The Opening: From Humble Beginnings, It Has Become a Nike/ESPN-Fueled Mega-Event

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The Opening: From Humble Beginnings, It Has Become a Nike/ESPN-Fueled Mega-Event
247sports.com

This is what The Opening does:

* Chooses 162 of the nation's top players from its regional camps.

* Gathers the mostly seniors-to-be for a summer blowout at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.

* Pays for their airfare, housing and food.

* Drills them on speed, agility and jumping ability.

* Times them. Measures them.

* Teaches them. Pushes them.

* Compares them. Coaches them.

This is what makes it, as one participant calls it, "sick"—and he meant it in a good way:

* Dresses them in state-of-the-art Nike gear they can keep if it's kosher back home.

* Brings in current and former NFL and college players to work with them.

This is what makes it the campetition to end all campetitions:

* Matches them in 7-on-7 and offensive/defensive linemen competitions.

* Features an 18-quarterback contest for 11 spots and an MVP; tabs ESPN's colorful Trent Dilfer to run it; and, oh yeah, shows it on national TV.

Swoosh, there it is: A sign of a nation so obsessed with football that to follow our favorite NFL and college teams, we need more and more access to the players headed there and need to treat them with more and more benefits along the way.

Season 4 of The Opening is underway. It's a head-scratching name until Nike spokesman Brian Strong explains via email: "On the field as a player, you're always looking for that opening—the space to shine and make a play. In the same vein, this event is a special moment in time, where you have a chance to train hard, compete against the best, prove yourself and stand out. It's an opportunity to work on becoming the player you want to be."

This is Year 2 that the Elite 11, a QB-only event launched humbly in California in 1999, has joined the festivities. It rose to an Emmy-nominated performance last year.

If you don't know all that, well, you aren't following the football recruiting game.

But more and more of you are.

"I've been watching The Opening the past three years, so I know what's going on over there," says Keisean Lucier-South, a defensive lineman from Orange, California. "It's insane. Everybody from the U.S. knows about The Opening. My high school teammates know it's on ESPN. They know the top players in the nation go there. ... It's pretty sick."

Talk about sick. Check out how quarterback Ryan Brand learned he had made the final 18 to compete for the Elite 11: Russell Wilson tweeted it. The Russell Wilson. The supposedly undersized Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks quarterback tweeted the news to the supposedly undersized Detroit quarterback (yeah, Brand gets compared to Wilson a lot).

Pack your bags, kid. Elite 11 head coach Trent Dilfer of ESPN wants you.

"It was awesome," Brand says. "It was definitely one of the biggest things in my life that's happened. At first, I went kind of crazy, and it didn't really hit me that Russell Wilson just tweeted me."

Rewind to 1999. A simple phone call invited Matt Cassel to the inaugural Elite 11. Then, it was 11 kids being coached in relative anonymity.

"It wasn't what it is today," says the Minnesota Vikings quarterback, "which is more of a television show."

"I'm not liking what I'm seeing," says deposed Elite 11 co-founder Bob Johnson.

"Some people don't like change," counters Elite 11 co-founder Andy Bark. "We're thinking we're changing kids' lives [for the better] by making these changes."

TV attracts attention and more sponsorship. But TV should not get too much credit for the rise of interest in football recruiting. The power of the digital age combined with the nation's obsession with all things related to big-time football helped bring it this far. Which explains how Wilson-to-Brand could be a social media connection.

"Because of digital media, anything, anything, is possible," Bark says. "I don't think the Kardashians were built on network television. I think they were built through social media. ... And I like The Opening and the Elite 11 a lot better than the Kardashians."

Recruiting websites such as Rivals.com and Scout.com charge for insider recruiting content. But social media allows athletes, coaches and fans to follow each other, bit by byte.

When Tom Lemming started publishing one of the first recruiting newsletters in 1978, that was not the case. "I remember Joe Montana telling me he was one of six quarterbacks coming into Notre Dame in the same year," Lemming said, "because no one knew about the other ones."

