Alternative schools have a way of churning out gridiron stars
Prep schools, in many ways, are college football's version of the lottery: It starts with a dream, everyone pays to play, there are no guarantees and plenty of winners and losers.
"They all want the (Division) I-A football experience, that's their dream," Milford Academy coach Bill Chaplick said. "They come here because that's the dream of the mother, father, kid, grandparent."
Chasing the dream at a top-college preparatory school like Milford Academy in New Berlin, N.Y., isn't cheap. The $18,550 annual tuition comes with no guarantees there will be a major-college football scholarship handed out like a diploma at the end.
"It was a good investment for me and my family," West Virginia defensive back and Milford graduate Franchot Allen said.
It doesn't work out for everyone.
Pitt kicker and Upper St. Clair graduate Conor Lee failed to earn a scholarship after leaving Fork Union Military Academy in Fork Union, Va. He invested two additional years in his kicking career before Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt awarded a football scholarship last year.
Conor's father, Pittsburgh attorney Craig Lee, was disappointed with the prep school experience, starting with the broken promise his son would be the only kicker on the roster.
"My whole intent to send Conor to prep school was not for grades, not to improve his character, but to market him and make an investment in his future," Craig Lee said.
Did it pay off?
"Absolutely not," he said. "He didn't get a scholarship out of it, and I don't feel he was marketed as well as they said he would be. I personally feel that if you're going to a prep school to obtain a (college football) scholarship, it's an uphill battle.
"These military prep schools are more of a warehouse for kids who already committed to a scholarship, but are academically ineligible," Craig Lee said. "From what I understand, all they do is sit in a room all day and prep for the SATs. You're not really learning math, you're learning how to get a better SAT score. Is it a diploma mill• I think it might be."
Show them the money
Milford Academy doesn't hand out football scholarships, Chaplick said.
Then, why can he point to 764 applications for next year's team?
He's turned out 77 Division I-A recruits in the past seven years, including 16 from last season's roster.
"I get to pick my team every year," Chaplick said. "I don't have to go on the road to recruit.
"We don't take any kid that doesn't project as a I-A. That's what our program is about. If they're not I-A, or I-AA, they don't come here."
Chaplick said the financial burden for prep school tuition falls on the families.
"The kid, or the family, has to pay the tuition," he said. "Colleges aren't allowed to pay for the kids. The parent makes the investment to get that kid into college."
Athletes pay most of the $25,500 cost for a year on campus at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va.
"We never go over 50 percent (for financial aid)," said Hargrave spokesman William Wiebking. "The family still has to come up with at least $12,750."
The Kiski School in Saltsburg, which has a football tradition going back over 100 years, awards scholarships to players based on need, according to Chuck Klausing, who served as coach from 1987-1993.
Klausing still recalls the day he spotted running back Curtis Enis at his football camp. Enis went on to rush for 36 touchdowns at Penn State and was drafted by the Chicago Bears with the fifth overall pick in 1998.
"I can only speak for The Kiski School, but they very sincerely try to help kids," Klausing said. "We've had some great players, like Curtis Enis, who received scholarships based on need. But there were 50 other kids there who got just as much (financial aid) and they never played football for anybody.
"If we would have given out scholarships just for football, based on my football contacts, we would have had one of the greatest football powers in America," he said.
They're watching closely
NCAA bylaws prohibit prep school tuition payments from agents, professional teams or "universities and their boosters who may have an interest in recruiting the athlete in the future."
NCAA Associate Director Stacey Osburn said her organization has not uncovered any major violations with the tuition payment bylaw since it was adopted in 2002. Minor violations are not reported publically, she said, because they do not provide a significant competitive advantage in the NCAA's view.
She said most non-traditional high schools, or prep schools, are private and operate outside the control of state departments of education.
The NCAA continues to review prep schools and has legislation under review that would foster higher academic standards, Osburn said.
"The NCAA does ensure that all high school academic records utilized by prospective student-athletes do meet our minimum academic requirements for initial eligibility," she said. "More than 200 schools have been part of the review process to date."
She said any non-traditional high school that seeks to have its credentials used by the NCAA to determine initial eligibility is automatically reviewed for a two-year period.
