Texas man's rating service built with questionable credentials

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MISSOURI CITY, Texas -- At the mere mention of a lineman named Cortez, Max Emfinger -- the self-described national prep football recruiting expert who publishes a newsletter ranking high school football players -- flies into a tizzy in the family kitchen.

"Cortez is a non-combatant," he tells his wife, voice rising. "A non-combatant!"

Ginger Emfinger winces at the outburst. Cortez hasn't "graded out" well because his parents won't buy him proper shoulder pads. And he's only 11 years old, for heaven's sake -- a member of Emfinger's pee-wee football team.

"Just knock his name off that roster!" Emfinger commands. "He doesn't have what it takes.

"I know what I'm talking about. I've seen it a million times."

Just where a former dictaphone salesman acquired the skill to evaluate Cortez -- or any of the thousand high school seniors he ranks each year in his national recruiting service -- is a matter of some conjecture.

He claims to have drawn on "his days as a scout for the Dallas Cowboys" to develop a mathematical formula projecting collegiate football success.

But detractors cast Raby Maxwell Emfinger Jr. as a shameless self-promoter pawning off questionable blue-chip lists to thousands of the nation's most fanatical college boosters. They point to his apparent ethical shortcomings and his advertisement of suspect expertise.

Some college football coaches even say he intentionally denigrates the recruiting efforts of schools refusing to purchase his products.

Rivals in the business also insist Emfinger pirates or fabricates much of the information he sells.

But for almost 10 years, Emfinger has made a living selling his rankings -- right or wrong.

And despite severe tax problems and recurrent credibility gaps, Emfinger, 47, pledges undying devotion to his "Super Scout" persona.

"It's like a snowball rolling downhill -- you can't stop it," he says. "Besides, what else could I do?"

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Emfinger's National High School Recruiting Service Inc. is one of half-dozen similar ventures catering to a small-but-intense subculture of recruiting buffs.

His established presence in the midst of the Texas high school football hotbed has helped him carve out an enviable niche. Overzealous alumni always are interested in Emfinger's specialty his home state's top talent. And using information supposedly taken from reliable sources, his magazines also attempt to provide a national recruiting overview.

In the days preceding the February national signing date, "Super Scout" barely can handle all the requests for appearances on radio sports talk shows across the country. Newspapers tout his lists and assessment of each program's potential signees. And once signings are complete, they search him out for further evaluation.

It is this exposure -- this "Max media" -- that drives the Emfinger business machine, hawking to more than 4,000 subscribers a $55 series of periodic talent lists and 900-line telephone messages.

"The more shows, the more we sell," says Emfinger.

For fees of more than $1,000, his company also claims to provide major college football programs important information and access to a extensive film library.

All of that grosses his company somewhere in six figures, he says. "But," he adds, "the most we've ever paid taxes on since we've been in business is $36,000."

That's a pittance, considering -- as he once told Sports Illustrated -- "what I do is coordinate all recruiting in this country."

A recent visit to Emfinger provided some curious insight into his nationwide operation.

The nerve center of this ubiquitous enterprise is not the west Houston suite listed on brochures, but the loft-office of the suburban Emfinger family home south of Houston. (The "suite" is only a mail drop.)

"Super Scout" can be found at a computer keyboard upstairs, wearing his customary golf shirt, softball shorts, gold-nugget watch and Texas-shaped necklace pendant. The work space picture window overlooks the verdant seventh green of Quail Valley Country Club.

Across a broad desk is strewn the source of much Emfinger-hyped inside information -- newspapers, magazines, recruiting lists sent by fellow fanatics, and computer printouts.

Some of the lists appear hand-scrawled and photocopied. "This guy here is from Georgia, but he gives me Tennessee every year," says Emfinger, waving one. "He's just a recruiting buff. Never have to pay for any of this stuff."

He paws through another heap of paper, pulling out a thick computer-paper printout. "See this here? This is all of A&M.; They give me this every year."

