If you think high school football in Florida has nothing to do with high school football in Southern California, you're wrong.
National sports publications and recruiting services compile dozens of All-American lists that link the best from Santa Monica to St. Petersburg, even though most of the athletes never see the same line of scrimmage.
The ratings may seem arbitrary, particularly when prep stars face opposition of varying quality in high school leagues of varying size and competition. But few of the list makers claim 100% accuracy. All rely heavily on college coaches' evaluations, and those evaluations, it is hoped, lend credibility to lists varying from 25 to 4,000 athletes.
"If college coaches didn't help me," says Joe Terranova, director of National Prep Publications, "I'd be the dumbest guy in the world."
Terranova, based in Dearborn, Mich., has compiled national All-American lists for 17 years. He believes his lists--one comes out this month naming almost 1,000 of the best seniors around the country--are usually accurate.
"Nobody can be a real expert," Terranova says, "but I come as close as anybody because of the people I work with."
The give-and-take relationship Terranova has developed with coaches and recruiting coordinators allows him to receive top-prospect lists from 60 Division 1-A colleges, which help greatly when Terranova pares his initial 3,000-player list.
Colleges share information with Terranova because, he says, he promises never to associate any of his selections with the school or schools that recommend them. The schools don't want to let other schools know whom they might recruit and Terranova provides that confidentiality. Each year Terranova sends about 4,200 letters to high school coaches, asking them to name their best juniors. Usually 60% respond with an average of three names. From there, Terranova looks to college coaches, recruiting coordinators and sportswriters for second, third and fourth opinions. The resulting publication spotlights 132 of the nation's best players.
Other recruiting gurus do not receive the cooperation Terranova gets from colleges, but they compile similar lists.
Max Emfinger, a self-professed "super scout," runs his National High School Recruiting Magazine out of Houston, but he no longer works with the Texas-heavy Southwest Conference because the SWC coaches recently voted to stonewall recruiting services and sportswriters.
"The guys in the Southwest Conference don't want anybody to know how bad a recruiting class they've got, because lots of the guys don't do a good job recruiting," Emfinger says. "But the stonewallers don't know what they're missing. They're working with a peg leg because they're not using all they can use."
Unlike many conferences, the SWC puts most of its energy into regional recruiting. With eight of nine SWC schools in Texas, that forces SWC schools to compete against each other and non-conference schools that come to Texas to recruit the state's best. SWC coaches feel if a SWC school provides recruiting information to people who share it with the school's competitors, the school hurts its program and damages the conference.
Texas Tech recruiting coordinator Ray Sewalt says SWC coaches' decision to stonewall newspapers and recruiting services may have been hasty. "Maybe the coaches overreacted a little," he said. "Maybe they are a little gun-shy. There is no doubt they went out the back door under pressure. I think they were reluctant to be up front when they feared newspaper people and others had taken advantage of their honesty."
Fred Jacoby, SWC commissioner, said the decision not to share information with newspapers and recruiting services rested mainly on the conference's desire to draw attention away from recruiting. "Recruiting has become a second season around here," he said.
"There is just so much emphasis on it that we think we'd be hurting ourselves if we identified who we think are the best for our local media and recruiting services who then try to tell people that this school had a good recruiting year or a bad one.
"We don't want to cooperate by identifying players to make the services' job easier and our job tougher."
Even without help from SWC coaches, Emfinger continues to publish periodic top-200 lists and this month will print a list of the nation's preseason top 3,000-4,000 players. He has developed standard heights, weights and sprinting speeds against which players are rated. He assigns point totals to all listed players and believes "it's virtually impossible for me to miss a kid. If he's a standout, it's very difficult for our office not to know about him."
Terranova acknowledges Emfinger's diligence, but he has serious reservations about Emfinger's point system. Emfinger admires Terranova because he was one of the first to develop a comprehensive listing, but he says Terranova's job as a Ford Motor executive detracts from the quality of his service.