February is a pivotal personnel evaluation month on the football calendar. On the first Wednesday, players sign to play for major college programs. Three weeks later, NFL general managers, coaches and draft hopefuls converge on Indianapolis for the annual scouting combine.
But the screening methods employed by the two groups differ greatly.
The NFL process is largely a one-sided affair: Coaches and GMs hold all the cards and will leave no stone unturned before deciding to select a player. Want to know a deep, dark secret? Just ask. At the Senior Bowl, Alabama quarterback Jake Coker told reporters how teams would follow up an innocuous question like, "How's your mom and dad?" with, "Do you smoke weed?" Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland even asked Dez Bryant whether his mother was a prostitute.
Colleges, meanwhile, are chasing talent. Four- and five-star recruits weigh dozens of scholarship offers, which means dozens of coaches are forced to try and outsell one another. And how can they ask for a player's services while possibly offending them with probing questions? How can they risk losing players who could help them win while also performing the necessary due diligence?
To better understand the vetting process college programs use, ESPN interviewed more than 40 employees from football programs across the Power 5 conferences. Some were granted anonymity in order to speak freely and, to a certain extent, avoid the possibility of their words being used against them in recruiting.
"Recruiting is a two-way street," a Big 12 player-personnel director said. "Yeah, you're selecting them to a point, but then you've got to actually convince them they've got to come."
Criminal background checks are routine in the NFL. But for colleges, obtaining the same information is much tougher. In many states, juvenile records are sealed. Coaches seeking character references around prospects have to sift through potential bias.
And much of it hinges on the struggle over whether a recruit is talented enough to overlook off-field behavior. Alabama signed former Georgia defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor, who was awaiting trial on domestic violence charges, and then kicked him off the team less than a month later when he was arrested in a separate matter.
Dalvin Cook, who has faced legal issues while at Florida State, was arrested several times before ever arriving in Tallahassee. Florida law makes some juvenile arrests accessible to the public, but documents obtained by ESPN showed that no college formally requested copies of Cook's arrest records from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement prior to offering him a scholarship.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said figuring out who is worth the risk is "the hardest thing you'll do."
"You have to draw the line somewhere," he said. "There's a point where the guy doesn't want to help himself or it's too big of an issue for me.
"You're saying, 'Even though I want to help this kid, I can't expose my program to that.'"
Every college team insists character ranks high on their recruiting checklists. But character-assessment methods, both internally and externally, differ between programs.
The conventional vetting process relies on relationships college coaches forge with recruits, their families and others close to them. Recruiters will also interview guidance counselors, custodians, administrators and other high school staffers. Aware that a player's inner circle is vested in his future and may withhold pertinent information, recruiters often contact outsiders, like rival prep coaches, to identify inconsistencies or possible red flags.
Some recruiters use question lists or categories in their assessments. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said the way prospects interact with female authority figures, like their mother or guidance counselor, is "the greatest indicator of who he is."
"You have to research the dog out of him," Kansas coach David Beaty said. "You can't just do that by talking to his coach."
Some recruits volunteer past legal issues and have their attorneys answer any questions. An SEC personnel director said such candor benefits prospects. But recruits are under no legal obligation to disclose, and because most are minors, their criminal records are often not accessible.
Consequently, colleges mine the web for information, using Google alerts and other search tools. A Pac-12 personnel director said a Google search on a prospect uncovered legal issues not volunteered by the player or his family. Since there were additional academic concerns, the recruitment was quickly terminated.
While often unpublicized, teams will cut ties because of legal issues. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said that twice, during his tenure, he walked away from verbally committed recruits upon learning they had assault citations. A recruiting assistant from a Group of 5 program estimated that they stop recruiting 3 to 5 percent of prospects because of "criminal activities or rumors of [past activity]." A Pac-12 recruiting assistant put the number as high as 10 percent.
"I generally put a kid's name in [a search engine] and 'arrested' or 'drugs' after it, and see if that hits," a Big 12 player-personnel director said. "That's a good way to find out some stuff. But from a serious vetting perspective, it can become difficult."