He looks at what all this has become and says it isn't good or bad. It's just another sign of the recruiting game growing "by leaps and bounds." It's another way to make money and sell products. It's Nike selling Nike at The Opening. It's Under Armour selling Under Armour at the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge. It's business.

"I really don't think there's anything bad," Lemming says, "except by overwhelming the kids with gifts and free trips, it may send the wrong message at times."

Lemming admittedly was party to all that, part of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl for years, and the high school players received Adidas gifts there. The folks at Student Sports who run The Opening and Elite 11 try to make sure nothing improper happens. That means coordinating with each player's athletic director and understanding what his high school athletic association will allow.

Bark says in 25 years of running high school events, he's never had a player who was found to be violating eligibility rules. The NCAA did look into the Elite 11 in the early years, including talks given by a couple of agents, but the camp stopped doing that.

For some, campetition is a chance to travel, to find camaraderie, to test the competition. Lemming doesn't see anything wrong with all that. He just worries that some kids might not be ready for such royal treatment.

"A lot of these kids are treated like kings most of their lives," he says. "This sort of confirms they are kings before they've actually become kings."

***

Photo courtesy of Andy Bark
Andy Bark

Ball boy Andy Bark roamed the sidelines for years at the LA Coliseum. He worked USC and UCLA games, watching and learning from coaches such as John McKay and Dick Vermeil. He worked the visitors' sidelines sometimes too. He watched teams with lesser overall talent occasionally beat the Trojans and Bruins.

With the right leadership, the right plan, the right quarterback, the right knowledge, talent could be beaten.

"I was small and weak, but I could actually play," he says, "just because of what I knew about the game."

He played in college. Two colleges, actually. At Air Force, he caught 47 passes as a sophomore. The rest of the team caught 40. Concussions curtailed his plan to become a pilot, so he transferred back to California, the state and the school. As a senior in 1983, he caught 45 passes, second on the team by a single reception.

Bark would see good players from less well-known high school football programs overlooked by major schools.

"What's worse," he says, "is the amount of schmucks that get multiple chances because they go to a high-profile high school."

Bark recalls confronting one of his college coaches about why three clearly undeserving players from one big high school were on the team. As Bark saw it, they "shouldn't have been there as football players. They shouldn't have been there as students. They shouldn't have been there as citizens."

The coach explained: With the NCAA allowing so little recruiting time, you could visit only a few high schools. You focused on the bigger programs.

Bark never forgot.

After trying to make it in pro ball and a little broadcasting, Bark eventually found his springboard. He and a friend went into business with the two guys putting out the 35-subscriber Cal-Hi Sports newsletter and transformed it in 1989 into Student Sports magazine. That was when print still reigned.

He built the operation from there, even putting on high school camps.

"I started thinking of events," Bark says, "that would help kids and really put things on a level playing field."

Bark wanted more than a combine. He wanted competition. One-on-one. Seven-on-seven. He staged a number of events, traveling with a group of coaches, including Bob Johnson, to work with the quarterbacks.

The Orange County Register
Mission Viejo coach Bob Johnson

Johnson had been a college quarterback. He was the former head coach at El Toro High School, where he tutored quarterbacks Bret Johnson and Rob Johnson, who also happened to be his sons. He had left the Lake Forest, California, school to spend more time watching his boys play in college and, in Rob's case, the NFL.

Bob Johnson would get on the plane, Bark recalls, and lament having to work with 50 quarterbacks in two hours. Considering quarterbacks were the marquee players, it spawned the next step.

"It was reactionary," Bark says. "It wasn't thought out from the beginning."

But it's how the Elite 11 was born.

***

Bob Johnson remembers the passion he shared with his friend Andy Bark about starting this quarterback-fest.

Bark remembers "a first class of just total classics," pointing to the varied stories, backgrounds and challenges of everyone from Matt Cassel to Chris Rix, from Jeff Smoker to John Rattay, from Jack Wasserman to Roland Ybarra.

"I just remember it being quite an amazing experience,'' says Cassel. "We spent a lot of time on the field. We did footwork drills, we did accuracy drills, then we had meetings on defensive schemes. It was one of those camps that opened your eyes as a young quarterback what the next level would be."

