published Friday, February 8th, 2013

Rhea County duo see big recruiting changes

When Andy Kelly and then Jason Fitzgerald were finishing their Rhea County High School football careers, ESPN was a still-learning-to-walk cable network and the Internet was even less of a commodity.

Telephone conversations were limited to landlines, CB radios were still a rage and the closest many got to computers was Atari games played through the television set.

Yet each found his way to a major college football program, Kelly going to Tennessee in 1987 and Fitzgerald to Auburn two years later.

"Yep, things have changed," said Fitzgerald, now the head coach at Hixson. "Back then it was colleges sending questionnaires to high school coaches, word of mouth and the newspapers. I think back then a lot of [college programs] looked at the papers to see who the best players were."

Today it's primarily Rivals.com, the Internet recruiting giant long ago surpassing such national recruiting gurus as Tom Lemming and Allen Wallace's SuperPrep and the regional offerings of Jeff Whitaker and Forrest Davis.

"It's definitely different now," said Kelly, whose quarterbacking skills made him a folk hero across the state. "There are so many more outlets, and information can be found so much easier."

To this day he's unsure of how recruiters heard about him.

"High school coverage was pretty good as far as the newspapers. There was a lot of that and then word of mouth," said Kelly, who threw 809 touchdown passes in a 15-year Arena Football League career. "There were just a handful of scouting services back then, and I know there are a lot more now."

He and Fitzgerald didn't so much remember the "bird dogs," friends of programs across the South who might have seen them play and referred them to their programs.

They had plenty of hype, although it was mostly local and nothing like the hoopla that surrounded Ridgeland's Vonn Bell when he signed Wednesday with Ohio State with ESPN cameras and a host of media capturing nearly every word uttered by him, his coach and his parents.

"There were no announcements on TV, switching hats or pulling hats out. There weren't as many prima donnas back then," Fitzgerald remembered. "I know when I went to Auburn there were rules for freshmen -- where you parked your car or where you sat at the dining hall -- and the older players enforced those rules. You didn't come in and immediately turn things around. You had to earn your stripes."

There are too few earning their stripes now, he offered.

"A lot of kids today, the really good football players with their heads on straight, are ready for the recruiting process to be over pretty quick," the coach said. "Kids like some of those five-star guys, it's a bit of a game, but of those type I'd guess at least 25 to 30 percent will never make it through college."

Are player getting too much hype before they've proven themselves?

"I don't know if they're getting too much," Kelly said. "Everyone, even fans, realize recruiting is important. People are passionate about their teams and what happens with them, so I guess it's inevitable that recruiting is being hyped more and more."

One of the biggest changes is the approach from college recruiters.

Fitzgerald remembered going to a prospect camp at UT before his senior season in Evensville. The only pre-college camp Kelly ever attended was the quarterback/receiver week at Furman.

"There are things like 40 times that aren't so important. It still comes down to guys who play football and make plays," he said. "You take a guy that runs a 4.3 and a guy that runs a 4.6 and makes more plays, the guy that makes more plays is going to be out there. Recruiters that are successful are the ones that can get the guys that make the plays."

Fitzgerald agreed, saying there is way too much emphasis on 40-yard and shuttle times, how high prospects can jump or how agile they are.

"In my time they looked at football players -- guys that loved to play the game, guys that might be an inch or two short but they'd hit you and loved the game," he said. "Heart gets overlooked."

But the recruiting bug has parents asking when their youngsters get to high school, "How can I make sure my kid gets a scholarship?"

Fitzgerald has a ready reply.

"Get a 3.0 [grade point average] and/or a 21 on the ACT. That's $4,000 of Hope scholarship right there," he said.

about Ward Gossett...

Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...

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