Targeting social media can be more effective. Colleges scour Twitter, Instagram and other platforms for signs of concerning behavior. Recruiters remind prospects that they're being watched and encourage them to remove odious material, but some displays are deal breakers. Bielema once told his staff to back off a talented prospect because the player's social media handle was too offensive.
The vetting process continues during official visits. Coaches tell players hosting recruits to report any concerns they have about the prospect.
"It's more of an opinion," a Power 5 player personnel director said. "What do you think of his character? Did he fit in well? Was he asking any questions? Did he try to get you to do anything you didn't want to do? What were his interests?"
Another challenge to the vetting process is the recruiting cycle. The NCAA limits off-campus contacts, and since many recruits commit early, coaches have few opportunities to assess character. "There's more risk involved in taking them," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. What's more, the surge in decommitments leading into national signing day can put new prospects on a team's radar with little time to spare.
"If we're trying to sign a kid in a week, how much can you really know about that kid?" a Big 12 player personnel director said. "It's tough. But it's a position of need, and you have to make a move or else your lineup's going to suffer next year."
Only a small group of programs conduct formal background checks, with TCU and Oklahoma requiring them of all athletes for the past decade.
Oklahoma's checks are often the final step before scholarship papers can be released. Prospects submit Social Security numbers and driver's license numbers to OU's compliance office, which passes them to an outside firm. The checks take about five days. A TCU spokesman confirmed the school conducts checks but declined to say whether a third party is used.
"Our process will identify any and all legal matters that have been in the public eye, and how those matters have been handled or adjudicated," Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said.
The outside firm doesn't attempt to access sealed documents, but the checks provide "basic information" that helps Oklahoma determine whether to green-light a scholarship.
"There are some cases where we learned about the information and made a determination to not provide a national letter," Castiglione said. "We do it discreetly. Some of the things you find are very, very minor, but at least it allows us to know as much as we can."
A perception problem
So much of recruiting is knowing what can be used against you.
Miami coach Mark Richt can see where formal background checks would be helpful, but to do so would require "across the board" participation from schools, which is easier said than done.
Richt added that if checks weren't performed on every recruit, he would get asked, "Why are you doing this to me? Do you think I'm a bad guy?" A Big 12 player-personnel director said a coach would get looked at "cross-eyed" if he sat in a recruit's living room and asked, "You a felon?"
A Pac-12 director of player personnel feared that if a school ran a background check on a recruit without his knowledge that it would create "trust" issues and result in negative recruiting.
"Most recruits consider that going too far," an SEC player-personnel director said.
Kansas State signee Skylar Thompson, a four-star quarterback, said he wouldn't be offended by a background check. The closest personal question he said he has ever been asked by a coach was whether he had a girlfriend or not.
"You have to draw the line somewhere," he said. "There's a point where the guy doesn't want to help himself or it's too big of an issue for me. You're saying, 'Even though I want to help this kid, I can't expose my program to that.'"
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen
"Even if they wanted to know more, I wouldn't worry, especially since they would be investing a lot into me," he said.
There are also concerns about the legality and cost of conducting checks on minors. A Group of 5 assistant said that while he was at a previous school with strong resources, it was estimated that a "medium-level background check" of 250 recruits cost more than $500,000.
"I don't disagree with it, but if you're recruiting a kid, and you're vetting him, you shouldn't be caught off guard by something a third-party background search would find," a Pac-12 player-personnel director said. "It's very important. It's just, at what point do you have to do a background check on a 16-year-old kid?"
Most coaches and personnel directors think the practice of surveying high school sources is sufficient. But they agreed that NCAA rules limiting their contact with recruits hurts their chances of getting it right.
Some coaches and fan bases can accept that risk in a sport where winning, on the field and in recruiting, often trumps accountability.
"I'm serious, and this is unfortunate: If you sign a four-star player who is an awful guy, no one knows he's an awful guy or not," an SEC assistant coach said. "All the people who read who you are as a recruiter see you sign a four-star guy and he's a great player.
"There's a perception you have to battle. He may have been offered by a bunch of big-time schools early that all decided he's a bad guy, but at the end of the day, Joe Blow signed a four-star player with offers from Alabama, Georgia, Florida. That follows you."
