Get your fax straight
How a forgotten office relic still plays a crucial role in college football recruiting
This story appears in the Feb. 7, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine.
ON FEB. 2, 2011 -- also known as National Signing Day -- thousands of college football recruits will autograph letters of intent, committing to schools across the country. The majority will transmit those signed documents by fax machines, unpredictable devils of office equipment that have been known to wreak havoc on well-laid plans. "You can imagine the panic when your fax machine doesn't work," says Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, who has kept an IT guy handy every signing day since a jam gave him a scare his first year in the top spot. "I don't know if there's any other way to deal with these letters, but it's frustrating."
Turns out, unless a school requires a fax, the NCAA's National Letter of Intent program actually encourages recruits to e-mail coaches a scanned and signed NLI. Recruits can even use a computer's mouse or trackpad to trace their names into a PDF file and bypass scanners, printers and fax machines. Yet, inexplicably, the fax still dominates. "I try to spread the word about e-mailing letters instead of faxing them," says Susan Peal, associate director of operations for the NCAA Eligibility Center. "But a lot of football coaches are set in their ways." Like Ole Miss recruiting coordinator Chris Vaughn. "Faxing is how we've done it in the past," he says. "I don't see any changes soon."
ON SECOND THOUGHT
Although he had verbaled to Ohio State, running back Durell Price felt nervous about leaving Los Angeles, where he had a young son. But on Feb. 2, 1996, the two-time LA Player of the Year -- who had amassed 4,144 rushing yards and 78 touchdowns in three seasons -- drove to a local drugstore with his mother and asked a salesclerk to fax his NLI to Columbus. He returned home to discover a frantic voice mail from a Buckeyes coach: The clerk had faxed the wrong side of the document by mistake. Provided with an opportunity to rethink his decision, Price called then-UCLA coach Bob Toledo, who had previously offered him a full ride, to ask if the scholarship still stood. "It took me 10 minutes to convince him that it wasn't a prank," says Price. The next day Price faxed a new NLI (right side up) to Coach Toledo and officially made himself a Bruin.
RISE OF THE MACHINES
Hell hath no fury like an SEC fan scorned. Last year a group of testy Tennessee fans, still stinging from Lane Kiffin's departure, hatched a scheme to clog USC's fax machines with fake NLIs. "I think the more faxes they get the better," a conspirator named VolSailor wrote on a message board. "Even admin/general football office numbers. Just blow it all up." USC wouldn't comment on the plot's effectiveness, but coaches reportedly gave recruits an unlisted fax number to stiff-arm the prank.
Most athletes do attend the schools designated in their NLIs, but some think they can hedge bets by faxing to multiple schools. Does it work? No, because the first fax is binding. Still, in 1999, Van Brown, a defensive lineman from Altadena, Calif., and the younger brother of three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Chad Brown, was undecided, so he sent NLIs to Oregon and Utah. His commitment to the Ducks stuck because that fax went through first. "I was pissed," says Ron McBride, the Utes' coach at the time. "Losing one kid usually means two, because you had already let somebody else go." (Brown never enrolled at Oregon and eventually landed at USC.) A year later, offensive lineman Jonathan Colon signed with Miami and Florida; Miami graciously let him go. And in 2007, wideout Markish Jones committed to not one but two Bowdens: first Tommy at Clemson, then Bobby at Florida State. Jones couldn't make it work at either school -- or at California, where he later transferred. He never played a minute of FBS football.
MOMENT OF CLARITY
The night before the 1999 signing day, Justin Coleman, a 320-pound offensive lineman from Demopolis, Ala., promised then-Jackson State offensive coordinator John Shannon that he'd send his NLI at 8 a.m. sharp. But the next morning, the all-state blocker had a change of heart, deciding to become an Alabama A&M Bulldog instead. Without informing Shannon of his decision, Coleman dropped off his NLI with a secretary at his high school and asked her to fax it to a number at Alabama A&M. Meanwhile, JSU's fax machine had been on the fritz all morning. When it finally started working, Shannon called the secretary at Coleman's school and asked her to resend Coleman's NLI to his office. Shannon, though, didn't see that Coleman had written "Alabama A&M" next to his name until later that day. "It was a big mess," Shannon says. "And it was a mess that we ended up not winning."
