The most famous recruitment of an SEC football player in recent memory turned out to be a Heisman Trophy winner named Cam Newton and a program that turned out to be the national champion at Auburn.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
You remember the story. Allegations that Newtons father asked for $180,000 from schools for his sons commitment, Newtons assertion that he knew nothing, and Auburns success in keeping Newton eligible and its championship intact and Newtons Heisman from being vacated.
The story hung over the successes of Newton and Auburn, all the way through his selection with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft. In some ways, it still hangs, one more example of recruit and school walking through cloudy grounds with the NCAA rules.
It is the most famous recruitment of an SEC football player in recent memory, and it was described so directly by one of the most famous SEC athletes of all time.
In the SEC, dude, we make sure youre well-taken care of, Charles Barkley once said. Everybody wants to give us a hard time about giving Cam Newton $200,000. Thats called a good damn investment. We got him for $200,000? You kidding me? I wish my accountant could do stuff like that.
This is the new world Missouri is recruiting in, a conference in which rule-bending is as expected as a pair of cleats. Not that rules arent broken in all conferences, or that the Tigers are new to recruiting around national powers, but moving from the Big 12 to the SEC is essentially like turning the volume up from nine to 14.
The SEC is the birthplace of recruiting absurdity. Campus recruiting hostesses became a thing here. Private planes, elaborate visits, $100 handshakes so much of what we think of as the model for major-college sports recruiting is rooted in the SEC.
There are no official records on things like this, but the SEC recruits may very well have pioneered the use of props. And if they didnt invent it, they sure took it to the next level: Andre Smith put on a houndstooth hat to announce for Alabama, and Isaiah Crowell used a real, live Bulldog puppy to announce for Georgia.
This is where coaches routinely oversigned promising more scholarships than were actually available to the point that the NCAA had to change the rules. This is where the facilities arms race for the signatures of recruits burns hottest. This is where the same recruit-them-even-if-theyve-committed-somewhere-else practices Urban Meyer used to build national championship teams in the SEC got him ostracized almost immediately in the Big Ten.
This is a place where five or six people cover nothing but recruiting at one school. And its not at Alabama. Or LSU. Or Florida.
Were the closest thing to the NFL youre gonna get, says Tim Horton, recruiting coordinator at Arkansas. I hope this doesnt sound conceited, but the SEC is the best league. Missouris got something now that Nebraska doesnt. Missouris got something now that K-State doesnt. Even that Oklahoma doesnt.
That figures to be a central theme to Mizzous evolving pitch to high school recruits. There are people in and around MU and the SEC, for whatever its worth who believe Dorial Green-Beckham mightve gone somewhere else if the Tigers still played in the Big 12. Thats a hypothetical impossible to prove, of course, but the perception is interesting nonetheless.
(SEC recruiters) are looked upon as kind of the top dogs in the profession, Mizzou offensive coordinator David Yost says. You go through all those guys itll be fun to kind of battle wits against them to say, Hey, what can we do to put them in a tough position?
Missouris recruiting targets are changing, too. They are looking for bigger tailbacks and tight ends who can block to come into a system that featured more under-center snaps last year. They have coaches covering new territories, most notably Atlanta and the Florida panhandle, with a new swagger about marketing themselves differently to high school coaches because of the national brand of SEC football.
There is a message to spread in the upper Midwest, in particular. When Mizzou coaches go into Chicago or Indiana or Ohio, they can offer better competition than the Big 10 within reasonable distance of mom and dad. ESPN has a $2 billion commitment to the SEC, and that doesnt hurt.
This all puts the Tigers in a different world than the one theyve become used to. Higher stakes. More stress. In the Big 12, the most important sport is football, followed by basketball. In the SEC, its football followed by football recruiting followed by spring football.
Like with anything in life, more pressure brings more incentives to break rules. In the Big 12, coaches at least pay lip service to following the rules. In the SEC, coaches will privately talk about risking NCAA punishment as part of keeping up.
Of the 10 schools playing in the Big 12 this fall, six have been put on probation a total of eight times since the 1990s. Of the 14 schools playing in the SEC this fall, 12 have been put on probation a total of 15 times.
One of the two to avoid probation is Vanderbilt, which has won fewer games than any other SEC school over that time.
The other is Missouri.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to email@example.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.