Martin Fennelly Columns
College recruiting still needs to grow up
TAMPA - Sixteen years ago, I wrote about the future of college football recruiting. My tongue never left my cheek's side. I went to a local preschool and had me a grand time scouting future stars. After all, isn't that what college recruiting was coming to? I wrote, all in fun: Everywhere you looked at Bayshore Baptist Preschool and Day Care, there was talent. Young talent, fresh talent, talent with room to grow, speed to burn. It raced across fallen leaves, hung from monkey bars, climbed ropes, swung back and forth on bucket seats. And took naps. Yes, they were only 4, but it is not too early. Dan Marino, Reggie White, Emmitt Smith. They all started small."We have a lot of athletes," said Paula Parker, director at Bayshore Baptist. "The 4-year-olds especially. They're coming into their own." Wednesday was National Letter of Intent Day, a religious holiday in some parts of the country. This is war. Sooner or later, it's going to come down to kindergarten body fat. A Steve Spurrier recruiting letter will mention "... the state-of-the-art swing sets on campus." Jackie Sherrill will be investigated for giving recruits under-the-table Batman collectibles. And Miami coach Dennis Erickson, eyes on tomorrow, will stare long and hard at sonograms before deciding: "I like the Miller kid. Good hands." Silly stuff - could never happen. Now a 13-year-old named Evan Berry, who has yet to play a down of high school football, has committed to play for the University of Tennessee and 8-year-old coach Lane Kiffin. You can't make this stuff up. Berry, the younger brother of Tennessee safety Eric Berry, says he wants to play for Vols defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, our pal Monte, who'll be as old as Miss Jane Pittman when Evan Berry hits campus in 2013, missing by four full years Tennessee losing 66-10 to Florida early in the 2009 season, when Urban Meyer comes down from the mountain (or is it a stack of Florida arrest reports) to show Lane and his daddy who's boss. We now return you to Evan Berry's first zit. There has to be something wrong here, doesn't there? True, it's not as if Evan Berry signed anything. How do you commit to play football at 13? You're not even committed to always brushing your teeth? Lane Kiffin is playing the old genetic hunch, and a good one. Evan Berry's dad played for Tennessee, too, so Evan will surely be a playuh once he is taller than 5 feet 8 inches tall and stops weighing 145 pounds. Back to my could-never-happen column 16 years ago: "Yes, sooner or later it will come down to Adam Bridgman, a good-looking prospect at Bayshore Baptist. The 4-year-old Bridgman (3-foot-5, 39 pounds) runs the 40-yard dash in 19.3; although, his time isn't accurate as he stopped to talk to a friend by the picnic table. Although there were no contact drills - Bridgman's teacher, Peggy Arnold, makes them sit on the playground wall if they hit someone - scouts will love Bridgman's confidence. "I can jump 40 feet in the air," he said. Grades are no problem. Arnold says her children are learning the alphabet and numbers through inflatable puppets. Many of the children hug the puppets. Bridgman hugs especially hard; locks up well. There's no reason why college recruiters have to stop at 13-year-olds. Just last January, the NCAA voted to change the definition of a basketball prospect from ninth to ... seventh grade. You don't think someone is going to corner the market on 10-year-olds? You think there won't be boosters prowling playgrounds and maternity wards before this is all over? There's nothing that says Evan Berry will ever attend Tennessee. Wake Forest offered a scholarship to an eighth-grader named Chris Leak. He wound up at Florida - didn't do half bad, either. It's a long way until 2013. A lot could happen between now and then. But a lot has sure as hell happened in the 16 years since I jokingly scoured day cares for budding college football stars. Bayshore isn't the only hot spot for recruiters - smart recruiters, that is. Over at Hyde Park Day Care, Coach Robin Roberson is loaded with talent. Among her blue-chip 6-year-olds are the speedy Drew Gremminger (3-11, 45), who has been clocked at 12.6 in the 40, despite eating a Fla-Vor-Ice. ... Others to watch for are Jordan Dobie (4-0, 49), who has good hands, and Jason Burmer (3-11 1/2, 54), who showed a strong arm at a Hyde Park scrimmage before his mother picked him up. Oh, what a funny time it was. Right - give it another 20 years and the NFL will be holding preschool combines. And 6-foot-tall women in maternity hospitals across the Bluegrass will be getting a phone call from Coach John Calipari to ask whether it was a boy or a girl, and if it was a boy, have you decided on a name and who would be taking the SAT for him? That's all fiction, as you know. Well, who needs fiction? The truth is better - and stranger. Good luck with the football career, Evan. And in puberty, too.