It’s been four days since I’ve posted anything and I can tell you guys are getting antsy, and so I’ll interrupt my regularly scheduled content for something juicy.
I was planning on continuing to preview each position and also sprinkling in some ACC coasting previews done my Pitt-Cocks Fan (Richard Hefner), but frequent reader and sometimes commenter “Joe L” posted something on his twitter (and on the most recent comments section of this blog) that made me decide that now is the time.
And so here you go. I’ll preface this by saying…if you are a recruit, or a coach or a player or someone close to the program, you will know the facts around Pitt football. I do not. I am simply a reasonably intelligent guy who lives in Atlanta (i.e. SEC country) who also happens to be passionate about Pitt football. I am good at reading and I’m fairly decent and synthesizing content and applying it to what I see in reality. With all that being said, I’m about to reference an article, heck it’s practically an expose, on how recruiting works in the South. And I’m not talking about South Carolina and Vandy. I’m talking about the big boys… UGA, ‘Bama, Auburn, Florida, etc. Based on what I see, it also extends to Clemson, Florida State, and probably Miami because when things are clicking their recruiting is on par with those good ‘ol boys. The newest addition to this club might just be UNC. Again, this all based on the tweet below:
As you can see UNC is doing pretty well for themselves on the 2021 recruiting trail, having secured verbals from nine four-start commits…and eight of them are from North Carolina. (I’m assuming the numbers above are the 247 composite rating or perhaps just the “regular” 247 rating – which is usually directionally aligned with the rivals rating. .9+ is consider four-stars I believe.)
And so it begs the question. What is UNC doing that Pitt isn’t? Well if you’ve been following UNC football for any length of time at any level of detail, quite a lot.
It all came to a head in 2014. Basically fake classes for athletes. The full context can be found on its very own wikipedia page.
“On October 22, 2014, the report was released reporting that for 18 years, at least 3,100 students took “nonexistent” classes, saying, “These counselors saw the paper classes and the artificially high grades they yielded as key to helping some student-athletes remain eligible.”
Now in fairness… the article states that UNC has put “Reforms” in place, but also the NCAA found them not guilty, put them on probation….and nothing happened. Titty boom.
Sorry, I digress. That’s just what UNC is (er was…) doing after their student athletes get to school
What I really want to talk about though it what happens before those four-and-five star athletes commit, and so I will introduce you to what I consider to be one of the most fascinating and lurid news stories about NCAA football…ever.
It was written in 2014, and so again, it’s not new news. I also, for the record, don’t think Pitt is doing this. And if they are doing it, they aren’t doing it very well. Because if they were, their recruiting would look at lot more like Mack Brown’s and a lot less like the way it looks today.
Okay so on to the article. First: If you want to read the whole thing, you can read it here.
If you aren’t going to read it, I’m going to borrow from the article pretty extensively below.
Here are the first four paragraphs:
The Bag Man excuses himself to make a call outside, on his “other phone,” to arrange delivery of $500 in cash to a visiting recruit. The player is nationally #1 at his position and on his way into town. We’re sitting in a popular restaurant near campus, almost a week before National Signing Day.
”Nah, there’s no way we’re landing him, but you still have to do it,” he says. “It looks good. It’s good for down the road. Same reason my wife reads Yelp. These kids talk to each other. It’s a waste of money, but they’re doing the same thing to our guys right now in [rival school’s town]. Cost of business.”
Technically, this conversation never happened, because I won’t reveal this man’s name or the player’s, or even the town I visited. Accordingly, all the other conversations I had with bag men representing different SEC programs over a two-month span surrounding National Signing Day didn’t happen either.
Even when I asked for and received proof — in this case, a phone call I watched him make to a number I independently verified, then a meeting in which I witnessed cash handed to an active SEC football player — it’s just cash changing hands.
So yes people, lets stop there and establish rule #1. If you want to play with the big boys, you pay the recruits. This will go on in perpetuity, by the way.
Though of course not every player at every level is paid for, this is the arrangement in high-stakes college football. Providing cash and benefits to players is not a scandal or a scheme, merely a function. And when you start listening to the stories, you understand the function can never be stopped.