FOLLOW THE LEADER
For the past decade, the Pacific Islands Athletic Alliance has organized a signing-day event in Honolulu for any Hawaiian high school senior with a scholarship offer. In 2009 the event was held at the Blaisdell Center, and some 50 athletes waited their turn for one of four fax machines. Manti Te'o, the No. 1 outside linebacker recruit in the country, sent his letter to Notre Dame without a hitch. Then, one by one, the machines failed. "One malfunctioned completely," says Doris Sullivan, who was the PIAA's director at the time. "One kept jamming, and the others said they weren't transmitting." A PIAA staffer collected the remaining faxes and took them to a nearby Kinko's, giving wideout Robby Toma -- Te'o's best friend and the Honolulu Advisor's 2008 Hawaii Co-Offensive Player of the Year -- time to rethink his plan to sign with UCLA. "I had an iffy feeling, and that gave me time to look things over with my family," he says. Two days later, he was a member of the Fighting Irish.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Coastal Carolina's football team was formed in 2003, and the scrappy program was forced to make do with office equipment handed down from other departments within the school. Among the recycled equipment was a temperamental fax machine prone to jamming and delaying transmissions. "But it's like getting a free used car: You're glad to have it," says coach David Bennett. The coaching staff even nicknamed the machine Ol' Betty. But two years ago, Ol' Betty refused to accept faxes on signing day. Bennett managed to divert recruits' NLIs to a machine in another department, and later he successfully petitioned the school for a new machine. "We don't know where Ol' Betty went," he says, "but we wish her well."
Expecting a strong recruiting class to bolster a thin defense, the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff coaching staff arrived at the office early on signing day in 2009. But they were soon swamped with calls from recruits saying their faxes weren't going through. Coach Monte Coleman, who had won three Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins in the 1980s and 1990s, sped home to retrieve his personal fax machine, only to discover that it didn't work either. The staff found three working machines spread throughout campus and relayed the numbers to recruits. Coaches then spent the rest of the day checking the various machines for the faxes. "We didn't know where they'd come in," says recruiting coordinator Craig Raye, "so we'd check every 20 or 30 minutes." The team didn't lose any recruits in the commotion, but luck can be elusive. The Golden Lions have not enjoyed a winning season since 2006, a year before Coleman took over the program.
A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY
Even though he had a year of playing time left, Marty Biagi, Marshall's punter and special-teams captain, decided to apply for coaching opportunities at the end of his 2007 season. Looking for a competitive edge, he bought a $20 service called RingCentral that could send his resume to multiple programs simultaneously. Knowing faxes often went unseen, Biagi spammed about 300 programs on the one day he knew coaching staffs would be paying attention. "Somebody at Florida called me within the first 20 minutes, just irate: 'You idiot, you could've tied up my machine!'" Biagi says. But not everybody hated his initiative. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, who had tried to woo Biagi to Louisville as a punter in 2004, later hired him to be a graduate assistant for the Razorbacks.
FOLLOWERS OF EVERY FAX
Recruiting season is huge entertainment for rabid fans, yet schools can't say a word until the first Wednesday in February. Tired of getting scooped about new signees after having to be silent all off-season, last year Buddy Overstreet, creative director of the University of Alabama's Crimson Tide Productions, set up a webcam to give a live, nonstop feed of the Alabama fax machine. "We always kind of joked about people wanting to watch the faxes come in," he says. "It seemed like people were checking in on it all day." Overstreet plans to bring it back this year. Washington also showcased its fax machine last year but won't repeat the feed. Says Jeff Bechthold, director of football communications: "You can't even see what's on the faxes."
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