Recruiting analyst Lemming never followed the crowd

By Mike Theodore

Thirty years ago football high school recruiting was an afterthought, but that started to change when Tom Lemming began crisscrossing the country scouting football talent. He went from visiting 200 high schools a year to being one of the most respected recruiting analysts in the country.

Lemming spoke fondly of the Illini program and its followers, but had an interesting take on a specific portion of the fan base:

“Illinois fans are the biggest nuts I’ve ever run into. What I notice about Illinois is their one percent nut element, not their normal fans. Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State have them. That’s why you can’t go on message boards. The nuts hang out on the message boards. The other 98% of fans don’t hang out on message boards. They have lives.”

The Daily Illini talked with Lemming earlier this week in a phone interview.

Daily Illini: How did you get started in the recruiting business?

Tom Lemming: I was really the only one in it back when I started. There was a magazine that would come out at the end of the year with stuff. He was more ranking guys at the end of the year and schools and all that. I just started traveling. I created that part of it because I had sort of wanderlust to travel around the country. I’m a big fan of American history and combined that with sports. I never really had it in my mind to make a lot of money, which was good because I lost money for my first seven years. I would just sleep in my car, but when you’re in your early 20s nothing bothers you. I was an adventurer. I would sleep in my car at oasises or Denny’s parking lots or wherever I could find a well-lit place where I could feel safe and fall asleep.

DI: What was the turning point?

TL: It was a slow process. I was the only one in it. I didn’t have any money for advertisement at all. So my advertisement was from doing radio shows. Jack Brickhouse in Chicago and Bob Trumpy in Cincinnati really helped. I tried to stop by the radio stations to plug my magazine and newsletters, and slowly but surely it started to take off. There were fans, but the colleges weren’t really up to letting people know what they were doing. It took a while, but eventually colleges would talk. Back then Dan Devine was at Notre Dame and Woody Hayes was at Ohio State and Bo Schembechler was at Michigan and they wouldn’t help at all, and I could understand that. The big powerhouses were stockpiling. Mike White was about to come to Illinois and bring a new kind of recruiting. Of course they cheated and they got caught a couple years later, but they ran an exceptionally aggressive recruiting to the Big Ten, which caught everybody by surprise. But I didn’t really deal with them much either. The first school that did (talk) was Vanderbilt. Head coach George McIntyre was from Chicago. We kind of helped each other. Slowly but surely, coaches began to trust me and knew that I kind of knew what I was talking about after a while. I was picking up on things because I was on the road all the time and I was seeing guys that they weren’t seeing.

DI: What’s the main thing you look for in a recruit?

TL: You’ve got to have the size that fits that position or colleges are not going to go after you for the most part. For me, the key is production – you have to be a dominating high school player. If you’re not, how are you going to do that in college? Even if they’re not that big, if they’re around the ballpark for their position, but even if they’re not and their production is superior, then I’m going to give them a higher ranking than most people. And the third thing is my personal face-to-face interview. A couple of them deal with heart and their desire to play ball. Is it a means to an end or is it the end all? And if it is, those guys are going to be successful no matter what. They’ll fight through injuries they’ll fight through off-the field problems or grade problems or anything else, because their desire to play football is that great.

DI: Who is the best high school player you’ve seen?

TL: Randy Moss. I saw him as a sophomore, junior and senior. I saw him play at the University of Pittsburgh when he was a sophomore watching somebody else. They were playing Moss, and he was the best I had seen all year of the senior class, and he was two years behind them. He was the first sophomore I interviewed.

DI: How would you assess Zook’s class?

TL: This is a very good class. It may even be a better all-around class. Last year was top-heavy with the great players like Arrelious Benn, Martez Wilson and D’Angelo Mcray that everybody in the country wanted. This year there wasn’t anybody in the class that was a national recruit, but it was loaded with a lot of real good athletes.

DI: Were there any surprises in the Illini’s class?

TL: Hubie Graham, who I felt was one of the best tight ends in the country, and Jason Ford, who originally committed to Iowa. It’s a very all-around class.

DI: You write about the Big Ten needing to get outside the Midwest.

TL: Illinois is already doing it. So is Minnesota, Ohio State and Michigan, but the rest of them don’t do it enough. Michigan and Ohio State always have the national name. Penn State never really went beyond the Virginia area, and they’ve got to expand even more. (The other seven) go into Florida and Texas but not to make a difference and that’s what the other seven teams need to do.

DI: Why don’t they?

TL: I don’t know. Maybe no contacts, maybe the coaches don’t fit those states, but you have to think recruiting, and I think the athletic directors are starting to think that way now. The SEC leads the way with the aggressiveness of recruiting. Purdue is going to do it with Danny Hope coming in. He’s an exceptionally aggressive recruiter. You’ll see the rest of them doing it. They have to if they’re going to pick up the ball.

DI: Has the message boards hurt or helped with what you do?

TL: It doesn’t have any influence on what I do because I’m more TV, newspapers and magazines.

DI: But does it get more fans interested in recruiting?

TL: Part of the Internet does. The message boards don’t. There aren’t many people on those. It’s pretty redundant. It’s almost like a little club of nut balls. They cause a lot of problems. They sometimes try to create controversy when there isn’t any controversy. The Internet has helped people’s business because it brings more people to recruiting. It makes recruiting much more easy, but the problem is some of it is not accurate.

DI: Did you see the kid who faked his own recruitment in Nevada?

TL: I felt bad for him, but also it shows you that media just picks up on everything and doesn’t check. How can the local media know that the kid is not being recruited? That would never happen in Chicago. People would have known.

DI: Can recruiting sustain its popularity?

TL: I said no 10 years ago and I was wrong, so I guess, yes. What happened is it’s the last frontier. You can’t go past pro football and college football – they’ve already wrung that one dry. So high school football is the last frontier. There’s going to be more games on TV. You have millions of people to work with and a lot of subjects, and the fans of schools that have never won really much can take a lot of pride (in recruiting). Perception and hope are the two key words in recruiting. Illinois fans have been hoping for years since 2001, and it finally happened this year, but before this it was all perception and hope. Now it’s reality.