SEC recruiting has a dark side

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.

You remember the story. Allegations that Newton’s father asked for $180,000 from schools for his son’s commitment, Newton’s assertion that he knew nothing, and Auburn’s success in keeping Newton eligible and its championship intact and Newton’s 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 you’re well-taken care of,” Charles Barkley once said. “Everybody wants to give us a hard time about giving Cam Newton $200,000. That’s 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 aren’t 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 didn’t 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-they’ve-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 it’s not at Alabama. Or LSU. Or Florida.

“We’re the closest thing to the NFL you’re gonna get,” says Tim Horton, recruiting coordinator at Arkansas. “I hope this doesn’t sound conceited, but the SEC is the best league. Missouri’s got something now that Nebraska doesn’t. Missouri’s got something now that K-State doesn’t. Even that Oklahoma doesn’t.”

That figures to be a central theme to Mizzou’s evolving pitch to high school recruits. There are people in and around MU — and the SEC, for whatever it’s worth — who believe Dorial Green-Beckham might’ve gone somewhere else if the Tigers still played in the Big 12. That’s 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 it’ll be fun to kind of battle wits against them to say, ‘Hey, what can we do to put them in a tough position?’ ”

Missouri’s 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 doesn’t hurt.

This all puts the Tigers in a different world than the one they’ve become used to. Higher stakes. More stress. In the Big 12, the most important sport is football, followed by basketball. In the SEC, it’s 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.

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