Keeping eye on recruits


Published: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 10:38 p.m.
Moments after telling a Florida assistant coach the happy news that he planned to be a Gator, 18-year-old high school student Jason Respert found himself being questioned by police in the Touchdown Terrace of Florida Field. A few minutes later he stood there stunned, in handcuffs, facing a sexual battery charge and heading for a weekend stay in the county jail.
For top high school prospects, this kind of jarring incident is not supposed to be a part of the recruiting experience. But, it can happen.
It happened to Respert at Florida two years ago. Similar incidents have occurred to other recruits at other major universities over the past few years, leading some schools to consider changing the rules for entertaining recruits.
Recruits gone wild?
Not necessarily. But a few prospects have put their future in jeopardy on weekend recruiting visits by attending parties, spending time in bars and drinking alcohol - activities not on the intricate itineraries established by the universities.
"You can't be there with them 24-7," UF athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "But, at the same time, you can't use that as an excuse."
On a typical recruiting visit, a prospect spends most of his time talking with coaches, meeting with academic advisors, touring facilities, meeting the players and taking part in other planned group activities such as a picnic or attending a basketball game.
But there are times - on Friday and Saturday night - when the recruits and their hosts (current players at the school) are on their own, free to experience the social life without the supervision of coaches and parents.
Most of the time, the players and recruits are fairly low-key, hanging out in the dorm, playing video games and going out for something to eat. But sometimes, they end up at parties and in bars and night clubs, where alcohol is consumed and trouble can follow.
Respert's problems started that way on his UF visit. He went to a party, then to a bar on Friday night with fellow recruit Tre Orr and UF defensive end Alex Brown. Brown and Orr met two women at the bar and Brown, Orr and Respert ended up at the apartment of the women early Saturday morning. While Brown and Orr were with the two women, Respert allegedly fondled a third woman while she slept.
The following afternoon, Respert was arrested at the Touchdown Terrace in front of fellow recruits and the UF coaches and charged with attempted sexual battery and burglary. UF immediately pulled its scholarship offer.
Eventually, the charges were reduced to battery and trespassing and Respert was sentenced to 40 hours of community service. He eventually signed with Tennessee and now is a reserve offensive guard for the Vols.
"I don't ever remember anything close to that happening here before on a recruiting weekend," Foley said. "But it was a high-profile incident and it stressed the fact we needed to do a better job."
UF has made some changes since the Respert incident.
Foley said the main thing the university and coaches have done is try to better educate the prospects and the players who entertain the recruits.
The process begins with a letter to each recruit and his family before his UF visit.
"We send out a letter from the coach (Ron Zook) welcoming them and giving them an overview of what to expect," UF associate athletic director for compliance Jamie McCloskey said. "In that letter, we tell them alcohol is not going to be involved. It is not part of the official visit."
Coaches and administrators also go over the do's and don'ts of the visit with the players who are serving as hosts to the recruits. The players also have to sign an affidavit saying none of the $60 they receive from the university to entertain a recruit will be used to purchase alcohol. (The $60 is the amount approved by the NCAA).
"We ask the coaches to talk to the hosts and the rest of the team to review what they can and can't do under NCAA rules," McCloskey said. "And the coaches tell the players what they expect from them in terms of the weekend and doing the right thing. The coaches tell them not to do anything to embarrass themselves or the university.
"And the hosts have to fill out a form saying they won't spend the money they receive on alcohol. The funds are to be used to go to a movie or buy pizza and things like that. They can't use it to buy alcohol or (UF) merchandise."
Once the UF players and recruits are on their own Friday and Saturday night, it's up to them to do the right thing. There is no supervision from coaches and parents and no one is there to serve as a chaperon.
Those few hours each night are an important aspect of the visit weekend because it gives the recruits a chance to get to know his potential future teammates and experience the social life.
It's the only time during the weekend the recruits are unsupervised.
"You have to trust the players," Foley said. "You educate them, you tell them what your expectations are, and then you trust they'll use good judgment. It's no different than any other weekend. You have to trust your players. They know the laws."
Zook said he doesn't place a curfew on when the recruits need to be back at the hotel.
"It's amazing the number that come home early, and some guys don't even go out," Zook said. "When we leave them (the players and recruits) on Saturday night, I tell our players, 'You know what's right and you know what's wrong. Do the right thing and represent your university in a first-class manner.'
"Your players are your best ambassadors. By being with our players, (the recruits) see your program and can verify what the coaches have been telling them."
Since the Respert incident, the football recruiting weekends at UF have not produced any problems.
"I think part of it is our coaches are going out and recruiting prospects who are individuals with good character," McCloskey said. "And we're making sure we put our best foot forward on these visits.
"What happened on that visit (with Respert) isn't what the University of Florida is all about."
You can reach Robbie Andreu by e-mail at andreur@gvillesun.com or by calling (352) 374-5022.

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