Last week I wrote a review of the chapter in the new book The System by Armen Keteyian and Jeff Benedict that focused on the recruitment of Aggie WR Ricky Seals-Jones. Keteyian was kind enough to reach out to us on Twitter, so we arranged an interview.
Having read much more of the book since then, I spoke with him yesterday about his experience in researching and writing The System along with co-author Jeff Benedict. After some background history (like how they worked for months to build trusting relationships with Mike Leach and Nick Saban in order to attain the levels of access few receive) we discussed some of the ins and outs of recruiting with regards to the NCAA as a whole, along with the bigger role the NCAA plays within college football, since that's what the chapter on Ricky Seals-Jones mainly focused on.
GBH: How willing were people to talk to you openly about some of the things reported in your book?
AK: …We were very careful as to why and how we approached people. Not everybody's the same. For the most part though, there were very few people that could turn us down. And then to turn it back to you guys, with Chester Jones I had gone down and I sat with the family at Tony's diner and explained up-front that I was looking to profile a top-rated high school athlete in the country and it was suggested to me that the Seals-Jones family would be really good to do. Not only with how athletic and coveted Ricky was, but he was Eric Dickerson's cousin, and also there was a mother and father, which I thought was really important in order to get both sides. So after my Sunday breakfast and explaining what the book was about Chester and I started to talk a great deal on the phone and that led to me coming down to see Ricky play and seeing him a couple different times down there in Sealy.
GBH: You went into some detail regarding the massive amounts of communication Ricky was receiving and mention at one point how he had to change his phone number or get a new phone. Based on some of your other recruiting observations, how common is that for a five-star prospect?
AK: I think it's the rule rather than the exception these days for these kids. They get bombarded with text/phone calls (mostly texts because that's the main form of communication), Facebook "likes" and discussions that way. You know it's amazing: the day I got there--it's really the first big scene in that chapter--we see the eleven letters he received in one day from A&M and they were all kind of cute and they had little bubbles on them and when you think about it that's part of The System that's part of the scene. There are girls who are writing these letters, these little notes, and they're not just writing them to Ricky. They're writing them to probably twenty guys who are top recruits for A&M. And the fact that they have that kind of machinery in place is a testament to Sumlin that he understands that. That that's an important part. The way that when Ricky showed up they had his uniform laid out with his number. The way that the highlight reel morphed from a former A&M receiver into Ricky scoring a touchdown. There's a level of high school romance on one hand and high-level sophistication on the other. I was fascinated by it because it's state-of-the-art right now. What A&M is doing, along with the rest of the really elite programs, that's the kind of investment they're making with these four- and five-star athletes, because they are the difference-makers in the programs.
GBH: You mentioned Eric Dickerson earlier, and Chester Jones seemed to be well-informed about the whole process. As a whole, how well educated do you think parents and high school staff members are with regards to NCAA recruiting rules?
AK: Well, I think it varies. I think it's pretty clear that you don't take money. And I think that's one of the great parts of the book to me is that if Chester wanted it, the money was there. And he turned it down for what I think are very honorable reasons: the protection of his son, the protection of his name, and the concern that it was a very unfaithful thing to do. I think the big picture stuff is pretty obvious. You don't take cash, you don't take money, you don't take things of value from boosters. But the rules can be confusing to parents, but they become increasingly wise to it. The whole idea that if Buffy [Ricky's mother] wore a Texas t-shirt to school, people thought that was a sign Ricky was leaning to Texas. Chester realized he couldn't wear certain hats because it would set people to talking. I think Ricky became wise to it as time went on, particularly in the end where one day he might wear LSU colors, then another night he wore the A&M gloves that someone had given him. I think the kids are probably more sophisticated than the parents are in many ways. And don't forget, by the time Ricky made his commitment he had been to several of the 7-on-7 and other events so he had been operating on the upper reaches of the recruiting strata for months and months. He had been quote-unquote "wined and dined" by not only the recruiting services but by the universities and the programs so I don't think he was surprised by too much. Though the moment in the locker room with Johnny Manziel, that was probably one of the ones Ricky just couldn't replicate anywhere else.
