep sports emerged in his childhood in northwest Arkansas during the 1960s. An urge compelled him to write to newspaper sports departments across the nation, seeking lists of high school athletes who made their all-city and all-state teams. “I would collect those. I have no idea why.”
Years later, Kirk was working various odd jobs around his hometown of Mena when he struck up a conversation the publisher of the Mena Star, with whom he coached baseball. The publisher knew Kirk wanted to work as a coach, but convinced him to try writing instead. Kirk took him up on a part-time gig to supplement his convenience store job. He weekly banked $50 covering the Mena Bearcats, but enjoyed it. By 1986, he was full-time.
Kirk had seized one opportunity, and soon saw another. With his knowledge of the national recruiting scene, Kirk started reporting on the recruits of the state’s flagship program up the road. That proved popular. For football signing days, he began running extensive bios and photos of all Razorback signees. With that also good reception, Kirk started publishing his own newsletter profiling the top high school players in the area four times a year. He talked to athletes about the schools they considered attending; took photos of them during games and made his own local rankings. Kirk’s newsletters were so popular he started writing them monthly.
It became obvious Kirk had tapped into a demand which would be difficult to sate.
“One thing I’ve found about Arkansas fans is they can’t get enough information.”
Walk into the office of Wadie Moore, assistant executive director of the Arkansas Activities Association, and you’ll find a stack of Dave Campbell’s Arkansas Football magazines on the shelf behind him.
As prep sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette in the 1970s, Moore wrote about the state’s best prep players for the local edition of the north Texas-based magazine. Before the mid-1970s, it was primarily Texas publications and radio sports shows who sought news about Arkansas’ recruits.
But Moore recalled the scene changed around 1977, when Lou Holtz started coaching the Razorbacks. Until that point, Moore wrote stories a few days before signing day about players whom Arkansas had offered scholarships. He got some of this information directly from the university’s sports information department. He also talked to Razorback boosters who regularly called with tips, he said.
In Holtz’s first season, he announced the UA would no longer release names of players offered scholarships until signing day. But Moore didn’t want to wait. Instead, he saw an opportunity to scoop the Gazette’s rival newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat, Moore said was following Holtz’s directive.
Moore had gotten the approximately 30 names of that class from his sources and decided to run it a a few days early. Moore recalled the reaction in a 2000 interview for an oral history project with the University of Arkansas’ Pryor Center: “One kid, Lou didn’t even know had made a commitment to him. He called and said, “I didn’t know that until I read the paper. [laughter].”
The scoop thrust recruiting news into the front lines of an emerging war between the state’s two largest newspaper. “We jumped on it,” Moore said. “We were aggressive back then.”
Otis Kirk was the first Arkansan to primarily report on recruiting. Dudley Dawson, who as a college student in the early 1980s served as a team manager for the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team, followed soon afterward.
Dawson’s familiarity with then coach Nolan Richardson and his staff provided invaluable connections when he began sportswriting for the Northwest Arkansas Times in 1988. The Razorback games beat was already taken, but it was clear from the popularity of Kirk’s newsletter there was a demand for more recruiting news. So Dawson started writing features on the state’s top recruits, which developed into weekly articles.
Dawson fell in love with recruiting in the early 1990s, when he went to Indianapolis to report on West Fork’s John Nelson at the Nike All-America basketball game. There, Dawson got a sneak peak at future NBA MVPs.
“When I went up there and saw Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan and several other players, I was hooked on recruiting and started elevating it with our newspaper from that point.”
By the time Arkansas won the 1994 NCAA national championship game in basketball, interest had spiked to an all-time high. Dawson was cranking out football or basketball recruiting articles nearly every day while traveling to numerous all-star camps and writing features for Hawgs Illustrated magazine.
Dawson also covered Razorback basketball during the 1990s and said at first it was tough to “disassociate myself from any fandom” given his background with the program. Adding another layer of complexity to his current job as Hawg Illustrated recruiting and basketball editor is Dawson’s relationship with the Razorbacks’ new head basketball coach. Mike Anderson, then Nolan Richardson’s assistant, helped console Dawson as his wife died from cancer in 2001. “He was one of my closest friends and was a real help when my wife was battling cancer and going through that.”
Richard Davenport, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s recruiting guru, has also grown close to some of his sources. He tries to give advice when appropriate, and he said the feedback is something he immensely enjoys. “You see a lot of these kids coming from single-parent households, it’s almost like I become somewhat of a big brother or a father figure.”
“I was raised by a single mom, so I understand some of the challenges these kids face.”
As far as advice, he’ll warn his interviewees if he thinks they are posting material to their Facebook or Twitter pages that could turn people off, such as provocative rap lyrics. “I’ll tell him, ‘You need to watch it. Fans are watching. Coaches are watching.’”
