The B1G Bag Man doesn't really feel comfortable talking here. Sure, it's the middle of a cornfield in Nowhere, Midwestamerica, but you just can never be too sure of these things.
"Look man, I have got to, uh, take this call really quick," he says as he pulls out his regular phone because Alltel no longer exists and do you know how hard it is to find a good other phone out in Nowhere,
Nebraska Michigan South somewhere because only Southerners cheat.
"Of course we won't land that kid. It's not like we actually recruit those poor kids like they do in the [redacted, but the SEC]. Still, you gotta give them something. Maybe give them some textbooks in a 'Meijer' bag." with way too much emphasis on the Meijer part - you know, because Urban Meyer/Meijer... Uh, this guy is already just the worst. "But seriously, use the recyclable bags. You can just never be too worried about the environment. You know, in my undergrad, we discussed..." I cut him off.
I ask him if that Meijer part had been code for anything, and he slyly winks - as sly as someone winks with no one around in the middle of a cornfield. While this conversation will never officially be on record, minus the audio tape I made and labeled "Guys who help B1G teams cheat", we know what goes down in the dirty business of B1G football. Sure, maybe it could be stopped, but with the results on the field, I'm not sure anybody is going to be quick to be the whistle blower on this one. Heck, the SEC Bag Men have been the most helpful at the annual Bag Man conferences. It's like they want them to keep this racket going on...
The (Big) Ten Rules of the B1G Bag Man
I. Just hang out and blame the SEC for everything
There is a really good chance that you didn't just wake up one day and say, "Hey, I'm going to be a B1G Bag Man." This is mostly because you had no idea that person existed until I called you and asked about your experience with paying players as a middle man for the University. Of course, we are all rich in the North - BTN money and all - so those 3 figure checks that you let go of every once and a while won't be missed.
Of course, the one caveat is
Northwestern Chicago's Big Ten Team alums. Those peoples are already so filthy rich and doing all they can to not prop up their University so that they can continue to attract players with Unions, a small tarp-filled stadium, and the promise of a 40 minute train ride to the city. But those aren't the Bag Men we were looking for, because they mostly just hire DePaul grads to do menial tasks like passing out bribes to players anyway. We were looking for the people who are just looking to do what they can to help their respective B1G team out, you know?
"I didn't really want to be a Bag Man, but f*** the SEC you know?" he says to me as if that was just some foregone conclusion. But hey, comments without any context seem to be par for the course, right?
His $400 'donation' will get him a little bit of access. Heck, he might even get the opportunity to find out who is getting tattoos where, what player is slumming it and taking econ instead of Pre-med, or whatever other juicy conversations are going on in the program. Bottom line, the allure of doing something good for the school is too much to pass up.
I ask him, in what I thought was a casual, nonaccusatory tone, what exactly it was that separated him from the shadow cabals greasing palms down South.
"Don't you DARE compare me to those cheating, cheating cheaters, with their sham majors and their cheating cheat-faces!" he hisses, closing the gap between our faces in an instant with the look of murder in his eye. "Have you even SEEN [school]'s graduation rate?? FOUR of our starters were Academic All-Americans last year! [School's alumni foundation] raises millions for cancer research every year! And you come in here and compare me and my fellows, who are just helping our student-warrior poet-athletes pay for transportation to their community service events, to THEM?! You make me SICK."
I gathered, by this point, that our conversation was over, and as I took my leave he stood there, still fuming at the comparison, spittle flecking his face as much as mine. But that was alright. He had already told his story.
II. Discover Coldsylvania - Where our Bag Man Resides
Northern states feature vastly different cultural, economic and physical territories, but every state with a school in the B1G contains a few consistent features from which a kind of map can be built:
- Terrible Fast Food
- Greatest little towns you've ever seen where things happen like alcohol and fried cheese consumption and some kind of festival involving a vegetable, probably
III. Our shadow governments have Runza
"So, say you've got this high-motor, undersized defensive end/linebacker/tight end/well, we don't really know what the hell he's going to be best at-type prospect. Boy, you'd hate to see him go to some MAC school, what if he turns into the next Eric Fisher? But some of these coaches nowadays, they think they're too good to go rooting around in the [rural Midwestern football league] at this stage in the process, even though they know damn well once they miss out on the handful of 4-stars in [closest metropolis], they won't have any choice but to poach this guy from [local MAC program]."
