Q&A: Sam Webb

GBW and WTKA's Sam Webb talks to MVictors.com's Greg Dooley about how he got started covering the Maize and Blue, about the recruiting industry, and more in an excerpt from this month's GBW magazine.

MVictors: So how did you get started in the recruiting business?
Sam Webb:  It was never planned.  I was going to Michigan to get a computer engineering degree, don’t laugh [laughs].  At the time, and I think it was around 1997 and recruiting on the internet was just starting.  I remember being in the computer lab over on North Campus and going in there one late night to work on some ungodly program.  One night I went in and there was this website that someone had left on a computer called GoBlueWolverine.com.   On that site was basically anything you could have possibly wanted to know about Michigan recruiting.
So I started looking at that site incessantly.  And not long after that site morphed with what is now The Wolverine, and the guy that was managing it was Tom Beaver.   Then I started reading some information about a certain guy on the team and I’m thinking, ‘I know that guy, I don’t think that’s right.’  Or, ‘I think I’ve got some different information about that.’

MVictors: So you had friends on the team.

Webb: Yes, I grew up with Andre Weathers and one of my side hustles was cutting hair, and I cut the hair of some of the guys on the team.  So I knew a few things.  I would send Tom information from time to time.   One day out of the blue, he sends me an email and says he wants to meet with me.

MVictors: And it wasn’t to cut his hair.

Webb: No, it wasn’t to cut his hair [laughs].  So we met and after that I kept sending him more and more information.   I was going to school part time and working two jobs.  One of them was handling database management for a trucking company. But I wasn’t getting paid for the info I was sending to Tom and the volunteer thing started to eat into my time and that caused some friction in the household of course.  And my wife’s first bout with cancer came right about this time.   So I approached Tom and said, ‘If somehow we can make a little money at this, that’d work for me because I just can’t spend the time with this.’  So then he started to pay me for my contributions.  But then Tom had a split with The Wolverine.

MVictors:  What happened?

Webb:  Initially GoBlueWolverine dissolved when Tom Beaver went to The Wolverine and he worked there for two or three years or so.   I wasn’t an employee of The Wolverine; I was more of a employee of Tom Beaver.  While the details are hazy, what I remember is that there was a post on the message board that Tom took offense to.  And I think he deleted it and called it questionable by the content.  I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it was the cause of a massive falling out between him and some members of the message board -- but, most notably with the guys at The Wolverine.   It just could have been a lightning rod for something that was already there.

MVictors: So was there a cry of censorship or something like that?

Webb:  Yeah, or they thought Tom was overreacting or Tom thought they weren’t backing him up.  To me, I still don’t really know.  It was probably something more.  I think Tom felt like he wasn’t part of the team.  I just know that was the tipping point.  Tom feels like he was let go and they feel like Tom quit.  You have differing opinions on what actually happened. 

At that time, the initial Rivals site folded and the guy that built the initial Rivals site started Scout.  Rivals came back as Alliance Sports and they bought Rivals name when they started a new network.  Tom joined Scout and asked me to come work with him.   At the same time The Wolverine came to me with a nice offer that I really considered, and it included more money up front. The difference there was it was capped and it was really a certain level that I could go to.  What Tom sold me on was that it could be much more than that.
What I didn’t know was how much work that it would take.  I thought that at the time I could balance family, other job, school and other job.  And that was an unmitigated disaster [laughs].  It was horrible.  At that particular point nothing worked.

MVictors: So you first teamed up with Tom Beaver at Scout, and this was 2002 or so?
Webb:  Yes.  And none of it worked.  So I had a conversation with Tom and said if I am gonna do this and it’s going to work I am going to have to sell out on this for a year and see how it goes.  If it didn’t work, I’d just go back to what I was doing. 

My thinking was that I could see where the internet was going and I knew that there was always room for competition.  The Wolverine was a monster, but I knew there was room for another fish in the sea.  People like alternatives.  So in order to make that go I had to give it a significant shot and I knew that was the time to strike.  There is limited window in order to get your name out there and establish some credibility.

MVictors:  What is the fascination with recruiting do you think?  To paraphrase Jim Carty, I think a lot people don’t understand why grown men are slobbering over sixteen year old kids.
Webb:  To each his own.  For me, I remember picking up the Detroit News in 1991 and reading what Tom Lemming had to say about all the guys that Michigan was recruiting, and the first recruiting battle I remember following was the battle for Amami Toomer.  The battle was between Michigan and Bill Walsh at Stanford and of course Michigan won out.  I found myself reading that and the reason why it was so compelling to me was because the way that it extended the season. I mean, I was a diehard Michigan football fan and diehard basketball fan, but what do you do when football and basketball aren’t on?  Recruiting was a way to extend the season.
The other thing, it’s human nature to wonder about the future or to want to think something else out there is brighter and I think that is part of the appeal of recruiting.

MVictors:  A key to recruiting must be developing a rapport with the coaches and the high school players. 

Webb: What I have learned more than anything else, you are only as valuable as the people willing to talk to you because there are a million guys with opinions.  But, what makes one opinion more valuable than the other is how informed that opinion is.  So, if you can’t get people to talk to you and you don’t have access to people, then your opinion is not going to be as meaningful as the others.  I have really spent a lot of time fostering relationships. 

MVictors:  What’s the key to building that relationship with prospects?

