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The Real 'Satellite Camp' Debate

by on June 04, 2015 6:15 AM

This football offseason perhaps the hottest topic has been debate among major college football coaches about the so-called "satellite camps" that have sprouted up around the country.

But to understand the present one must understand the past.

Summer high school football camps rose from humble origins. Penn State is credited with starting the first camp in the 1960s at rural Pioneer Ranch in Tidioute, Pa. Luxury accommodations included the use of outhouses.

In the 1970s camps moved to Penn State's campus and grew exponentially. The camps benefited the football program but its reach spread far beyond the gridiron. While many other football camps were owned by the coaching staffs, Penn State camps were owned by the University.

Thousands of football campers meant tens of thousands of meals prepared by lots of workers. Dorm rooms normally closed in the summer were used, requiring employees to keep them clean and running. Many campers become lifelong Penn State fans whether they attended the school or not.

Spillover seeped into a lot of places in town. At night campers ordered pizzas and subs for delivery. Downtown businesses and hotels saw an influx from parents dropping off or picking up their sons.

Campers received a week of first-rate instruction learning the fundamentals and had a chance to play the game with the safest and most effective techniques. The overwhelming majority of campers were not recruits, but the guideline was to coach every camper regardless of ability. At its height Penn State had three weeks of camps and enrollment eclipsed 3,000.

But there is no denying that players who excelled got noticed. The Penn State camp turned up a multitude of future NFL Players who were unheralded recruits prior to coming to camp.

Nationally the focus on camps started to shift around the turn of the century. Camps increasingly were seen less as a way to give instruction to as many players as possible. The focus turned to creating "elite camps" that were shorter in duration — often only one day long. The camps became glorified tryouts. High school players who paid money got weighed, measured, timed and put through a series of drills designed to help coaches evaluate them — not necessarily to improve the players' skills or techniques.

A few years into the 2000s Rutgers decided that to effectively recruit Florida they needed to get into that market. Rutgers ran football camps in Florida far away from New Jersey. It was a smart move, giving the staff and school access and name recognition in the deep south.

The NCAA was prodded to change the rules that allowed Rutgers to hold those camps. But a loophole remained. While a school could not hold their camps out-of-state, there was nothing to keep a school from hiring coaches from another school to coach at its camp.

It was not a new practice. For decades the University of Michigan allowed coaches from Division 1-AA, II and III as well as the Mid-American Conference to work its camp. It was a selling point to recruits -- if they didn't get recruited by Michigan they would be seen by coaches from many other schools.

Today the process is reversed. Lower division schools bring in staffs from high-profile schools to come coach their camps. It helps schools in lower divisions attract more prospects while allowing higher-profile schools to have contact with prospects in another part of the country. The contact and evaluation also occur outside the time when it is permissible for coaches to contact prospects off campus.

These camps have become known as "satellite camps" which brings us to the great 2015 camp debate.

The NCAA does not ban satellite camps but conference rules vary. The current rumble in the camp jungle is between the Big 10, which has no ban on satellite camps while the SEC has a ban. Guess where Big 10 schools have set up satellite camps? They've gone into the home states of SEC schools.

It has given the Big 10 schools a perceived recruiting edge. While working on campuses away from home, Big 10 coaches can do more than just evaluate the prospects -- they recruit them.

That is an advantage.

But on the flipside a recruit at a satellite camp has not been to campus and has not seen what the academic setting is all about. Any chance schools have to get them on campus is a plus. Meeting recruits at a satellite camp may prompt an on-campus visit to the visiting coach's school.

As the debate rages on, there is a fundamental question that should be resolved first. What is the role of a high school football camp? Is it to teach fundamentals and safer techniques in a game that is taking a lot of hits on the safety and concussion issues? Or are they simply glorified combines where schools try to gain any edge evaluating and contacting recruits?

If it is simply a recruiting function then the NCAA should call it that. Then create a "combine evaluation" period and get all the conferences on board with the same rules.

However, if that ends up being the case, an opportunity has been lost to further the safety of the game. It is important for college football not to shortchange the long-term good of the game for the short-term fix of today's recruiting win.

 

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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