More than a million teenagers play high school football across the United States, and one of those kids, the star running back for the Libertyville High School Wildcats, just took the handoff on a double dive. So hungry to reach the NFL that he's already being counseled by a personal trainer, a "speed specialist," and a California-based dietician, the kid gets to the corner and explodes--one furious stride splitting two defenders.
The men who assess the nation's high school stars for a living debate whether this ballcarrier's talent equals his ambition. But on the highest bleacher, above a thousand screaming Wildcats fans, stands Tom Lemming of Lake County, Illinois, arguably the most important of these assessors. When the cell phone in his pocket rings, more often than not it's leaving the callback number of an assistant coach at a Big Ten, or Pac-10, or SEC school. Lemming happens to be a staunch supporter of the player now dashing toward the goal line, making him the kid's best shot at a Division I scholarship.
As Lemming looks on, a defensive back converges. The ballcarrier dives, comes up short. First and goal Libertyville, from the two.
Three years ago in Ventura, California, an 18-year-old running back called a press conference to announce his college decision. The running back was a "blue chip," considered gifted enough to start as a freshman and have an "immediate impact." Laid out on a table in front of him were three ball caps, each bearing the insignia of a high-profile school. He had to go with his heart, Lorenzo Booker announced, and to the clicking of cameras he put a Florida State cap on his head. His announcement was a highlight of a college football recruiting special that was carried on ESPN and hosted by Tom Lemming.
In 1998 the quarterback for Chicago's Mount Carmel High School, alma mater of the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb, sued his head coach. He alleged that the coach had discouraged big-time college programs from recruiting him. Lemming was served a subpoena to be deposed as an expert witness. Two Decembers ago the University of Nebraska fired its head coach after a season in which the team won nine, lost three. It was widely believed that one of the sacked coach's fatal failings was an inability to recruit players regarded highly enough by the likes of Tom Lemming.
To a degree that many others find unnerving, Tom Lemming is both a producer and a promoter of the nation's annual college football recruiting spectacle, which heats up after the regular season ends in early December, reaches a boiling point around the Super Bowl, and spills over on the first Wednesday in February, national letter-of-intent day, when prospects may officially ink their amateur contracts. After 26 years in his odd business, Lemming has become at the age of 49 the most influential and controversial of a strange subspecies of sportswriter--the talent scout and recruiting "analyst," the "guru."
For their Web sites and magazines, the gurus grade and rank prep talent, listing the supposed top athletes at each position with their relevant physical attributes (height, weight, 40-yard dash time). After everyone's been signed, they rank the colleges on the quality of their new recruits. In large part because of the gurus' scrutiny, recruiting has become a "second season," its devotees called "recruitniks." As the first week of February draws near, theinsiders.com, one of two sites dedicated almost entirely to recruiting, gets 30 million hits a day.
The widespread criticism of the gurus can be boiled down to this: they are self-interested charlatans who exploit the dreams and talents of teenagers for monetary gain. (Of course, the same charge can be leveled at the college programs themselves.) That reputation dogs Lemming. While watching warm-ups from the end zone prior to a 2003 state championship game at the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium, he was surrounded by state troopers instructed by the president of the Illinois High School Association to remove him. He watched the rest of the game from the office of Ron Turner, then Illinois' head football coach.
Lemming has three main lines of business. For the ESPN Web site he writes a recruiting column and conducts a weekly online chat. Since the early 1990s he's operated a 900-number hotline; for $1.79 a minute, recruitniks can dial up and hear Tom Lemming's recorded voice tell them how their college team is faring in the recruiting wars. But according to Lemming, competition from the Internet has nearly killed off that business. Closest to Lemming's heart is his magazine, Tom Lemming's Prep Football Report, which comes out eight times a year and claims about 3,000 subscribers at $90 a year; Lemming alone reports and writes it. Of the 117 Division I-A college football programs, he says 15 do not receive his magazine. The others use it, as they do several other recruiting publications, as a kind of initial talent locator.
But what makes Lemming the most influential analyst is his presence on the masthead of ESPN.com, the Internet's largest sports site, and his annual U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a prep all-star contest that the army sponsors for its own recruiting reasons. Lemming earns no money from the game, but he alone selects the East and the West teams, some 70 players in all, who face off in January inside San Antonio's Alamodome. (This year's game is on Saturday.) In addition, he has a hand in choosing the 50 Gatorade players of the year, one per state, and the Reebok and USA Today all-America teams. "Every big team that's picked, I pick it," Lemming says. Many all-stars announce their college decisions on the sidelines during the army game, a bit of dramaturgy arranged by their host.
