When Urban Meyer started his Friday Nights Lights camp, he wanted it to be one of those Kodak moments that leave an imprint for life.
Six years later it has grown into something Disney World would envy. The Gators take their “campers” on a wild ride that is sure to jump-start their adrenalin and cause goose bumps.
Hip-hop music blares through The Swamp as some of the most coveted recruits in the country go through their workouts before sitting down to watch a video of Gators football history that includes their recent national titles.
A high school history class was never like this, but then, textbook teachers aren’t trying to sell a product and win a championship.
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Every effort is made to give the participants at the Friday Night Lights camp a feel of what it’s like to play in front of Florida’s fanatical fans. And those who possess special skills are adored by a throng of media types who are given near total access to this extravaganza.
Any high school player can attend, but there is a caste system. The highly touted prospects get the most attention, including interviews by the national recruiting websites and in many cases come away with a scholarship offer if they hadn’t already received one.
The camp is a mixture of fun for the players and business for the coaches. It gives the participants a chance to be a Gator for a day while coaches get an opportunity to promote their program.
What occurs at FNL is happening all across the country, though perhaps not on such a grand scale. Give Meyer credit, he knows how to put on a party — though his program is the beauty queen of college football in the state, which gives him an edge anyway.
A plethora of college summer football camps have sprung up during the last decade. They have become heaven on earth for those in the business of winning the hearts and minds of teenagers who might help them keep their jobs and buy big houses for their families.
Does it work?
Well, Manatee High’s highly recruited Mike Blakely left this year’s Friday Nights Lights camp saying Florida was No. 1 on his list followed by Auburn and South Carolina. A day before the camp, he didn’t have a No. 1 and had listed Auburn ahead of Florida.
Punta Gorda Charlotte High’s Mike Bellamy, rated the No. 2 running back in the country by Rivals.com, has a verbal commitment to Clemson and said the coaches there did not want him to attend FNL.
Bellamy said he had to repeatedly assure the Clemson coaches he would not change his mind and ease their worries that they would lose him to the Gators — a puzzling scenario if these camps are just for teaching purposes.
Commitments are non-binding until a player signs a letter-of-intent in February, and any time they attend a college camp, it’s no secret they are going to be treated like royalty with a single purpose in mind.
It’s a legal recruiting tool that allows college football coaches to mingle with prospects, evaluate them first hand and get them familiar with their campus. The weeks after “summer camp season” are often the busiest for high school prospects to make verbal commitments.
NCAA rules say colleges must charge for these camps, and anyone can attend. It’s led to an influx of so-called “clandestine” one-day elite camps where there is little advertising, but word of the event finds its way to the touted prospects.
“Obviously, for colleges it is big in their recruiting,” says Manatee High assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Chris Conboy. “They get a chance to see a good kid in person, get a chance to talk with them and to coach them. The Dog Night at Georgia and the Friday Night Lights, you really don’t see on their websites. They don’t advertise it much. It’s open to everybody, but not everybody finds out about it. There is no official invitation. The Auburn camp was about 400, which was the biggest.”
The NCAA doesn’t allow tryout camps, but in a sense this is what many have become, particularly for the under-the-radar player who either doesn’t have national notoriety or possesses skills that are questionable or unknown.
Who wasn’t at camp is often as important as who was there.
Tampa Plant running back James Wilder Jr., rated the third-best player in the country, went to the Florida State camp instead of Friday Night Lights, and news of that flooded the Internet, making him a celebrity on both fronts.
There are other ways players can get their name and personal statistics out. Among those are the combines and 7-on-7 tournaments. Athletic apparel companies and Internet scouting/recruiting services are moving into sponsoring or completely underwriting the costs of running some of these.
But the best way to get a scholarship is to attend a college summer football camp, even if only for one day. The full-time football coaches at the specific colleges run the camps, usually teaching the positions they coach, do the drills that are part of the program and get a hands-on view of a prospect.
It’s one more big piece in the recruiting puzzle.