I have been writing about college football and basketball recruiting since the 1970s and I continue to be amazed at how little fans, parents and other critics know about the process.
The most interesting insight I ever received came in 1972, when legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden dispatched assistant coach Gary Cunningham to scout Thornridge's Quinn Buckner.
Thornridge coach Ron Ferguson had tipped me off that Cunningham was coming. I sat at the scorer's table and observed Cunningham, who sat directly behind Thornridge's bench.
Afterward, I asked Cunningham what he had learned, how he evaluated Buckner, if he thought Buckner could play at UCLA.
He said he didn't come to see if Buckner could play at UCLA. Wooden had already received enough information about Buckner to know that he could play at that level.
"I came to see what Buckner did during the timeouts," Cunningham said. "Does he listen to the coach or does he look up in the stands? Does he pay attention? Is his head in the game? Does he keep his teammates in the game? Is he a team player? Is he a leader or a follower?"
It's called character and Buckner had more than anyone else. Today, character, not talent, is the most important trait that college coaches look for in a recruit. They look for kids with character, not kids who are characters.
When I met with Illinois football coach Ron Zook last week, he talked about how important is is to establish relationships with recruits. And he said the most important thing about establishing a relationship is determining what kind of character the prospect has.
That's why recruiting analyst Tom Lemming travels all over the country each year to personally meet with the top 1,200 seniors. He currently is on a 21-day trip to California, Hawaii, Arizona, New Mexico, Dallas/Fort Worth, Oklahoma and Kansas City...four plane flights and 11,000 miles by car.
Some unknowing critics argue that Lemming is grandstanding, that he doesnb't have to travel all over the country--after all, they say, no one else does it--so why can't he evaluate players on film like everyone else? But that isn't the way "everyone else" does it?
"Thirty years ago, I took a cue from NFL people," Lemming said. "It's impossible to get a true evaluation without talking to a prospect, to see what they physically look like. It is important to see if they fit their description.
"Then it is important to look them in the eye and ask how important football is to them, to determine their heart and character. The NFL and the NBA and Major League Baseball, the pros, don't offer contracts and the colleges don't offer scholarships without seeing a prospect face-to-face.
"Character has become so important in the evaluating process. Nobody can afford to bring in a kid who could disrupt the program. You have to know how much time they are willing to put into their careers, to follow their passion, to get better. You can't see that on the telephone or on film."