Lemming's critics talk about him in voices edged with jealousy and fear. They grind their own axes. They frequently demand anonymity:
"Tom Lemming is the godfather of this business. He does everything wrong. I have nothing good to say about him."
"He's the J.P. Morgan of the recruiting business."
"I've heard some real good things, I've heard some real bad things about Tom Lemming."
"I feel bad for the kids he's advising. They shouldn't be listening to someone with a business interest in what he's advising."
"I know of college coaches who are upset about him. I can't say who. They're not talking to me to get their names in print. A majority of them would slough it off anyway."
"Don't make me paint the picture for you. I'll just say it's a very powerful thing when you can offer a kid that kind of exposure. It's a very powerful thing, and it gives Lemming a tremendous advantage."
"He's in the ultimate position. He appears to be neutral, but when you look at the influence he holds he's anything but."
The kickoff falls into the hands of the Libertyville star, the senior with the number 9 jersey and mellifluous name, Santino Panico. Twenty times a game the stadium's tinny PA system blares "San-tee-no! Pa-nee-co!"
He starts upfield--five yards, ten. In the bleachers, near the 50-yard line of Libertyville High's Walter R. Johnson Sports Complex, his father booms, "C'mon kid! C'mon kid! Get to the outside! Get outside!" But the kid's downed after a mere 15 yards on the return. "Block for him!" moans Anthony Panico. "You gotta block for him."
This was Libertyville's first playoff game of the 2003 postseason, against Antioch High on Halloween night; as always, Santino Panico would play both ways and be on the field for nearly every one of its 48 minutes. By the time the year ended in a bitter double-overtime loss in the state Class 7A championship game, he'd have scored more touchdowns in a season than any other player in the history of the school, been named to every regional all-star team there was, been chosen by Tom Lemming as Illinois' Gatorade player of the year, and been invited by Lemming to play in the Army Bowl, the most significant honor of them all. Yet as of Halloween 2003, Panico had received precisely one scholarship offer. It was from Ball State University, whose stadium in Muncie, Indiana, doesn't dwarf the Walter R. Johnson.
His future teammates in San Antonio were receiving dozens of offers from top 25 programs, some arriving the summer before their junior year. But Santino Panico understood that if he played well in the army game on NBC, his future might be transformed.
The fathers of promising players surround Lemming at Chicago's suburban football fields and say things like "With Tom Lemming, this is about the kids." He has dark curly hair, a fleshy face, and drowsy blue eyes. After so many years spent summarizing boys, he speaks in sound bites. No matter the weather, he prefers tight black T-shirts of a stretch fabric that conforms to his gym-built physique. During football season, the slowest time of his year, he structures his day around two-hour weight-lifting sessions at the Bally's health club in Schaumburg.
By the time of the Antioch game he'd known the Panicos for almost a year. He considered them among his friends, a common enough relationship when it comes to the families of area recruits. During the Antioch game, he said proudly, if inaccurately, "Panico is Libertyville's big-play guy. Without him they're nothing."
At that moment Lemming was standing among the Panico entourage. As he spoke, a gadget play developed. The Libertyville halfback took the pitch, started to run, stopped, and drew back to pass. A receiver was wide open in the end zone. The ball floated toward him. It hit his hands. It hit the ground. The crowd gasped, and on the field the boy was by himself, gazing into the heavens. "They should have thrown that one to Santino," said Lemming. "He's got good hands. He had the best hands at the Iowa camp, and there were hundreds of kids there." The boy they did throw to wandered toward the sidelines staring at his feet.
Santino Panico had been getting the ball since he was eight years old. His Pee Wee coach, Glen Kozlowski, the former Bears wide receiver, knew what he had on his roster. "We won many a championship with Santino," said Kozlowski, in the stands watching the Antioch game. "He was the kind of kid, you fed him the ball."
Encouraged by Kozlowski, Panico decided he would play in the NFL. "Some kids have illusions," Panico would say. "But I looked to a few of the NFL players at that time--Jerry Rice and Bill Romanowski--and I asked myself how I could be like them." Since the age of 11, he hadn't had a sip of Coke. Not a slice of pizza. "Nothing fried," he said. "No fast food, no white bread, no sweets. No food with hydrogenated oils or fats." He'd been running and lifting weights all that time. "I've never seen anything like it with regard to his desire," said John McNulty, Panico's personal trainer.
