RTT exclusive interview with Bruce Feldman, author of Meat Market

I am as jacked as Lane Kiffin at a booster function this morning. Somebody stop me before I say something inflammatory.

Why the sudden infusion of energy? Because yesterday afternoon Rocky Top Talk completed a ten-question email interview with five-star author Bruce Feldman. For those of you who don't know Bruce, well, shame on you. Bruce is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, the author of a wildly popular ESPN.com college football blog, and the author of two books, Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting and Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment.

Before we get to the interview, let me just say that this was a major get especially in light of the fact that the RTT staff has only been assembled a few short weeks. And one doesn't just waltz in to Bristol, Connecticut and take a guy from ESPN. It just doesn't happen, I'm telling you. ESPN will jam the fax machine, the T-1 line will "go down," the voicemails will get deleted, whatever. And just so you know, it is a violation to enter someone's office while they're doing an email interview, and while I was exchanging emails with Bruce, Gene Unspellable continually popped in to distract him. I absolutely love the fact that ESPN had to cheat and I still got Bruce to do the interview. The fog machine closed the deal, I'm sure. I am awesome.

Aaaaaanyway, we are pumped to have Bruce here to answer a few questions for us. Seriously, when you're done here, go buy his book.

RTT: First, what's your take on Kiffin and Company's post-National Signing Day Chest-Thumping Tour and the allegation of cheating Lane tossed in the direction of Gainesville?

FELDMAN: Well, give him this, Kiffin hasn’t been dull. In reality, it’s been kinda bizarre how he’s saying things standing in front of a microphone that some coaches might only say behind closed doors. I suspect he’s doing some of this to rally the fan base. I think the Meyer deal would’ve still gotten a ton of attention nationally even if he had stopped after bringing up how Meyer was calling or texting a recruit on a visit to another school, and if Kiffin just said something along the lines of “that shows you how worried he was about UT" or whatever, it still probably fires up the fan base. However by claiming it’s a violation when it’s not, it makes it look like he doesn't know all the rules and gives a lot of people ammunition. Having said that, do people really think because of this, Florida is going to REALLY try and rub it in UT’s face? Meyer was going to try to blow up the scoreboard regardless.

RTT: Back in 2006, there were reports that some unidentified coach had been reported by some seven different schools for alleged recruiting violations. Do you think it was Orgeron they were reporting, and what do you think it was all about? Could it have had something to do with Orgeron's staff videotaping prospects at their high school practices, which I understand was a loophole that Orgeron had discovered and was exploiting before anyone else had thought of it?

FELDMAN: Honestly, there’s probably not a coach in the country who starts doing well on the recruiting trial that hasn’t been allegedly “reported” for some supposed recruiting violations. Remember the mess around Nick Saban down in Florida or the Urban Meyer/Carl Moore stories? Ron Zook? I think the thing that happens quite a bit is some coach tells a reporter they know “Off the record, just a heads up here: The league office might be looking into so-and-so for some recruiting violations . . . . ” And then it appears as a blind item in some notes column, a blog or on some message board, and how often does anything really substantial come of it? Very rarely.

The videotaping of practices and basketball games and just about anything else Orgeron could get his assistants to observe while they were out on the road apparently caught a lot of other college coaches off guard. There was a lot of suspicion about what the Rebel coaches were up to. But Ole Miss had checked with its compliance office and found out it wasn’t against the rules so Orgeron had them all go out on the road with camcorders. I’ll never forget how fired up Orgeron was to see that footage of Bradley Sowell doing footwork drills or Chris Walker flying all over the basketball court.

RTT: It was a bit amusing to learn that Orgeron and his staff sometimes use the Rivals and Scout recruiting sites to gather status updates from recruits. Do coaches and players generally read more news sites, blogs, and message boards than they let on?

FELDMAN: Most coaches I’ve talked to will not acknowledge they pay any attention to those sites. What they might do though is have someone in their office (usually a student worker) look at message boards just to see what might be out there. I do believe that none of them put stock in the recruiting rankings themselves in regard to seeing that someone they have high on their recruiting board is a “two-star” or whatever. The coaching staff won’t rethink their evaluation positive or negative. (But if they signed a class that had four “five-star” kids in it, you better believe that coach is going to find a way to mention it in his signing day press conference.)

