Securing the Bag: College Football’s Underground Recruitment Economy
By: Matt Dacey
On January 18th, Tennessee head football coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired. The Vols finished the 2020 season at an abysmal 3-7, and were 16-19 in the three years Pruitt was at the helm. But Pruitt’s firing seems more than just a termination based on poor performance. In fact, Pruitt’s removal carries significant weight because it was labeled by the university as “for cause.”
Tennessee, by the school’s “reasonable and good faith judgment,” believes that Pruitt and his staff engaged in multiple NCAA Level I and Level II violations. Along with possible NCAA discipline, Pruitt is not going to see any contract buyout money from Tennessee. A “for cause” firing relieves Tennessee of any future payments on Pruitt’s deal and saves the university just over $12 million. Pruitt is reported to be seeking legal action against the university asserting the investigation was incomplete pursuant to university chancellor Donde Plowman’s admission that she did not read Pruitt’s interview transcript and that there was insufficient evidence connecting Pruitt to any possible NCAA violations. Whether or not Pruitt files suit against Tennessee is undecided, but there seems to be a bigger issue at play here than just a coach being relieved of his duties.
In addition to Pruitt, 10 more members of the Tennessee football and athletic department have either been fired or stepped down from their posts. Nine football coaches were also sent termination letters on the 18th, and UT athletic director, Phillip Fulmer, announced his retirement on the same day. Plowman assured news outlets that Fulmer’s retirement was “independent and unrelated” to the school’s investigation into the football program, but it’s safe to assume her statements are nothing more than smoke and mirrors hiding a larger internal problem. To quote Plowman, “For now, I can tell you this: The information provided today indicates a significant number of serious NCAA rules violations.”
So, if Pruitt’s poor coaching wasn’t the true reason for the dismantling of the football staff, what was?
Secure the “Bag-man”
Along with the news of Pruitt’s firing, more reports surfaced of Tennessee recruits receiving payments by assistant football coaches during their visits on campus. Disguised as McDonald’s combo meals, recruits would be handed bags from the fast-food chain on their visits filled with money at the bottom like it was a lost french fry. This drive-thru operation isn’t a rarity in college football, however, as noted in Steven Godfrey’s 2014 article “Meet the bag man: 10 rules for paying college football players”. Godfrey’s deep dive into college football’s underground economy brings to light a dirty truth: top college football recruits get paid.
The “bag men,” as Godfrey calls them, are a Division I football program’s best friend. Bag men primarily dish out illegal cash payments to recruits or players, and don’t have to abide by NCAA rules in the way that coaches, team administrators, or even the school’s AD are obligated to. A bag man acts as a shadow booster, buying undeniable access to players as a cog outside of the football program’s wheel. But along with greater popularity among student-athletes and a heightened acumen of their school’s football operations, a bag man’s compensation comes in the most valuable form of wealth: information.
Order of Operations
Bag men communicate with players unofficially, off the radar, and in code to gain insight into a player’s interest in their school. Hiding a paper and technology trail is paramount as any recorded phone call or newly opened bank account can score the school an investigation from Indianapolis. Burner phones come and go by the dozen during the height of recruiting season, and any possible bribe is solely made in cash. “There is never a bank account. There is only cash.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna open a checking account with statements someone could subpoena. Oh, and hey, in this small town of however-many thousands of people I’m gonna go in and open some account and then ask for a bunch of black teenagers to be put on there and ask for a bunch of debit cards they could get caught with. Why don’t I just take out a
“Hey, how’d he get that ride?’ His uncle bought it. ‘How did his uncle buy it?’ Paid cash. ‘Paid cash, how’d he do that?’ S---, we don’t know, but here’s the receipt where he paid cash, and now y’all ain’t got s---. Go tell the NCAA you think we’re cheating because this kid’s uncle bought him a used Tahoe in cash, you racist.”