When Panico entered high school in 1999 his father hired McNulty, who also has several of the Chicago Bears on his client list. Panico stopped pumping iron. His training became "sport specific." It was "high intensity, high explosive," and he did it six days a week, in season and off. He shopped in the organic section of the Libertyville Jewel. He ate only eggs from the hens of the Amish. "Regular eggs, you cook them, they taste good. These, they're horrifying. They taste like shit." He occasionally made himself sick on raw ones.
His dietician in California, whom he'd consult long-distance, worked for Charles Poliquin, the fitness guru who specializes in "explosive-power training." That's what Panico wanted. "My training will make me explosive, fast, big. It gives me speed and power. And power hurts and speed kills." He moved into the starting lineup when Libertyville reached the playoffs his freshman year. By his senior year he could play two ways for an entire game without breathing deeply.
Antioch scored first, Antioch scored second, and it was 0-14 Antioch after two Libertyville fumbles. The crowd was shocked, and the contingent of spectators surrounding Anthony Panico beyond restless. The senior Panico owns a contracting company. Standing well below six feet, he wears large, owlish eyeglasses and has a voice like the horn on an 18-wheeler. "If they had anybody that could block on this team, Santino'd get 30 yards every time!" Down onto the field he roared, "C'mon! You gotta throw a block!" When a run went nowhere he lifted his eyes to God. "Can they throw a block or what?"
When Libertyville was driving, at every pause in the action some sort of big cat growled over the PA system of the Walter R. Johnson. Libertyville was driving now, and the ball went to Santino Panico. As one voice rose above the rest--"Get outside and go! Get outside and go!"--Panico burned a linebacker and beat a defensive back to the corner. The crowd rose as one. But another defender racing across the field had the angle. They intersected near the goal line and Panico went up, headfirst, airborne like a swimmer at the gun. The crowd was insane. He didn't quite get in, but on the sidelines teammates swarmed him. His father said, "Santino's got 'em jacked up! Hey! You see that?" The touchdown came on the next play. It was 7-14 Antioch.
Antioch missed a field goal and Libertyville got the ball back. Minutes passed, and the ball was still on the Wildcats' side of the field. It was third and three and the half was almost over. Lemming said, "They know who's getting it."
Anthony Panico said, "I tell Santino all the time, I tell him, 'To get these first downs you have to have desire. That's what you have to have. Desire.'"
Someone piped up, "On third down, either Panico gets it or they're going to--"
He didn't finish. Panico ripped up the middle through the beef of the line untouched. Fifty-three yards later, just shy of the goal line, a defensive back caught him from behind.
Libertyville scored, and no one seemed to care that the extra point was missed. The game had turned. At halftime Lemming left for the bathroom, and as he descended the steps Anthony Panico called after him blissfully, "Who set up those touchdowns, big guy?" Libertyville ultimately won 28-14, and as the PA growled, men standing near the elder Panico looked at him and smiled, admiration that was nearly envy in their eyes.
Lemming attended three Libertyville games during Panico's senior season, but Panico wasn't actually the reason. Libertyville's junior class was loaded (the 2004 Wildcats became undefeated state champions), and there was a blue chip on the offensive line. Colleges seek out players on the basis of their junior seasons, and Lemming does too. Every spring he embarks on his "annual recruiting pilgrimage." From late March until just before the Fourth of July, he travels the country attempting to find and visit every high school junior he believes has the talent to receive a Division I-A football scholarship. Lemming publishes the results of these road trips in the late-summer edition of the Prep Football Report, his biggest and most important issue of the year. At around 260 pages, the book consists of blurbs on each of a thousand or so players. It's full of typos and head shots of boys trying their best to look gridiron mean.
In an average year, by Lemming's reckoning, he travels 80,000 miles, covers some 25 states, and meets about 700 boys, talking to another 300 by phone. A recent survey of the west took him from Chicago to Saint Louis to the Pacific Northwest, down the length of California and east through Arizona, up to the Rocky Mountain states and back across the Continental Divide, south to Texas, and north through the Great Plains to Minnesota, then east through Wisconsin to Milwaukee and south to home. Twenty thousand miles in 20 days, most of it by car, meeting and greeting 300 prep stars in high schools and motel lobbies and NFL weight rooms and on the porch of a Cracker Barrel and in a Salvation Army depot and the coliseums of several land-grant universities. Lemming loves to tell stories of the road--about lacerating his forearm while changing a flat tire in an LA slum, about visiting a very tall wide receiver named LeBron James and not knowing the kid also played basketball, about popping in on prospects named Dan Marino, Herschel Walker, Emmett Smith, and Randy Moss. He's fond of saying he's driven more than 1.6 million miles.