Right before signing day, Orgeron showed me their evaluation tape of this kid they loved. It was amazing. I looked him up on Rivals. He was a three-star guy with a pretty low 5.5 rating. That kid was Dexter McCluster. He’s one of the best players Ole Miss has probably had in the last decade. Thing is, the Rebels staff had a lot more film of McCluster than Rivals probably did and had spent a lot more time with him and his high school coaches to have a more truer picture of what he was capable of.

Orgeron, though, wasn’t shy about saying he’ll pay attention to some of the stories posted on those sites about the recruits. As I wrote in the book, he had a student assistant who worked in the recruiting office printing out all of the stories that were about any of the prospects on their board. He said he just wanted to keep an ear out for what “the buzz” was out there, whether that meant what a kid, his parents or high school coaches were saying about their recruitment.

RTT: You mention in Meat Market that Stephen Garcia was getting quite a kick out of fans' online comments to him while he was shopping for a school. Tennessee fans reserved some of their loudest applause at a recent Vols-Gators basketball game for the moment at which Lane Kiffin paraded Marlon Brown through the student section. Also, there was some chatter among Tennessee fans on the question of whether fans booing at a football game this past season resulted in the de-commitment of Josh Nunes. How big of an impact do you think fans have on a recruit's decision to attend a school?

FELDMAN: It sure didn’t hurt South Carolina’s cause that Stephen Garcia took note of all of the fans' commitment to their favorite program. And, for better or worse, he loved being wooed by them and had told me in the book that it did add to the aura of the school in his eyes above others. On the flip side, Joe McKnight and his family told me that LSU fans turned him off to playing for LSU. He resented that they kept telling him what he should do. It definitely varies, though, depending on the kid. I talked to Manti Te’o, the big linebacker recruit from Hawaii, a few weeks ago. On his official visit to Notre Dame, the Irish lost to one of the country’s worst teams, Syracuse. During the game, not only were the home fans booing the Irish. They were even pelting the players with snowballs. Yet, Te’o still opted to go to Notre Dame.

But for the most part I think having a big, passionate fan base is a huge plus. I remember one of the Ole Miss assistants was talking about this kid they were recruiting who also was looking at Tennessee and he was so worried. He said you can talk about being “big-time” as much as possible, but for a lot of kids once they see that 110,000 in a sea of orange, it changes their definition of big-time and you can’t compete with that. Although I don’t think he would’ve ever said that in front of Orgeron back then.

RTT: As you know, Tennessee's top target in Tennessee this year, Marlon Brown, signed with Georgia. There were some message board musings about Brown's grandmother favoring Mark Richt over Orgeron and that Richt's faith and Orgeron's behavior/profanity might have been the deciding factors. Also, in Meat Market, you quote Orgeron's wife after Orgeron was dismissed from Ole Miss as follows: "The worst part is, I think the fans feel like we deserved to win, but with this being the Bible Belt, I'm sure some of them will think, Well, you know, maybe this just isn't meant to be." After having spent an entire season with him, what's your take on how Orgeron may or may not fit into the culture of the South? 

FELDMAN: Certain players aren’t going to mesh as well with some coaches because of their personalities. Some kids are drawn to it. Some not.

The thing with Orgeron is he has a larger than life persona, and he is very spoofable in that you could hear something pretty outrageous that someone said or wrote on a message board, it may be completely farcical, but you see him and you know a little of his backstory and you come away going, “maybe there is some truth to that.” But at the same time, the guy is very comfortable in who he is. He doesn’t turn it on or turn it off. He’s not one of these coaches who treats some people one way and then around recruits or coaches he flips a different switch. He’s loud. He can come across as brash and he’s very confident. But he’s a lot more complicated than most people probably think.

When I was in Oxford doing a book signing, an Ole Miss fan said he didn’t understand why Orgeron wasn’t out more. He said people in that town needed to see him out a little more on The Square having a beer, mixing with the people. Well, the guy is a recovering alcoholic. I think Orgeron knows that’s something he shouldn’t be doing. Something he can’t be doing. He’s also not a guy who is gonna go golfing with the big boosters. He’s really all about football and his family and that’s it. Recruiting is his other passion next to coaching. I mean aside from going to church on Sundays, I don’t think he was out and about much in Mississippi.

