When Ray Tanner served as an assistant coach at N.C. State during the early 1980s, he spent most of his time looking for baseball players on dusty, far-flung high school and American Legion fields.
Long before travel teams assembled to play national showcase tournaments at shiny complexes, Tanner helped put together recruiting classes by looking at players late in their prep careers.
That was when major league teams kept their June draft selections secret for fear that college coaches would swoop in after the draft and poach selected players.
Now, Tanner says, recruiting is entirely different.
Nothing highlights the change more than the decision in December by Wando High freshman catcher Nick Ciuffo to play for Tanner at South Carolina after his 2013 graduation.
The 14-year-old Ciuffo's commitment to a top-25 program before he had played a varsity game personifies the acceleration of the recruiting timetable.
Tanner cannot discuss specific recruits until they sign national letters of intent during their senior seasons, but he is certain the process of building recruiting classes years in advance is here to stay.
"It's happening in all sports. And if you choose not to go down that road, you're going to be left on the sidelines. That's the truth," Tanner said. "It's part of the landscape. You can talk all you want about the pluses and the minuses, but if you're not doing it, you know somebody else is."
Baseball is joining football and basketball, sports in which early offers are becoming more commonplace. Southern Cal football coach Lane Kiffin recently offered a scholarship to a 13-year-old quarterback from Delaware. USC offered a football scholarship to Lexington's Shaq Roland last year when he was a freshman.
REALIZING A DREAM
For his part, Ciuffo still might be somewhat of an exception. Although more sophomores are making early commitments, not many freshmen have done the same. But Ciuffo had a lifelong dream of playing at USC, and when he performed well enough last summer and fall for the high-powered Diamond Devils 18U showcase team to earn an offer from the Gamecocks, he saw no reason to turn it down.
"I've always wanted to be a Gamecock since I was 3 or 4 years old," said Ciuffo, a 6-foot, 180-pound left-handed-hitting catcher.
His ties to the Gamecocks include his father, Tony, a USC graduate who ran the College of Charleston's sports information office for 21 years. Ciuffo also loved how the Horseshoe reminded him of his native Charleston. And he especially loved the idea of playing in the year-old $36 million Carolina Stadium, where he competed five times in showcases last year.
"It was a huge factor," he said. "It's like a major league ballpark in a college atmosphere."
Wando coach Jeff Blankenship, who has sent his share of players to the collegiate ranks, had no problem with Ciuffo's decision. He said most freshmen and sophomores who are making these kind of decisions are not committing to any school, but rather to their dream schools.
"I was surprised by the timing of it, but I wasn't surprised Nicholas said yes," Blankenship said.
Ciuffo insists he is not going to feel much pressure in high school to prove himself because of his early commitment, especially not after having played in front of hundreds of college coaches and pro scouts at a tournament in Jupiter, Fla., in October.
While Tanner might prefer to recruit players further along in high school, he is not going to back away from one who appears to be a good fit.
"If I want a young man who unequivocally wants to be in the program, then I'm OK with it," he said.
Austin Alexander, a former college player and coach who has run thediamondprospects.com, a comprehensive S.C. high school and college baseball Web site, for five years, believes Ciuffo's maturity and ability make his decision less eye-opening to baseball insiders.
"College coaches knew who he was a few months ago. Now everybody knows who he is," Alexander said.
Alexander, who tracks recruiting in South Carolina, adds the timeline for landing Division I commitments has accelerated exponentially in the past two years as the power-conference coaches jockey to get the attention of top players.
He attributes that to the explosion of upper-echelon showcase teams and camps, where coaches can put together better appraisals on prospects. Recruiting coordinators no longer have to go from field to field, where they might see one player, when they can hit one-stop shopping centers such as Jupiter and East Cobb, Ga.
"You're going to go where you can see the largest amount of players in the shortest amount of time," Alexander said. "When you can see the better players against one another, it's going to be a better indication of what they can do."
Alexander said players are being recruited earlier because the stakes have gone up at the collegiate level. The pressure on coaches to win, especially in conferences such as the SEC and ACC, continues to increase. Schools are putting more resources into their facilities, and television money has started to enter the equation.
In addition, coaches must contend with the potential loss of top high school recruits to the professional ranks - Tanner lost three in the first four rounds last summer - as well as the signing of proven juniors-college stars to major league teams.
Programs also no longer can stockpile players. They are limited to a 35-man roster with a total of 11.7 scholarships.
Monte Lee, the baseball coach at College of Charleston and Tanner's former recruiting coordinator at USC, said all those factors are making coaches chase top recruits more aggressively.
"College baseball really has become so competitive. There's a much bigger market for it than there was in the '80s and '90s," Lee said. "There is more pressure to go out and get as many good players are you can. You have to recruit hard because everybody is recruiting harder against each other. So you recruit earlier to gain an edge. If you don't do that, you're left behind in some regard."
Tanner said recruiting players earlier in their careers means he can't target his needs as closely.
"We're just recruiting outstanding players. You don't even know what you may need in two or three years," he said.
Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore, who has lifted his program to top-25 status with nine NCAA tournament appearances in 14 seasons, does not believe a Big South school, even a good one like CCU, can take some of the recruiting chances a power-conference school can, such as relying on larger numbers of big-time prospects to minimize early-offer missteps.
"I'm big about finding the pieces and the possibilities and matching up the talent and the positions we play with what we need," Gilmore said.
But he sees where the game is headed and knows he must make tougher decisions at times earlier than he may want.
"The whole culture of college baseball has changed to the point where kids are committing two or three years before coming to school. It puts lots of pressure on the kids and the colleges. I don't care how good of an evaluator you are, it's so difficult to tell how good kids are going to be three years down the road," Gilmore said..
"It's pick your poison. If you go out there and commit to a kid three years out he pans out, you look like a million dollars. But on the other hand, if he doesn't pan out, you're stuck. So do I take a chance on what I hope or do I be patient?"
Players feeling the pressure to commit early, and coaches feeling the pressure to offer early, could have its downside. Alexander is convinced the result will be more decommitments as recruits change their minds or schools pull their offer.
"You're already seeing more decommitments than ever before," Alexander said. "I think it's unfortunate, but you'll definitely see a shift in that."
Coaches will say they are going to honor their offers to recruits unless academic issues arise. But Alexander says there are ways coaches can make an early commitment feel like less of a priority - such as telling him he might redshirt or recruiting another top-notch player at his position - if he does not continue to progress on the field.
But a player also can change his mind if there is the possibility of a monetary offer from a pro team or an offer from a higher-profile college program.
Coaches are starting to worry about the recruiting model for baseball beginning to look more like those for football and basketball, in which recruits routinely change their minds and coaches continue to recruit players who have committed to another program.
"It'll be a sad day in baseball when it gets like that," Lee said.
Gilmore feels strongly that a verbal commitment and a handshake still mean something. And, like Lee, he is convinced baseball coaches have such a strong fraternity that they will not steal early commitments from one another.
"The day the integrity of our game gets to the point where guys are backstabbing each other and programs are calling other team's recruits, I'll get out," Gilmore said. "When you tell kids our word doesn't mean anything, then we're not teaching what we're supposed to be teaching. We are what we recruit. I want people who give their word and stick to it. We're committed to each other."
Yet these issues will continue to arise as recruits keep committing as early as their freshman and sophomore seasons. Tanner would prefer to get commitments from only upperclassmen, but that's no longer the reality.
"It's philosophical. Some days I feel differently than other days," Tanner said. "But every time you feel that way (about early recruits), there's another guy who overachieves. And a guy you recruit late may not work out either. It's not an exact science."