Johnson also would return to high school coaching in 1999, at Mission Viejo, and he hasn't left. He loved his time with the Elite 11, calling the years "beautiful." He relished the relationships. Cassel said he still keeps in touch with him.

"Whether they ever played a down in the pros, I don't care," Johnson says. "They were just great kids."

The Elite 11 was about football. And it wasn't.

"I just hoped they had a great time, No. 1," Johnson says. "I mean, these kids had never even seen Southern California, 90 percent of them. So we worked like crazy, a.m. or p.m. or both, and then we'd take them places. We made sure they saw the Pacific Ocean. We'd barbecue at the beach.

"Rob was in the pros, so he was gone, so we used his house one time at Laguna. We took them to an Angel game. Just tried to have fun. They never saw Hollywood, so we tried to make it up there if we could. Or San Diego.

"You can't just jam things down their throat. We wouldn't have meetings at midnight, that's for sure. I'm going to go to bed. So are they. They're working hard all day, so you want to grind one night 'til midnight to think you're a better coach, then that's not me. You're not going to teach them a playbook, there's only so much I can coach. I'm not into me at all. I just want to coach."

Which brings us to 2011.

And the end for Bob Johnson as head coach.

Through the years, the Elite 11 had grown. The second year, a 12th quarterback was added, helping even out everything from warm-ups to room assignments. Bark says it had to be "someone special," maybe a non-starter.

Meanwhile, some of the biggest names would come there before they became the biggest names. Vince Young. JaMarcus Russell. Mark Sanchez. In 2005 alone, there were Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman and Jake Locker and Tim Tebow, all future first-round picks.The media coverage grew, including TV crews.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Tim Tebow

A title sponsor, EA Sports, came and went, but Bark says that was OK, as he was a little uncomfortable having a sponsor in the Elite 11 name.

But in 2011, ESPN wanted to take the event in a different direction. It wanted Trent Dilfer, its colorful NFL analyst, to run it.

Johnson says he still doesn't know exactly how and why he ended up out and Dilfer in.

"They had a big meeting up in the San Jose area about restructuring it, and always getting better and bigger, and better and bigger, and I'm not sure that's always good," Johnson says. "Anyway, they chose to go real TV, which was a good thing for Andy and everybody."

Everybody except Bob Johnson.

He doesn't like what the Elite 11 has become.

"I don't really want to watch it anymore," he says.

Cassel saw his first Johnson-less Elite 11 in person. Good friend and former NFL quarterback Ken O'Brien was going one day and asked Cassel to come along, Coming off a Pro Bowl season with the Kansas City Chiefs, Cassel spoke to the camp and helped with drill work. Was it different?

"Oh, my goodness,'' Cassel says.

He saw TV crews "everywhere.'' He saw Dilfer "mic'd up'' and "getting after it.'' It was, he says, "pretty wild to see how it's grown." It is more about competition now than in 1999.

"It's more for television now,'' he says. "Back then, it was more about the individuals who got to come and participate, and it was a lot of one-on-one time that was beneficial.''

He just hopes the kids today are finding it beneficial too. He knows they are finding more extras.

"I think we got a shirt and a pair of shorts, maybe a hat," Cassel says.

"Matt's being a liiitttttle bit more humble there," Johnson says. "He got a lot more than just a T-shirt. But I get what he's saying. Now it's like a joke. It got to be too much that we did too. I'm not into that. I mean, where does it stop?"

Johnson knows the kids love it, the equipment is quality and the Nike money helps pay for the event. He just worries that the kids aren't getting as much hands-on coaching. He is concerned that today's Elite 11 tries to do too much with kids in a few days, when his mission was to make the players a "teeny bit better," maybe leave them with a thing or two to help on or off the field.

"Trent's a friend of mine, and those guys, Andy," Johnson says, "but it just got too big for me, for their own britches, what they thought it was all about and what they're teaching."

Dilfer says when he was asked to take over as head coach, he asked: What about Bob?