As far as meshing with the culture of the South, I think he’s an intriguing study. Here is a guy who grew up in Cajun-country in Louisiana, a rabid LSU fan who has this amazing reverence for going into these vaunted SEC stadiums that I think, as a northerner myself, I never really got it until I’d heard how he talked about those experiences. He’d also have these guys come in like a Johnny Majors and he’d invite them into the Rebels football office and sit eating that fried chicken-on-a-stick at 10 am and just pick his brain on everything. But then there’s that other side where you think it’d behoove him to be more folksy and political and he doesn’t really do it. He’s just going 130 miles per hour.

You wouldn’t have thought he would’ve fit in so well in Los Angeles, but he was a big hit with their alums, and if you ask some of the USC beat reporters, he was their go-to guy. Then he got to Oxford and it was almost the complete opposite.

RTT: You mention in the book that Orgeron had enjoyed a good relationship with the compliance department while at Southern Cal, and that it was much more tense at Ole Miss. Could you elaborate? Also, what do we know about the Tennessee compliance department and how it might relate with Kiffin's staff of recruiters?

FELDMAN: The Ole Miss compliance director David Wells has been around a long time especially in a profession where most compliance guys don’t last more than five or six years. Ole Miss is very sensitive to its history with the NCAA, having been hammered twice hard for serious infractions in the last 20 years or so. A lot of the job is about getting interpretation of the rules. One year Orgeron had the Rebels summer camps filmed so he and the staff could study the footage to get a better grasp on the campers as prospects. The following year, 2006, they checked with Wells and he told them they couldn’t do that. Some three months later, they were recruiting a player who Alabama was recruiting, and the kid had mentioned to the Rebels offensive coordinator that Alabama had filmed him at camp. Obviously that didn’t sit well around the Rebels' war room.

One of the big frustrations I noticed while around Ole Miss, and I’ve heard it is this way with many SEC schools, any time a recruit has a correspondence course on his transcript, whether it's from Hargrave or from a BYU course, it’s going to trigger a closer look. In most instances, those sailed by with no problems, but then there were other transcripts that didn’t have them and yet they might’ve gotten delayed because of some paperwork issue that the coaching staff didn’t get addressed as quickly as it should’ve. But from the other side of things you have to keep in mind a big consideration is “Okay, now that you’ve got this guy into school, can he handle being there academically even with all of the academic support available to him?”

From talking to a lot of coaches and administrators around the country, the relationships between the coaches and compliance are often pretty delicate. At USC, it was just a little more comfortable I guess, and a big part of that probably had to do with the way the program is viewed by the administration. USC had what they called “Presidentials,” which were the borderline student-athletes that they got admitted, and the more Pete Carroll won, the more flexibility he had there with it.

I don’t know much about the reputation of the Tennessee compliance staff, but it will be interesting to see how things develop there. There tends to be friction at places where an athletic department is used to doing things certain ways and then new coaches come in with different ways and ideas. There will be missteps, as I’m sure there already have been, but those things usually are minor.

RTT: Over and over we hear about the NCAA Clearinghouse declining to sign off on a player's eligibility due to red flags such as a suspicious increase in test scores. How much of that do you think is actual cheating, and how much do you think might be attributable to the fact that a kid has gone through most of life just getting by but now that people with resources have taken an interest in him due to his athletic ability, he is simply getting the tutoring and extra help and attention he needs to succeed?

FELDMAN: I think there’s still some cheating that’s going on when it comes to academic entry into schools. There was a highly touted running back that was on the Ole Miss board at one point who had his ACT thrown out because of a suspicious jump, and the rumor was that when the kid showed up to take that test, it was actually someone else who looked nothing like him. I also remember the case of a promising defensive lineman that everyone was high on. Ole Miss was hoping to do a “sign and place” with him, meaning sign him and then place him as a JC and hope he comes back to them. He was miles away from qualifying. Yet, somehow he signed with a school and then—voila!—managed to do extremely well on his ACT and got eligible. I ran into someone close to the school a few months later and he said, “Oh that’s because he scored a 26.” Um, okay. Guys who get the grades that kid did almost never get above 21, much less a 26.

