Toward the end of Kenneth McGruder’s junior year at Alief Taylor High School in Houston, the letters started flowing in.
Oregon State. Texas Tech. Missouri. Ohio State. LSU and more. They were all after McGruder, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound safety.
McGruder committed to Oklahoma State on June 10. He knew there was a good outlook for immediate playing time at his position. He heard positive words from incoming OSU freshmen Chris Hardeman and Keenan Brown, McGruder’s high school teammates.
McGruder, though, hasn’t been to Stillwater, never walked the OSU campus or toured Boone Pickens Stadium.
He wants to go, for sure. He said he hopes he can come in July.
“Me and my mom are trying to come up with a way,” McGruder said. “I want to take it, I’m just waiting on my mom to try to come up with the money to take me up there.”
On the other end of the spectrum is JR Hensley, a three-star offensive line recruit at Edmond Santa Fe. His brother, Ty, was also highly recruited before deciding to pursue baseball — Ty went to the New York Yankees in the first round of the 2010 MLB Draft.
JR Hensley went on unofficial college visits with his brother, and long before anyone knew who he was, he had been to Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Texas, you name it.
Now one of the state’s best players in his own right, Hensley is going all over on visits. OU, OSU, Kansas, Kansas State, Texas, even Arkansas and a couple of other non-Big 12 schools.
“My mom and dad, they spent a lot of money for me and my brother to go and pursue our dreams,” Hensley said. “Camps, transportation, the stuff that we’ve got to do … You really have to throw it up to mom and dad for helping out.
“Some kids aren’t that privileged, and you’re really at a disadvantage, honestly.”
Hensley knows because he’s seen the ins and outs of big-time recruiting for years.
“There’s hundreds of other 6-foot-5, 300-pound kids across the nation, so it’s like if you’re not going to take the time for them, they’re probably not going to take the time for you,” he said. “That’s just how it is. It seems like every place I’ve been to, it’s not about football. It’s more like a business.
“It’s about who can get the bigger cattle, who can get the best, who can get the five-stars, who can get the four-stars, who can get the cream of the crop. It’s constant, everyone is attacking everyone. Coaches are sabotaging other coaches. It’s crazy.”
In 2012, Maurice Smith Sr. — father of Alabama cornerback Maurice Smith — told ESPN.com the family spent $14,511.87 for his son to visit eight schools ranging from Alabama to Utah.
NCAA rules prevent colleges or any third party from paying for unofficials visits. Recruits can get three free tickets to a game, but food, travel and anything else comes out of pocket.
As for official visits, players can visit up to five schools with all expenses paid, but can’t take officials until their senior year of high school.
McGruder, though, won’t tell you that’s unfair. Just as Hensley is appreciative of his situation, McGruder accepts his.
“I think it is what it is,” he said. “Some people ain’t got it like other people got it. That’s why you have to work hard to get out of it.”
Warren Wand, a running back from Edmond Memorial, is trying to prove himself to schools. That’s why he took the initiative to ask Southern Miss coaches if he could visit over spring break.
“You have to show interest,” Wand said. “They show interest in you, you want to show interest back for them to know you might like to come to their school. That way maybe they’ll keep showing interest.”
This can be catch-22 for recruits in a position where college coaches hold the power. They want recruits younger and younger, athletes are pressured to pay for big camps and to take visits. Especially for players such as Wand trying to make a name for themselves, choosing not to can have consequences.
However, choosing to do all that doesn’t come with guarantees.
“It can put kids in a bind,” said Jody Jordan, McGruder’s coach at Alief Taylor. “I had one kid that went all the way to somewhere, they encouraged him to go, and he went there and then they never offered him.”
That’s why unofficial visits are one of the NCAA’s biggest problems. Violations involving coaches or facilitators paying for recruits to visit schools have been going on for years.
Hensley said from what he’s seen, the NCAA is trying to crack down. He said coaches aren’t breaking rules, but they are finding loopholes.
“They work the system,” Hensley said. “They put out the biggest spread you’ll ever see of every food you could possibly think of for $6, because $6 is the NCAA minimum.”
Mike Fecci, who coaches four-star OSU commit Ronald Jones at McKinney North in Texas, encourages his top players to take unofficials if at all possible.
“I think unofficial visits are vital, and I mean that because you’re not going to buy a car or house without looking at it first,” Fecci said. “You’re not going to go buy something like that just because you heard it’s good. But I don’t think it’s right that only the rich kids get to do that.”
The problem with players waiting until they become eligible for officials is that in today’s game, top recruits commit as juniors, and coaches are already planning to allocate those scholarships.
Jones, though, thinks he has a solution.
“I just think they should move the date for officials up to the summer or even March to give kids like me an opportunity to visit out-of-state so they can make a fully educated decision,” Jones said.
Those involved from the high school perspective agree the system is broken. But in a college football world ruled filled with scandal and controversy, there’s not always an easy fix.
“I think (unofficials) are a necessary evil,” Fecci said. “I just wish there was a way they could pay for something.”