He takes a long pull from his gas station coffee and winces in discomfort.
"Ooohh...that third Runza might have been a mistake. Anyway, if you want to keep this kid in play until your coach is done recruiting punters and wises up to this kid's potential, you might need to see what can be done. Maybe his cousin Eddie needs some new glassware for a...chemistry project he's dabbling in. Or maybe his dad just wants better hours at the local HyVee. Well, whatever business needs to be handled, we've got someone- usually at the HyVee, that's probably how like 90% of these things go- who can take care of it."
His stomach rumbles ominously.
"Oh, man. Speaking of business, things just escalated. We need to get to a bathroom ten minutes ago."
He ambles off towards his truck.
IV. Get to know how to sell your school's 'assets'
Another conversation, another Bag Man. "Hey, you know how
Michigan has good looking girls now? Great cheerleading squad too? None of those "linebacker legs" honeys like the old days? Direct correlation with the struggles of the Michigan offensive line. Let me explain," he said while sipping a Bells Uberon, that's Bells Oberon soaked in whiskey barrels, they only make one batch per year, of course the Michigan bag man would know how to get his hands on this.
"So I go into Lima, Ohio, mid-90's and I'm pushing
University of Michigan for this 6'4'' 310 lb left tackle. This kid, a monster, 5 star. Problem is, he looks like a monster. Seriously, like Shrek. And he says to me, well _______, I love Big Blue, but I think Ohio State can offer me more $ and more opportunities, maybe a car. So I say to him, you know what OSU can't offer you? Tons of ugly chicks dying to ____ and then ____ your _____. You think those hotties at OSU and MSU are going to go out with you? You're a beast, you're ugly. They're going straight to the linebackers."
"I've got his attention now, so I seal the deal. I say -
Michigan ladies, woooolord, they come to study and not to look good. But all of a sudden, they find out the #1 thing to do at Michigan ain't studying, it's partying with football players. And you're going to be at the top of that food chain. They don't care that Frankenstein refers to you as "ugly", they know that you're the left tackle on the best running team on the nation. They ain't exactly the prom queen, and they've never gotten attention before from guys, so it's your turn to clean up."
"I must have pulled seven recruits over to
Michigan that way. Google 1990's Michigan Offensive Lineman. Unbelievable group. Uglies, big uglies. But I can tell you they've got fond memories of Ann Arbor. It's all the same in the dark, ya know."
"So Bill Martin, and then Dave Brandon, they get this idea he's going to pretty up the
Michigan female population. He gets a cheerleading coach, he tells admission to start accepting applications tinged with pink and scented by Gucci. And all of a sudden, my advantage gone. Take a look at the Michigan rushing numbers since Martin took over. Ridiculous. And that's a true story."
V. [Error: Does Not Exist]
"[Error: Does Not Exist] is a unique case. We just made sure that we could extend our AD after all of the on-field and on-court success we had this last year. Sure, maybe it looked like a train-wreck to you, but obviously you don't know how we roll. We really like choo-choos. Wait, what were we talking about? You can pay players? We should really engineer a solution to making that happen. I'll get back to you once we stop talking about our awesome space program."
VI. The Rules of Tattoos and Cars
"Oh, we know exactly what we're doing here in Columbus. Wait, are you recording this? We should probably take this offline. Can you delete that audio tape?"
Ohio State Bag Man laughs uneasily as if he'd been here before. "Look, I'm not going to say that I have incredible access to the team, but do you see all of this memorabilia on my walls? You just don't get that stuff without being the Bag Man for the team. Those gold pants right there? I got those for giving a kid an awesome Tweety Bird tattoo. Oh, and that National Championship trophy over there? I got that for giving Jim Tressel a sweater vest tattoo. Like, it was literally a tattoo that makes it look like he permanently has a sweater vest on."