In Lemming's mind this is what sets him apart from the other gurus. "I'm the only constant," he says. "These other guys come and go. I don't even think about them." Only two others--Alan Wallace of Laguna Beach, California, and Max Emfinger of Covington, Louisiana--attempt to cover the whole country. But they use stringers. Neither personally reaches quite as much of the country as Lemming does. In addition, there are perhaps thousands of regional specialists--"mini-Lemmings," they were once called by a Lemming partisan--who cover a conference, a locality, a team, either independently or for one of the two big Internet sites, rivals.com and theinsiders.com. "I take great pride in the fact that I'm the only recruiting analyst who 'goes the extra miles' to get a firsthand look at nearly all the top prospects each year," Lemming wrote last March in his pre-pilgrimage column for ESPN.com. His traveling is the keystone of his enterprise; on it everything else--his reputation, his influence--is built. He says, "I think most people are comfortable asking me to pick their all-American teams because I see everyone. When these other guys pick their all-American teams, you don't know where they're getting their info."
Before setting off, Lemming must determine which boys he'll visit. Through a variety of sources, he assembles a list of the top prospects. He writes high schools that are traditional powers "asking if they've got any big-time players." He talks to sportswriters, broadcasters, and various other informed observers. He scours all-state teams, all-area, all-city. He claims to know coaches from almost every I-A program in the country, and he listens to them discuss recruiting.
On the road, Lemming likes to gather as many of a state's blue-chippers as he can at a central location. He takes group and individual pictures and collects highlight tapes that he'll view later at home. For his photo backdrops, he prefers football stadiums. One Memorial Day Lemming summoned 49 of the top 50 players from southern California to the Los Angeles Coliseum, home field of USC, and took the picture that made the cover of his magazine's big preseason issue. It was headlined "We Love L.A."
But Lemming's willing to meet players in small groups, in pairs, even one-on-one. He seems to prefer the booths of the chain restaurants that cluster alongside interstates, but he once made a five-hour drive down dirt mountain roads to a cabin in Tennessee to see a blue-chip linebacker. Lemming's most useful meetings found him sitting with a boy and his high school coach and watching game tape, but doing that became too time-consuming. He says, "Now, mostly, I have them FedEx their tapes to me."
Lemming makes his home in a northwest suburb he doesn't want revealed, lest recruitniks descend on him. It's a faux Tudor on a curving, tree-lined drive, and he spends a lot of the summer inside its white-carpeted, white-walled study, his desk facing picture windows and a grove of young but blighted box elders. Here he watches his highlight tapes and writes the blurbs that constitute his preseason yearbook: "On Film--Ryan proves to be an outstanding athlete with an exceptionally quick first couple steps, a burst that allows him to apply pressure on the QB, excellent balance and body control." He dictates directly into a cassette recorder; the tapes are later transcribed by "a girl." He allots stars--one to five--to each player, and makes a list of the top 400 in the country and other lists of the top players by position. Later in the year he'll winnow out a "hot list" of the nation's 100 most elite, and from this group select the 70 or so kids who'll make up his Army Bowl teams.
Such rankings--there are others with similar star systems and top-100 lists--are condemned by critics as specious. Recruiting analysts acknowledge that theirs is an "inexact science," which is to say it's subjective, political, anecdotal, and parochial and there's no science about it. Beyond the blue chips, the obvious talents on whom everyone agrees, are the "tweeners," as they're sometimes called, the players who represent both risk and promise. Tweener criteria encompass such highly subjective qualities as "heart" and "desire," "inner strength" and "natural leadership." The "intangibles."
In the spring of 1986 Lemming chose not to travel to Wichita, Kansas, to meet a running back known to be fast and dexterous but, at five feet seven inches, undersized. Few college recruiters made the trip either; Northwestern chose to issue its last scholarship to his slightly larger linebacker brother. So it was Oklahoma State he went to, where he won the Heisman Trophy and became the first junior ever to enter the NFL draft. This year he was inducted into the NFL's hall of fame. Lemming made a promise to himself. "After Barry Sanders, I decided I would never slough off anyone again."
In November 2002 Lemming got a DVD in the mail. It came from the Panico family, who'd hired a professional to tape and package the highlights of the boy's sophomore and junior campaigns. (Later, a highlight tape of Santino's senior year would be mailed to all 117 schools in Division I.) Such footage arrives at Lemming's house by the crateload. "Last week I threw 50 tapes away," Lemming said later, "and the week before that I threw away between 50 and 100. They keep coming in. I always delegate a lot of time to watching film. If a kid or parent or coach sends me a tape I feel obligated to watch it. Not all of it! Maybe five minutes of it--I can tell within a minute or two whether a kid is good or not.