Oh and by the way, paying players isn’t going to solve it. (But it will give the guys who aren’t premier recruits some cash in exchange for all the blood and sweat they put into the program)
”If we could take a vote for these kids to make a real salary every season, I would vote for it. $40,000 or something. Goes back to mama, buys them a car, lets them go live like normal people after they work their asses off for us. But let’s be honest, that ain’t gonna stop all this. If everyone gets $40,000, someone would still be trying to give ‘em 40 extra on the side.”
Second rule: These guys aren’t the traditional “Big Donors”
One caveat. If you’re stinking rich, a good athletic director or university fundraiser has already contacted you for above-board donations, and you likely won’t get into the business of paying players. It’s the guys with just about 15 grand to burn annually that usually become bag men.
Also, if you’re not one, and you want to become one, you probably can. (Except at Pitt…because we don’t do this)
”I think it took me seven years. I knew some guys. They knew some older guys. And before, I really didn’t believe any of this happened. Then I start coming around different events, parties, tailgates. After a while one guy says, ‘Oh hey, I know him. It’s okay, he loves the [team],’ and starts talking who needed to get what. And so I was a part of it. I wanted to be.”
Okay then next part is really interesting. The geography.
Each state has vastly different cultural, economic, and physical territories, but every state with a school in a conference “like the SEC” (editor’s note: Or the Big 10) contains consistent features:
- The university housing your team. (That would be Pitt… or in the case of a PA team that actually does all this bag-man stuff, Penn State)
- A capital city. Your school likely has some concentration of lawyers or elected officials. (Harrisburg…just an hour and a half away from State College. )
- The metro (sometimes also the capital) (Heyyy!!! Pittsburgh…and also Philly).
- A community closest to your state’s border with another conference state (In this case Pittsburgh IS THAT COMMUNITY and I’ll tell you…after looking at the last five classes, it’s Penn State, Notre Dame and then Pitt who are grabbing all the top WPIAL talent, and in about that order. For not “playing the game” Pitt has actually not done all that bad in their own backyard. Would be a good followup article actually)
- Enemy territory. Just as your team has boosters active in other states, so too are enemy agents inside your borders. In many cases they’re concentrated in a single area, like an in-state rival’s town, a town close to the border, or an area with a concentration of sidewalk fans. (Again, by the looks of of where the recruits are going, the Pittsburgh metro is primarily Penn State territory, with heavy Notre Dame activity and Pitt as the hometown contender in certain pockets.)
From these areas, borders are drawn and districts are created, but specific territories are shaped by the bag men in them. It’s a somewhat fluid map over long amounts of time.
Regardless of the state, a school’s bag men gravitate toward two centers of power: the university and the state’s metro area, the former because of power, the latter because of football talent. Regardless of where top-dollar shadow boosters and bag men might live, the university town serves as the primary center of operations. After all, that’s where the coaches and players are. (And so the Penn State Bag Men are all either in A) Happy Valley, B) Philly or C) Pittsburgh. Pitt, of course has no such bag-men, but if we did I would imagine they would be mostly located in Pittsburgh. Sure would be nice if we could get a few in Philly…)
And then there is the common sense part:
The rules of communication tend to follow your typical sleeper cell or drug-dealing outfit. Talk in person as much as possible, preferably in group settings. Don’t use email. Never interact with the media. Avoid the university’s public relations or sports information departments whenever possible. Buy burners. Lots of burners.
With a dash of real-to-life humor
”It’s the bat phone. Everybody has a bat phone. Buy some in a gas station out of town, use ‘em for a while, toss ‘em. The worst part was convincing my wife it wasn’t so I could carry on an affair, because I wouldn’t let her use it or see who I was talking to.”
Oh and by the way, nobody cares. And if you think the NCAA is listening in, you’re wrong.
”I can call up a guy in real estate and say, ‘Hey man, we thought about it, and let’s do that 24-acre plot. How’s a 4 p.m. meeting sound?’”