Webb: Most often it starts with a coach.  If it doesn’t start with a coach, for me, it starts with a face-to-face meeting.   My greatest rapport comes from actually getting out on the ground, going to practices or to these events and meeting these kids and their parents face-to-face.  That is where it all starts for me.  Because again, there are so many guys calling kids on the phone these days that they hardly know the difference.  The big kids are going to get 20 calls in a day.   They don’t know one guy from the next.  The only way to separate yourself and distinguish yourself is to actually get out and meet people and know people, and have people that are willing to stick up for you and vouch for your credibility and vouch for what you’re about.   A lot of the content of the interviews I do isn’t on the record.  Often during interviews kids will say something that I know would affect their recruitment adversely with some school, and I’m just talking about Michigan. 

I can give you a perfect example with Tory Jackson, the basketball player that’s at Notre Dame.  I did a lot of interviews with Tory and he abhorred Michigan State.  Couldn’t stand them.   In the course of interviews he would say things about Michigan State that would have made for great material in a story.  But I would never print it.  At one point I had a conversation with him and said, ‘Look man, you gotta understand that this is a business position you are in and you don’t know what’s going to happen.  You don’t know what’s going to happen with Michigan, Notre Dame or with Michigan State.  If I print what you just said about Michigan State that could severely affect their recruitment, maybe even to the point where they don’t recruit you anymore.  And I don’t want to be the one who affects your recruitment in an adverse way. ‘
And so, from that, dealing with his parents took on a whole new hue.  Now they are thinking, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this guy cares about what these kids are saying and he’s not just interested in a story.’    So that’s been another key.  Paying attention to the person and not just the story.

MVictors:  A lot these kids must know who you are, especially in Michigan and this area.  Are they excited to see you?   Is it cool to have Sam Webb texting you?

Webb: I don’t think anyone is excited to talk to me [laughs].  No.  If it’s like that I haven’t seen it.  Like I said before, I’m a regular guy and I approach everyone like I’m a regular guy including these kids.  Matter of fact I have to tell half of them to not call me ‘sir’, because I’m already feeling pretty old.   So no, I don’t get the impression they are excited to see me but I do get the impression that a lot of them know who I am and that opens some doors for me and for them to talk to me.  That is certainly the case.

MVictors: As an African-American, does that provide some kind of advantage or an edge?
Webb: Quite frankly I think it does at times, when it comes to relating to certain kids and certain parents, coming from where they come from.  I think that does foster a little bit of a rapport, I don’t think there’s any question about that.   I’d be lying to you if I told you that wasn’t part of it.  There’s a certain part of me that identifies with them and a certain part of them that identifies with me.  As a result, that probably creates a little bit more of that trust to get to the point where guys understand I’m not just talking to someone to get the story out.  There are even times when guys say things on the record that I won’t include.  The same thing goes for the parents.  I’ve had countless conversations with parents where they tell me they appreciate the way I cover their son, in a way that it was clear it was more about the story.   I think being an African American has helped with that.  That doesn’t mean that white guys don’t have success – I’m not saying that at all.   And I build great rapport with white recruits, so it’s not like there’s this racial element that leads to success or failure, but I do think at times it is an advantage.

MVictors: Do you have parents and people coming up to you say, ‘Sam, you’ve got to see my boy!’, and folks asking you to promote players?

Webb: [laughs] Oh there’s no question.  There was one guy who’s dad called me, oh man, he called me for an entire summer, ‘Come see my kid.’  And he got to the point where he said he’d bring his kid to the combine I was at.  This guy was from the South and came to a combine at Michigan.  Not only that, he held his kid back a year, didn’t allow him to graduate, so he could do the whole combine thing all over again.  I don’t know what happened to him or where he wound up. 

But yes, there are a number of people that want to get their tapes in front of you.  Now, the people you can help are those that just need help getting their tape up on the internet, but these days a lot of people can do it themselves with YouTube.  

Where I can’t help is for those people who say, ‘Hey, you need to tell Michigan to recruit my guy!’  OK, so Sam Webb is going to go tell a Michigan football coach who he needs to recruit [laughs].  It doesn’t work that way.  I don’t control who Michigan recruits.  I don’t control who Michigan offers.  I don’t even control who they see.  They look at a kid and we find out about it, not the other way around.  We really don’t have anything to do with Michigan’s recruiting.  Many parents are naïve to the rules.  Recently I had one parent call and say, ‘Hey, a coach just came and saw my kid workout.  You should interview the coach about what he saw my kid do.’  I told them I can’t do that.  A coach can’t do an interview about a kid.   A lot of time is spent educating parents about we can and can’t do, and what they, as parents, can do and can’t do.

MVictors: Your “gut feelings”…

Webb: Ahhh [laughs].

MVictors:  In the last year, it’s become quite a big deal on the internet when Sam Webb has a “gut feeling”.  To me it means things are looking really, really, really good for a Michigan with respect to a particular recruit who’s hasn’t officially committed.
Webb: I have a tightrope to walk, and it’s all related to our discussion about developing and maintaining trust.   You tell people that you aren’t going to reveal something they told you and at the same time you have a job to do.  The ‘gut feeling’—that’s me walking that tightrope.  What I can tell people about the gut feeling is that is always based, ALWAYS based, on credible information that I’ve been given.  It doesn’t mean that things can’t be fluid or change, but rest assured that at the time that I give you a ‘gut feeling’ call, it is certainly, without question, based on extremely credible information at that time.

- Greg Dooley is a GoBlueWolverine special writer. Dooley also contributes to MVictors.com, a website covering the culture and history of Michigan athletics. He can be reached at greg@mvictors.com.

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