Inside Penn State’s satellite camp at New Jersey’s Peddie School in June, high school football players separated into position groups and ran through drills, quietly competitive in the muggy air as a handful of coaches watched and barked instructions.
Some receivers would cut in front of each other in route lines so that they could catch passes from well-known, highly-ranked prospects such as New Jersey quarterback Artur Sitkowski. Some defensive backs would do the same thing to match up against the well-known receivers like Jahan Dotson — after all, it was clear who the coaches scrutinized more, and it seemed an unspoken goal by all others to put themselves into their gaze, too.
Still, the mood inside camp was a murmur when juxtaposed with the cacophony Penn State faces during its usual day-to-day football operations.
But externally, this summer’s set of satellite camps seemed at times to border on madness.
It started with Jim Harbaugh.
The incoming second-year Michigan head coach was far from the first to ever attend a satellite camp, of course. These have been taking place on campuses across the country for decades now, as have traditional camps. He wasn’t even one of the first to bring these camps further out of the shadows in the Big Ten — Penn State’s James Franklin helped to do that, after his move from Vanderbilt.
Satellite camps help coaches see a high volume of prospects in a short period of time, especially in areas full of blue-chip recruits. A program, usually in a coveted recruiting zone, will host a slew of coaches from other programs for a “skills and instruction camp” that allows these coaches to get unofficial facetime with several hundred prospects at once. They often operated mostly under the radar of mainstream media; recruiting sites and preps reporters would keep tabs on them but not many others.
His formula — sharpening a few tweets and comments and poking them into the belly of the summer-snoring SEC (which at the time wasn’t allowed to participate in satellite camps); publicizing camps at popular SEC recruiting hotspots; signing up as a keynote speaker at preps schools and then guest-coaching at said schools — dominated headlines. At one point, Harbaugh and his staff were signed up to either host or attend almost 50 camps in three countries.
“I think a lot of it is social media,” Franklin said in the middle of a 14-camp slate in June. “We’ve talked about this in the past, Oklahoma State has been doing this for 10 to 12 years, but it really wasn’t talked about it a whole lot until they kind of moved to this part of the country, and people started going into the south and SEC country, then it kind of became a hot topic and kind of blew up from there.”
The NCAA even voted to ban the camps. It didn’t last long.
College football’s governing body rescinded its ban on the camps about a week later after a large amount of public backlash and the revelation that a couple of representatives voted against the wishes of their own conference. The conferences that had originally opposed these camps — the ACC and SEC — then lifted their in-conference bans.
“All the sudden, it exploded,” Penn State recruiting director Andy Frank said. “To me, that says that people are following suit, jumping on the bandwagon as opposed to really having a year to plan. Just because now they can do it again, they are because somebody else is.”
The theatrics of the NCAA only appeared to double “Harbaugh-mania,” and the head coach, followed by a fleet of reporters, went on his way through June.
“I don’t know how entertaining it’s really been,” he said drily in Chicago during last month’s Big Ten Media Days, when asked about his summer.
Penn State went to 11 camps and hosted four — two in July that bookended the annual Lasch Bash — this season, traveled more than 5,000 miles and saw or were seen by roughly 6,000 prospects, an increase from last year when the team went to four and hosted two.
“Other schools are doing it. If you don’t, you fall behind. You feel like you need to,” Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry said this summer between recruiting trips. “We enjoy being with other staffs and doing that together. It’s fun. You meet a lot of guys, which in our profession is important. I think you always weigh ‘Is it worth the time, money and effort to travel to these places? Do you get enough leads that amount to something?’”
For the most part, Penn State focuses on classes a year or two ahead of the next incoming batch of signees. The “magic number” is for each team’s recruiting administration to figure out, Pry said.
But they don’t have one either.
“I think that’s the great debate,” Frank said. “I think that’s where everyone differs. … There are schools out there that are doing far more camps than we are and schools that are doing far less. That’s because they probably have different views on whether it’s worth it or not worth it.