"First I look at his size--if he's not big enough, it doesn't matter," Lemming went on, forgetting for the moment about Barry Sanders. "Then I look at his feet, his quickness, his athletic ability. Speed is everything."
Santino Panico didn't have the size. He was barely six feet, and though listed by the analysts at 200 pounds, he weighed in just before Christmas 2003 at around 180--playing for Libertyville both ways had burned off some stone. There was no hair on his head; he shaved it every Sunday. A natural charmer, he's likely to be the most talkative person in any room. When USA Today published a "round table," datelined San Antonio, of eight Lemming bowl invitees, Santino Panico was among them. The interviewer displayed an NCAA rules manual and said, "I trust all of you have read this." Panico was first to speak. "Don't touch it," he said. "You might violate it."
He didn't have the speed either. In the winter of his junior year he was timed dashing 40 yards in 4.7 seconds. That's slow. But he had "heart," he had "fire," he had "that love for the game." Santino Panico was a tweener.
Lemming took the Panicos, father and son, to lunch. "He told me that if I just believe in myself and work hard I'll have a great year," Santino recalls. "And that's all I did. Work, work, work." Lemming also told him that he "needed to get his speed up." Just as there are ways to make oneself "smarter" for the SAT, so are there ways to make oneself "faster" for the 40-yard dash. Panico found Dave Buchanan, a kinesiologist--the football equivalent of a Kaplan course. After being literally put through his paces, he went to a camp at the University of Wisconsin and ran an electronically timed 4.52 and a handheld 4.49.
In the Prep Football Report preceding Panico's senior year, Lemming diverged wildly from the other gurus. He gave the boy four stars and wrote that Panico had "All-American ability" at safety. He touted him to coaches at Indiana, Wisconsin, Penn State, Illinois, and Iowa, using the classic tweener argument: "This kid is a diamond in the rough." By September, when it was clear that Panico had embarked on the best season, by far, of his career, Lemming bestowed upon him a prize so coveted that he regularly receives calls from fathers of five-star players angrily inquiring as to why their sons were denied it. Panico would play in San Antonio.
The flaw of every analyst, according to Jim Heckman, president of theinsiders.com, is that "they get biased toward the kids they see a lot and come to know. Any recruiting expert who says that that's not the case is lying." Lemming replies that this is precisely the reason why he hits the road each year--to "take the favoritism out of the rankings." But Santino Panico was said to be Exhibit A in proving that it doesn't work. Tim O'Halloran, aka Edgy Tim, proprietor of edgytim.com, Illinois' contributor to the Rivals network and perhaps Tom Lemming's stiffest local competitor, gave Panico two stars. "Um, obviously he proved that he's an outstanding high school football player," Edgy Tim said during Panico's senior year. "I think he's a Division I player, no doubt about that. But there's some disagreement about how high a level. As far as his level--his offers are determining that, and where they're coming from."
Where they were coming from, after Ball State in October, had been Eastern Michigan University and Indiana University, which had a 2003 record of 2-10. Wyoming, Stanford, Miami (of Ohio), Northwestern, and pretty much the rest of the Big Ten looked at but did not touch Santino Panico. Before departing for San Antonio he said, "I'll go to some school in Podunk if that's where I can get the playing time and show the right people what I can do." But Podunk had yet to offer.
At Tom Lemming's All-Area Chicago football banquet that December, a dozen or so coaches from universities around the country appeared in the Grandview Ballroom of the Elmcrest Banquet Hall to scope the flesh. Forty-two players were honored: 25 seniors, 17 juniors. When the "recruiting coordinator" of a huge program arrived at the banquet, Lemming immediately ushered him over to Anthony and Santino Panico. The recruiter was polite. He shook hands. He chatted. He went to his seat, ate his pasta, and when Panico was called up to receive the inaugural Chris Zorich Award, given to Chicago's "hardest-working" player, he glanced at the coach beside him and shook his head. Later, I asked the recruiter for his thoughts on Panico. His eyes hooded and staring straight ahead, he responded blandly, "He's not at that level."
"Chris Zorich, Mike Alstott, Barry Sanders--none of them were at 'that level,' either," says Tom Lemming, adamant and defensive. "He dominated the league. If you can tell me anyone anywhere who's had a better year than Santino, I'd like to hear it."
