Tom Lemming may be the most influential college football recruiting guru in the country. He has exploded to Mel Kiper status in the world of high school prospects. The problem? Like Kiper, Lemming’s integrity has been questioned.
A Chicago native who admits to following the Irish as a kid, Lemming got his start by covering high school football games for weekly newspapers in his hometown. In 1978, he began scouting high school football prospects, a prelude to the rest of his career.
Lemming took his findings on the prospects he scouted from across the country and created a newsletter that became required reading for college football fans and coaches.
Nicknamed “The Mailman” for his door-to-door style of passing the word, Lemming parlayed that hard work into his career today, in which he travels 50,000 miles each year to evaluate 1,200 of the nation’s top recruits.
Simply put, he created college scouting of high school prospects – or at least sparked the creation of the big business it has become with sites like Rivals.com, Scout.com, ESPN Rise and 247Sports.com pervading the internet. According to the Chicago Daily Herald, Lemming was so dedicated he slept in his car on long road trips.
Currently, Lemming is a recruiting analyst for the CBS Sports Network, joining the network after becoming a star at ESPN, and releases his annual Top 100 list on the high school sports website MaxPreps.
Lemming still churns out the Tom Lemming Prep Football Report, the bible for college football recruiters. His career no doubt is defined by that tireless work, but he also is known for a link to the Notre Dame football program.
Hailing from the heart of Notre Dame country, Lemming has been accused of seeing things through gold-tinted glasses. The blog Every Day Should Be Saturday tackled the question: Is Tom Lemming a Notre Dame Shill?
EDSBS pointed out in 2008 that 21 of the 84 players on the rosters for the Army All-American Bowl – a contest for which Lemming is heavily involved in the selection process – had South Bend as their destination or on their short list.
Was Notre Dame’s recruiting class really that good or was Lemming selecting kids for the game because they were headed to South Bend as some sort of reward?
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Lorenzo Booker, a former Florida State running back and top prospect in the Class of 2002, said that Lemming fed him negative information about FSU and pushed Notre Dame, according to The Birmingham News.
Lemming then allegedly dropped Booker in his rankings when the recruit chose to go to Tallahassee and (gasp) cut Lemming out of his announcement speech. But according to Booker, Lemming’s worst transgression was lying about Booker’s decision process.
“After I said I was going there and signed with Florida State, he was telling everybody that I had actually told the Notre Dame coaching staff and said I was coming for sure,” Booker said, according Warchant.com
“I felt like he put words in my mouth. I never even talked to the coaches, not once.”
Booker continued with a passionate plea to future recruits to stay away from Lemming.
“To recruits everywhere, if you ask me and I know as much as any current high school football player, Tom Lemming is not the kind of guy you want to go to for advice,” Booker said.
“When you ask somebody for advice, you want them to tell you what is best for you but this guy has his own intentions at heart. He doesn’t care about the athlete, all he cares about is what is going to make him look better, that’s it.”
Lemming also allegedly used his online influence to affect the recruiting world.
According to the Birmingham News, Lemming posted a question in an ESPN.com chat, asking recruit Toney Baker if he would sign with N.C. State – where he eventually landed – if the school went on probation. Baker was one of the top running backs in the nation in 2005.
The newspaper said that Lemming denied posing the question; instead, he claimed an ESPN staffer sent the query in the chat.
Lemming also reportedly tried to push two-sport high school star Greg Paulus to play at Notre Dame, trying to sway him away from basketball at Duke, where he eventually was a four-year point guard.
The Class of 2005 star was offered both football and basketball scholarships by the Irish, but Lemming pushed for Paulus to land as the quarterback in South Bend.
“He’d probably have a tough time making an NBA roster, but he has the potential to become an outstanding quarterback in the NFL,” Lemming told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. “I think it would be wise for him and his family to re-examine a decision as important as this one.”
Hmm, reconsider and go to Notre Dame, perhaps? Well, that’s what he allegedly tried with highly touted recruit Myron Rolle in a famous instance.
“He told me if I kept Notre Dame in mind, the NBC (TV) guy would interview me and they would showcase me during the game,” Rolle told USA Today, referring to the Army All-American Bowl televised each January on NBC.
“He told me I’d have a higher chance of being MVP. I took it as having less of a chance of getting MVP if I didn’t keep Notre Dame on my list.”
Lemming, for his part, has said that he was just trying to help out Rolle, who eventually became a Rhodes Scholar, to choose a school that would be beneficial to him both academically and athletically.
But Notre Dame shill or not, should Lemming really be advising any of these kids where to go to school?
Rolle was near the top of most everyone’s recruiting lists. He dropped to No. 28 on Lemming’s version.
The backlash against Lemming? He is an enemy to Florida State fans, while an N.C. State supporter reportedly sent Lemming a death threat after the incident with Baker. The FBI investigated that threat in 2005.
“An N.C. State Internet site put my unlisted phone number out there,” Lemming told the Birmingham News. “I was told the next time I go into North Carolina, I won’t get out alive. I laughed about it, but my lawyer didn’t.”
Of course, college sports fanatics are known to be crazy. Former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit recently moved to Nashville just to avoid Buck Nuts that were abusing him for his critical coverage of his alma mater, while others in the country say he is a Buckeye homer. Go figure.
Lemming himself denies the ties to Notre Dame.
“I’m Irish Catholic and from Chicago,” Lemming told the Chicago Reader in 2005, “so that’s probably why people think I was into Notre Dame. But it’s also because I saw a business opportunity. It hasn’t hurt over the years to say that you’re a Notre Dame fan. They’re the most powerful team in the country. A friend of mine, he’s a recruiting guy and he’s a big Ohio State fan. But he claims publicly that he likes Notre Dame because he knows better. He knows it will help him increase his business.”
But like Mel Kiper, who was accused of promoting Jimmy Clausen before the 2010 NFL draft because of ties to Clausen’s agent, having Lemming’s objectivity and integrity questioned is most certainly bad for business.
Last year, the NCAA revised a bylaw that prohibits coaches from subscribing to premium content on recruiting sites like Rivals and Scout because the videos they compile are not available to the general public, distinguishing them from media websites.
As evidenced from the controversy surrounding Lemming, that should be the least of the NCAA’s worries about college football recruiting.