“Unfortunately, that’s one of those things you never really know. You wish you could quantify it. ‘This plus this times this gave us this.’ ”
Penn State does not comment on budget-related items. However, in a story for Iowa newspaper The Gazette, reporter Scott Dochterman obtained financial information through state open-record requests for a report that showed a jump in recruiting costs in the 13 public Big Ten football programs (Northwestern is privatized) from $5.71 million in 2012 to $7.95 million in 2015.
Dochterman’s report showed Penn State spent $1.4 million in 2014, Franklin’s first year as a head coach trying to pull the program past the scholarship sanctions levied (and later lifted) by the NCAA after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The number dropped sharply in 2015, according to Dochterman’s findings, to $870,547.
“There’s really no equation,” Frank said. “I think you just really have to make your best guess, your best estimation, ‘Hey, we spent this much time and this much money. Was it worth it?’ ”
From his own admittance on Twitter, Penn State freshman kicker Alex Barbir is a direct product of a Penn State camp. If they sign in February, at least five commits in the current Class of 2017 would be as well.
Penn State camps cost between $60 and $120 per player. Some of that money goes to assistants and player-coaches who help run them.
“I think our goal is to make it affordable for kids that want to come to camp,” Frank said. “You realize that a lot of kids are going to go to a lot of camps. So that money throughout the summer can be a lot of money. I don’t think that … . I think we try and stay, as best as possible, on the low end and fortunately we are able to do that from a resource standpoint, it’s not a money-making proposition to us. There are some schools out there that it has to be a money-making proposition for, so they probably have to charge a lot more money.”
When asked if the program “broke even” in terms of fiscal returns on output, he said Penn State “doesn’t look at it in terms of making or losing money. We look at it in terms of ‘the best thing for our program.’
“So at the end of the day, is the investment that we make, both financially and from a time standpoint, does it make our program that much better? I’d like to think that it does. We spend a lot of time and a lot of money on recruiting. And camps are just a piece of the puzzle, so I like to think that it’s worth it.”
Both Frank and Franklin agree that regulations are imminent for the future of satellite camps — though neither can see the ban being replaced.
“I think the NCAA is probably going to do something, and that’s been a lot of the discussion, is they’re going back and looking at all the recruiting rules and do wide sweeping changes instead of just plunking one rule down at a time,” Franklin said in June.
“I can see some changes on the horizon,” Frank said. “From my seat, I hope they happen fast. … We’ll play within those rules and make whatever plan is best for us, it’s just good to know what the playing field looks like when you’re making the plans.”
Frank said he can see the rules in relation to where camps can be held changing, or a scenario where the number of allotted camp days change.
Neither Franklin nor Frank think they will be banned again, however, and that’s good news for a few anomalies in the camp circuit.
The first time these camps were outlawed by the NCAA, charitable efforts like the Lauren’s First and Goal camp, which just celebrated its 13th year and raised more than $150,000 for pediatric cancer research, or camps like Fordham’s “backyard Bronx” fell under the umbrella of the ban.
At the latter, the Rams charge just $5 for kids to come from schools in New York neighborhoods and participate in a camp, run exactly like those organized by much larger programs across the country. The objective, said Fordham head coach Andrew Breiner, is to give prospects who can’t afford to travel far for big-name camps and pay the associated fees a chance to get evaluated by coaches, who are also invited to the camps. Additionally, the camp warmly welcomes the inner-city kids who sometimes don’t have the star-rankings or even the gear to feel welcome at some of the more “blue-chip” camps.
“We really push it to the high school coaches in the five boroughs,” he said. “For some (students), it’s the first time they’ve ever set foot on a college campus. Hopefully it’s a little bit inspirational, hopefully they get some good coaching out of it. ... They get a good experience. We only charge $5 when our normal camps are $50, and they are really getting the same experience. It’s a way for us to give back a little bit.”
That camp, and Lauren’s, doesn’t quite fit the mold of these camps the NCAA could regulate.
Instead, they offer some fresh perspective and opportunity for coaches and players alike — the core of football camps, before they became sensationalized. Satellite camping, minus its modern hyperbole.
“Those kids are so, so appreciative of the opportunity,” Breiner said. “You go to some of these (other) camps, and most of those kids are just so obsessed with getting offers and these kids aren’t. They’re just appreciative of the opportunity.”