"It's always been a kind of laugher to me that fans buy into this shtick, that the analysts know more than the coaches. It's just ludicrous," said Bill Buchalter, a sportswriter for the Orlando Sentinel. Buchalter used to run a service that sold college coaches a "name book"--essentially a list without stars or rankings--of the top 300 to 500 prospects in Florida. "When I'm out giving speeches about college recruiting the first thing people ask me is, 'How come our coaches are not recruiting this four-star player, and they are recruiting this three-star player?' And I say, 'Well, who's giving them the stars?'"
The second child of a truck driver, Tom Lemming grew up on the south side. At Reavis High School he dabbled at wide receiver and also played some baseball, but didn't letter in anything. In 1975, when he was 20 years old, he dropped out of Western Illinois University.
When he ran off the first issue of Tom Lemming's Prep Football Report, a 12-page wrap-up for the 1978-'79 recruiting season, he was essentially a hobbyist. What he knew about recruiting was that no one knew much about it. Once free to dole out an unlimited number of athletic scholarships, the best programs had hoarded talent four and five deep at every position. They'd also kept things quiet; no one knew anything about the new kids until they stepped onto the field as freshmen. But the scene was shifting: in 1973 a ceiling of 105 scholarships was set; by 1978 it was down to 95. It would drop further.
Lemming thought that maybe he'd found a niche. Prototypes for what he had in mind were scarce--a few journals that covered all high school sports and a pamphlet that ranked the incoming classes of the major teams. This was put out by Joe Terranova of Dearborn, Michigan, a Notre Dame alum and Ford Motor Company marketer who's widely regarded as the original recruiting guru.
Lemming went to Terranova for advice on how to get started. He then drove around to some midwestern campuses and introduced himself to the coaching staffs. He called himself a "recruiting writer" and told them he was the publisher of a recruiting newsletter. Their response was uniform. Lemming says, "Bo Schembechler looked at me like I was from outer space." Dan Devine, Notre Dame's head coach in the late 1970s, distrusted him immediately. Joe Paterno of Penn State wouldn't allow him through the front door, and still won't.
Lemming wouldn't gain access to the head coaches' offices for years, not until the low-level assistants he'd met early on, closer to Lemming in age and more involved with grassroots recruiting anyway, rose through the ranks. Lemming enjoys dropping the names of these coaches: Lloyd Carr at Michigan, Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, Mack Brown at Texas. Bill Callahan, who was fired as head coach of the Oakland Raiders and then hired a year ago by the University of Nebraska, met Lemming in the early 1980s as a young assistant at Illinois.
Every year during the "May evaluation period," which is when the schools begin to identify the players they intend to go after, these and other young coaches--some 50 or 60 a year--would gather in Lemming's basement to watch the highlight tapes he'd collected during his travels. He was saving them time. He brought them drinks, made them food, and sat silently in a corner as they debated the relative merits of the players. Lemming says that's how he learned to evaluate.
Through the early 1980s, Lemming's newsletter didn't cover his costs. For a time he had one subscriber, a 45-year-old Ohio State fanatic who lived with his mother in Oak Park. Lemming supported himself by working as a printer for an envelope company, a paper salesman, a U.S. Postal Service employee in Arlington Heights. His first nickname was "the Mailman," used widely even now to question his legitimacy.
George Perles was head coach at Michigan State from 1983 to '94. It's Perles's theory that if a college coach gives a guru access to the team's recruiting dish the guru will do his part to increase the overall ranking of that coach's incoming freshmen. Since a star athlete would rather join a team stocked with enough "talent" to make a championship run, the gurus can theoretically affect a college's ability to draw in the goods. "If you were an analyst," says Perles, "and a coach takes you to lunch, schmoozes you, maybe buys you a few beers, you're gonna rank him higher, right? If a coach doesn't cater to these guys, then he gets his class rated down by someone with a full-time job doing something else.
"But George don't have to cater to 'em anymore. And he didn't then, either. You think Bo or Woody catered to those guys? You put your head into a wall you think Bo catered to 'em. Or Woody. What kind of head coach would I be if, instead of my own coaches, I listened to some guy from the fire department? I like firemen--they put out fires."
Perles is reminded that Lemming was a mailman.
"Mailman!" he says. "That's right! Here comes your mailman with your letters. What's he do now?"
"He does some work for ESPN."
"ESPN? Big shot. Tell him I said hello."
