During the 2007 mid-season I reviewed the book 'Meat Market - Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting" by ESPN the Magazine's Bruce Feldman. The book detailed a year spent with Ed Orgeron and his staff at Ole Miss as they went through the recruiting process.
'Meat Market' is an excellent book, a must-read if you have any interest in college recruiting. I decided to follow-up with Feldman and ask him a few questions about the aftermath of 'Meat Market' as the book has been on the market for a few months and we're getting into the prime time of the recruiting season:
- CN: How did it happen that you ended up using Ed Orgeron and Ole Miss? Were they your preferred choice or were there other schools under consideration before you chose Ole Miss?
BF: I was looking for two vital elements to pull this off: I wanted a coach who had had a lot of success as a recruiter, and obviously having been the recruiting coordinator at USC (and having also worked under Jimmy Johnson) Orgeron was ideal from that standpoint. I’d also felt that in order to drive this book to really become a story, it needed to have a very interesting and dynamic central figure, which Orgeron certainly is. He is this high-energy, rough around the edges guy who is a recovering alcoholic and has essentially traded in one addiction (alcohol) for another (recruiting). On top of that, he would not only be going through this emotional roller coaster ride to signing day but also doing so, not selling a powerhouse program like USC, but rather an underdog where he was competing against the likes of Florida, LSU, Georgia, Notre Dame and even USC. It was a very ripe situation for such a book.
- CN: 'Meat Market' presents a contrast of craziness between Oregon and his staff and the recruiting process. Was this how you envisioned the book before you started?
BF: I had some ideas on what I thought I might see and hear, but I never expected there to be as much drama as there was as the year unfolded. There are just so many highs and lows. I was really amazed at just how many soap operas played out there. One of his assistants, Hugh Freeze, had like four of them himself, and observing him while he’s on the phone with these kids was fascinating.
And, from a character standpoint, it felt like almost every stone I overturned had some fantastic—and perhaps heart-breaking -- back story. By the time I was about half-way through my reporting, I’d realized that no matter how many books Meat Market sold, the experience was really worth it for me.
- CN: What was Orgeron's reaction to the book?
BF: The book actually came out the week of their season opener so he never had a chance to read it right away. I think his wife and some of his office staff did though, and I guess they told him it was fair, and he was OK with it.
I had really wondered how he was going to react given that he had been very open with me about a lot of things, and you never know how someone is going to respond when you write about them. He’d also never given me parameters about what and where I could be or what was off-limits. Sometimes I wondered if he or his assistants would read something in Meat Market and get angry that something made it into print. I’d heard there were a few things coaches weren’t thrilled about (things they’d said about other staffs or about a recruit) but no one ever said they were misquoted.
- CN: Were you surprised by Orgeron's firing this year?
BF: A little, but I knew he had a bad relationship with the AD there and that wasn’t helping when you have a win-loss record as bad as they did. I was surprised though given that he only got three years, and while I know they went 3-9 this season, he’d won 10 games in his first three years at Ole Miss, which is more than Slyvester Croom did at Mississippi State. Then in year four, Croom’s team breaks through. It took Greg Schiano a lot longer before he got Rutgers moving. I just don’t think you can expect a first-time head coach to come out and make a significant impact in his first three seasons. They’re gonna make a lot of mistakes. It’s different when a Dennis Erickson takes over a program. The staff he has at ASU is pretty much the same guys he worked with at other coaching stops. The first-timer really has to learn on the fly. If MSU had fired Croom last year, people would’ve wrote that he was a nice guy but the experiment failed. No one was predicting them to go 7-5 this year. But it worked out great.
People can point to some bad moves Orgeron made, and of course, they were bad and it cost him, but lots of coaches make bad moves. I would’ve liked to have seen what he could’ve done in Year 4 when he had Jevan Snead at QB, but that won’t happen. I do think he left the program better than when he got it in terms of the talent.
- CN: Are there any reader reactions to the book that stand out that you'd care to relate (including any recruiting stories)?
BF: I’ve done readings in a few places around the country where I’ve had a bunch of kids from a high school football team show up saying how their coach says they have to read Meat Market. I’ve had mothers come to book signings to say they can’t get their kids to read, but they’d finished my book in a week.
One of the coolest things I had was when a buddy who covers college hoops e-mailed me and goes "Tom Crean, the Marquette basketball coach, can’t stop raving about your book. Here’s his cell number. He wants you to call him." So I did, and Crean couldn’t have been nicer. He said how he learned so much from the book and bought it for all of his staff. He also said that his brother-in-law is Jim Harbaugh and he told him he’s gotta read Meat Market and he’s gonna tell all his friends they have to read it. And then, sure enough, I got some emails from college basketball coaches about the book.
- CN: Even though you focused on Ole Miss, 'Meat Market' includes quite a cross-section of young athletes and the programs they're interested in. Do you believe that 'Meat Market' is a fair representation of the recruiting process as it exists at most schools or it is easy for readers to dismiss the mania as isolated to Ole Miss and Ed Orgeron?
I do think it’s very representative of the recruiting process because the process and the parameters all college staffs worked under is the same so that’s why I think it works across the board. It’s really more of a recruiting book than anything else, about how coaches evaluate and chase players. Regardless of the program, they all go out on the road in the spring to evaluate juniors. They all conduct summer camps to get a clearer picture of how good—and how coachable—these prospects are. They all try and woo these kids and their families and coaches right up to signing day. Now, do cockfights take place on all home visits? Probably not.
- CN: Is there anything you'd change to make the college recruiting process less insane or is chaos a natural state when it comes to big-time college recruiting? In other words, should we just accept the process for what it is, or can it be fixed somehow for the benefit of everyone involved?
It’s hard to tweak the process because there is so much stuff that realistically can’t be regulated. Too many things are open to interpretation and too many people who can factor into the recruiting process in one manner or another, aren’t under the NCAA rules umbrella. The one thing I would like to see the NCAA do is not restrict players who would like to transfer in the wake of a coaching change. It’s nice to think players pick a school because of the school itself, but really the system is the key for many of them, and when you’re talking about the impact on their careers, it’s tough to force their hands.
- CN: Any next-book projects you'd like to tell us about at this time?
BF: Honestly, I’ve been so burned out from Meat Market and the subsequent marketing of the book, I’m not ready to jump into anything right away.
Along with Stewart Mandel's 'Bowls, Polls and Tattered Souls', 'Meat 'Market' was one of the best books I read this past season. Thanks to Bruce for his time and wish him the best on his future endeavors.