Jan. 19, 2014
Before the Internet, before recruiting analysts and before the NCAA passed numerous rules trying to get things under control, college football recruiting was a far different game than it is today.
As recently as the 1970s, about the only rules governing recruiting said colleges could not pay players to sign. Beyond that, almost anything went. There were no limits on contacts or visits and no rules against alumni involvement.
It was a different world out there.
Here are four tales from the trail, including one from the earliest days of Auburn football:
Recruiting tale No. 1: In the summer of 1946, Erk Russell was excited. He’d graduated from Birmingham’s Ensley High School and was going to fulfill a lifelong dream and play football at Alabama. Russell and some of his high school teammates had gone to Tuscaloosa after graduation. At the time, tryouts were permissible. He’d made a quick impression.
Two days after Russell told his family he would play at Alabama, Jeff Beard, the athletic business manager who would later become athletic director, showed up at his house.
“Come on, boy, we’re going to Auburn,” Beard told Russell.
“I told him I was going to Alabama,” Russell said, “but he said ‘No, you can’t go to Alabama until you see Auburn.’ He picked me and two or three other guys up. We went to Gulf Shores for two days fishing. We visited around Auburn for a day or two. I came home and told my daddy I’d changed my mind.”
Russell went on to be a four-year and four-sport Auburn letterman. He became a highly respected defensive coach and built a national championship at Georgia Southern. He died in 2006.
Recruiting tale No. 2: In the early 1970s, a Vanderbilt assistant coach was recruiting a running back. The battle was between the Commodores and Florida.
When the Vanderbilt coach arrived at the running back’s home, he sat down and had a couple of belts of rot gut whiskey with the running back’s stepfather. Pretty soon, an assistant from Florida arrived. Offered a drink by the stepfather, he declined and said “Sir, we drink Chevis Regal at Florida.”
The Vanderbilt assistant coach, realizing he needed to do something, picked up the bottle and gulped down several swallows straight. “Your whiskey is plenty good enough for me!” he said.
The stepfather looked at the Florida coach with disdain and told him it was time for him to leave. The Vanderbilt coach excused himself and threw up. The running back went to Vanderbilt.
Recruiting tale No. 3: In early 1961 a big, strong and fast running back from Hollywood, Fla., visited Auburn. It's safe to say there hasn't been another arrival on campus quite like he experienced that day.
As he arrived at Sewell Hall from the Montgomery airport, Tucker Frederickson, who would become one of Auburn's all-time greats, didn't know what to say. He opened one he thought was his suitcase. To his shock, three bottles of Jack Daniels whiskey rolled out of the suitcase and on to the carpet.
Quarterback Bobby Hunt looked on, whistled and turned to one of the coaches. "Now this, Hunt said, "is the kind of guy we've been needing to recruit all along."
Frederickson had picked up the wrong bag at the airport, one that looked identical to his. It was quite a start to his Auburn football career.
"I figured they'd tell me to go home right then," Frederickson said later, laughing at the memory.
Frederickson became an Auburn icon.
Recruiting tale No. 4: James Vann was, for the time, a mountain of a man. He stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 240 pounds. He played against Vanderbilt in the first game of Auburn’s fourth season of football in 1895. It was the first game he ever saw.
Years later, his son, Robert, told the story of how his father and his cousin saved their money and made the long trip from Abbeville to Auburn in search of an education.
“Daddy taught school in Henry County to save the money to go,” Robert Vann said. “They got up there and found the cheapest room they could find.”
Some football players lived nearby and began to harass the new guys on campus. Though he was powerful and strong, Vann tried to avoid a confrontation.
“They finally came and banged on the door,” Robert Vann said. “Daddy decided he was going to jump in the bed and act like he was having convulsions. His roommate begged them to go away and said he was sick. When they finally came in, my daddy was lying on the bed all wrapped up in a sheet and blanket. They pulled him up, but he got one in the right hand and the other in the left hand would they couldn’t get loose. It went on until they were begging him to let them go.”
It wasn’t long after that there was another knock on the door. John Heisman, Auburn’s football coach, had come calling. He’d heard the story of the giant with seemingly inhuman strength. Vann told Heisman that not only had he never seen a football game, he’d never seen a football. Heisman offered him a scholarship anyway, and Vann become of the great players in the early days of Auburn football. Later in life, he was a beloved physician back home in Henry County.
Recruiting, in many ways, is much calmer now, though there are still plenty of stories out there that would make you chuckle. Rules that limit visits and contacts at least allow prospects to keep some amount of sanity in their lives. They can’t be hid out in hotel rooms and the like, at least not legally.
The first Wednesday in February will be a big day for thousands of high school kids who sign football scholarships. They will be full of hope and excitement. On signing day, everybody is going to be a star.
Come August, reality will set in. Playing college football is very hard. Playing college football and making the grade in the classroom is even harder. Playing college football at a high level is harder still.
That’s what makes recruiting such an inexact science. There are plenty of players out there who have the size, speed and athleticism to play Division I-A football. It’s usually the things that can’t be measured that make a player become a star.
Some recruiters are better than others at looking beyond the size and speed and seeing those things. All of them make mistakes. Some players blossom physically after they arrive in college. Some are so driven to succeed that they overcome physical limitations. For some, potential is all they ever have.
That’s why signing day is just the first step in an uncertain journey.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: