Most of the made-for-TV seniors signed with heavyweight colleges two months ago. Some in the next tier of high school talent found sizable homes earlier this month.
For all the rest – and the tiny colleges most football fans have never heard of – there’s recruiting fairs such as Friday’s at Cape Coral High School.
Organized by long-time Lee County coach John Schwochow as part of an annual swing of the swap-meet type fairs in Florida each February, the Southwest Florida fair drew more than 250 seniors from about 45 high schools from Sarasota and Arcadia south to Marco Island and east to Clewiston and Moore Haven.
Awaiting them in Cape’s gym were coaches – and even some admissions officers, in case there’s an immediate love connection – from more than 50 Division 2, Division 3 and NAIA schools (no junior colleges or prep schools attended this year).
“This is speed dating right here,” said South Fort Myers High assistant coach Matt Holderfeld.
“It’s like organized chaos,” said Schwochow, a former Fort Myers High assistant coach and the Island Coast head coach the last three years. “By the time I’m done, it’s a good thing we only do one a year.”
As with any meat market, there’s a lot of variables in play. Height, weight, speed and strength run closely alongside grade point average, test score and character on the players’ side.
Location, coaching staff, on-field success and scholarship money help define the programs on the other sides of the folding tables, some shrewdly adorned with golf ball-sized championship rings.
“This is a great event,” said Scott Brumett, defensive line coach at Maryville College, a D-3 school outside Knoxville, Tennessee, in the market, like all schools really, “for academic kids that can play.
“You’re trying to sell yourself to them and trying to get to know them in a short time.”
On Thursday, college and high school coaches met alone to talk wants, needs and the dating pool. Some were following up on contacts they’d made previously. Others followed with phone calls in the evening to players and families.
On Friday, the latter group arrived, often with their own lists of potential matches, to talk in person.
As with any process of natural selection, some on both sides of the table are just more attractive than others. Or they’re attractive for different reasons, anyway.
Trent Rogers, a 6-foot, 202-pound South Fort Myers linebacker who turned heads in the Lee County Rotary South All-Star Classic, had plenty of suitors. Some even convinced him of their affections.
“I believed them,” Rogers said. “I want to go visit them and see.”
Cape Coral High running back Rickey T. Anderson, younger brother of former Seahawks and The Citadel running back Rickey Anderson Jr., doesn’t have Rogers’ size or other on-field “measureables.”
But he does have a 4.27 weighted GPA and good enough test scores to be plenty attractive to D-3 schools, which aren’t allowed to provide athletic money and tend to favor stronger academic profiles.
“Some of the schools seem very interested in me,” said Anderson, who was just returning from a visit to Ohio’s Wittenberg University, a member of the D-3 world that is much more prevalent in the North and doesn’t include any Florida schools.
“I’m trying to set up a couple more.”
Looking lovely itself with a display of its former players to reach the NFL and four of its shimmering national title rings from the 13 it’s won since 1993 was Mount Union, certified royalty in the D-3 world from Alliance, Ohio, about an hour south of Cleveland.
Also boasting a coaching staff comprised solely of Mount Union alumni, the Raiders know they can be a bit more choosey with whom they exchange phone numbers.
“The first thing we’re trying to do is find good-character guys,” said Mount Union tight ends coach Shawn Collins, who completed four years as a Raiders defensive back only a few seasons ago.
“The work you have to put in with our team, and the reputation that our alumni have, if you’re not a good-character guy, you’re not going to fit in our team, it doesn’t matter how talented you are.”
Even with its standards, schools such as Mount Union said there’s still plenty of great recruits to be found in recruiting fairs such as those in Florida – sometimes especially Florida.
“Since we started recruiting Florida, we’ve gone 7-3 the last two years,” said Kyle Rooker, offensive coordinator at Carthage College, also a D-3 school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that has improved its record in each of five seasons under the current coaching staff (1-9, 3-7, 5-5, 7-3, 7-3).
Carthage signed five players from its first visit to Southwest Florida two years ago: Dunbar’s Malik Thigpen, Southwest Florida Christian’s Garrett Pynckel, Barron Collier’s Jamel Davis and Kameron Stubblefield and Gulf Coast’s Galvin Hoopes.
Three started or played key roles as freshman, Rooker said. The other two did the same by last year.
“We’re definitely finding some impact guys. That’s why we come down here,” said Rooker, hoping his program will be able to attend more of the eight recruiting fairs held in the state each February.
“We try to focus on a couple and try to do as good a job as we can with those couple. A lot of schools do that (attend them all). I’d love to do more of it frankly because it’s been productive for us.”
Even with endless online recruiting services and larger recruiting budgets even at small schools, plenty of good players still aren’t spotted until such fairs.
“Guys will slip through,” said Mount Union’s Collins. “There’s people we’ve recruited and you wouldn’t think they would have ever been anything in high school. They were late bloomers or they just needed something different. There’s a lot of good talent down here that’s getting overlooked.”
By bringing so many schools and athletes together at once, the recruiting process can be streamlined for both parties, indeed just as in actual speed dating. The process serves schools as well as athletes.
“It gives (players) more choices. It gives them a sense of reality, too,” said Fort Myers High coach Sam Sirianni Jr., noting the clearer picture athletes get of what’s available from different types of schools, types of aide and so on.
“A lot of (schools) will talk dollars and cents with them.”
Usually with mutual interest the next step is arranging on-campus visits – sometimes partly to see if Florida kids can tolerate Northern winters.
“The snow is definitely a hard sell,” Rooker said with a laugh. “We try to get kids on campus as early as we can after the fair, when the snow is on the ground and it’s cold to make sure they can handle it.”
Even before a visit, though, sometimes players and programs think they just know, you know.
A growing number of schools have started bringing admissions office staff to the fairs.
Hiram College, a D-3 program 30 minutes south of Cleveland, had two tables set up Friday – one for the coaching staff and one for an admissions officer armed with an “express application” that could be given verbal approval on the spot “when they have those credentials.”
“I’m the first recommendation. I’ve seen enough to know what is admissible and what is iffy,” said Hiram admissions counselor Marcus Bailey. “They love it. You should see their reactions the minute they get that handshake and you say, ‘Welcome to the family.’”
Alas, not all attendees find matches, or even much interest.
But with small schools sometimes using up to 200 players to fill varsity and jayvee or freshman squads, striking out at the fair doesn’t have to mean the end of a teenager’s football love affair.
“I think there’s probably a fit for everybody,” said Cypress Lake coach Richie Rode, acknowledging some athletes may have to pay their own way to college. “If you really want to play that badly, I think there’s a fit for everybody.”