NCAA SEEN IN WIDE INQUIRY OF RECRUITING BY TENNESSEE
By PETE THAMEL and THAYER EVANS
c.2009 New York Times News Service
The NCAA is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into the University of Tennessee's football recruiting practices, according to interviews with several prospects, their family members and high school administrators. A significant part of the investigation is focused on the use of recruiting hostesses who have become folk heroes on Tennessee message boards for their ability to help lure top recruits.
NCAA officials have visited four prospects and are scheduled to visit two others this week in an investigation covering at least three states. The investigation is unusual in its scope and its timing. It is rare that the NCAA looks at this wide a swath of one university's recruits before the players have signed with a program in February.
Tennessee Athletic Director Mike Hamilton confirmed that an investigation was under way but declined to elaborate.
"Typically, we do not comment on inquires that are in progress," he said Tuesday night in New York.
Since Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin took over in December 2008 after being fired as the Oakland Raiders' coach, the Volunteers have committed at least six secondary NCAA violations - unintentional violations that provide minimal recruiting or competitive advantage.
Interviews with multiple recruits and their family members revealed that the NCAA has strong interest in Tennessee's use of recruiting hostesses, students who are part of a formal group at the university that hosts all manner of prospective students at campus visits, including athletes. It is not clear whether the university sent the hostesses to visit the football players.
In one case, hostesses traveled nearly 200 miles to attend a high school game in South Carolina in which at least three Tennessee recruits were playing.
Marcus Lattimore, a running back who took an unofficial visit to Tennessee but said he would not go there, said multiple Tennessee hostesses attended a game at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C., in September. He said they brought signs, including one that read, "Come to Tennessee."
"I haven't seen no other schools do that," he said. "It's crazy."
The hostesses are considered representatives of the university, which would mean they could not recruit players off campus. Therefore, the visits may be considered violations of NCAA recruiting rules.
Two of Lattimore's teammates have orally committed to Tennessee, Brandon Willis and Corey Miller. Lattimore described the hostesses as "real pretty, real nice and just real cool." He said he thought they had "a lot" of influence in Miller's and Willis' commitments to Tennessee.
Because of their influence on recruits, the recruiting hostesses have become popular with Tennessee fans. Bryce Brown, the country's top running back recruit last year, who is a freshman at Tennessee, was pictured on a social networking site last year with a hostess. Other Tennessee hostesses have publicly conversed with prospects through Facebook and MySpace.
Some recruits say their influence is significant.
"You don't want to go to a college where they ain't pretty," Lattimore said.
Gary Willis, the father of Brandon Willis, said in a telephone interview Tuesday night that the NCAA had interviewed his son about the girls' trip to the game. He said the girls met his son at Tennessee's football camp last summer and told them that they would attend a game at Byrnes High, which generally has one of the best teams in the country.
Gary Willis said that the trip was not orchestrated by Tennessee's coaches or staff.
"It was nothing planned on no one's part," he said of the girls' visit.
Despite Willis' statement that the move was not orchestrated by the university, the hostesses driving that far to attend a high school game and hold up signs would be considered highly unusual. Christian Jones, an outside linebacker at Lake Howell High School in Winter Park, Fla., made an official visit to Tennessee in October and said Volunteers hostesses told him they wanted to attend one of his games.
That did not happen, but he said he occasionally exchanges text messages with them.
"That's real exciting, getting people like that wanting to support you," Jones said Tuesday night in a telephone interview.
The NCAA visited the home of Chris Dunkley, an uncommitted receiver prospect who attends Pahokee (Fla.) High School, on Tuesday night. Dunkley confirmed the visit by the NCAA but said in a phone interview that he did not want to say more.
The NCAA is also scheduled to visit North Miami High School to talk with Ted Meline, who committed to Tennessee. North Miami Athletic Director Hector Gray confirmed the NCAA's visit but said he knew nothing else about it.
On Thursday, the NCAA will visit the high school of JaWuan James, who has orally committed to Tennessee. He attends North Gwinnett High in Georgia.
James' mother, Nichelle Mickens, said the visit regarded Tennessee's hostesses.
"It's not about the coaches," she said. "It's about some of the attendees of the university. It has to do with the hostesses on these visits. That's as much as I know."
Rick Evrard, a partner in Bond, Schoeneck & King, a law firm that specializes in helping colleges deal with NCAA issues and a former NCAA investigator, said he could not comment specifically on this issue. He did say, generally, it was not common for the NCAA to interview recruits interested in a particular university or to ask them about a particular program.
Kiffin's numerous secondary NCAA violations could be a factor or have prompted the current investigation.
"Secondaries mean something to the NCAA," Evrard said in a telephone interview. "It's very telling if an institution continues to report secondaries particularly if they're in the same category. If you keep doing the same thing over and over and keep reporting it, that would trigger the NCAA's enforcement staff to possibly go in and look at some of that activity."