"I'm all for stepping up the academics, but it has to be done in a way that makes it fair for the kids, too. The rules have to apply fairly and the same everywhere. Right now you have conferences that have rules that keep some kids out, let others in, and there is no consistency in that. That's something that has to be changed. The loopholes have to be closed in the system. Making schools accountable for the kids they bring in to play football is something I favor, too. There is talk about reducing scholarships for schools that don't graduate a certain percentage of their players each year. I like that. I also am in favor of implementing some sort of plan that imposes bowl sanctions against schools that don't graduate a fair percentage of their players. These are changes that are necessary."
The past three years have seen a growing number of NCAA probations for football programs with most of the sanctions the result of faulty or out of control recruiting practices. Alabama is in its final year of a harsh probation. Mississippi State and Arkansas await final decisions from the NCAA for a bevy of indiscretions, many of which are recruiting related. Washington Coach Rick Neuheisel was fired for gambling, but he was already under censure for recruiting violations both at Washington and his previous school, Colorado. There are ongoing NCAA investigations taking place at as many as 15 other institutions.
Reform is necessary. Newberg has a couple of suggestions which he thinks would streamline the recruiting process and would perhaps eliminate some of the wrong doing. If you were to put him in charge of the NCAA for one day, he would immediately implement two changes.
"First thing I would do is reduce the number of official visits from the present five to three," said Newberg. "I don't think this would have any real effect on the kids since I think about 90% of them already know the one to three schools that they are really going to be interested in by November, and for some of them, as early as August or September. This would not hurt the quality of recruiting at all. It would eliminate some of the abuse because you have a lot of kids taking trips just to have a good time. They're going to schools that don't have a chance to sign them because they have a trip to take and they hear you can have a great weekend at a certain place. I think this leads to a lot of abuses of the system. Reducing the visits would help to eliminate this. I believe this is a change that is already in the works for the NCAA and I think it is a good one.
"Secondly, I would figure out a way to have an early signing period for football like they do in basketball. Maybe they could do it the first week of December, or possibly in October. I think for some kids, having it in August or September would be a good thing because they've already made up their minds and they just want the pressure off them so they can concentrate on playing football. I know that the early signing period has really helped in basketball. I know that it would help in football, too, but there has to be a decision about when so it works out best for both the kids and the schools."
Here are some other questions I posed for Newberg, who will be teaming with me on a regular basis for question and answer sessions to provide Gator fans with the best possible coverage of both the Gator and national recruiting scenes:
FB: What do you think about the new alliance of Gator Country and The Insiders?
JN: I think this is the best of both worlds for Gator fans. I'm really enthused about what we're going to be able to accomplish here! Gator Country has been one of the top one or two college websites in the country for years now, and when you add Gator Country to the recruiting network we have with Insiders, plus the ability that Gator fans now have to check out what's going on at all the other major colleges, it's a great situation for everyone. I think this is a real win-win situation for everyone. I think we're going to look back one day and ask why didn't we do this long ago?
FB: The first recruiting class for Ron Zook (2002) was considered (on signing day) to be very good considering Zook only had a month to put it together, but analysts rated it sub-20 in the national rankings. Two years later, this class appears to have the makings of a very special class as we see a true star in Channing Crowder, budding stars in Ray McDonald, Dallas Baker, Ciatrick Fason and DeShawn Wynn. It seems to me that this class has surpassed many of the more highly rated classes already. Please give an evaluation of the Class of 2002 for UF and your thoughts about how it compares to some of the more highly rated classes from that signing day.