How to Get Away with Murder
Securing a recruit’s commitment and loyalty is nothing compared to the imperative of navigating under the NCAA’s radar. Some top recruits will sign to a college without any bribery, but none will sign if there is an NCAA cloud raining on a program’s head. Avoiding NCAA bylaws and future lawsuits serves two purposes in recruitment: (1) it allows schools to lock down high caliber talent, and (2) strengthens a school’s authority when the signed players report to future recruits about benefits they received in their courtship and the potential for them to receive the same.
The recruitment dance is not a lavish one. Rather than handing out lump sums of money, bag men prefer impromptu meetings of smaller exchanges. Lesser payments, however, may inadvertently create a dependent relationship between recruit and bag man. Life events in a player’s life require money: a date with their girlfriend, a spring break trip to Cabo, or even just take-out Chinese instead of subpar cafeteria food. The more frequent the meetings, the more casual they can become, but the level of maintenance can be stressful – there are more chances to get caught.
Tennessee’s McDonald’s bag idea doesn’t seem all that impractical when you think about it. For example, compare it to the early 2000s Miami Hurricanes. Convicted booster Nevin Shapiro admitted in 2011 to developing a bounty payment system in which he promised to reward any player on the Hurricanes defense $5,000 if they knocked out the Florida St. quarterback.
Promising a giant lump sum of cash in exchange for a high schooler’s commitment can draw too much attention, both in grandeur and in quantity of money.
“Remember, your job as a bag man isn’t to hide the benefit. It’s to hide the proof. Because no one ever looks at the car or the jewelry and says, ‘How did you get that, poor football player?’ They say, ‘How did they get you that and not get caught, poor football player?’”
The Vicious Recruitment Cycle
Godfrey’s last point in his article is perhaps his best: college’s exacerbate and exploit the recruiting game by perpetuating a vicious cycle. After recruitment, an under-privileged and under-educated player will enroll in the easiest major he can find to stay academically eligible to play. Students with Exercise Science and General Education majors are sometimes criticized as taking an easy route through school, but that’s exactly what shadow boosters and bag men want.
If a player spends his four years on the turf and has no shot at the pros, he might return home and become a local football coach. With every undrafted player comes another football program ambassador to the next generation.
“You win the gym teachers, and you can go a long way. That’s why all those basket-weaving degrees are so important, because we need ‘em on both ends. You need ‘em to keep the kids qualified, and you need ‘em to produce guys who can go back and coach and teach and help us.” 
The cycle is essentially an extension of the unofficial contract for under-the-table payments. We as the booster and bag man will promise to pay you up-front for your services as consideration, but upon the termination of your football career we expect continued promotion and praise of our program. If one recruit doesn’t take the bait, another will. Because at the end of the day, someone is going to get paid. One bag-man’s cash is another recruit’s treasure, isn’t it?
 Michael McCann, Tennessee’s For-Cause Firing of Pruitt May Invite Legal Challenge, Sportico, (January 18, 2020), https://www.sportico.com/law/analysis/2021/jeremy-pruitt-firing-1234620605/
 Chris Low and Mark Schalbach, Tennessee firing football coach Jeremy Pruitt after internal investigation, ESPN, (January 18, 2020), https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/30735416/sources-tennessee-football-coach-jeremy-pruitt-internal-investigation
 Sam Marsdale, Dan Patrick: Tennessee coaches handed McDonald's bags with cash to recruits, 247Sports, (January 19. 2020), https://247sports.com/Article/Jeremy-Pruitt-fired-Tennessee-Vols-football-NCAA-recruiting-violations-McDonalds-bags-cash-coaching-search-159558159/
 Steven Godfrey, "Meet the bag man: 10 rules for paying college football players," Banner Society, (April 10, 2014), https://www.bannersociety.com/2014/4/10/20703758/bag-man-paying-college-football-players
 Players got gifts from ex-Miami booster, ESPN, (August 16, 2011), https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/6866006/ponzi-schemer-nevin-shapiro-says-provided-benefits-miami-athletes
 Godfrey, supra