More to do
Last year, the Big 12 became the first major conference to discuss a misconduct policy for all incoming athletes (high school students and transfers). While each school would handle its own vetting, the league could intervene if it determines "due diligence" isn't being met.
"It could vary from institution to institution," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said, "but it needs to be processes that go beyond the coaching staff and probably beyond the athletic administration so that people up and down the chain of command within the school have an awareness of what's going on and an opportunity to weigh in."
Due diligence is a vague term, but the threat of league involvement and a directive to move screening outside athletic offices represents an important shift. Until now, teams and coaches have absorbed little long-term backlash for admitting players with questionable backgrounds.
Schools also seem more open to formal background checks, even if they have yet to implement them. A Pac-12 personnel director said checks soon "will be pretty mainstream," but he noted that budgets and policies differ, especially for state schools.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who last year helped implement a rule to bar transfers disciplined for "serious misconduct" at their previous school, said the league recently formed a student-athlete conduct group that will discuss vetting all incoming players.
"I'm not going to prescribe an outcome," he said, "but given the nature of all the attention that's there, being attentive to individuals' backgrounds, whether they're transferring or being recruited [from high school], it's clearly going to be a point of discussion. Whether or not we should have a policy is another point of consideration."
"The last thing you want to do is embarrass yourself or have a guy do something stupid," a Big 12 director of player personnel said. "A background check's not going to stop the dumb things from happening, but it can stop maybe a repetitive thing. I could see more people start doing that, absolutely."
Stephanie Hughes, a Northern Kentucky University professor and former Division I athlete who has spent more than a decade researching the field of background checks, said coaches can do more. She recommends formal training for information-gathering techniques, but she said that the smartest and safest approach is for schools to use outside firms and for the checks to be mandated.
"Their job is to coach football and win games," she said. "Their job isn't necessarily to manage all the flow of information. They're exposed at a whole other level.
"The only way that something like this can be appropriately and fairly implemented is if the NCAA becomes part of this discussion."
And even then, it's not that simple. Attorney Gene Marsh, who served on the NCAA's infractions committee for nine years and chaired the committee for three, said he received calls from Power 5 schools before and after national signing day asking if his firm could conduct criminal background checks for athletes. Marsh believes support for an NCAA mandate on criminal background checks must come from the membership.
The NCAA's Division I council hasn't discussed background checks, according to Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, the council's chair, who said the discussion would be initiated by the Football Oversight Committee, formed last year and chaired by Bowlsby.
"They probably could mandate it and get away with it legally," Marsh said, citing previous case law regarding athletes' expected level of privacy, "but ... it's really difficult to figure out how you would design a system that would have some integrity and some consistency to it."
What's the tipping point?
According to one SEC assistant coach, finding out whether a recruit is a good football player is "a lot easier" than deciding if he's a solid citizen.
"I don't recruit the perfect kid with the great GPA," he said. "The guy we recruit is on edge a little bit with everything. Does he drink? Does he have bad friends? When he gets to campus, is he going to use drugs? I don't know. How do you judge that?
"This guy is a mean football player and beats people up every day. Is he going to start fighting girls? I hope not."
If coaches judge correctly, they're said to have a great eye for talent.
If they gamble and lose, their programs can be exposed and embarrassed.
Some argue that plausible deniability is the best course of action from a legal and liability standpoint, and that the cost to investigate every recruit is too steep. But the greater expense might be doing nothing.
"Negative press and public shame and attorney fees can far exceed the cost of doing uniform criminal background checks," Marsh said.
But when asked what it would take to prompt meaningful change, an ACC recruiting coordinator responded with a question of his own: "When's the last time you saw someone get fired that's winning 10 games a year?"
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez doesn't believe recruits are any worse now than 20 years ago, but he acknowledged that he feels more pressure when learning of their transgressions.
"You have to find out, was he a guy who made an immature, poor decision or is he a bad guy?" Rodriguez said. "Most of the time, it's a young guy who made a bad decision. But if he's making multiple bad decisions, you have to decide, is this a guy you want in your program?"
It's a difficult question to answer, but one that Hughes says more coaches should address.
"If we want a three- or four-star recruit on the athletic side," Hughes said, "why can't we do that on the character side?"