Coaches, Parents Strive to Help Athletes Visit Prospective Colleges
Mon. October 29, 2012 at 1:28 a.m. | By Solange Reyner
Tony Mathewson and his son, Tate Mathewson, 17, drove more than 3,000 miles in a Toyota Prius this summer so the Lake Wales kicker could visit prospective colleges. (Photo by PIERRE DUCHARME | THE LEDGER )
By SOLANGE REYNER | THE LEDGER
LAKELAND | Nate Seidl got one of his players as much exposure as his wallet would allow.
The former football coach and recruiting coordinator at Lake Wales High School took the player to at least five Division I schools during the summer, paying for much of the trip out of his own pocket. Meals, hotel, a plane ticket home from Kansas — Seidl picked up the tab for it all.
"To get kids into college," Seidl said. "You coach to hopefully give kids a way out."
Seidl's dividends will likely pay off: That player has 13 scholarship offers from the highest level of college football.
But Seidl, who left Lake Wales this summer to take a job in Kansas, seems to have walked a fine and thorny line, one the Florida High School Athletic Association, the state's governing body for high school sports, and the NCAA frown upon.
According to the FHSAA, Seidl's actions could be considered an impermissible benefit, something "promised, offered or given to a student or a member of his/her family but is not offered or generally made available to all students who apply to or attend the school."
So how does an adult with good intentions avoid breaking the rules when, especially in the past few years, colleges have been putting pressure on athletes to get on campus — even if that means paying their own costs?
"Athletes should not be getting preferential treatment," said Michael Colby, director of eligibility at the FHSAA.
The NCAA agrees. Christopher Radford, associate director of public and media relations for the NCAA, said financial assistance from a third party could affect that athlete's eligibility, "depending on the circumstances."
"Coaches tell me often that they're (student athletes) being pressured to hit the road during the summer," said Chris Nee, a high school recruiting analyst with 247sports.com. "And some kids who don't have the means to get there often get left behind."
More often these days, colleges want to see their recruits in person, measuring everything from their height to their attitude and working hands-on with them at camps.
And it's not just with football.
Take the case of former Ridge Community basketball player Terry Rose. He helped lead Ridge to the Class 7A regional finals last year and led the county in scoring with 25.1 points per game.
Schools were interested, including Division I Jacksonville.
"At least they claimed they were," Ridge coach Don Skipper said. "But they said you have to get him up here. That was something that was unheard of when I was in high school. I always thought if a school was interested they would find a way to get you there. He never did go up because, in part, of the financial constraints."
Rose ended up at Grambling State in Louisiana on a full scholarship. An assistant coach there liked what he saw on film and made an offer in early August.
But film is just the first step these days. Then comes the phone-call push to get those kids to the school.
"It happens all the time," Lake Gibson defensive line coach Robert Whitaker said. "Take Temple, for example — 95 percent of their kids are offered through their camp. And unfortunately, our kids can't afford to go up there."
Added Nee: "(The University of) Florida is a big proponent of getting kids on campus. They want to see them in person, be more hands-on. They want that one-on-one time." But the school doesn't pay for athletes to attend camps.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
The recruiting rules for Division I football are stringent:
Senior prospects are allowed only five official visits to universities (paid for by the institutions) their senior year.
College coaches can only call prospects once per week starting Sept. 1.
Text messages to or from coaches are not permitted.
Coaches can visit prospects only six times and evaluate them three times during the academic year.
The rules are supposed to be black and white, but there's plenty of gray.
"With the new rules, colleges really have a tough time seeing the kids," said Dallas Jackson, a senior writer for Rivals.com, another recruiting website.
One example he cited was 7-on-7 games during the summer, contests that have become increasingly popular in the past few years. Jackson said coaches can't attend those 7-on-7 games to scout unless they have a son competing on one of the high school teams on the field.
"I know that a lot of football-operations staffs put in a lot of effort to get the kids they really want to see at their camps," Jackson said. "I don't think they're going to say, ‘We're not going to offer you if you don't come,' but you do get the sense that a lot of offers come a little after that."
Recruits can take as many unofficial visits as they want. For most, it's a way to skirt the NCAA's official-visit rules because they can visit any time they want and stay as long as they want, just as long as they're doing it on their own dime.
Unofficial visits were critical for Lake Wales senior Tate Mathewson. He's a kicker, and kickers don't often have recruiters banging on the door.
So his dad, Tony, drove more than 3,000 miles this summer taking Tate to Georgia Tech, Appalachian State, Central Florida and The Citadel. His family didn't have trouble paying for the trips, but they still tried to stretch dollars.
"Fortunately, I have a Toyota Prius, so I get 45 miles a gallon," said Tony Mathewson, a lawyer who handles all the contracts for Epic Premiere, a software company in Lakeland.
"Georgia Tech and back was about $100 in fuel, and hotel stays were about $80-$120 a night, but I got lucky there because I have points with all the major hotels from when I travel with work."
So far, Tate has no official offers, but he does have interest from UCF and Appalachian State.
"I've been told kickers are usually the last to get offered so to not worry about it," Tony Mathewson said. "But if it doesn't pay off, it doesn't."
Ja'Von Harrison, a junior at Kathleen High School, said he didn't go to camps but took an unofficial visit to Virginia Tech after the school offered him a scholarship during the summer. His mother, LaRonda, paid for the plane tickets. She wouldn't say how much they cost but said the trip was necessary for her son "to make sure he wanted to go there."
Harrison committed the following week.
FINDING A WAY
But what about the kids that don't have any kind of financial backing to make those trips?
Some get creative, like carpooling to camps to save gas money, and others hold fundraisers.
"The girls help out with school physicals (taking height and weight), and we ask for a $10 donation," said Greg White, Kathleen's girls basketball coach. He puts that money into the booster account and says that it helps pay for basketball camps around the state. White also self-funded a team trip to Canada last season.
"The University of Florida camp was $160 per person, Florida Southern $155 and Miami $225," White said. "My kids don't have that kind of money, so we do as much as we can to help them out."
At Frostproof, football coach Price Harris asks the community for help — offering cheap labor in return.
"We usually reach out to people in the community and say, ‘If you have any odd jobs you need done, I have some kids who could use some work,' and they're willing to let them do it," Harris said.
"People are willing to help out in this community."
When he was with Lake Wales last season, Seidl's efforts didn't stop with that one player. He said he's helped plenty of others, including athletes from other programs, get to camps and in front of college coaches.
"It was an open invitation. There would be times I would load my vehicle up full of kids — some from Frostproof, some from Winter Haven, some from Lake Wales," Seidl said.
Otherwise, he fears those kids wouldn't get the exposure they need.
"That's why I do it," Seidl said. "Hopefully, they succeed and come back and give back like I do."
Other coaches echo Seidl's sentiments.
"It's our responsibility and our job as high school coaches," said Terrence McGriff, the boys basketball coach at Bartow High School.
"It's part of what you sign up for when you're a high school coach."
McGriff said some people corrupt the system.
"There are people who don't have the kids' best interest at heart," he said.
"They latch onto these kids because if they provide (athletes) the money to go, they now feel like the player owes them something in the long run.
"But that's not how most of the coaches are around here. We have the kids' best interest at heart."
McGriff said he's paid for plane tickets for players "more than once."
"When we see a kid in need, we just do it," he said. "Anyone teaching at the high school level doesn't do this for the money."
The yearly stipend for a head football coach in Polk County is $3,974. For softball, it's $2,426. Wrestling and basketball coaches get $2,055.
"A little gas money," said Eric Robinson, the boys basketball coach at Auburndale, "goes a long way."
[ Solange Reyner may be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7526. ]