I proceed to ask him about recruits... "Yeah, I do that stuff too, but it gets complicated, you know? Maybe mom wants one too, and then I'm doing double time with very little ROI. The key is, we know what we're doing here because we have a SEC coach now who knows what he's doing." The Bag Man finally takes off his Buckeye Mask off his head for a moment of reflection. "Things were a little rough there for a year when that one guy who wasn't Jim Tressel was forced into the limelight for a second or so, but now we are cheating with the best of them. And honestly, I couldn't be happier. Hell, I just read this article on S and B Nation yesterday that talked about what they're doing in the South. I took notes!"
VII. You will know your people who are not necessarily friends but we wouldn't call them enemies but you might hold some deep-seeded hatred towards them and... just know them.
Rural Northerners have weird grudges.
"You think it's a coincidence that Ohio State started surpassing Penn State as a football power at the same time that Sheetz was expanding into Ohio? You think anyone -- let alone an 18-year-old college freshman -- can resist all that made-to-order goodness, the almost mile-long soda fountain? You've got to be kidding me.
"None of these kids would even want to drive to Ohio if they had to stop in the middle of nowhere for gas without grabbing a hoagie, chips, and a soda along with it." He took a large swig from his Diet Mountain Dew. "Plus, their coffee is almost as good as Wawa's!"
"Yeah, I've had to step up my game ever since Sheetz expanded. You used to be able to take a kid to a Sheetz, buy him a hoagie, sign him up for the Z-Card, and he was good to go. Only thing you used to have to worry about was what if the kid had grown up on Wawa. It's more complicated now. Selling a kind on a coach, on a program, on an education? I've had to learn all that on the fly."
VIII. New to the conference doesn't mean new to the game
Turns out, in some places, it's all about the seasoning.
The man I'm meeting with today is markedly different from the other bag men I've talked with. As we were discussing where to meet, he refused to come anywhere more than a mile or two from the ocean. Sitting across from him on the patio of a dingy crab shack on Chesapeake Bay, I realize the overpowering smell of low tide isn't just from the setting; this man actively smells of the sea. Periodically, a seagull lands on his shoulder, jabs at his head, and flies off. He doesn't seem to notice.
It took a fair amount of time to swing the conversation back to football; this man's fixation on seafood and various ways to prepare it was charming in a way, but after the first 20 minutes or so I couldn't help but feel like Forrest Gump listening to Bubba's recitation of shrimp recipes.
It proved to be worth the wait, though.
"See, 'round here the kids aren't into what they might be into other places, right? Other places, kid might want a nice car, or a job for a relative, or some straight cash, and in other places, that might work fine. But 'round here, lemme tell you what, kids're only lookin' for one thing."
He checks over both shoulders, reaches into a coat pocket, and places a small plastic container on the table.
"This is that good shit, man. This is what gets the kids' attention. Go on, take a sniff."
I pick up the unlabeled container and examine it, then reluctantly open it.
"...Old Bay?" I ask him.
His eyes gleaming with excitement, he nods.
"Let the kids get a sniff of that, and I guarantee your school's hat is at least on the table at the selection ceremony," he giggles. "Let's be real, why the hell else would [high-profile, much-beloved WR] have picked [local school] over [other, more successful and prestigious school]? It's the OB, baby. Never fails."
I thank him for his time and ask for the check, having learned more than I really wanted to know about East Coast recruiting.
IX. There aren't actually ten rules...but then, there aren't ten schools in the conference, either.
It's just...our tradition is too precious to abandon in the name of factual accuracy. Now excuse us while we go find more East Coast and/or Southern schools to annex.
Special thanks to the OTE team for contributing to this beauty. I couldn't have done it without them and their additions via email. Yes, we keep a paper trail.