NCAA membership services, in conjunction with its Initial-Eligibility-Clearinghouse, recently announced it no longer would accept transcripts from four prep schools due to poor academic standards - American Academy in Miami, Florida Prep Academy in Port Charlotte, Fla., Lutheran Christian Academy in Philadelphia and Prince Avenue Preparatory Academy in Pickens, S.C.
"I understand the NCAA is preparing legislation to crack down on prep schools, but I hope that's not the case," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "These schools help a lot of kids who might otherwise fall through the cracks (of the college admission system)."
Osburn called it a shared responsibility with the NCAA, setting the initial eligibility standards, and each school administration enforcing its own admission standards.
"We can only go so far," she said. "We can only set the standards of what schools we're willing to take information from."
Some NCAA rules are nearly un-enforceable, while others practically police themselves. For example, under NCAA rules, once a signed recruit is denied admission for failing to meet any of his college's admission standards, his letter of intent is void.
Bottom line: Any football program that breaks NCAA rules by paying a football recruit's prep school tuition risks losing him anyway, because he's no longer bound by his original letter of intent.
In times of need, Division I-A coaches frequently turn to Milford, Hargrave and other top prep football factories like Fork Union.
Wannstedt just signed highly-touted running back LeSean McCoy out of Milford, along with former Perry wide receiver Aundre Wright.
"When you're in the early stages of building a program, which we are, it makes sense to go that route in some situations," Wannstedt said.
McCoy was rushing toward the state record two years ago at Harrisburg's Bishop McDevitt when he suffered a compound ankle fracture. He completed his recovery at Milford and came out rated the No. 7 running back prospect in the nation by Scout.com.
"We need help fast," Wannstedt said. "But I don't care if you're coming off a 12-win season, you're going to recruit a LeSean McCoy."
Penn State recruiters turned to Milford for linemen J.B. Walton and Ollie Ogbu.
Rodriguez recruited Allen and running back Jetavious Best out of Milford.
Rodriguez denies coaches warehouse kids at prep schools.
"When somebody says they've placed them there, it means they've placed some phone calls to that school," Rodriguez said. "I think prep schools have done a great service for a lot of athletes, not only academically, but by giving them a year to mature. A lot of these prep schools have military-style formats. It helps these kids develop the type of discipline they'll need at the top level."
Best said he was stunned by the level of talent around him at Milford. Practices were tougher than his former high school games.
"Everybody is good, everybody is fast and everybody is going Division I," Best said. "You need a mindset going in that you're going to work hard, or you'll get lost.
"It opens up another window for you to get into Division I football," he said.
Wannstedt admits he's not a big fan of recruiting prep school players. The process starts with finding out why they're at prep school in the first place.
"I'm not saying this in a negative sense, but kids are there for a reason," he said. "It's up to you to find out. The majority of times it's academics, but sometimes, it's an injury or for personal reasons.
"It's a great opportunity for them to get their grades squared away, and a chance to mature away from home. But you have to really know these kids and what type of character they have. How hungry are they?"
- Staff writer Kevin Gorman contributed to this story.
Prep school finances
Top prep schools
• Milford Academy
Location: New Berlin, N.Y.
Noteable: Current team yielded 16 Division I-A and 16 Division I-AA football recurits.
Area recruits: RB LeSean McCoy, WR Aundre Wright of Pitt; OL J.B. Walton and DT Ollie Ogbu of Penn State; DB Franchot Allen, RB Jetavious Best of WVU.
• Fork Union Military Academy
Location: Fork Union, Va.
Noteable: Just provided West Virginia with its biggest recruit ever, 6-foot-5, 360-pound defensive lineman Asa Chapman.
Area recruits: K Conor Lee of Pitt; DL Asa Chapman of West Virginia.
• Hargrave Military Academy
Location: Chatham, Va.
Notable: Alums include 15 NFL veterans, including St. Louis Rams wide receiver Tory Holt.
• Valley Forge Military Academy and Junior College
Location: Wayne, Pa.
Noteable: Alums include Pitt Heisman Trophy candidate and Arizona Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald, and former WVU quarterback Rasheed Marshall, signed recently as a wide receiver by the Steelers.
Area recruits: OL Craig Bokor, OL Jeff Otah of Pitt; OL Matt Timmerman of WVU.