x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

UCLA? If the cap fits

National selection day is one of the most pivotal moments in American college Football's season.

Maryland players exit the field through a tunnel after player warm-ups prior to the game against West Virginia in 2005.
Maryland players exit the field through a tunnel after player warm-ups prior to the game against West Virginia in 2005.

It is 7.17am on the first Wednesday in February and the American football office on the beautiful University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus is buzzing. Even though the Bruins have not played a game in two months, this will be the most important day in coach Rick Neuheisel's time in the job.

There is no crowd, no stadium or any game being contested. This is national signing day, when every big-time college American football programme finds out which recruits - that they have spent months and sometimes years pursuing - will sign and fax in their official commitments to play for them. Usually each programme gets to sign 25 recruits each year, although the number depends on how many scholarship spots are open, which again depends on which of the previous team members are coming back for next season.

That 25 has been whittled down from a list that can easily swell to 1,000 names. Most teams are chasing after the same players and the programmes coming off the best season have the best chance to win those battles. The Bruins are coming off a dismal season. They finished 4-8, but judging by the looks on the faces of the coaches, you would think they just won the national championship. Neuheisel, a golden-haired former Bruin quarterback, greets strangers like long lost friends and calls them "babe".

He is relentlessly upbeat, which is why you can see how he went from being a walk-on to a Rose Bowl hero in part because he inspires such confidence. Traits such as that are not just great for leading the line but also for wooing 17-year-old players as they try and sort through an endless list of suitors. Neuheisel has some big fish still on the line, but not in the proverbial boat. In fact, four of the top targets on the Bruins' recruiting board are going to announce which school they have chosen on national TV.

Each network will show an array of coveted recruits sitting behind some table or podium as each boy has a cap representing the schools he is considering in front of him and the one he puts on is his choice. Three of those Bruin targets will pick from a group of hats that will also include the University of Southern California (USC), their arch-rivals. Less than a decade ago, the USC Trojans were where UCLA are now: a once-proud programme that had fallen off the national landscape.

The USC coach Pete Carroll and his recruiting co-ordinator Ed Orgeron, a barrel-chested Cajun, began assembling incredible recruiting classes based on their ability to evaluate and woo promising talent, often before any of their counterparts could. In 2003, before USC had won two of their most recent national titles, Carroll and Orgeron landed a class featuring future Heisman Trophy (the best college player in the US) winners Matt Leinart, a quarterback, and Reggie Bush, a running back.

The Trojans 2003 recruiting class has gone down as the greatest in modern college history. Before the group arrived at USC, the school reported making US$38.6 million (Dh141.9m) in revenue from the sport. By 2005, that number ballooned to $60.7m. In years past, squaring off against USC for a blue-chipper has been a big headache for the Bruins, but those inside the football office, do not seem scared.

UCLA have staged one coup by picking Morrell Presley, the nation's top tight-end prospect, a player who had previously said he was committed to the Trojans. With each passing year as recruiting becomes more and more of a business and a spectacle, an increasing number of recruits backtrack on their commitments, saying they are "just playing the game". Two Bruin assistant coaches are checking out the 50in flat screen in the lounge. The television is tuned to the ESPNU (a channel dedicated to university sport) signing day show.

On one of the couches in front of the TV lies EJ Woods, a freshman defensive back, who had been one of Neuheisel's captures last year. Until he has to move along for a 4pm class Woods has decided to anchor himself here, giving his own commentary about the day's event, about which recruit just made a foolish decision, which on-air recruiting analyst is a "clown" and pretty much any other thought that comes into his mind.

In the back of the office, Neuheisel's voice can be heard as he chats with a now official UCLA player. "It's a big day for the Bruins, man," the coach says enthusiastically. "Way to go kid, nice job!" A few heartbeats later Neuheisel has another UCLA recruit on the phone, congratulating him for faxing in his paperwork to the Bruins' office: "Way to go, 'A-bomb'. Can't wait to get you here. You and I are gonna have some fun!"

Coaches love to give the boys nicknames. They feel that strengthens their bond. The day is off to a fast start. Still, it will not be for at least another hour before UCLA's real drama begins. Most programmes usually know which recruits will be faxing their official letters of intent over a few days beforehand. That does not mean each staff huddled in their own war room are not sweating out every detail, fearing that some rival institution might be trying to pull a fast one. Those who get a committed player stolen from them often gripe, at least privately, about how Team X must have offered Johnny Bluechip's daddy a job. Or a car. Or both. Although proving such things does not happen too often. In 1999, Albert Means, at 6ft 4in, and 170kg, was regarded as the best defensive lineman in the country.

