Life of a prospect: letters, poems, free calls

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Dear Tamarick,

"You are about to embark on perhaps the most exciting, demanding and important six months of your life."

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- So began the letter signed by Bob Chmiel in his initial attempt to lure high-school football hot-shot Tamarick Vanover to Michigan. Chmiel is the school's recruiting coordinator.

Georgia Tech first wrote to Vanover nearly four years ago when he was in the ninth grade. Since then, a stream of letters, media guides and postcards have been delivered to Vanover either at Leon High School, where he is a senior, or to his home in Tallahassee.

Vanover, a defensive back and running back for Leon, is one of the most sought-after prep players in the country. The Sporting News listed Vanover among the nation's top 10 prospects.

Just about every school that plays football would love to have Vanover. So far, he has received more than 200 pieces of mail from 56 schools. Of the teams ranked in this week's Associated Press Top 25, all but Iowa, Baylor, California and Mississippi State have courted Vanover.

North Carolina, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Duke, Georgia Tech and Clemson have written from the ACC. Florida, Auburn, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Louisiana State are the Southeastern Conference schools standing in line. Just about every league is represented in Vanover's overstuffed shoebox of letters, including the Ivy League, where Pennsylvania showed interest.

Among others who have made an attempt, however far-fetched, to recruit Vanover are Hamilton (N.Y.) College, Lakeland (Wis.) College and Loras (Iowa) College. Vanover admits he had not previously known of those three schools, and several others that wrote.

Through the mail, all schools have an equal shot at Vanover. With NCAA rules that limit the number of times a school can make personal contact with an athlete, the 29-cent stamp has become a most valuable recruiting tool.

Vanover's mailbox became so crowded during this past summer, he stopped opening many of the letters. He estimated that half of the letters were never read.

While Vanover selects the five schools the maximum by NCAA regulations he would like to officially visit this fall or spring, and until he decides which school he will attend next year, the letters continue to arrive at his home about five a week.

Vanover says he takes the letter-writing seriously. But he admits to seeing some interesting sales tactics used by coaches and recruiting coordinators.

In a letter dated Aug. 14, Ohio State recruiting coordinator Bill Conley quotes Buckeye head coach John Cooper as saying: "The important thing is not getting in school, but getting out of school. We want you to go to class everyday, sit in the front row and know your professors."

Conley writes, "Some coaches give lip-service to the idea of getting an education, with Coach Cooper it is priority No. 1."

Less than two weeks after that letter, starting running back Robert Smith quit the Ohio State team, claiming Cooper and his staff put football above academics.

LSU head football coach Curley Hallman writes: "Continue working hard and please stop by the office and say hello if you are in the Baton Rouge area. Best wishes and please give my regards to your family."

Vanover says he has been out of the state of Florida only twice in his life once to visit friends in Atlanta and once to attend a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in North Carolina. He's not likely to be in Baton Rouge anytime soon. Besides, his family has never met Curley Hallman.

Nebraska, using a recruiting tactic practice employed by many schools, included a clipping from a newspaper. The Omaha World-Herald story quotes NBC sportscaster Dick Enberg as saying that Nebraska is the "All-America academic school."

Vanover said he had never heard of Enberg.

Then there are those who attempted to tug at Vanover's Christian values. Florida assistant coach John Reaves wrote to inform Vanover of the team's strong interest in FCA. "One of our functions is to help you find a church home away from home while you are here in Gainesville. God Bless you and Go Gators!" writes Reaves, who lists himself as FCA Huddle Leader and includes in his salutation, "Phillipians 4:19."

Vanover said he is not familiar with the biblical passage. ("And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.")

Paul Rutigliano, recruiting coordinator at Liberty (Va.) University yes, the Rev. Jerry Falwell's school closes his letter to Vanover this way: "Tamarick, as my Dad said, 'imagine playing in a bowl game your four years here at Liberty ... and winning souls!'"

Vanover is not certain how many souls have been won by Sam Rutigliano, the former NFL coach now at Liberty. But Vanover should know that even God has not been able to get Liberty into a bowl game ever.

Texas mailed Vanover an invitation to watch the Longhorns season opener, Sept. 7, on WTBS against Mississippi State. Vanover said he did not watch the game and Texas coaches are probably glad he didn't. Mississippi State defeated Texas 13-6.

Coach John Mackovic is most proud of the "rich tradition" at the University of Illinois. "Illinois is known for being a school of firsts, the first collegiate Homecoming game, the first marching band, the first Dad's Day, and the first card section," Mackovic writes. He then tells of legendary Illinois greats Red Grange and Dick Butkus.

Vanover said he knew Grange was a famous running back, and that an annual award was named after Butkus. Vanover thought Butkus played linebacker in college. In fact, he was a two-way player: defensive lineman and center.

Larry Petroff, recruiting coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh, mailed a clipping about the victory parade of the National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins. "By joining Pitt, you too can be a part of the City of Champions," Petroff wrote

Sam Nader, LSU's recruiting coordinator, enclosed a chart listing the schools that have produced the most NFL players. LSU, Nader proudly noted, ranked 12th nationally. Vanover could have noted that he was being recruited by eight of the schools ranked above LSU on the list.

All schools seemed to be concerned about adhering to NCAA recruiting regulations. Many mailed recruiting manuals to Vanover and warned him to avoid illegal contacts.

There are ways, however, to skirt the rules. Nebraska's Tom Osborne wrote: "Since you are limited in the number of times we may call you, I wanted you to have our toll-free number. You can call us anytime you wish." Oklahoma and Michigan offered for Vanover to call collect anytime. Clemson's toll free number is 1-800-277-PAWS.

Vanover said he has not telephoned a single school.

As of last week, Florida led the Vanover sweepstakes with 15 letters, followed closely by Florida State with 14 and Clemson with 13. Vanover said those three schools were also the most personal in their letter-writing, often addressing the letters by his nickname "T-Mark."

Vanover said he discounted any school that did not include his name in the salutation. Youngstown (Ohio) State did not have a )) chance with Vanover when it began a letter with "Dear Prospective Penguin."

FSU, Florida and Clemson often send hand-written notes to Vanover, including a poem from Seminole assistant coach John Eason. Vanover would not allow the poem to be printed, but said it was the most appealing of all the notes he received.

"But Coach Eason's no poet," Vanover added with a laugh.

FSU head coach Bobby Bowden wrote what could have been construed as a personal letter to Vanover. It began with "Dear Tamarick," but ended with a stamped signature by Bowden.

The poor grammar award went to Florida assistant coach Carl Franks. "The Gators have become well known for its (sic) team and individual honors through the years," wrote Franks, a Duke graduate. "As you can see, the attention and exposure associated with the University of Florida football program is nationally renowed (sic)."

Not much better was FSU's Eason, who wrote, "I talk (sic) with (Lawrence) Dawsey, Saturday night he said he was doing well."

Little of the letter writing has made much of an impact on Vanover as he decides on his future. He lists FSU, Florida, Miami, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Texas among his finalists. He will make official visits to FSU and Florida, and likely to Miami.

Meanwhile, Vanover continues to check his mailbox every afternoon in hopes that Miami will spell his first name correctly, since the Hurricanes spelled it "Tamerick" in the previous six letters.

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