JN: The prospects you mentioned were pretty highly rated kids, especially Wynn and Fason ... they were two of the top six RBs in the country (Fason No. 2, Wynn No. 6). Crowder has emerged into an All-American type of player after one season and could be a first round pick in the NFL draft as a sophomore. That kid is special. McDonald was rated pretty high (No. 39) and he has played very well. I think all those WRs from that class could make solid contributions at UF --- Jemalle Cornelius, Dallas Baker, Reggie Lewis, Kenneth Tookes. Terrence Holmes could be the surprise this season but on defense as a safety. Baker has the tools to be a super star. There is no doubt about that but can he put it all together and do it every time out? Cornelius should have a breakout season this year and Lewis and Tookes could do well. Randy Hand is one of the better offensive linemen on UF's roster and on the other side all signs point to Steven Harris emerging as a major player for UF this season. The jury is still out on many others --- McCollum twins, Nick Brooks, Brian Crum, Taurean Charles and a few others. We are two seasons into the class of 02 and many of these guys have turned into some players and a few the jury is still out on. But this is a young team at UF and I expect this class to do pretty well. Top to bottom when we look back after this season and next season, it is a little better than how we had them rated.
FB: Zook has had three recruiting classes. In terms of filling the needs, how has the Gators HBC done?
JN: I think you have to throw that first class out the window but you pretty much have to do that for any new coach at any school. Anytime there is a coaching change to have to go out identify your needs and recruit players in a month. It's virtually impossible. It was tough for (Nick) Saban, (Ron) Zook and (Pete) Carroll in their first years. Look at what those three have done since. It's quite amazing. In terms of filling needs I would give UF an A for '03 and a solid B+ for 04. They needed one more LB this past year and the year before I think they went a little JUCO heavy, especially on the OL. Other than that Zook and his staff have done an outstanding job recruiting their needs and signing players with speed and athleticism across the board. Fans will be able to see that on the field this season and in the future seasons.
FB: Has the playing field leveled somewhat for Florida vs. FSU and Miami in terms of recruiting the state talent?
JN: Yes it has and it's because of Coach Zook and the staff he has assembled. I want to make one thing perfectly clear, Zook had to level the playing field. In terms of recruiting and being a great program, you have to be consistent in terms of recruiting. That means every season you reel in kids with speed and fill needs. Over the past 20 years or so, no one has done that better and on a more consistent basis than FSU. Then, Miami really cranked it up a notch under Butch Davis, and now it's Larry Coker doing it. What Miami has done, especially recently, is incredible. Just look at the top of the NFL Draft the past few years. They are a football producing factory. For Florida to get back to playing Florida football of the 90s, they have got to win their share of recruiting battles against FSU and Miami. Coach Zook and his staff have done that the last two recruiting seasons. But Gator fans have to realize that Coach Zook isn't going to get them all. Nobody does. But there is enough talent in the state of Florida for all three schools to get and be very successful.
FB: I have always contended that a first or second team All-Dade selection is at least as good as a first team All-State in most states. I believe that it is imperative to maintain a presence in Dade, and signing at least one or two of the first or second team All-Dade selections each year is a requirement for a team that is intent on becoming the top program in the state of Florida. How do you rate the Dade talent vs. the rest of the state, or the rest of the South for all that matters?
JN: Lets put it this way, I think there is more talent in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach (counties) than in an other area or pocket of the country. It's a slam dunk. There are so many athletes and athletes with speed, from top to bottom in South Florida. It's unreal. You have to have a presence down there and win some battles. That is why I contend that Miami has an advantage over every program in the country... all they have to do is recruit their backyard and then pluck kids, like Miami always does, from other parts of the country. Look at their track record over the past five years or so. Florida, as well as FSU, has to be able to go down to South Florida and hold their own and win some key recruiting battles.
FB: Ron Zook, Al Groh and Pete Carroll all come from NFL backgrounds and all three have proven to be outstanding recruiters. Do you think that their NFL background is alluring to recruits? Do you think that hiring from the NFL to the college ranks is going to be a trend that we will see?
