Bob Gillespie

After 35 years, Phil Kornblut still king of recruiting craze he started

bgillespie@ thestate.comFebruary 6, 2014 

Phil Kornblut stood outside a Vista restaurant last week, late for lunch but on his cell phone, doing what he has nearly every day for three decades: working the recruiting trail.

“You’re still committed to Minnesota?” he asked a high school player from Alabama who also was on South Carolina’s radar. “What did USC say? … Who else is recruiting you? … What are (the Gamecocks’) chances?”

Satisfied, Kornblut said goodbye, then said with a grin, “It never stops.” Indeed, he said, during a five-minute drive from his S.C. Network office, he had Tweeted updates on two other recruits.

So: Did you enjoy Wednesday’s National Signing Day extravaganza? Did your school land the prospects it wanted? Are your fingers numb from working your laptop?

If so, thank – or curse – Kornblut. In South Carolina, the 57-year-old sports talk radio host is the guy who started it all. Sometimes, you wonder if he curses himself.

In 1978 – long before the Internet, Twitter and three-, four- and five-star prospects – Kornblut made his first recruiting calls as an intern for Columbia radio talk show host Bill Wagy. Talk about prehistoric: “Back then, Joe Terranova was the father of recruiting (and an engineer with Ford), ranking top-10 (college) classes each year for Sports Illustrated, which Bill read on-air,” he said.

By 1982, Kornblut was spending hours each week calling high school athletes and reporting their latest college preferences. In 1983, he moved to the S.C. Network in Columbia, hired to cover Clemson, high schools and recruiting – not necessarily in that order.

Quickly, listeners were calling about recruits – and, soon after, coaches, too. “I thought, ‘Dag-gone, this might be a niche thing,’” Kornblut said.

It has become much more, a cottage industry grown mansion-sized. Today, ESPN and others chase players nationwide, thousands of fans have made recruiting a “season” all its own, and every school-dedicated website (USC and Clemson have 2-3 each) has a staffer devoted to tracking prospects.

“There’s a recruiting analyst on every corner now,” Kornblut says, laughing.

But this week, for the first time in 30 years, there was no Kornblut on Columbia’s airwaves. His statewide call-in show, “SportsTalk,” was replaced on WVOC-FM 100.1 by political talker Sean Hannity. The show’s offshoot, “SportsTalk First Edition,” also was cut from Clear Channel’s lineup. Neither Kornblut and his bosses, nor Clear Channel management, have definitively said why.

Still, his recruiting reports are available on websites (including, via “I (Heart) Radio” and live Internet streaming, and weekly in several newspapers in Columbia, including The State. Kornblut isn’t going away – any more than the beast he helped create.

Long before the Internet “changed everything in recruiting,” Kornblut worked phones nightly, calling athletes, high school coaches and, at the time, college coaches. “Back then, you could find out where a kid was going and sit on it until (his show at) 6 p.m.,” he said. “Now, you Tweet it immediately.”

His bosses suggested he sell the information via pay-per-call recordings and, later, his late-1980s “Recruiting News” publication. Eventually, it had more than 1,000 subscriptions at $30 per year, helping put his children through college.

Today, the “father of recruiting” instate remains somewhat old-school. His primary job is reporting for the Network and hosting his show, and he says he also treats recruiting as news. That’s why, he says, he quit calling college coaches for information two years ago. Because of NCAA regulations, he couldn’t identify them.

“Also, it got where they didn’t call back – or I felt like a hypocrite asking for information when I might have to be critical of them later,” he said. “Now, it’s the kids and their (high school) coaches. I feel better about the product.”

Too, Kornblut doesn’t assign “star” rankings, saying his job is not to rate players but report their thinking and destinations. That, he said, is hard enough. “(Doing anything with) 18-year-olds is an inexact science,” he said.

Ask college coaches, who “after the season ends, turn into used-car salesmen,” he says. “Few of them, I think, aspired to be recruiters.” But they do it, relentlessly – and Kornblut follows their trails.

For both, it’s the job, their livelihood. Late Wednesday, new classes largely signed, both had turned their attention to the next crop: juniors.

Social media has made the job easier (“most kids announce their own commitments on Twitter”), as has players making earlier choices; by Wednesday, only a handful of choices, though crucial ones, were unknown. Still, after lunch that day, Kornblut’s phone was in his ear before he reached the parking lot.

“I’m wearing down,” he said with a laugh. “But I still do recruiting every night.”

That won’t change anytime soon.

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