Jones witnesses recruiting's evolution
The recruiting game has changed dramatically from the time Willie Jones Sr. was recruited in the mid-1970s to the present, when his son Christian Jones of Lake Howell (Fla.) High is attracting attention from USC, Oklahoma and other big boys.
Dad didn't have to deal with three years of mail, text messages, phone calls and visits from college coaches. More like a few months worth.
Recruiting Web sites detail the every move of Christian -- ranked the No. 2 outside linebacker and No. 26 overall prospect in the nation by ESPNU.
Dad never could have imagined such things, so each in the Jones family -- a father and two sons have experienced the recruiting process, including former FSU star Willie Jr. -- has his own set of touchstones.
Unlike his father, the process has not yet revealed to Christian a suitcase other than his own, nor a horse.
"I think the biggest difference being that they aren't offering you instant benefits now; [schools] get in trouble," said Willie Sr., who attended South Dade High (Homestead, Fla.) in the mid-'70s before landing at Florida State and then playing for the NFL's Oakland Raiders from 1979-81. "You saw [offers including] anything from briefcases full of money, to a racehorse, to 'What's it going to take to get you to come here?'"
The elder Jones said, "I'd rather not say," regarding who offered those enticements. But he was quick to point out how odd some of it seemed to him at the time.
"I was a black kid out of the projects in southwest Homestead, never exposed to middle-income socioeconomic status," he recalled. "How would I have know what a racehorse looked like and whether I was getting a good product? I didn't fall for that."
Christian is in a race of another sort, and he's the horse. He's considering several schools, including FSU, Florida, USC, Alabama, Tennessee, LSU, Miami and Oklahoma. He has more information available than his dad's generation had.
"When [college] coaches tell me that you can come in and play as a freshman, I go in [on the Internet] and look at the depth chart and see who they have." Christian said. "With the Internet, we can look up the schools. We have a better understanding than my dad did."
Growing up, Christian heard about his father being recruited as a defensive end, and how he went on to earn a Super Bowl ring playing for the Raiders ('81).
Some of those stories were different from what his older brother, Willie Jr., experienced when he was recruited as a defensive end before following his father's footsteps to FSU.
"When I was coming out back in 2001 ... we had the Internet, but they just had rankings. They didn't have all the film," Willie Jr. said. "And it wasn't like the offers when my dad was recruited. A lot of coaches are more concerned now about putting their university at risk.
"I think [cheating] still goes on, but not to the magnitude that it did back in the day. Most coaches are up front now because players can do so much more research."
Academics have become more of an issue than they were for Willie Sr., even though he likely was not as well-equipped for college as his sons.
"When I was coming in, if you just took the ACT or SAT, you probably got in and it didn't matter what your score was," said Willie Sr., whose freshman year at FSU was the final year Darrell Mudra coached the Seminoles before Bobby Bowden took over.
"I just Christmas tree'd [the college entrance exams] and then found out how poorly I was prepared. I overcame it, but I had to work all kinds of crazy hours. The first year was very tough. That was a result of schools not recruiting students but just athletes. The schools learned that that didn't work. That was just exploitation of athletic skills."
Willie Jr. said, "To be honest, they push the academics, but being at Florida State ... they want you to get your education, but it comes down to what you're doing on the football field."
Christian is working to keep up his grades.
"Every coach that I'm talking to, they really do stress academics," he said. "I want to major in business and sports management."
The two elder Jones enjoyed recruiting initially, and then grew weary.
"I don't recall getting any correspondence from recruiters until my senior year, and you had unlimited recruiting," Willie Sr. said. "I took, like, 15 trips to places like Alabama, Notre Dame. I just got tired of it. It seemed like from September until basketball season I was on a plane."
Willie Jr. likewise enjoyed the process early.
"When Jim Tressel was in his first year at Ohio State, I used to look forward to him coming. And I looked forward to Bob Stoops," Willie Jr. said. "Coach Bowden stood out. Having him in my living room when the neighbors knew he was coming, that was like a circus. It was fun at first. Then it got to where I wanted to enjoy my weekends."
The NCAA allows no more than five official visits in recruiting now, meaning trips that are paid for by the host school (no more than one per school). Christian has planned to officially visit USC and Oklahoma; beyond those two, no plans yet.
"At the beginning of my sophomore year, I got my first letter; it from UCLA," Christian said. "It was handwritten. That was pretty cool. I'm just trying not to use any of my official visits on in-state schools."
The elder Jones, retired as co-owner of a construction business outside Orlando, played a different recruiting game than this son.
But he'll be plenty involved in his son's decision-making process.
"I want to be stand back-ish, but I want to help him through this as far as things to look for and make sure he's not looking at it from an emotional standpoint," Willie Sr. said. "I want him to look at how he's going to benefit from an academic realm, and the nurturing of relationships that will extend beyond being an athlete."
Matt Winkeljohn left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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