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The Umpire of Eligibility

By J. Eric Eckard

Tim Metcalf remembers the call well. He was working at Georgia Southern University at the time, and an assistant coach there had just dropped off a women’s soccer recruit at the airport, officially ending the school’s 48-hour time limit to woo the prospective athlete. But a snowstorm had closed the 16-year-old’s destination airport, and there were no more flights out of Savannah that day. The coach phoned to ask Metcalf: Should I turn around and pick her up and violate NCAA rules or leave her there and hope for the best?

“I told him to pick her up and take her to a hotel,” says Metcalf, who now is East Carolina’s director of compliance. “There’s the legal thing to do, and there’s the moral thing to do. I’m not going to leave a 16-year-old girl at an airport a thousand miles from home.”

For doing what he knew was the right thing, Metcalf and the coach received letters of admonishment from the NCAA, and the recruit wasn’t allowed to enroll at Georgia Southern.

It was clear what to do then. These days, hardly any of Metcalf’s decisions are so easy because the rules governing college recruiting have become so complex. This year’s NCAA book of rules covering everything from eligibility to financial aid is 484 pages long and more than three inches thick. And it changes every year.

“One of the toughest things about the job is you get questioned on things, and you get 99 out of 100 correct. The one you get wrong is the one they remember,” Metcalf says, adding a bit wistfully, “Nobody pulls for the umpire.”

It’s a stomach-churning kind of job. “We have to be right every time. There’s no kinda-sorta. And if we’re not, and we overlook something, that student-athlete might not be eligible. That’s a lot of pressure.”

UNC Chapel Hill was expecting to be sanctioned for NCAA violations involving contact between players and sports agents. It could happen here. With recent success throughout Conference USA in football and talk of an automatic BCS bid for the conference champion, pressure on compliance offers at all member schools is compounded. More sports agents are scouting the C-USA ranks hoping to find the next Chris Johnson, the former ECU running back now setting NFL rushing records with the Tennessee Titans.

“With 80 former C-USA student-athletes on opening day NFL rosters last year, our institutions take agent and extra benefit issues very seriously, and I would expect that to continue in the future,” says Rob Phillippi, C-USA associate commissioner for compliance and academics.

Metcalf says most of his dealings with sports agents have been issue-free, especially because the state of North Carolina requires agents to register with schools. Although it’s not required, he takes the extra step of asking all agents looking at ECU players to go through him. “It’s a byproduct of success, and it can be a good thing or a bad thing,” he says. “You do what you can to police it, but we don’t always know who our student-athletes talk to every day.”

Why? Blame YouTube, instant messaging, smart phones and social media sites that have made contact between college coaches and recruits as easy as clicking a mouse. “Times have changed a lot because of technology,” says Metcalf, who worked in the compliance department for eight years at Georgia Southern before coming to ECU in 2006. “There are more rules and more interpretations to keep up with that technology. And not only are there different rules and interpretations for different sports, but sometimes for the same sport. Very few times will a coach ask me a question where I can say yes or no. It’s always evolving.”

No college sports program is perfect, and ECU—like most Division 1 schools—has self-reported inadvertent violations to the NCAA. But the NCAA hasn’t imposed any penalties on ECU stiffer than those the school knew it would get for reporting minor violations. A few years ago the ECU’s men’s basketball team was in danger of losing future scholarships for not meeting the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, a formula that measures graduation rates, academic performance and other factors. Although the team scored below the NCAA standard in its most recent multiyear evaluation, it has made enough progress to avoid penalties.

It helps, except when it hurts

Technology is both a boon and a bane for athletes and college compliance officials. In some ways it can make Metcalf’s job easier. He’s currently evaluating a software program that would allow him to monitor coaches’ phone calls to recruits. Now, coaches turn in paper phone logs of those calls once a month. Technology also makes it much easier these days for high school athletes who aren’t among the top recruits to get coaches’ attention—and scholarship offers. You take the digital home movies Mom shot of your high school games, sit down at a laptop and edit those into a highlight reel and then upload it to YouTube.

