All for 90 cents per minute.
Don't laugh. It was a different world back then when it came to covering college football recruiting. Today, an entire industry devoted to college football recruiting exists on the Internet, driven by the thousands of subscribers who can now follow every move and catch every breath a prospect makes.
National Signing Day is Wednesday, and Cretin-Derham Hall (St. Paul, Minn.) football star Seantrel Henderson, considered the top recruit nationally by many recruiting analysts, is expected to announce his college choice in New York as part of a televised recruiting show. Yes, live from the Big Apple.
A smiling Dave Stirt, 58, remembers the touch-tone recruiting days.
Stirt, a respected publisher and founder in 1980 of a magazine that covered University of Florida athletics, was actually one of the first, if not the first, to spread recruiting news via a 900 hotline number. Stirt estimates he generated nearly $1 million in net profit from his 900 number over a seven-year span in the 1990s.
"It was insane because here we were trying to find out recruiting information for our subscribers but our office phones were always tied up," said Stirt, now director of advertising for Scout Media, Inc., and publisher of the monthly Fightin' Gators magazine.
"At the time, nobody was really reporting signings."
Gator Bait Magazine, based in Gainesville, Fla., and published 40 times a year.
It was following a reader's survey that Stirt, who sold his magazine to Landmark Communications Inc., in 1998, learned just how important recruiting was to his paid readership of around 10,000 subscribers.
Also at that time, the Southeastern Conference had what amounted to an early signing period in December, six weeks prior to February's National Signing Day -- the first day high school football players can sign binding letters of intent. Players who had committed to an SEC school in December were permitted to change their minds in February, but with an important stipulation -- they couldn't sign with another SEC program.
Stirt quickly discovered that interest in recruiting only intensified as the college football season wound down and the holidays approached. Passionate followers wanted to talk, read and hear about recruiting -- any time of the day -- and they simply couldn't get enough of it.
Recruitniks -- a polite nickname given to crazed followers of recruiting -- usually got their basic information from the few recruiting periodicals published nationally such as the Blue Chip Report and SuperPrep. Bill Buchalter, a veteran sportswriter with the Orlando Sentinel who has since retired, published his Recruiting Report six times a year ($25 annually) to upwards of 400 subscribers by 1990.
Stirt found an alternative in January 1990 with Advanced Telecom Services, a small, start-up Pennsylvania company, that used 900 numbers to help raise money for charities, report professional wrestling news and ... sorry, get your mind out of the gutter.
"Of course, everybody thought 900 numbers were for nothing but porn. That was it. If you said a 900 number, it had to be a porn line," Stirt said and laughed.
Well, recruiting was an addiction, too, especially in the South.
Stirt couldn't answer his office telephone without a Gator Bait subscriber wanting to know UF's latest recruiting news and secrets. While the recruiting trend at northern programs featured early verbal commitments, players south of the Mason-Dixon line usually waited to February's National Signing Day to announce their decision.
There was plenty of suspense, and updates were as good as gold.
"Recruiting had become so popular that we could never get any work done in the office," Stirt said.
"I was just buried in phone calls and I said I have to find a way to take care of our subscribers and still get work done. When I first reached out to the telephone company, the owners didn't understand how crazy it was in the South in terms of people being so committed to getting recruiting information."
Stirt needed a 900 number and he needed it yesterday.
The company relied on its technology and devised a number that allowed Stirt to record and change his recruiting updates daily. Fans telephoned the 900 number for their recruiting fix and listened to Stirt's five-minute message at a cost of $2 for the first minute, $1 for every minute thereafter.
The first day Stirt went live, his number received 500 calls, including one from a UF graduate and football fan who worked for an oil company in Saudi Arabia. That was nothing. Each day the calls increased. On National Signing Day in February 1990, Stirt updated his recruiting line each hour.
New head coach Steve Spurrier had a solid, but not great, first recruiting class, signing Terry Dean, Aubrey Hill and Harrison Houston, among a group of 19 players.
But Stirt did have a great day. Take a guess how many fans dialed in?
One thousand? Three thousand? Five thousand?
"We got over 10,000 phone calls," Stirt said.
Cha-ching -- that resulted in approximately $35,000 in revenue in one day.
"That was the start of the 900 recruiting industry," Stirt said.
By the next year Stirt said other independent publishers such as the Osceola Magazine in Tallahassee, Fla., and companies established their own 900 hotline recruiting numbers. Stirt's single-day revenue numbers never reached $35K again, but it proved to be a nice, steady financial stream nonetheless. By 1997 or so, the Internet started taking hold and 900 numbers were not ringing as much.
The recruiting game changed, too.
"What started basically as a cottage industry has created $20 million, $30 million companies built on recruiting," Stirt said.
Internet recruiting services such as Rivals.com and Scout.com built staffs that telephone recruits, their parents, high school and college coaches and generate thousands of stories that generate thousands of page views. ESPN has jumped into the recruiting game, too, compiling lists, writing stories and televising a National Signing Day show. Player combines are held regionally and nationally, and hip heavyweight companies such as Nike and Under Armour are financial sponsors.
The 900 recruiting hotline numbers are no longer hot, but they served a purpose and certainly are not forgotten. Just ask Mike from Pennsylvania. Or Dave from Florida.
"My subscribers used to get so excited on Signing Day, knowing that when they called the hotline they'd be getting news of a recruit signing even as his letter of intent was being faxed to Florida's football offices. Heck, sometimes I'd get a call from a UF coach asking me if a kid signed," Stirt reminisced.
"These days almost all the information recruitniks get on Signing Day has been known for weeks ahead of time. The surprise factor, whether good or bad, just isn't there anymore."