In regards to the second part of your question, I did find it fascinating that the prospects who are labeled as “at risk” guys often fell into two categories: those who had pretty good GPAs and low ACT scores and those who had low GPAs but decent ACTs. From observing what happened at Ole Miss, it seemed that the guy who was in the first category like a Dexter McCluster was the better bet. That guy was more likely to work harder, be on time for class and his study sessions, take advantage of the tutoring sessions, and also wouldn’t be a headache for the coaches because you wouldn’t have to chase after him to be on time or to show up to things as opposed to the guy who always has been just sharp enough to get by but probably wouldn’t have put in much effort to do more than that. That second category was the one who often caused the headaches.

RTT: In the book, Orgeron seemed to think that having a detailed academic plan for the player he was recruiting was one of the biggest advantages he had over other coaches. Just how much of an advantage is it? Are there other unique pitches or tactics Orgeron uses to land recruits that you can disclose without putting yourself at risk of a fatal headbutt?

FELDMAN: I think those academic plans are a huge advantage because so many of the top recruits around the country are bordeline students. They will still have some work to do before getting eligible. Orgeron and his staff worked hard to have these detailed plans with course options that were a blueprint of sorts that these recruits could take.

It really surprised me to hear that many schools weren’t so thorough when it came to this stuff. And, even though you often have a lot of high school coaches and administrators who know what it takes to ensure that the prospect can stay eligible and graduate from high school, they don’t know what it takes to get past the NCAA guidelines and the Clearinghouse. I never imagined how significant this really is when it comes to recruiting. I give you this example as it relates to the past signing day. Vontaze Burfict was this five-star linebacker from California who had been committed to USC for months but ended up flipping and signing with ASU. I talked to Burfict’s mom and high school coach and they said the big reason why ASU got him was because of Sun Devils' recruiting coordinator Matt Lubick. He was one of those guys that had been on Orgeron’s Ole Miss staff and learned about providing a detailed academic gameplan for the recruit and his family because Orgeron was so adamant about his guys learning that. So seeing that plan, and seeing it in print, how it works and how it has worked for Sun Devils' freshmen this season really opened Burfict’s eyes.

One of the big things about Orgeron is that he’s very confident in his ability to evaluate a prospect, and a lot of that comes from learning under Jimmy Johnson. Orgeron was determined to find out certain qualities a kid had as it relates to a certain position. Now if there was something he saw a kid do that might’ve been lagging technique-wise that another coach might gong the kid for, he might not. He always told his staff there are certain things they should be able to teach that prospect once they worked with them, but if a guy was stiff or soft or not competitive, those were deal breakers. And getting back to his confidence, it means he’s very comfortable with being the first one to offer a kid. He isn't afraid to, as he put it, be the first one in the pool. He also figured that if he was, that kid might be loyal to you since you were the first one to believe in him.

RTT: Ole Miss signed a staggering 37 players on National Signing Day. With the limit being 25, what is the thought process that goes into oversigning, and isn't a third too many players really pushing the envelope? What is Orgeron's philosophy on oversigning?

FELDMAN: Yeah, 37 is a staggering number. I’m pretty surprised by it given how Ole Miss AD Pete Boone was so concerned with oversigning two years ago with Orgeron, who felt like if they took three or four recruits more than their limit, it would work itself out because a few of those kids they were chasing might not make it in academically. Plus they could ask one or two to defer and grayshirt. Boone, though, didn’t like the perception that comes with oversigning, but it has more to do with signing kids you know are longshots to qualify than having players in the program lose scholarships for whatever reason. And there is a stigma there. It didn’t look good, however I guess after you come off the season the Rebels just had, Nutt got some additional wiggle room.

RTT: This is mostly just out of curiosity, but you mention in the book that one of the biggest targets for Ole Miss that season, Joe McKnight, was visited by both Pete Carroll and Les Miles very close to National Signing Day. Orgeron, though, sent Frank Wilson instead of going himself. Why is that, do you think?

FELDMAN: No doubt the two biggest recruits Ole Miss chased in the year I worked on Meat Market were McKnight and Jevan Snead. In the case of McKnight, since each head coach is only allowed one in-home visit, Orgeron believed that he was better served to use his earlier so he might be able to get McKnight to commit to an official visit to Oxford. I think just getting McKnight to do that was a challenge given all of the attention he had coming. Would it have made a difference if Orgeron saved his in-home for late January? My hunch is probably not.

Enthusiastic chest bump to Bruce for taking the time to talk to us. Now go buy his book, because if you don't, I will consider that to be an irrebuttable presumption that you are not a true Tennessee fan. Or an American.

Thanks, Bruce!

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