Alta High’s Toloa’i Ho-Ching got football scholarship offers from all around the country before he finally decided to play for Brigham Young.
For the Hawks’ all-state linebacker, it was hardly a novel experience.
Ho-Ching told The Salt Lake Tribune that he was recruited heavily as a Ute Conference player for two years before ever setting foot at Alta. Even after enrolling at the Sandy high school, he said it didn’t deter multiple rival coaches from trying to woo him away.
“They promised all kinds of things,” said Ho-Ching. “They offered playing time, promised starting positions. They offered me gear. They took my father to dinner. The whole thing was really an eye-opening experience. We moved to Utah from Samoa. This wasn’t something that we were used to as a family.”
Ho-Ching’s experience is hardly unique, according to a number of Utah high school coaches. And at least one — Kearns coach Bill Cosper — says the recruiting of pre-high school and enrolled prep athletes has gotten out of control, with no sign that it will get reined in anytime soon.
Because he says the football talent base inside Kearns’ boundaries is constantly being encroached on, Cosper says he is forced to conduct what amounts to home visits with the eighth- and ninth-grade players who live in Kearns’ area. Once there, he sells kids on the virtues of staying at Kearns and building a winner — instead of moving on to the perceived greener pastures at other schools.
Cosper has finally started to reap rewards from his hands-on approach in the last few years. But he also asks: Why does he have to do it in the first place?
“I have to recruit my own kids,” Cosper said. “I shouldn’t have to do that. I come from Texas, and the problem here is way worse. It’s horrible here. There are all kinds of things going on. There are kids who actually change guardians just to move into another area. At the Ute Conference, coaches stand on the sidelines in full [high school] apparel.”
Cosper is not the only head coach who goes to such lengths to hang on to players. Even in the talent-rich area around Alta, Hawks coach Les Hamilton estimates that he conducts five to seven home visits a year in an effort to persuade his incoming freshmen to stay with his program.
While Hamilton counts himself as one of the lucky ones — Alta has one of the largest high school enrollments in the state — he says he still finds himself fending off recruiters who swoop in on Hawks players who haven’t cracked the starting lineup.
Ute Conference — the Wasatch Front’s largest youth football organization — is where it all starts.
Because of the state’s open enrollment laws, players can begin their prep careers at the high school of their choice. That means high schools can make recruiting pitches without fear of repercussions. Even Ute Conference officials acknowledge it has become a free-for-all.
“You can’t have open enrollment and not have recruiting,” said Dave Harrison, an executive board member for the Alta Ute Conference organization.
“If you have one [open enrollment], you’re going to have the other. It’s definitely a problem at this level.
“I know of coaches who make phone calls, asking kids to do this and do that,” Harrison added. “There are coaches who are on the sidelines during games. That’s why I feel you should play where you live. It has to be black-and-white.”
The Utah High School Activities Association has tried to clamp down on recruiting once students begin playing prep sports. A new transfer rule will force student-athletes to give up a year of eligibility if they switch schools.
UHSAA officials believe that the rule will curtail much of the recruiting that takes place once kids get to high school. The downside? It could accelerate recruiting at the pre-high school level.
“We’re looking for ways to deal with that,” UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner said. “We know that recruiting takes place at the Ute Conference. We want to stop recruiting in itself. It’s something that we know goes on and its something that, at the same time, is extremely difficult to prove.”