This is a payment to the player who wears jersey #24. The second number here is an amount — in this example, $4,000. Listen long enough and it’s not much of a code, but there’s never been much to codebreaking here.
”I don’t sell drugs. I don’t even speed on the highway. No one’s listening to me.”
Also…if Pitt Bag men did exist. Pat wouldn’t know who they are (but they don’t)
”Coach has met me a few times. I’ve talked to Coach. But Coach doesn’t really know me from Adam. How many other folks do you think he meets a week? After he got hired, I walked up and shook his hand, and the guy introducing us says, “Hey Coach, this here’s [first name], he takes care of stuff for us.’
“Now, what does that really mean? Do I charter planes for the university? Do I run a company that sells concessions to the stadium? Or do I make sure kids get taken care of? Coach doesn’t know what I ‘take care of.’ He knows someone out there is doing this, and that’s all.”
Again…under the radar. Also, remember Henry Parrish , the four-star running back who flipped from Pitt to OLE MISS last recruiting cycle? “I just have to do what’s best for me”, takes on a whole new meaning after you read some of this stuff. What I put in bold isn’t about him directly, but well, this article is talking directly about the SEC.
A good bag man will never be famous. He will never be that guy hovering next to the head coach after a big win. His name will never be known by the majority of students, fans, and alumni of the university he loves. There are no memorial scholarships named after the guy who gave a running back’s mother $3,000 a month for four years.
As you might suspect this is a cash only business:
“Yeah, I’m gonna open a checking account with statements someone could subpoena. Oh and hey, in this small town of however-many thousands of people I’m gonna go in and open some account and then ask for a bunch of black teenagers to be put on there and ask for a bunch of debit cards they could get caught with. Why don’t I just take out a [expletive deleted] ad?”
Here is how it actually works. Now we know why Ag-school and recruiting go hand in hand:
The actual money never pools in a single area. A collective of shadow boosters keeps an unwritten counter on how much each of them can contribute in cash at any given moment for three major purposes:
- Large single sums to convince a recruit to sign with the school.
- Maintenance payments to current players, delivered in an ongoing basis.
- Cash owed by an out-of-area shadow booster to a bag man living in the college town. Sometimes a player whose sponsor lives back at home needs money immediately, so a local bag man not assigned to that player will pay the player, with a marker going to his booster back home.
The small business fuels America. Cash that doesn’t have to be accounted for exists in any variety of ways. Sell a pair of lower bowl tickets to a guy you know from church? Cash. Sell a bass boat on Craigslist? Cash. Run or own a restaurant? Cash. Work in agriculture? Lots of cash.
Back to geography. Ever notice how Pitt can just never seem to get some recruits out of some high schools? We wouldn’t you know it the rumors are true…
Some towns or high schools have already made a recruit’s decision before he’s out of diapers. These are strongholds. The local money, the high school coaches and principals, the parents, and the “uncles” are already on the same team.
This is built by heritage and takes decades and sometimes millions of dollars. Maybe it’s a local business that employs working-class families. Jobs for parents can be arranged with ease, as can pressure on those currently employed.
And the mechanics of it all:
Extenuating factors to consider when putting together a plan:
- What’s the climate? Does the high school coach lean toward or away from your college program?
- Is this a stronghold town or disputed territory? How fast will competition come in? Or is someone already in with the family, meaning you’re the competition?
- What’s the economic status of the family? Any criminal history? Could other incentives (jobs, cars) be arranged?
- What is the family dynamic? Who other than the mother or grandmother is workable? (“I’ve never encountered a situation where a parent or guardian worried about the legality. I can’t say that’s ever even been asked of me.”)
- Who is the one person who can be trusted to take payments and keep the money out of public view?
”If mama’s been working all her life to provide, that’s a very manageable situation. But if you’ve got an uncle talking about being the kid’s manager or agent, talking about his rap label he’s starting, or interviews with ESPN, [crap] … you better hold on, or reevaluate how bad you want this player.”