Emfinger's publications sometimes rely on statistics of dubious accuracy. Important height, weight and speed figures are often provided on questionnaires filled out by the player or his coach.

An exaggerated time, an inch here, a pound or two there, and a player can gain significant stature in Emfin

ger's ranking system. In fact, Emfinger admitted in a recent speech that he once featured a high school player on his magazine's cover only to learn the player's coach had submitted fake data to boost the young man's scholarship potential.

Emfinger compares whatever figures he obtains to "physical standards" arbitrarily assigned each position.

Other variables are then factored in to arrive at a rating of 10 or below. A 10 is supposedly "a franchise player" who could start for a Division I team as a freshman. A 9.80 would be "a sleeper" who "must develop into a Division I player."

Emfinger's grades, carried out to hundredths of a point, are so precise that a recent list of his top 400 Texas players only varied in ranking from 9.80 to 10.

Such lists are scoffed at by competitors. "What's the difference between a 9.8 and a 9.9?" asks Allen Wallace of Super Prep magazine. "Max couldn't tell you. He doesn't know."

The numbers are massaged by Emfinger's impression of each player's intangible qualities and faults. And the process is apparently so subjective that its author has emblazoned his primary computer with the sign:

"My work is so secret even I don't know what I'm doing."

High school coaches realize one thing: Emfinger's service provides free publicity for borderline college prospects in their charge. For that reason, says Tim Edwards of L.D. Bell High School in Hurst, Texas -- former president of the Texas High School Coaches Association -- players are encouraged to answer Emfinger's annual questionnaires.

"Max has done a great job," Edwards says. "He's really marketed a state product that is No. 1."

As for college coaches in the Southwest Conference, most say )) they subscribe to Emfinger's lists almost as an afterthought. Their own recruiters are paid well to learn about all viable prospects, they say. Besides, lists can't tell you whether a young man will fit into a specific football system or campus life, they say.

Some, like Clemson coach Ken Hatfield, believe Emfinger intentionally denigrates recruiting efforts of schools who do not subscribe to his service.

"We've never subscribed to Max's deal, and I think he doesn't like that," says Hatfield, the former Arkansas coach. "But we just feel like recruiting is one thing and what you do with them on your campus -- how many graduate and develop -- is what's really important."

At smaller schools like Northeastern Louisiana and Sam Houston State, Emfinger's service may be of more value. Northeastern's newly hired recruiting coordinator, Chick Childress, says he may use it to flesh out his list of prospects next year. "Sure can't hurt any," he says.

Elwood Kettler, chief recruiter at Sam Houston, says coaches do the majority of the scouting work. "And most of the high school football players on his lists are the ones the Southwest Conference is going to get," Kettler says. "We use him in a very little manner."

Emfinger evidently had hoped his service would evolve into a sort of recruiting-coordinator at-large position for a number of institutions.

Along one wall is a videotape library and three monitors hooked up to three VCRs. Stored above the equipment in cabinets are hundreds of videotapes. Emfinger says he records on Friday nights and collects from schools.

Emfinger has touted this collection as a primary part of his business. College recruiters, he says, pay him $1,500 or more to gain access to film of the best high school talent in the country.

On this September morning, however, Emfinger can't operate any of the VCRs for a demonstration. His full-time assistant, Robert Williams, has to be summoned to switch on the machines.

Later in an interview session, Emfinger admits representatives of only four schools used his library service this year. He blames dwindling interest on new NCAA rules limiting coaches' evaluation time.

But he also says the Houston Independent School District has just cut him off from filming any of its games, thus sapping the film operation of a key component.

HISD officials say they simply began bidding out game-filming for the district's own use last year. UIL rules always have prohibited filming by a third party without permission of both teams, says HISD athletic director Jim Ashmore.

And there are other signs that, after 10 years building his business, Emfinger may be struggling to keep it alive. Although he told Sports Illustrated he grossed $177,000 annually, printing and postage costs have eaten away at profits, he says.