GBH: What function of recruiting do you think provides the most trouble for the NCAA as far as regulation goes?
AK: I don't think there's any question right now it's the 7-on-7 world. It's a real potential problem spot and the NCAA is aware that it's one of their quote-unquote "top priorities" right now in enforcement of keeping the 3rd party operators out of the 7-on-7 world. But it's growing so quickly and there's increasing amounts of money coming in that (see, I know for a fact because we're going to do a piece on Sixty [Minutes] Sports on it starting October 2nd), that they're very concerned. There's been a huge expansion and the unofficial visits have become the real problem spot. They're very difficult to trace and to get anybody to talk. So right now in the recruiting world that seems to me, from what I'm hearing, the unofficial visits have become the real issue. You know, these kids are being driven to the campuses by the 7-on-7 coaches or website operators; scouting service operators and that's become a real red flag for the NCAA right now. If you look in the NCAA chapter [of The System] there's a section on 7-on-7. It's basically the passing showcase, but the hotbeds are Florida, Texas, California, a little bit in Michigan, but it's grown so quickly and the fact that the high school coaches aren't really involved and you get these summer coaches who in some cases have more than the players' interests in mind. They have their own vested interests.
GBH: Do you think government intervention is necessary to make specific guidelines for college athletics? Would anyone benefit from facing possible criminal charges for violations?
AK: I was the chief investigative correspondent for CBS for seven years, from 2006 to the end of 2012 and I've spent far too much time in Washington, so I'm leery of government intervention into the workings of the NCAA. But I am becoming more aware of the idea of having some sort of commissioner in college football because in essence college football has become the fifth major sport. I can see where there's a need for one person in concert with conference commissioners and the right power brokers within college football, be they the college presidents, the television entities, that can make decisions for the betterment of the sport when it comes to stipends and issues related to taking better care of the athletes and things of that nature. Because right now, I sort of liken college football to this runaway train and it's just picking up speed all the time because there's so much money that's being poured into the sport. And I don't think Mark Emmert is in the drivers' seat here. I think the NCAA is getting a lot of the blame for something that's not really their fault. They don't control the rules; college presidents and the executive committee control the rules. Right now I don't see anybody sitting there being the driver or conductor of this train and I think right now there's a need for somebody to be one voice that can get all the parties together and make tough decisions.
GBH: Did you have any discussions with anyone you interviewed about allowing players to profit from their image? What is the general feeling among players and coaches?
AK: I didn't. I've been watching the O'Bannon lawsuit very carefully, and I think that's going to have a game-changing effect on college sports. I think the athletes are watching it very closely and if it happens for basketball, it certainly ripples across all the major sports. I did not spend a lot of time on that but it is referenced in the book, because it's part of the NCAA being under siege right now.
GBH: You touched on this earlier, but I kind of feel like there's this notion that college football is sort of on a precipice with everything going on right now, and the playoffs starting next year. What do you think the landscape is going to look like in five years, or ten years down the line?
AK: I don't know. And I think that's the real question. There's no question it's going to change when the playoffs start because ESPN is paid $413 million on average over the next three years beginning next year to televise three games: the semis and the finals. And the pressure is only going to go up, the stakes are only going to get higher, the salaries are not going to diminish. A&M is in the midst of the building boom for their facilities and stadium, so I don't know where it's headed. What I do know is I think they need somebody--because I don't trust the college presidents anymore for one big reason: they realize how big college football is as the brand-maker for the university. It's probably the single-most important difference-maker for a university when it comes to donations and impact on admissions. So on one hand the college presidents can talk about reform, but on the other hand they see the benefits of having runaway football programs or in some cases football programs that are essentially independent from the university. So I don't see them coming to the table for any kind of reform movement, the athletic directors have no real interest in it, so who's going to do it? And I don't trust Congress, so I believe it's going to have to come from an outside entity that can bring all the power players to the table and say "hey, let's not crash this train," so there isn't a walkout by the players in a bowl game or a playoff game. We need to take steps to protect the system and I think that's not being done right now at a level that it needs to be done.
We'd like to thank Armen again for his time and willingness to speak with us. And if you're a college football fan, The System is a unique look into all the aspects of the sport that make it so popular.