Coaches from all over the country flocked to Memphis, Tennessee to pursue him. The University of Alabama ultimately won the Means sweepstake, but there were rumours about some dirty back-door dealings that made it all happen. Some of those rumours were true. In January 2001, one of Means's former high-school coaches alleged that the player's head coach had sold his services to an Alabama booster for $200,000. In February of 2005, a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe led to the conviction Alabama booster Logan Young for paying $150,000 in cash to the high-school coach so Means would play football for the Crimson Tide.

In the aftermath of the violations, Alabama was given a two-year bowl ban and five years' probation. Most coaches do not think recruiting is as dirty as it was in the 1970s and 80s when there were less rules and less oversight, but it does not mean they are not suspicious, especially since they have invested so much time and energy into the recruiting process. For schools such as UCLA this process began one year ago when each college programme begins to assemble its recruiting boards by position and, in some cases, by state.

The names can come from high school contacts, online recruiting services or the dozens of professional recruiting services that provide high school game on film, names and often phone numbers of potential prospects. Many of these services, run by former high-school coaches, are set up to canvass a given state and cost a few thousand dollars. These services, though, represent only a fraction of the cost for a program to put together its team.

The biggest outlay, according to Kent McLeod, director of American football operations at Duke University, is the airfare for both the coaches to evaluate and visit players as well as for the prospects to visits the campus. Some schools now spend more than $1m a year on their recruiting budgets. Over the past three years, according to the Mobile Press- Register, the 11 public schools that make up the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the most powerful football league in the country, have combined to spend more than $5m per year, with an average budget in excess of $500,000.

On the internet recruiting has become an even bigger business. Fans scour recruiting sites year-round for "insider" information, often paying $9.95 a month to figure out who their favourite team - or least favourite - are going after. Just how booming is this business? Two years ago Shannon Terry sold Rivals.com, the leading recruiting network site, to Yahoo for a reported $98m. At 9am, a UCLA assistant coach enters the office of Norm Chow, the Bruins' 60-something offensive coordinator.

Chow is regarded as the game's pre-eminent offensive mind. He has coached three Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks. A Hawaii native, he is also adept at winning over recruits from the island. That is huge this year because this is an unusually strong crop for high school American football in Hawaii: the island produced the nation's top linebacker recruit, Manti Te'o; one of the top offensive linemen, Stan Hasiak and one of the better defensive backs in Dalton Hilliard. Chow knows he has reeled in Hilliard. He is not sure about Hasiak and he just got word from one of his sources that Te'o is not coming. The shock is that Te'o is not going to USC.

Instead he will announce that he is going to Notre Dame, joining receiver Roby Toma, a high-school teammate. On the other side of the office the rest of the staff watch as all of the state of Hawaii's football recruits are, one-by-one, announcing their college choices. Chow hustles into the room. It is Hasiak's turn. The 6ft 6in, 160kg man is a huge need recruit for the Bruins. "C'mon Stan. C'mon Stan," Chow says in a whisper. "UCLA...UCLA...UCLA." A big "Yeah!" roar surges through the office. Neuheisel comes in and high-fives Chow and other assistants.

Moments later, it is Te'o's turn. Chow heads back to his office. Neuheisel realises his team did not win this one. But when the linebacker puts on the Notre Dame hat, there is an incredulous "What?!?" from EJ Woods, the young player. The rest of the place seems almost relieved that Te'o is not going to be a USC Trojan. Two hours later the Bruins get another big win over USC. Xavier Su'a-Filo, a massive offensive lineman from Utah, has said that he is going to be a Bruin.

Some figured he would sign with USC. Others thought he would stay at home and play at Utah where his high-school coach got a job. It has turned into a great day. Neuheisel speaks in glowing detail about each recruit. Hopefully you all had a good day, I believe UCLA's football programme had a great day," he says. Technically the Bruins are not done. There is one more battle. Randall Carroll, California's 100m and 200m high-school champion, will announce at 6.30pm on TV. He was once a Bruins commitment, then he committed to USC.

One of the Bruins coaches fears Carroll is going to announce for USC. By 6.35pm with a few of the Bruins coaches around the TV, along with the Neuheisel kids and their nanny, Carroll is almost set to announce his choice. Carroll goes with the school that needs him most and puts on the UCLA hat. Six months later Carroll, Hasiak, Su'a-Filo and a handful of other freshmen will be competing for starting spots with the Bruins.

Woods, one of the prized recruits from the 2008 class, though, is off the team. In March he was charged with assault and the school announced he would not be returning. sports@thenational.ae