"All the money we make goes right back into the business, so we don't even see any of it," Emfinger says.

Emfingers currently reside in a modern, upper middle class home assessed for tax purposes at $146,000.

Yet, federal and local governments report the couple owes more than $44,000 in back taxes -- $26,497 to the U.S. government, $3,900 to the county, $7,000 to schools, $4,400 to Missouri City and $2,240 for suburb maintenance. Meanwhile, Emfinger's one-time printer, Gulf Printing Co. of Houston, received a judgment against the enterprise for more than $12,000 in unpaid bills.

"Max is the original the-check's-in-the-mail guy," says a former business associate who asked to remain anonymous. "He's the kind of guy who could never resist a deal.

"He would dabble in a million different things if he thought it would be good for him."

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The reason Emfinger wound up in this particular enterprise can found at his fingertips in his top desk drawer.

There -- arranged for instant retrieval -- are yellowed newspaper clippings outlining Emfinger's own recruitment and short-lived college football career.

A running back out of Class 3A Brownwood, Emfinger was recruited in 1961 by major colleges along with friend and teammate Lawrence Elkins, who eventually played for the Houston Oilers.

Small for his position, Emfinger says: "I wouldn't even rate on my system. I'd have had to rate myself as a wingback or wide receiver."

Yet, says his legendary coach, Gordon Wood, Emfinger worked hard to overcome his athletic shortfalls. "Max was very definitely an overachiever," says Wood, the winningest football coach in the nation on any level. "He'd just do things he wasn't supposed to. . . .

"He always wanted to be as good as Lawrence, but just wasn't in that class. He had a great admiration for Lawrence, but he envied him a lot, too."

Like Elkins, Emfinger signed with Baylor University.

Unlike anyone ever recruited by the school, Emfinger insisted on signing early and helping out coaches by writing boosterish letters to dozens of other potential recruits.

"I actually recruited players for Baylor University when I was still in high school!" says Emfinger with customary enthusiasm. "Can you believe it?

LTC "I guess that's really where it all got started."

Emfinger lettered once, although he has claimed two years of varsity service. Then, after a mysterious disagreement with coach John Bridgers, he quit the team, earned his business degree and left school for the Navy.

"I still have nightmares from Baylor," he says three decades later. "Not getting to play like I wanted to -- I dream about playing more ball."

Between jobs selling insurance and electronic office equipment, Emfinger contends he coached the varsity of Mount Carmel High School football varsity near Houston to a district championship. School records show he worked in an unspecified position for one semester in 1970. A longtime athletic patron at the school says Emfinger was a freshman coach only.

In 1971, Emfinger says he took a graduate assistant's job with North Texas State University coach Hayden Fry -- although school records do not indicate his employment.

Two years later, frustrated in an attempt land a college recruiting coordinator's job, he called Gil Brandt -- then player-personnel // director of the Dallas Cowboys.

Ultimately, Emfinger says, Brandt offered the ideal job. "I ended up a scout!" he says. "There's only 100 of them in the world! This was a dream come true. I couldn't pass it up."

Actually, according to Brandt, Emfinger was assigned generally in-house, helper-type chores as a poorly paid staff assistant.

"I don't want to say he was a 'go-fer,' but if we needed information or film studied, that's what he did," Brandt says. "The guy had a very good ability to sit down and work. He did a good job."

Financial considerations forced Emfinger to resign after a year. "But I had loved it," he says. "I'd work 20 hours a day, not making hardly anything."

A racquetball court-building effort with Frank Beard of ZZ Top followed. Financing backed out at the last minute, he says. "We were pre-selling memberships," Emfinger says. "I had to give all these people their money back, which I eventually did. Most of them."

In 1981, with the encouragement of his wife, Emfinger founded the first of his nine recruiting service companies.

"Talk about starting business on a shoestring. We didn't even have that," Emfinger says.

With an initial year of about 250 subscribers, Emfinger had to bring home groceries with money earned umpiring softball games.

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