"Because it's becoming a TV property," Dilfer says, "they didn't feel that was good for the growth of it, for lack of a better way of putting it."

ESPN wanted a documentary/drama focusing on the challenge these quarterback phenoms were asked to confront. Last year's documentary was nominated for an Emmy.

Dilfer says he wanted to find a way to keep Johnson involved. No luck.

"I feel bad because it's been interpreted that I pushed Bob out, and that's the furthest thing from the truth," Dilfer says. "If you ask people internally, I'm constantly honoring the legacy of Elite 11, Andy Bark and Bob Johnson. This thing was founded, built really strong, I took it over and was able to build off a pretty strong foundation."

Today's Elite 11 features 18 finalists. This isn't Big Ten-type math; the 18 vie for the 11 final spots and the MVP designation. That started last year, when the Elite 11 joined The Opening. Yes, the quarterbacks have to learn an NFL-style playbook.

"I believe 17-year-old quarterbacks can take an NFL curriculum," Dilfer says on the documentary, "and that's what we give 'em."

Dilfer and his staff test them on the field, challenge them away from it. Coaches will pull all-nighters. Dilfer is always camera-ready.

This isn't Bob Johnson's Elite 11 anymore.

Still, there are similarities. Dilfer's Elite 11 focuses on more than just football and is part of his goal of building character in the quarterbacks.

Bark is proud of what the Elite 11 has become, saying Johnson is entitled to his opinion. Bark sees his vision turning to reality. Bark wants his camp to recognize talented quarterbacks and tutor them, whether they make the Elite 11 or not.

He remembers the story of the talented quarterback who was hidden at Northern Iowa and was stocking shelves at Hy-Vee before finally getting his break. Bark has great respect for the player; he just doesn't want to to see the story repeated.

Bark's mantra: "No more Kurt Warners."

Jordan Strauss/Associated Press
Kurt Warner

***

About a decade ago, Bark and Brian Stumpf started talking about going beyond the Elite 11.

He and Stumpf, his VP for football events at Student Sports, wanted to gather the best non-quarterbacks as well.

They just needed someone to pay for it.

"When I proposed it," Bark says, "I just couldn't get sponsorship for five or six years."

It was easier to secure dollars to pay for a dozen quarterbacks to come to California and put them up for a few days. But paying for scores of players at other positions to come from around the country for something like this? And what do you sell? This was not an all-star game. No wonder the concept took some time.

Bark and Stumpf worked their way up to a national seven-on-seven high school tournament with Nike, at Nike. It wasn't the endgame. What they wanted, Stumpf says, was a "pinnacle event concept with Nike."

Finally, they found their opening in 2011.

"As the sport of football has become what it is in America," Bark says, "more sponsorship dollars became available for The Opening."

Nike signed on as the title sponsor. Nike's Brian Strong says the company sees it as a way to serve the athlete in terms of training, mentorship and environment. If Nike gets it right, that can resonate with the athlete.

While the Elite 11 involved competition, The Opening focuses more on training and exposure. As with the Elite 11, players prove they belong by attending regional events. If they make The Opening, their travel, room and board are paid. They will go through combine-like drills. They will be coached and counseled by college and NFL players. They will compete. And they will get Nike gear.

Is it all too much?

You can say it's too big, too show-business, too big-business.

You also have to realize this is business. And television helps.

"The more eyeballs that can see it, the more sponsorship we can do," Bark says. "More sponsorship gives us more funds so we can run a business."

Money also pays for the coaches to help at The Opening/Elite 11 and at feeder events. Bark watches college and NFL players work with these kids and says this is about more than money to them. It is about giving back without turning over their entire lives, only 10 or 12 days.

"Without TV and additional sponsorship, we can't afford to have them," Bark says. "These guys that coach are so good at it, and they're doing it for the right reasons, and they change kids' lives. That's our whole goal."

*****

Photo by Rivals
Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge

Rivals will put its event right up there with The Opening. Rivals has a high-profile gear sponsor in Under Armour. Rivals plays its event at NFL stadiums. Rivals draws many of the best seniors-to-be to the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge.

