Outside the Lines: Recruiting Ethics
Coach + Player = Package Deal. It's nothing new in the world of college sports recruiting, but is it wrong? "Outside the Lines" investigates.
Gus Malzahn pulled Mitch Mustain aside, at what the quarterback called the "Parade Magazine deal" in New York, and apologized. He had to catch a flight.
Sure, there had been rumors. But now, Arkansas coach Houston Nutt had reached Malzahn, Mustain's high school coach, with an offer. And soon, Malzahn would have his own presser: introduced as offensive coordinator at Arkansas.
"I had to think about what this meant for me," Mustain said.
On Thursday at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN, "Outside The Lines" will go inside the issue of recruiting ethics as top recruits and their high school coaches are ending up at the same colleges.
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Would he follow Malzahn, an Arkansas legend at Springdale High who had helped him break records and win a state championship?
A month later, Mustain announced the wavering was over. He would be a Razorback.
And just this past Saturday, two weeks into his true freshman season, Mustain made his first collegiate start. It was a moment prompted by an impressive debut in a home-opening loss to USC on Sept. 2 -- one highlighted by deafening cheers, a standing ovation from his hometown fans and a bold declaration by one ESPN broadcaster after No. 16 scored.
"You are watching what could be the beginning of the Mitch Mustain Era at Arkansas."
It is a promising era, but also one that begins with questions. Notably, would Mustain have attended Arkansas if not for the hiring of his high school coach, with no college experience, as offensive coordinator?
At the time Malzahn was hired, he felt Mustain, Gatorade's National Player of the Year, was leaning toward Notre Dame. There was also Tennessee.
And also, would four of the five players dubbed the "Springdale 5" have enrolled at Arkansas if not for Malzahn's hiring? Two of Mustain's top targets, wide receiver Damian Williams and tight end Ben Cleveland, had committed to Florida.
After Malzahn was hired, they switched to Arkansas.
There is an NCAA rule that prohibits a school from offering employment to coaches if they were to bring players with them. But it's a rule that's nearly impossible to prove has been broken.
"It looks shady because it's happened in the past, these coaches hired on to get their kids and then they're just kind of left back behind," Mustain said. "As far as nationally, I think a lot of people took it as a joke."
To Nutt, the importance of landing those players was no joke. After all, on national signing day, he said it would have been "devastating" to lose Mustain or Williams.
As for perception, Nutt -- who needed to improve his offense and find a way to win more games after two consecutive losing seasons -- doesn't care.
"I don't really spend a lot of extra or wasted energy on other people, how they perceive things," Nutt said. "I knew Gus Malzahn for a long time. It's not like I just met him overnight [and said], 'He's got players, I'm going to go recruit him.'"
The relationships between Malzahn and his players run deep. He taught many of them in Sunday school. He advised Mustain to make a college choice before his senior season, and the quarterback picked Arkansas.
"We look up to him in every way," Mustain said.
But after that final high school season, Mustain made another announcement. He was reopening the recruiting process. Four days later, Arkansas announced it was hiring Malzahn. And after a month of re-recruiting, Mustain announced he'd stay at home.
Nutt says there is nothing to apologize for.
"No, not at all," Nutt said. "And again, there was a point in time where I didn't think we were going to get Mitch Mustain but I knew we had a good coach. So I was ready to accept that."
But Malzahn's hiring had a sweeping impact. A month later, Cleveland changed his commitment from Florida to Arkansas. On national signing day, Williams did the same, sans apology and with belief in a simple recruiting pitch.
"I'll take care of you," Malzahn told Williams.
They had met when Williams was in the seventh grade. In the eighth, Williams had followed Malzahn around Springdale High as part of a career shadowing project.
"I trust him. I respect him," Williams said. "If he tells me he's going to take care of me, then I believe him.
Mustain said Malzahn was patient, but impressive.
"He did a really good job of convincing us, 'Hey, things are going to be the way like I've told you,'" Mustain said. "They'll be the way you expect them to be. And we bought into that."
At least one recruiting expert says the odds of Mustain heading to Arkansas without the hiring of Malzahn were poor.
"I think it would have been slim to none and slim was walking out the door," said Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief of Rivals.com. "How effective a recruiting tool was the hiring of Gus Malzahn? I think it was. It's what cemented the deal."