Davenport recalled a surprise text from a basketball player he’d interviewed many times. The player thanked him for his advice, then added he’d become like a father figure. To this day, the memory makes Davenport tear up.
Davenport praises kids already staying out of trouble to keep it up. “I try to think back to when I was a kid and I just try to encourage them.” He’s told some recent Razorback recent recruits such as Cordale Boyd, Jeremy Ward and Braylon Mitchell: “You’re going to go places. You keep this attitude, 10, 15 years from now you’re going to be successful. You’re going to stand out above everybody else because of the type of person you are.”
One of the central struggles of the local recruiting analyst’s job is trying to remain neutral while writing for a single fan base. “I always go into this as I’m not here to help Arkansas, I’m not here to hurt Arkansas,” Dawson said. “That’s my philosophy as far as writing these articles. But I’m well aware that coaches are able to send photocopies of our articles to recruits and it helps them in their recruiting I would think.” (While this was formerly legal, the NCAA no longer allows this practice)
Davenport, meanwhile, has just started his own plush toy vending machine business after driving 15 years for FedEx Ground. Around 2005, he started writing recruiting posts on the sports message board Hogville for fun. He enjoyed the hunt involved in cold calling high schools, tracking down first the coaches’ phone numbers, then the players’. After a brief stint writing recruiting news about the University of Central Arkansas, he replaced Kirk as the Democrat-Gazette’s recruiting analyst in August 2007.
High school senior Deatrich Wise, Jr. is one of the numerous prospects the gurus interviewed this past summer. In July, the Carrolton, Texas native was making the rounds, going to various camps and combines across the region to impress college coaches. From a physical standpoint, that wasn’t difficult. Wise, Jr. stands 6-feet-6, weighs 235 pounds, runs a 40-yard dash in 4.82 seconds. His soft voice belies the terror he inflicts as an SEC-sized defensive end still in high school.His father Deatrich Wise, Sr., who played football at Jackson State University, has been beside Junior nearly every step of the way on these trips. Wise, Sr. said the sheer number of measurements and grades involved in today’s recruiting process drawfs anything the 46-year-old knew in high school.
In the end, the Wises liked what they saw – UA’s relatively rurual setting, its agriculture school, and of course that elite SEC competition. On August 6, Deatrich made a verbal commitment to the Hogs. On arpreps.com and hogville.net alone, that news generated at least 3300 views and 46 comments.
Within a couple days, all the readers had moved on.
In this quickly expanding business, will demand ever be met? Seemingly, the pie just keeps growing, with more slices for all.
In the last decades, the Democrat-Gazette, Hawgsports.com (with rivals.com) and Hawgsillustrated.com (with scout.com) have been the scene’s major players online. But in the last few years, other companies have emerged to share in the bounty.
In August 2011, 247Sports.com immediately emerged as a fourth major player when it hired Kirk to spearhead the recruiting news angle of its nascent Arkansas site. Meanwhile, after about 17 months with the company, Danny West replaced Kirk as Hawgsports.com’s primary recruiting guy.
Other statewide outlets are trying to report more of Arkansas’ non-Razorback recruiting news. VYPE, a national syndicate of magazines focusing on the high school sports, released a 200-page issue in April 2009 dedicated to recruiting within the state. Forty-seven pages focused on the recruiting classes of Arkansas universities without pigs on their helmets. That issue didn’t sell well enough for follow-up recruiting issues but VYPE continues to publish 12 issues a year and post frequently to its Web site, VYPE Arkansas editor Nate Olson said.
In summer 2011, Luke Matheson published ArkansasVarsity.com, which was also affiliated with rivals.com. His site focused on prep sports with a heavy emphasis on Arkansas State University recruiting.
Woods, Olson and Matheson have entered a still very much wide open game. “Recruiting has become a sport of its own,” says Wally Hall, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sports editor.
From the outside, this kind of news seems like a strange business, one spent caring so much about the words of a 16, 17 and 18-year-old athlete for the sake of sports fans who, in the end, just want production on the field. Then again, some fans have come to care more about which programs are winning the recruiting game than the actual one.
“I think it’s a completely different fan base at times,” Wally Hall said. “To me, it’s like buying a stock that you know you’re gonna sell in four years and you just watch it develop. They enjoy that part of it and it’s become a vital part of the newsgathering.”
That news is a prime reason the big business of covering college football has become a year-round one. Fans, after all, get a rush whether their program wins a game or a star recruit’s commitment. Nobody know this better than those delivering the news.
For Arkansas’ recruiting gurus, success means having the drive and patience to constantly battle other reporters for scraps of time with teenagers to repeatedly ask essentially the same questions, and to keep the conversation fresh every time. “Recruiting is a job that if you didn’t love it, it’d be the worst job you could have,” Kirk said.