A Plume of white smoke on the Vatican Skyline means the college of cardinals has chosen a new pontiff. Employees in the sports information office at the college of Gators, a.k.a. the University of Florida, also associate a plume of smoke with decisions of great importance. At least they have ever since that football signing day in February several years ago, when fans throughout the Southeast, eager to find out exactly which high school prospects would be going to Gainesville, overloaded a special telephone line set up to impart that information. "The answering machine had been going nonstop for six or seven hours," says Florida assistant athletic director John Humenik. "All of a sudden I smelled something burning. It huffed. It puffed. Finally it just gave up."
Florida's smoldering answering machine stands as a monument to a particular breed of college football and/or basketball fan that has proliferated ominously over the past decade. And as college recruiting has developed into a spectator sport, an entire industry of scouts and touts has sprung up to serve the recruiting fanatic. Remember how those pulpy football and basketball preseason magazines were once chockablock with ads for betting services, muscle-building elixirs and obscure martial arts ("The power of death in your index finger, or your money back!")? Now they brim with come-ons for the myriad ways the recruiting fan can get his information fix—by fax or by phone, by glossy magazine or smudgy samizdat.
And even after the prospects sign with their respective schools, the recruitaholic's thirst remains unslaked; he'll speculate endlessly about the relative merits of each college's crop rather than wait four years for a hard answer. "It would be interesting to do a study of the recruiting fanatic's psyche," says North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, who labors annually to deflate expectations raised for his incoming freshmen. "These people get more excited when we sign somebody than when we win a game."
Consider the phenomenon from the perspective of the following:
•The fan. To some, a blue-chip prospect can be dearer than family. "There's a guy in Paducah who calls me once a week," says Jerry Tipton, who covers Kentucky basketball for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "It seems there's nothing else in his life. Once, he cut a conversation short because he had to go to the doctor's office to pick up his wife. Of course, when he called back later that day, I asked how she was. 'She only has bronchitis,' he told me. 'I thought she'd caught pneumonia from our nine-year-old son.' I mean, his wife's got bronchitis, his son's got pneumonia, and he's calling me about recruiting?"
•The coach. Last fall, newspapers in Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City all reported that a top basketball prospect had narrowed his choice to three schools, Kansas among them. "I'd never met the player, never been to his school, never even contacted him," says Jayhawk coach Roy Williams. "But the papers picked it up from some recruiting service and printed it as gospel. It seems like it's gotten to the point where a coach can go 0-27, but if he signs big-name recruits, his job is safe."
•The recruit and his family. Before their son Russell, a 6'4", 270-pound offensive lineman, chose North Carolina in 1991, Henry and Phyllis Babb, of Wilson, N.C., encountered the usual petitioning from colleges, including a church-affiliated school whose recruiter once rang up at 10 o'clock on a Sunday morning. But nothing hail prepared the Babbs for the fans. "We got calls from people we hardly knew, not to mention from people we didn't know at all," says Henry. "In every kind of social context—weddings, funerals, church and parties—people asked where Russell was going." When Russell suddenly found himself the last major uncommitted prospect in, the state, it was, Henry says, "like being the only lightning rod in a storm."
•The recruitaholic's employer. Richard Wilhelm, who manages a Paine Webber branch office in downtown Cincinnati, has learned to deal with the obsession of one of his employees, financial planner Todd Harden. Wilhelm cheerfully overlooked an episode that occurred one spring day two years ago, when a Kentucky high school star was to announce his choice of school and Harden stole out of the office, got in his BMW and drove around town trying to pick up a Louisville radio station broadcasting the press conference live. Then one day Wilhelm noticed the huge volume of phone calls from his office to 900 numbers. Harden readily fessed up that the calls were to a recruiting hotline. "I didn't want Dick to think I was calling some sex line," he says.
Press 1 and (for 95 cents a minute) you too can hear which campuses the top prospects will be visiting this weekend. Pass through the South and the local newspaper is likely to have exhaustive football recruiting coverage. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution began compiling lists of the top 25 prospects in Georgia, the Southeast and the nation in 1984, expanded those lists to 30, then 35, and now names 50 in each category, which still leaves readers pining for more. Go through Indianapolis in July, during the holy week in which the Nike All-American camp for blue-chip basketball prospects takes place, and you might run into pilgrims like Joel Francisco and Kurt Robles, a couple of Long Beach State students who three summers ago each spent more than $800 of their savings to witness several days of college coaches watching high school basketball players scrimmaging. "Everyone wants to say they saw the great players before they were great," says Greg Katz, a basketball recruitaholic from Santa Ana, Calif. "It's the same reason people go to movie premieres. You want to be first and then go tell your friends."
Because a single signee can make such an outsized impact in basketball, the most intense fascination is focused on that sport, which has two signing days, one in November and another in April. Analyst Dick Vitale feeds that interest, talking up schoolboy stars during ESPN telecasts, perhaps because he runs out of droppable names of collegians by halftime. Further, as recruiters have targeted prospects at an earlier and earlier age—Indiana junior Damon Bailey and current high school seniors Rashard Griffith and Rasheed Wallace attracted the attention of college coaches in junior high—fans have trained their sights accordingly. "All of this is to the detriment of the kid, says Indiana coach Bob Knight, who regrets the role he played in drawing so much attention so early to Bailey. (In 1986 Knight attended some of Bailey's games when the youngster was only an eighth-grader.) "I didn't realize the scene it would cause. It was a huge mistake."