It’s an unusually strong haul for a program that has just six wins over the past two seasons and a coach — Mike London — whose job security past the 2014 season is seen as tenuous. It’s also the latest example of how important offseason training programs and seven-on-seven spring football have become during the recruiting process, in some cases supplanting high school coaches as the main contact between top college programs and recruits.
All five prospects, along with many of the Cavaliers’ top recruits from recent seasons, grew up together in Virginia Beach and either trained in the offseason with the 757 Sports Academy or played seven-on-seven football with the Virginia Thoroughbreds, organizations that have joined together in recent years to become a controversial force in the talent-rich Tidewater area.
Such programs remain largely unregulated by the NCAA, and some in the recruiting industry question whether, in addition to helping recruits, they are also creating pipelines to certain schools for their own gain.
London acknowledges that such programs have “an influence that’s out there that you have to recognize.” He has forged a strong bond with them, and it has proved fruitful.
On the other hand, the relationship between Virginia Tech — Virginia’s chief rival — and the 757 Sports Academy and the Virginia Thoroughbreds has been non-existent. “U-Va. definitely has those guys on its side. No doubt about it,” said Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director for Rivals.com.
Corwin Cutler remembers the Sunday afternoon eight years ago “like it was yesterday,” when he, Blanding, Brown and current Virginia players Taquan Mizzell, Demetrious Nicholson and Anthony Cooper, among others, showed up at Bayside High to work on their football skills. Lee Snead, Nicholson’s godfather, and Jeff Smith had coached many of them as part of “The Wolfpack,” a 9- and 10-year-old youth league team in Virginia Beach that also featured current Virginia defensive end Eli Harold. Now they, along with several players’ fathers, would be taking a more active — yet still informal — role during the high school offseason.
In the past several years, though, the group became more organized, charging $5 for every session. The cadre of coaches running the program renamed the venture 757 Sports Academy and joined together with the Virginia Thoroughbreds, a summer-league seven-on-seven team coached by Alex Rayner, who is also the wide receivers coach at Bishop Sullivan High School.
Cutler’s father, Carson, said “it’s never been about getting rich off of kids,” and the 757 Sports Academy is in the process of filing with the Internal Revenue Service as a non-profit organization.
But when Nicholson emerged as the first college-level prospect from the program five years ago, the dynamic changed to include both instruction and promotion. Coaches like Snead and Rayner began taking prospects around the country for recruiting showcases, seven-on-seven tournaments and college visits, and in turn began speaking directly with college coaches.
When London was hired by Virginia in December 2009, he promised Nicholson immediate playing time, and the cornerback ultimately picked the Cavaliers over North Carolina.
That same month, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary, “The U,” also premiered. It told the story of how the University of Miami became one of college football’s elite programs by focusing its recruiting efforts on its home city. As Corwin Cutler put it: “After that, it was a wrap. We wanted to be on the same team again like when we were little.”
That these men have become so ingrained in the recruiting process has drawn varying opinions among high school coaches in Virginia Beach.
Ocean Lakes High Coach Chris Scott, who coached Harold and Nnadi, said he has “no problem” with the 757 Sports Academy or the Virginia Thoroughbreds because his players have been better prepared for the regular season as a result of the workouts.
But former Bayside High Coach Darnell Moore, who coached Nicholson, Mizzell and Blanding before stepping down in December 2012, told The Washington Post that part of the reason he resigned after 12 seasons was that he had grown tired of dealing with the “outside influences.”
“They steer kids to certain schools,” said Moore, a former head coach at Norfolk State.
Coaches from both the 757 Sports Academy and the Virginia Thoroughbreds said they have a minimal role in recruiting, not wanting to overstep their players’ parents or high school coaches. But London and Virginia assistant Chip West, both of whom grew up in the Tidewater area, exchanged at least 420 calls with Snead on their school-issued cellphones from August 2012 to August 2013, according to documents obtained through an open-records request.
Balance of power
The Tidewater area has long been a recruiting battleground for Virginia Tech and Virginia, with future NFL stars such as Kam Chancellor, DeAngelo Hall and Darryl Tapp playing for the Hokies. And while Virginia Tech is still doing well in talent-rich cities such as Hampton and Newport News, the balance in Virginia Beach seems to have tipped in the Cavaliers’ favor.
Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer wrote about the situation in his latest autobiography, “Let Me Be Frank,” and compared the trend to AAU basketball without referencing either program by name.
“We are seeing certain mentors tied to different colleges. They are getting involved in recruiting and may direct a kid, or group of kids, to a certain college. Our coaches tell me they have been seeing quite a bit of this in the Virginia Beach area,” he wrote, a statement that only worsened the animosity between the Virginia Beach contingent and the Hokies.
Carson Cutler said the programs’ coaches were once on good terms with the Hokies and former offensive line coach Curt Newsome, but the relationship deteriorated when assistant coach Bryan Stinespring, who had previously recruited the Tidewater area for Virginia Tech, returned to the region in 2011.
Stinespring “came in here all cocky,” Cutler said. “When Newsome wasn’t getting the guys that they felt they should get, Bryan basically came in and said: ‘This used to be my area. He don’t know how to work it.’ Basically threw him under the bus.”
Stinespring, who is currently Virginia Tech’s recruiting coordinator, said he is simply worried that the best interests of prospects are not being considered. He prefers to deal with a recruit’s family members or high school teachers, coaches and administrators.
“There are no concerns whatsoever about any organization that’s geared towards helping young people gain opportunities and work on their skill set,” Stinespring wrote in an e-mail. “The concern here is in recruiting. When people have the opportunity to influence and there’s no accountability to what they say or do, that’s a tremendous concern.”
“I think things have been said that I know are not accurate.”
The NCAA remains undecided on how to legislate the proliferation of what it calls “third parties” involved with seven-on-seven teams and offseason workout programs, and “as the rules state right now, there are no rules against having a relationship with those outside groups,” London pointed out.
“If we were doing illegal things and making outrageous claims and outrageous promises and things like that, all those things could come back on you. We pride ourselves on doing it the right way,” London said.
But the 757 Sports Academy and Virginia Thoroughbreds have ignited spirited debates on Internet message boards and Twitter, particularly between fans of Virginia and Virginia Tech. Cutler and Snead feel they have been attacked for no reason, and received threatening phone calls after their personal information was made public on the Internet.
Many, though, still have doubts as to why all of these talented recruits have ended up at Virginia. Corwin Cutler, who spent this past year at Fork Union Military Academy, said he hears that sort of question “every day.”
Carson Cutler said that on the same day one person suggested on a message board that he was taking money to bring kids to Charlottesville, he was actually homeless and living out of his car while his family stayed with friends.
Cora Lee, Blanding’s mother, said she works as a paralegal during the day before heading to her second job as a janitor. She wonders “why so many people care about where my son goes to school?”
“I clean toilets at night so my son could travel around the country [for recruiting showcases] and get a free college education,” Lee said. “And it worked.”