Rule confines, confounds him
The suspense, the not knowing, drove Pete Carroll crazy.
While his assistants roamed the nation this month evaluating players for future recruiting classes, USC’s football coach restlessly awaited their dispatches while aching for a firsthand look.
“I feel like that kid in ‘Disturbia,’ ” Carroll said last week.
Kale Brecht, the fictional 17-year-old played by actor Shia LaBeouf in the 2007 movie thriller, wore a court-ordered ankle bracelet that forbade him from traveling outside a 100-foot perimeter of his home.
Carroll can relate. He has spent more than 40 days under the NCAA’s version of house arrest. And he is not the only road-hungry football coach feeling shackled by the NCAA.
The so-called “Saban Rule” was adopted this year reportedly after Alabama’s Nick Saban, another relentless recruiter, was accused of violating NCAA regulations that prohibit in-person contact with high school players during the spring evaluation period. The legislation, sponsored by the Southeastern Conference, sidelines all head coaches from April 15 to the end of May.
Carroll has complained that the rule penalizes hard-working head coaches while evening the recruiting field for “lazy” ones.
Nevertheless, he was left to fidget, begrudgingly take vacation and throw trademark elbows during campus basketball games while awaiting updates from assistants.
The Trojans’ staff reconvened this week to review film and share impressions with Carroll, but the head coach laments, “It’s not the same as being out there.”
In the months before each of his first seven seasons at USC, Carroll’s mission -- his passion, really -- was traveling nonstop during May, hop-scotching to dozens of high schools in Southern California and across the nation, meeting with coaches, shaking hands and chatting up school personnel and evaluating prospects.
Rarely did Carroll cross paths with other head coaches.
“He was out there consistently, probably more than anyone else,” said Bill Redell, the coach at Westlake Village Oaks Christian High. “Whenever he could be here, he was here. . . . Whether he enjoys it or not, he acts like he enjoys it.”
It’s no act, according to Carroll, who acknowledged feeling “caged” by a rule that prevents him from tapping into “the pulse” of what was happening on high school campuses from one year to the next.
“It gives you an opportunity to get a sense for what’s going on in the area and to promote your program,” he said. “Sometimes you get to see a guy play a baseball game or whatever. Every bit of information is valuable to me.”
USC linebacker Rey Maualuga vividly recalled a spring visit Carroll made to Eureka in Northern California when Maualuga was playing at Eureka High.
“For someone to come all the way up and check me out even though he couldn’t talk to me meant a lot,” said Maualuga, a senior projected as a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft. “He took a small plane to this little town and just came up for the day. Small things like that get to me.”
Carroll relishes pushing the rules envelope -- “You want to take it as far as you can; it’s competing,” he says -- so despite the Saban Rule, he has still found ways to disseminate a message that has helped USC consistently land outstanding recruiting classes.
His website, petecarroll.com, includes stories, photographs, videos and other features, including a blog penned and updated several times each day by former Daily Trojan sportswriter-turned-walk-on receiver Ben Malcolmson, the director of online media for the site.
But sometimes the message gets mixed.
A few weeks ago, Malcolmson pulled a video from YouTube when the football program’s attempt at humor backfired. The video featured tight ends coach Brennan Carroll, the coach’s son, putting a group of potential walk-ons through a series of drills during a tryout. Throughout, the assistant coach was shown hamming it up for the camera -- and using language laced with expletives.
The Los Angeles Daily News reported on its USC blog that UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel had pushed the video to recruits because he thought it reflected negatively on USC’s program. Pete Carroll said the alleged negative recruiting did not play a role in pulling the video, which he described as a “spoof.”
“We’re just winging it in a creative sense and seeing what people like and what they don’t like,” Carroll said.
That includes a page Malcolmson created for the head coach on the Facebook social networking site.
“We did that for fun. That has nothing to do with recruiting,” Carroll said.
Just in case, the NCAA has rules in place regarding the use of websites, Facebook and MySpace pages. According to bylaw 22.214.171.124, “coaches may not use a website or social networking website to contact recruits.”
Saban and other coaches have recently made video phone calls over computers to communicate with recruits, which the NCAA allows because “all electronically transmitted human voice exchange (including videoconferencing and videophones) shall be considered telephone calls.”
Carroll has not ventured into that area of the digital frontier . . . yet. “They’ve changed the landscape so we have to compete differently,” he said.
Carroll sought his own change of scenery when confronted with more than a month off the recruiting trail. He traveled internationally and also worked closer to home on his “A Better L.A.” project to combat inner-city violence. Lunchtime basketball games on campus helped release tension.
“He was jawing pretty good out there,” Isaac Flores, an athletic department administrator, said after a recent game. “He loves the hoops, but he loves recruiting just as much.”
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian agrees. He sensed Carroll’s frustration before and throughout the month -- “He’d call and say, ‘Tell me what’s going on out there,’ ” Sarkisian recalled -- and acknowledged that Carroll’s absence “hampered our evaluation to a degree.”
As the overseer of a program that produced seven players selected in the first two rounds of the recent NFL draft, Carroll also is uncertain about the effect his May absence will have on future USC recruiting classes.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just know I can’t possibly have the body of knowledge as years past.
“It’s going to affect us more than teams that didn’t always send their head coaches out on the road. . . . Unless you’ve done it, it’s hard to explain how much valuable interaction there is at this point of the year.”