I’ll never forget my first year as primary beat writer on Tennessee football for The Knoxville Journal back in 1986. One of my duties was to cover recruiting, and I had no idea what I was doing. But that was OK. No one else did in those days, either.
There was no Scout, no 247, no Rivals in those days. The Internet wasn’t even the seed of an idea. Telephones still had cords and no voice-mail capabilities. Prospects were classified as blue chip, white chip and red chip. Movies got star ratings; prospects did not.
Folks seeking recruiting news back then got their information from amateurish newsletters produced by guys like Joe Terranova (Handbook of College Football Recruiting), Max Emfinger (National Recruiting Newsletter), Allen Wallace (SuperPrep), Tom Lemming (Prep Football Report) and Forrest Davis (Forrest Davis Football Recruiting Guide).
I bought several of the guides, then highlighted the names of prospects supposedly interested in Tennessee. I wrote down their names, looked up their high school phone numbers, then started calling. Frankly, the vast majority of the leads turned out to be bogus.
Checking Tennessee’s roster, I noticed that the Vols supplemented their in-state signees with several players out of Georgia, Florida, Texas, the Carolinas, Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio. I went back through the recruiting newsletters and picked out all of the players from those states. When I was finished I had a list of probably 300 names. I typed each name into my office computer, then categorized them alphabetically by state because … well, because I’m a Type-A personality who thrives on organization.
Now armed with a computer print-out featuring 300 names, I phoned the coaches of in-state prospects first, figuring that Tennessee kids would be more inclined to commit early to the Vols. Occasionally I’d catch a coach in his office between classes and actually get to ask if he had a player Tennessee was recruiting. Probably nine calls in 10, however, consisted of leaving a message for the coach at the school’s front office.
When the school day ended at 3 p.m., I’d stop calling coaches in the Eastern Standard Time zone, and start calling coaches on Central Time. At 4 o’clock I’d begin calling coaches on Mountain Time, then at 5 o’clock I’d start calling coaches on Pacific Time.
When my shift at The Journal ended at 7 p.m., I’d go home and start calling prospects. Some of the high school coaches refused to give out the home numbers of their players but most were happy to cooperate. I’ll never forget asking one coach for his star player’s number. After a long pause, the coach replied, “Twenty-six.” I had to explain that I was asking for the kid’s phone number, not his jersey number.
Whenever I spoke with a high school coach I’d ask if he knew of any prospects from other schools in his area that Tennessee was recruiting. I got a lot of good leads this way … more than I got from the recruiting newsletters, frankly.
With John Majors and his Tennessee assistants chasing some heralded prospects in 1986, interest in Vol recruiting began skyrocketing. That was good news for The Knoxville Journal because our recruiting coverage sold a lot of newspapers. It was bad news for me, however. People began calling me at The Journal, expecting daily recruiting updates over the phone. I tried to be polite, explaining: “Each minute I spend on the phone with you is one less minute I can spend calling coaches and prospects.” A few callers understood. Most didn’t.
In retrospect, I could’ve made a bunch of money if I’d gotten a 1-800 number and made callers pay $2 per minute for recruiting information. But, like I said, I had no idea what I was doing back then.
Eventually, I was getting so many calls from people wanting me to share recruiting updates over the phone that The Journal allowed me to work exclusively from home. My home phone number was listed under my wife’s initials, so the recruiting fanatics couldn’t reach me there. Unfortunately, there was another Randy Moore listed in the Knoxville telephone directory, and he got so many recruiting calls that he asked The Journal to give out my home number. Thank God, The Journal declined.
Most fans probably think it would be fun to cover recruiting. It isn’t. It was the worst job I’ve ever had by far. My average day began at 8 a.m. to coincide with the start of high schools classes in the Eastern time zone. I made dozens of calls to coaches between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., then began calling prospects. There were no unlimited telephone plans in those days, so I was charged for each long-distance call I made to coaches and prospects. Fortunately, The Journal compensated me for these calls. Upon receiving my phone bill at the end of each month I’d highlight the recruiting calls in yellow ink, then submit my bill to The Journal. Executive sports editor Russ Bebb took a look at all of the yellow ink on my bill one month and asked, “Dear God! Do you spend every waking minute on the phone?” With a shrug, I replied, “Pretty much.”
Since there were no cell phones and no voice-mail systems in the 1980s, I didn’t dare leave home. No movies. No restaurant meals. No visits to family or friends. I was afraid the coach of a high-profile prospect might call back while I was out. Rarely changing out of my pajamas, I spent my day either on the phone or sitting by the phone, praying for return calls from a few of the 30 to 40 coaches I had tried to contact earlier that day.
Out of respect for the families, I stopped calling prospects in the Eastern time zone at 10 p.m., then spent another hour calling prospects in the earlier time zones. At 11 o’clock I would assemble whatever information I had gathered that day and type it into this gizmo that was the forerunner of the lap-top computer. After transmitting my story to The Journal, I’d call the sports department to confirm receipt of the article. Around midnight, having concluded a 16-hour work day, I would spend eight hours in bed, then start the process again at 8 in the morning.
On a positive note, football recruiting wasn’t the year-round endeavor it is nowadays. Back in the 1980s most coaches waited until a prospect was a few games into his senior season before offering him a scholarship and most kids waited until December or January to commit. Basically, I put in a 50-hour work week eight months of the year. October, November, December and January were a different story. Between covering football practices, games and news conferences, plus making recruiting calls, a typical work week was 85 hours or more.
Most of those 85 hours were spent making or answering telephone calls. One night I heard the phone ring at around 1 a.m., then rolled out of bed. When my wife asked what I was doing, I replied: “I’m answering the phone.”
“The phone didn’t ring,” she said.
“Yes, it did,” I said.
“No, it didn’t,” she said. “Listen.”
I listened for about 10 seconds, heard nothing, then sheepishly climbed back into bed.
Half an hour later, I again heard the phone ring and again rolled out of bed. When my wife again asked what I was doing, I again replied that I was answering the phone. She again said it wasn’t ringing and I again insisted that it was.
When my wife shook her head, I paused to listen. Hearing dead silence, I realized I had become so wrapped up in recruiting calls that I was hearing ring tones in my sleep. I apologized to my wife and crawled back into bed.
The hallucinations were a one-time phenomenon but I continued covering Vol football recruiting until The Journal folded on Jan. 1, 1992. When I think back on those six years I’m reminded of the recruiting slogan used by the U.S. Navy in the 1980s: “It’s not just a job; it’s an adventure.”
Two decades later, college football recruiting has changed dramatically. Individual recruiting writers like me have given way to recruiting networks like Scout. Thanks to summer camps, there are no “sleepers” anymore. Five-stars are royalty and many fans are more obsessed with the recruits visiting a campus than the players already in the program. National Signing Day is a holy observance and the hired-gun recruiter is revered above the offensive and defensive coordinators.
Clearly, recruiting has evolved dramatically since I got involved in 1986 – armed with a few newsletters, a list of 300 mostly bogus names and a corded telephone. Compared to now, that was the Stone Age. And I was a cave man.