JN: Well, I contend that if you are Zook, Groh or Carroll, having the NFL background certainly helps in recruiting. Lets face it, most, if not all of the big time kids, have aspirations to play on Sundays in the league. There is no doubt about that. Prospects know that these coaches know what it takes to make it to the NFL and make it in the NFL. It certainly helps and it is a factor. But I still believe that winning is the biggest key to success in recruiting. Look at what Carroll is doing now, after splitting the national championship with LSU. Their last two recruiting classes are super and I think they are the next dynasty in college football. For Florida, Coach Zook needs to win big. I am not talking about going 8-5. I am talking about winning the SEC and playing for championships. If he can elevate UF to that next step it could be scary how well they could recruit.
FB: It seems to me that if you compare football and basketball, it is far easier to project success in basketball than football. I believe it is because AAU programs allow kids to play so many games. Give me your thoughts on why it seems so much easier to project success in hoops.
JN: Is it really? I don't necessarily believe that to be the case and just look at UF bball with Coach Donovan. He has done an amazing job at Florida and has recruited as well as anyone. But they have struggled somewhat since they lost the title game to Michigan State and they have landed All-American after All-American. To me, you can't really compare the two... it's apples and oranges. In basketball, there is so much turnover because kids go pro too quickly. I think football is harder in the respect that there are 10 times the amount of players and the evaluation process is harder for football. In basketball, you can basically recruit from the AAU tournaments that happen in the late spring and summer. Those players are playing against other great players and they are all on the same playing field. Football is so much different. In basketball you recruit a handful of kids, in football you recruit dozens and dozens of kids.
FB: As you look at the SEC for 2004, do you look for the Gators to have a breakout season?
JN: They could. I think UF is a dangerous team this season. On paper though, I like UGA to win the SEC and perhaps play for the national championship. They have a senior quarterback in David Greene, a veteran OL, they should have a top RB in Kregg Lumpkin and they have talent at WR. I think their defensive coordinator is one of the top coordinators in the game and their defense should be outstanding, despite losing some players. The key to me with UGA is Fred Gibson and that OL. Everyone liked Auburn last year but they didn't handle the pressure. Can UGA handle it? No one is picking UF and the pressure in on the Dawgs. Having said all that, I think UF's breakout season is 05. I really do. Barring any major injuries to key players I think UF should field a fantastic team in 05 and 06. But they could do it this season. They have the talent, it's just young. I mean if Chris Leak continues to make big strides, which he should this season, there is no telling how good they can be this year. Will the WR corps step up? Will the OL miss Starks and Snell? How will the defense fair after losing their entire secondary? The one thing I think bodes well for UF is their defensive front. Yes it is young but those guys are talented and it could mask problems they many have in the secondary. Then you have an All-American and a great leader in Channing Crowder. And to be honest with you, I think Earl Everett could eventually be the best of the bunch. The schedule is easier than the last few years --- no Miami, who will play QB at Tennessee, UF gets LSU at home. The four keys games are obviously at Tennessee, home against LSU, in Jacksonville against UGA and at FSU. I see them splitting those four and going 9-2. Winning at UT early in the season is a must game for these young Gators.
FB: What is it about Ron Zook that makes him a pied piper for recruits?
JN: It has to be his energy. The man just recruits, recruits, and recruits some more. He is relentless and I think that attitude rubs off on his staff and makes them step up their recruiting game. Zook is on the road and working hard now. Five years ago, you didn't see many head coaches on the road in May. He has. And so has other energetic coaches like Saban and Carroll. These guys (Zook included) are changing the way head coaches recruit, especially early in the process like the month of May.
FB: Is there a sleeper in Florida's recruiting class of 2004?
JN: Eric Rutledge (Gainesville, PK Yonge) will be the sleeper of this class. He is a much better football player than we thought. We saw the film on him AFTER signing day and this kid can really play. He's much better than what we had him ranked, but we really couldn't change his ranking because that wouldn't be fair to the other kids we had ranked above him who did nothing to fall. So, we'll keep him at two stars, but that's a kid who will probably be one of those who slipped through the cracks when we were rating kids and who will be much better than what all of the analysts had him projected. I think everyone is going to be very pleasantly surprised with his play.