Undaunted, Lemming widened his purview to include players not just in Chicago but throughout the midwest, the mid-Atlantic, the east coast. He took his first road trip in 1979. The silver '73 Chevette he drove then had no air-conditioning, and at some point someone stole its radio. "Those first few years were strange," Lemming says. "It was just you and the tedious road, thousands and thousands of miles of cement." He often slept in the backseat. Lemming spent a lot of time feeding dimes into pay phones outside high schools, and every summer he thought about giving up the life. The idea occurs to him even today, and once in 1980 or '81 he acted on it. "To give you an idea of how business was when I quit," he sometimes says in speeches, "I was the only one in the country who knew I had quit." But he was back on the trail the next year. His personal life suffered. He was married in 1983 and divorced ten years and one son later. The boy, now the age of a recruit, lives with his mother in Tampa. He accompanies his father from time to time on the road and does not play football.
By 1986 Lemming was earning enough money from his magazine to quit his day job. Interest in recruiting among garden-variety fans had started to grow, as the NCAA's scholarship limits--now 85--made competition for the best athletes fiercer than ever. Recruiting has never been what you'd call pure, and in 1985 it hit bottom: Southern Methodist University made headlines with violations so brazen that the football program was ordered to shut down.
As all analysts do, Lemming argues that his work has brought light to the inner workings of college recruitment. The counterargument is that the analysts have simply stepped along with everyone else--the coaches, the boosters, and the players with NFL dollar signs for pupils--into the muck.
The importance of the Army Bowl wasn't lost on Santino Panico. "This is a major opportunity I'm going to take advantage of," he said a few weeks before heading to Texas. "I'm more excited about it than any football game ever, except the state championships. I mean, this is going to be an honest test, against the best players in the country." He expressed gratitude. "Tom Lemming stepped up. Besides my family, he's been the main ingredient to my success."
Mike White was head coach at the University of Illinois until he was dismissed in 1987 for recruiting violations. He says, "I think Tom befriended these players. Because of Tom's personality he developed a rapport with them. Tom was beneficial for us if he felt a guy fit at Illinois. If he felt a kid fit at Illinois he wasn't afraid to tell a kid so. Tom was very honest with players. He could influence players--not telling them to go here or there or to this school or that, but if Tom had a feeling about a coaching staff or a program he'd tell the recruit and make the process easier."
"We don't offer any scholarships--the colleges do" is a chestnut the gurus haul out whenever they're accused of abusing their influence. Fans accuse them of playing favorites, of being fans themselves. Lemming's paying audience, the recruitniks, seems to view him with the contempt of an addict for his pusher. Last year an Ohio State fan message board ran a poll: "Is Tom Lemming a jack@$$ recruting analyst?" The results were less than favorable:
"Could Lemming be sabotaging our recruiting?"
"Sorry for the graphic description but . . . I wouldn't p*ss on that guy if he was on fire."
"He is no moron or else ESPN wouldn't align themselves with him."
"Didn't ESPN align themselves with Rush Limbaugh? He's a moron."
Lemming has been widely believed a Notre Dame "homer," steering recruits whenever he can into a golden helmet. Whatever the truth about his emotional bond to the team--he did follow them as a boy--he doesn't deny a pragmatic one.
"I'm Irish Catholic and from Chicago," he says, "so that's probably why people think I was into Notre Dame. But it's also because I saw a business opportunity. It hasn't hurt over the years to say that you're a Notre Dame fan. They're the most powerful team in the country. A friend of mine, he's a recruiting guy and he's a big Ohio State fan. But he claims publicly that he likes Notre Dame because he knows better. He knows it will help him increase his business."
Tyrone Willingham, who took over as head coach at Notre Dame in 2002 and was fired at the end of the past season, had a notoriously chilly relationship with the press as a whole. "I'm not close at all to Notre Dame anymore," said Lemming before Willingham was axed. "I've talked to one guy there twice all year. I talk to guys at other schools twice a week." When Charlie Weis took over the program, Lemming got in touch.
Lemming denies touting particular programs to recruits--"Parents ask me all the time, 'Off the record, where should we go?' But I never answer." But he's proud of his ability to help boys obtain free tuition at programs large and small, even if the boys know nothing about his help. "Most coaches will go after a player if I tell them the kid is good," Lemming boasts, "because I've been doing this for 24 years." He often mentions Chris Zorich, the former Bears nose tackle, as a tweener he placed on the Notre Dame roster.
"I'm all about honor and doing the right thing," Lemming says. "Honor, truth, justice." He recalls helping Vinny Cerrato, the recruiting coordinator at Notre Dame from 1986 to '91, land a few players after the admissions department in 1991 had gone on what Lemming calls a "purge," nixing a host of Cerrato recruits for academic reasons. Lemming says he gave Cerrato 12 names, including Jeremy Nau, a Mount Carmel linebacker. Lemming let Cerrato watch some game film that he had on file, and "Vinny offered him from there."