And it ain’t always the money:
”I’ve paid to put a single mother through rehab. It was the recruit’s older sister. He’s playing ball and mama’s raising two grandchildren, his sister’s kids. Mama’s tired and doesn’t want to raise another set of kids. So we make the calls and arrange for the daughter to go to rehab, then set her up with a job when she’s done. Fast track her to a job at a private business, nothing suspicious. Now mama can enjoy her son playing and the daughter is back on her feet. And when it came time to sign, we made sure she saw something [cash], but I promise you that meant more than just money.”
I don’t think this happens for the WPIAL, kids. But interesting southern flavor for y’all who don’t actually read the article:
”One time grandpa needed his tractor fixed. He and grandma were the primary care-givers of this kid out in a rural area. Well, they aren’t going to turn down the money, and they didn’t, but what they needed was a tractor to get fixed. But we couldn’t take this tractor to get fixed just anywhere, because the guy who does that locally works for a business that’s owned by a [rival school] fan.”
Why not just buy a new tractor?
”Because that would be like a Lamborghini showing up in their driveway. See, you don’t know how much a tractor costs. So we’ve got to get this tractor to a repair guy who we’re comfortable enough calling up and saying, ‘Hey, fix this. He’s good for it. We’re taking care of it.’ The tractor gets fixed. Now you try and prove we fixed that tractor.”
”We can only get away with whatever’s considered reasonable by the majority of the folks in our society. That’s why it’s different in the SEC. Maybe that’s why we’re able to be more active in what we do.
“Because no one ever looks at the car or the jewelry and says, ‘How did you get that, poor football player?’ They say, ‘How did they get you that and not get caught, poor football player?’”
And that brings me to a salient point, because if you are going to call out Narduzzi as a recruiter, you need to call out his lack of bag-men first. -ahem-
You can have a rival coach who is considered a great recruiter, and he might say, ‘We feel great about this kid, if we can just get him on campus.’ Well, what if you can’t even get him to show up? How great a recruiter are you now?”
This is a shining example of how influential shadow boosters are in the recruiting process.
Oh yea, and if these bag men don’t like a coach. They stop paying.
”The coach won’t know exactly when we decide to make that happen, but they’ve got a good idea. Then we get to see just how damn good a recruiter he really is.
“I know one of our guys once stopped putting in big bucks, way more than what I do, just because a head coach cussed too much on the team plane. [The coach] was losing anyway, but because he took the Lord’s name in vain, that guy was offended by his morality and stopped illegally paying college football players.”
And last but not least, this. Again, Pitt doesn’t do bag-men, so it kind of doesn’t matter. But if we ever decided to, stability would be a good thing:
College majors like Exercise Science and General Education have long been assailed by critics as crip-course degrees, but shadow boosters see them as a vital way to perpetuate the cycle. If a player finishes out his eligibility and has no feasible future in the pros, he might return home and become a high school coach. It doesn’t matter if it’s junior high or 7-on-7 camps — each means a new brand ambassador for the program.
”You win the gym teachers, and you can go a long way. That’s why all those basket-weaving degrees are so important, because we need ‘em on both ends. You need ‘em to keep the kids qualified, and you need ‘em to produce guys who can go back and coach and teach and help us.”
It doesn’t hurt that the system produces agents who often become the most powerful male influence in a young athlete’s life. And there is, of course, a fiscal incentive for the ex-athlete to steer future players in the same direction he went. The bag man doesn’t expect any coach to push 100 percent of his Division I-worthy talent to any one particular place, let alone his alma mater, but rather pick spots for the big ones.
So that’s the nuts and bolts of it folks. How to play the game. Clemson plays it. Miami plays it. By all accounts UNC plays it. You can be damn sure Penn State plays it. Notre Dame too. Does WVU play it? Probably, and their recruiting is no better than ours (imagine how bad it would be if they didn’t…). By most accounts the last time Pitt played it was under Wannstedt. And you know what? That was the last time we won ten games.
So a little message to Heather: You’ve got a compliance background, and well if you even sniffed this kind of stuff I know you’d shut it down. But you know what I say? You gotta know the rules to know how to bend ’em.
Of course, that will never happen.
Hail to Pitt