Malzahn downplays the connection.
"There's no validity to that at all," he said. "I told all of our guys, 'I'm still going to care about you the same, you do what's best for you. I'd love to have you, but you do what's best for you. I'll still feel the same way about you.'"
For years, college basketball coaches have hired people close to recruits. Kansas took Danny Manning's father, Ed, from truck driver to assistant. And just last year, the Jayhawks hired Mario Chalmers' father, Ronnie. DaJuan Wagner headed to Memphis in 2001, one year after his father, Milt, had joined the staff there.
This season, some scouting services say Michael Beasley is the nation's top basketball recruit. And Beasley has announced he'll follow his AAU coach, Dalonte Hill, to Kansas State next year. But before Bob Huggins hired Hill away from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte this spring, Beasley already had made his verbal commitment to K-State.
"I think people should just mind their business," Beasley said. "I went to a school because of a certain coach, because of a certain trust level."
Huggins says his recruiting strategy is designed for the "long haul."
"We're not in this to get a guy," Huggins said. "I hired good people, and I hired good people who have relationships with people so we continue to get the kind of players that we have to maintain."
Beasley verbally committed to Kansas State before visiting the campus in Manhattan. Kansas State athletic director Tim Weiser has discussed with Huggins and with NCAA staff the reasoning behind the hirings of Hill and junior college coach Brad Underwood.
Underwood is a former Wildcats player who brought along guard Blake Young from the team he had been coaching. Weiser had similar discussions with the previous coaching staff when it hired the high school coach of another top recruit.
Weiser said that if one of his coaches hired an assistant with the belief that it would increase the possibility of landing a highly touted recruit, that's fine with him.
"We ask our coaches to compete and win championships for us, and we want to do that according to the rules," Weiser said. "Strategically hiring assistant coaches that are going to be able to access a particular part of the country, or particular region, or particular players? I don't think Kansas State should shy away from that opportunity more than any other school."
The NCAA could recall only one program that had violated the "package deal" rule in the past 10 years: New Mexico State basketball. But that doesn't mean there isn't the potential for secondary violations.
Last year, Mississippi football coach Ed Orgeron signed star offensive lineman Michael Oher from Briarcrest Christian in Memphis. Twenty days later, Oher's high school coach, Hugh Freeze, was named Ole Miss' assistant athletic director for external affairs.
The NCAA later found that Freeze committed secondary violations by calling Memphis area recruits when he was not a member of Orgeron's coaching staff. Freeze is now the Rebels' tight ends coach.
"The real issue is whether or not it's an ethical problem as opposed to just true complications," Rivals.com's Burton said.
There are potential conflicts of interest. After Malzahn was hired at Arkansas, he quickly was brought up to speed on how much he could contact his former players now that he had gone from father figure to biased recruiter. After all, they attended the same church and often had shared meals together.
"That definitely kind of was a tough situation for me because I had just de-committed from that school, then he goes there and he has a job to do now," Mustain said. "He's got to try to recruit me, so that was weird for me. It was something I dealt with, but at first it was just really weird."
"It was extremely awkward," he said. "I was in a different role. I know the first couple of weeks were extremely tough on both sides."
Nutt concedes that he has "never heard of" promoting a coach from the high school ranks to coordinator and that because the leap is great, he doesn't see it as a future trend.
"I got a few e-mails from outside the state that said, 'How in the world could you hire a high school coach and put him in charge as offensive coordinator?'" Nutt said. "I say to those people, 'He's not by himself.'"
Nutt says he gave up play calling to Malzahn to help diversify an offense that had become too dependent on the run.
"Either it's an inspired choice and Arkansas does much better than anticipated this season in the SEC West, or it may be Houston Nutt's head on a chopping block," Burton said.
At Kansas State, the hope is that Beasley will follow through on his promise to attend and that Huggins, with the help of well-connected assistants, will return the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament. And if that happens, neither the coach nor the athletic director will have a problem with how it all went down.
Huggins sees no reason for new rules to prevent players from following coaches.
"Well, let me ask you this," Huggins said. "Should you be penalized because you have a good player? Should you not have the opportunity to maybe pursue a career option because you have a good player? Should we all go out and recruit guys that don't have players? It doesn't make any sense. That's not American."
Joe Schad is ESPN's national college football reporter.
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