Looking for answers from a tangled Web

High Schools

January 11, 2003|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Surrounded by posters of Michael Vick and Deion Sanders, the teddy bear that his girlfriend gave him and his Gilman football helmet, Ambrose Wooden hunkers over his home computer most nights. He logs onto the Internet and fires off missives to friends, far and near.

The distant ones are star players, like him, with one thought in mind: Where will they be playing next year? Some know; others, like Wooden, do not.

But surfing the Net may help take him there.

"It [the computer] has enlightened me on what to look for," he says of his college search.

For prize Division I prospects and the schools that are courting them, the Internet has become a staple in the recruiting process. With the click of a mouse, phenoms can size up everything from a team's facilities to its depth charts. They can chew the cyberfat with college players to learn what campus life is like. And they can contact others being recruited by the same schools to compare notes on a coach's sales pitch.

On the other hand, mining the Internet can be time-consuming. And some for-profit sites on football recruiting are fraught with gossip and misinformation, making a tour of the Web seem like broken-field running.

"What is disguised as `truth' is often rumor and innuendo, which gives these kids mixed statements," says Marc Isenberg, co-author of the Student-Athlete Survival Guide. While recruits can glean useful information from the Internet, he says, "so much of what is out there is an adult-driven cottage industry designed to make money off these prospects.

"It's like a People magazine for athletes."

Wooden, the senior quarterback of Gilman's top-ranked state team, ignores the warren of tongue-wagging chat rooms. Instead, come evening, he sits at the keyboard of his aging Compaq desktop and trades hellos with allies, including a dozen recruits from distant parts and some college lettermen he met on visits to Notre Dame, Boston College and Maryland.

Mostly, Wooden corresponds via an instant message system. One night last week found him swapping banter with an out-of-stater who has already committed to Notre Dame. More and more these days, players who have chosen their college try to persuade Wooden to join them.

"They want you to go where they're going," he says. "They pull your leg and say stuff like, `Are you coming or not?' It's like [the recruits] have become salesmen, too."

Wooden, The Sun's Offensive Player of the Year, will not be rushed. This weekend, he was to fly to California to visit Stanford. Next week, a lineup of coaches - including Tyrone Willingham of Notre Dame and Ralph Friedgen of Maryland - are to call on Wooden at his home in East Baltimore.

The recruiting chase, which includes 238 Division I schools, culminates on National Letter of Intent Signing Day on Feb. 5. By then, every prospect must declare his college intentions - if the Internet doesn't beat him to it. Competitive Web sites such as Rivals.com, Sportsline.com and ESPN.com enlist networks of analysts whose job it is to tag after top prospects and flesh out the teams that will play next fall.

For prospects, the upside of the Internet is an unvarnished look at a college's personnel and how well they may mesh with other recruits.

"It levels the playing field a bit," says Shannon Terry, president of Rivals.com. "The more information, the better.

"Coaches have to watch what they say to these young men. They must be on their Ps and Qs and paint an accurate picture."

On the downside are the relentless inquiries from cyberscouts out to satisfy the demands of alumni, fans and those who partake in football pools.

"Some of these kids now get four or five phone calls a night from recruiting `experts' wanting to know where they're going," says Mike Karwoski, assistant athletic director for compliance at University of Notre Dame.

The volume is vast, but so is the margin of error. Karwoski says he receives "hundreds" of calls from Irish followers upset by alleged recruiting violations described online. His job requires that he check each one out.

If it's a falsehood, there is no one to report it to because the content of Internet recruiting sites is not regulated.

"The use of the Internet in recruiting has exploded in the last few years," says Karwoski, "and I don't think NCAA regulations have kept pace with it."

What the NCAA does regulate are the electronic communiquM-is between college coach and prospect. Unlimited e-mails are allowed; instant messages are restricted.

"E-mails are like letters - they're unlimited," says NCAA spokesperson Laronica Conway. "If a coach and kid want to write back and forth into the wee hours of the morning, to learn about each other, that's up to them."

Contact by instant message is considered a phone call. Such access is limited during recruiting season, says Conway, adding that electronic IMs "are hard to monitor. Unless it were a self-reported violation, we probably wouldn't know it."

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