Is that how it happened? Cerrato says he doesn't remember. Jeremy Nau's mom, Pat, says the family was warned off Lemming by a Mount Carmel coach, though "Lemming was always calling the house, calling the house. He was very pushy." Pat, who works as a receptionist at the high school, says head coach Frank Lenti and a Notre Dame assistant named Pete Cordelli brokered the deal that got her son the scholarship. It's worth noting that Lenti and Lemming have feuded for years. The guru accused the coach of not promoting his players vigorously enough.
When Lemming hears Pat Nau's take on the matter, he erupts. "Nau getting into Notre Dame was 100 percent Tom Lemming! And she never even called to thank me. I've made thousands of phone calls for kids and got them scholarships over the years if I think they're good enough, and most of them thank me. But this mother, nothing. She said 'Tom Lemming had nothing to do with it'? Well, why wasn't he offered until January of his senior year? I gave him to Notre Dame."
Today Nau's a trader at the Chicago Board Options Exchange. "Everything Nau got came through me, a guy he's never even talked to, a guy he probably never knew helped him," says Lemming. "Where was he gonna go? Ball State? Maybe Illinois? All he's got now, all his Notre Dame contacts, it's because of me."
At the Alamodome on January 3, 2004, Tom Lemming sat in the booth alongside the crew of third-string announcers that NBC had enlisted to call the Army Bowl. "Today they test their talent and announce their futures," one intoned. Asked how he chose these all-Americas, Lemming made sure to mention his "four months" of travel. He said, "I try to select the very best players in the country. The guys that will project as major college stars and eventually as NFL stars."
Some people would say Lemming left something out of the process--the power to hold an invitation over a blue chip's head and bargain for a commitment announced dramatically during the game. Nine players made their announcements during the telecast, withdrawing from a red Russell Athletic bag the cap of the program they had chosen. Recruitniks tuned in by the millions. "With no further ado, I'd like to be tellin' everybody in Kansas that I'll be a Kansas State Wildcat," said Nick Patton into a microphone hooked to the stadium's PA. His voice echoed. "I'd like to thank my grandfather and my athletic director, Dave [inaudible], and God. And thank you for this wonderful opportunity."
Other players wait until signing day to alert the world of their decision. The longer the wait the greater the drama. These boys are basking in celebrity, and Lemming has a fairly unambiguous role in minting it. He freely admits that he counsels the nation's top players to be in no hurry to commit to a school. Like a guidance counselor, he advises that one should visit every campus and make an educated choice.
"Colleges are always putting pressure on kids, telling them, 'You're going to lose this opportunity if you don't commit to us now,'" says Taylor Bell, the semiretired Sun-Times prep sports reporter. "We've always tried to tell kids, 'Remember one thing. If you're as good as you think you are, the college will wait.'" When Bell says "we've" he means himself and Lemming, whom he's quoted so often over the last 20 years that his editors once questioned the scope of his sourcing.
Lemming's critics like to argue that his stand against the tyranny of early commitments has been influenced by a showman's sense of how to turn a dollar. His business is built on drumming up interest in the destination of five-star teenagers; the longer a recruit holds out, the more action there is at Lemming's 900 number and ESPN site, where the best dish requires a subscription fee.
Santino Panico had no decision to announce in front of the Russell bag last January. But he played 40 minutes. As a receiver he caught a slant over the middle for three yards. As a strong safety he made five tackles. Few ballcarriers came his way, but with two minutes to go in the game he applied a devastating hit to Lemming's number-one tight end prospect. The impact rang into the arena's rafters. "People were going crazy," Panico said later.
He considered the outing a success. "With the kind of speed that was out there, and how big those guys were," he said, "I think it was my first college game."
He's already played his second. Like Penn State, Nebraska had long kept Lemming at a distance. But when Tom Lemming's old friend Bill Callahan took over the football program there a year ago, he was far behind the competition in recruiting and needed players fast. He asked Lemming for a list of receivers. In Panico's words, "He asked for someone who's smart and can get open." Two weeks after the Lemming bowl, Panico flew to Lincoln, received his fourth scholarship offer, and accepted. This fall Callahan installed him as the Huskers' punt returner, where he lived up to the rep he got in high school: very sure-handed, but no burner. Callahan said he was satisfied. Panico recalled the coach telling him, "I believe in you. I think you can play. Maybe some other people don't believe in you, but I do. You've got all the intangibles."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.