OK, Rivals doesn't have ESPN, but Rivals most significantly is covered by...well...Rivals.

"Everyone should be so lucky to have a broadcast deal," says Eric Winter, head of Rivals.com. "But we're not in the business of broadcast. We're in the business of storytelling. Our job, we go deep and narrow of telling the story about the recruitment journey."

Rivals makes its money off subscribers to Rivals.com. Rivals covers high school sports. The Five-Star Challenge and the Rivals250 Underclassmen Challenge give Rivals access to the athletes they cover, to tell the stories Rivals needs to tell, to make the contacts and build the relationships for future stories. Rivals started its two big events in 2012 and added a regional camp series in 2013.

Rivals' camps aren't just about interviews, but they aren't about measuring times or counting bench-presses either, according to Winter. There are morning drills and one-on-one afternoon competitions.

"We get them on film,'' Winter says, "and we see how a 5-star recruit for Michigan performs against a 5-star commit who's going to Michigan State.''

Is this all too much? Do we really need a Rivals250 for even younger high school players? Aren't The Opening and the Rivals100 enough?

Apparently, "enough" is not in the recruiting handbook. At least not yet.

"We will have kids from, I think, 37 different states," Winter says. "They will drive in, they will fly in, to the Underclassmen Challenge at their own expense, because they want to get the exposure that they're apparently not getting in their local markets. There it may seem like there are thousands of camps out there, but there aren't thousands of camps where you get to go up against like competition."

***

Say what you want about the Opening and the Elite 11, but they impress.

Minkah Fitzpatrick was one of the handful of juniors-to-be invited last year, and he is going back this year. The cornerback from New Jersey will head to Alabama once he graduates. Normally, he admittedly can be pretty talkative, but with 160 of the best of the best around him, "I didn't want to be too over-the-top." Not at first, at least.

But he didn't expect the stellar array of coaches helping out. How about being halfway through your high school career and seeing the likes of Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch there? He hadn't expected that.

"That," Fitzpatrick says, "was pretty cool."

And how about this?

"I got to work one-on-one with Richard Sherman," Fitzpatrick says. "He ended up giving me some different pointers at cornerback. He said, 'Use your length.' I have long arms and a long body. He's also that type of corner."

Going through the regional camps to get to The Opening, he got to compete against the best players in the country.

At The Opening, there was food. ("Really good food," he says. "All you can eat.") There was stuff. ("We got a lot of stuff." A lot of "cool stuff.") He remembers getting gloves. And cleats. And sweatpants. And shirts. Other stuff was on sale, but he didn't bring that much money.

During downtime, players can hang out at the players' lounge. They can play video games. They can surf the web. They can get $5 haircuts, maybe with a Nike swoosh. They can check out new products.

This year, Fitzpatrick plans to be his talkative self from the beginning. He also is looking forward to the seven-on-seven competition again.

"I'd like to win it again because my team won it last year," Fitzpatrick says. "It was fun to play in the championship game. I'd like to be the one and only kid to go twice and win twice. That would be a pretty fun experience."

Fitzpatrick also went to the Rivals100 event this year. He says they were both great experiences but that he prefers The Opening a bit more, because it has been around a little longer and he has the details down a little better.

Ray Ray McCloud II, who took his son Ray Ray III to the Rivals100 and now will take him to The Opening, says he loves both events but gives the slight edge to Rivals, because its star ratings provide more analysis.

Keisean Lucier-South didn't go to the Rivals11, but he contends that The Opening is more popular.

"Everyone knows what it is," he says, "because it's on ESPN."

And...

"I think The Opening's great. You're facing the best competition. When you go to college, it's going to be like this every day. It's once in a lifetime, you're going to go to The Opening, meet all the great players, get the nice gear and get coached by some NFL players like Ndamukong Suh, Larry Fitzgerald. Jerry Rice is there. So it's a really good experience."

And how about it being combined with the Elite 11 last year?

"I think," he says, "it's pretty sick."

 

Freelancer Matt Crossman contributed to this report.

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