It was different back in the olden days of, say, five years ago. Back then, according to Josh Smith, a senior tackle on ECU’s football team, many prospects looking for scholarship offers were still mailing VCR tapes to coaches. “Technology wasn’t where it is today,” says Smith, a 2005 graduate from Garner High School. “I had to make my own videos and send out the tapes. It was so hard in high school to get your name out. It was a hectic experience.”

Smith committed to ECU after his junior year in high school when he was named to the all-conference team and crowned the state’s defensive player of the year. By the time he graduated, the coach who recruited him had departed and Skip Holtz had arrived. Holtz wanted to red-shirt Smith his freshman year. Smith didn’t want to spend a year warming the bench so he decided to enroll in a prep school in Rhode Island. After a year there he transferred to Western Carolina University. After a year there he transferred to ECU and sat out the 2007 season, as required by the NCAA. He finally got to play in 2008 as a red-shirt sophomore.

Smith traces his long and winding road from Garner to Greenville to his original aversion to the recruiting process. “I committed here so quick that I never got any other offers. Most [of my high school teammates] waited, but I hated [the recruiting process]. Should I have waited? Yes. Do I regret it? Not at all. But a year would have made a big difference.”

During Smith’s odyssey high-profile scandals erupted at the University of Miami and the University of Colorado, which led to new limits on perks recruiters can offer. The NCAA even banned text messages from coaches to prospective players.

“There’s lots of information out there for recruits—instantaneous information,” Metcalf says. “People communicate through texts, e-mail, instant messages and social networks. Trying to stay on top of that is a never-ending process.”

‘Something new every day’

On a given work day Metcalf might check the eligibility of an incoming student-athlete, send out eligibility waivers for transferring students, process eligibility lists for various sports, call NCAA or conference officials for information or field calls from coaches, students, staff or parents asking for interpretation of the rules. And he does that for all 17 sports teams at ECU, not just football. He attends seminars regularly to bone up on new rules and updates on existing regulations. He’s supported by an administrative assistant, a graduate assistant plus help on financial aid and academic issues from Rosie Thompson-Smaw, the senior women’s associate athletic director. Organizationally, the compliance office sits outside the athletics department to avoid conflicts of interest. “There’s something new every day—no two days are alike.”

Philippi, the C-USA official, says recruiting rules change every year. “For example, 50 suggested changes relating to recruiting were submitted in 2009,” he points out.

In the past six years, rule changes have included banning the use of private planes and limos on recruiting trips; schools no longer can plaster a recruit’s name on the backs of jerseys or the scoreboards at games; seventh- and eighth-graders now are considered basketball prospects covered by recruiting restriction.

Recruiting was much simpler a few decades ago when NCAA rules mostly dealt with policing booster club slush funds. Roy Bush ’73 of Harrisburg, who played a year of football at ECU under a full scholarship in 1965 before heading off to the Vietnam War, says contacts and visits weren’t an issue in his day. “Everything went through my [high school] coach,” says Bush. “He wanted to funnel it to make sure nothing went wrong. With all the [technology] now, things don’t have to be funneled through high school coaches.”

With the rise of sports opportunities outside high school such as Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and other traveling teams, today’s high school coaches aren’t always privy to the recruiting process. Britney Roper, a redshirt junior volleyball player at ECU, says when she was being recruited from Pender High School most of what she learned about the process came from college coaches. “They told me that they can’t do this or they can’t do that. They said, ‘I can’t call you all the time, but if you have any questions, call me.’ For some athletes, it can be somewhat of a hassle because you want to find out as much information as you can.

“But I understand why they do it,” Roper adds. “The rules are in place for high school kids to still be kids. Recruiting almost requires you to mature faster.”

Metcalf is very much aware of that and does what he can to help. “I don’t have any biological kids, but I have 500 children, and I feel responsible for them. Figuratively, I’ll give them a hug when they need it and a kick in the butt when they need it. But it can be a challenge.”