The Bag Man excuses himself to make a call outside, on his "other phone," to arrange delivery of $500 in cash to a visiting recruit. The player is rated No. 1 at his position nationally and on his way into town. We're sitting in a popular restaurant near campus almost a week before National Signing Day, talking about how to arrange cash payments for amateur athletes.
"Nah, there's no way we're landing him, but you still have to do it," he says. "It looks good. It's good for down the road. Same reason my wife reads Yelp. These kids talk to each other. It's a waste of money, but they're doing the same thing to our guys right now in [rival school's town]. Cost of business."
Technically, this conversation never happened, because I won't reveal this man's name or the player's, or even the town I visited. Accordingly, all the other conversations I had with different bag men representing different SEC programs over a two-month span surrounding National Signing Day didn't happen either.
When things are done correctly, there's no proof more substantial than one man's word over another.
Even when I asked for and received proof -- in this case a phone call I watched him make to a number I independently verified, then a meeting in which I witnessed cash handed to an active SEC football player -- it's just cash changing hands. When things are done correctly, there's no proof more substantial than one man's word over another. That allows for plausible deniability, which is good enough for the coaches, administrators, conference officials, and network executives. And the man I officially didn't speak with was emphatic that no one really understands how often and how well it almost always works.
These men are fans who believe they're leveraging football success $500 or $50,000 at a time. I can't show you that money, and neither can anyone else. You might think you see the money -- a flash of $20 bills all over some kid's Instagram or Facebook update -- but that's just money.
This is the arrangement in high-stakes college football, though of course not every player is paid for. Providing cash and benefits to players is not a scandal or a scheme, merely a function. And when you start listening to the stories, you understand the function can never be stopped.
"Last week I got a call. We've got this JUCO transfer that had just got here. And he's country poor. The [graduate assistant] calls me and tells me he's watching the AFC Championship Game alone in the lobby of the Union because he doesn't have a TV. Says he never owned one. Now, you can buy a Walmart TV for $50. What kid in college doesn't have a TV? So I don't give him any money. I just go dig out in my garage and find one of those old Vizios from five years back and leave it for him at the desk. I don't view what I do as a crime, and I don't give a shit if someone else does, honestly."
"If we could take a vote for these kids to make a real salary every season, I would vote for it. $40,000 or something. Goes back to mama, buys them a car, lets them go live like normal people after they work their asses off for us. But let's be honest, that ain't gonna stop all this. If everyone gets $40,000, someone would still be trying to give 'em 40 extra on the side."
This is how you become a college football bag man.
I. "Just hang out and learn to keep your mouth shut."
Chances are you didn't just wake up one day and decide that your passion for Team A was suddenly worth forking over money to entice and reward student-athletes. If you haven't already grown up in your team's culture, you start going to games, first as a student, then a young alum, then a married alum, and then as a young family. You become a person everyone in your age group knows has enough money that a low-five-figure deduction wouldn't be missed.
One caveat. If you're stinking, filthy rich, a good athletic director or university fundraiser has already contacted you for above-board donations, and you likely won't get into the business of paying players. It's the guys with just about 10 or 15 grand to burn annually that usually become bag men.
"I think it took me seven years. I knew some guys. They knew some older guys. And before, I really didn't believe any of this happened. Then I start coming around different events, parties, tailgates. After a while one guy says, 'Oh hey, I know him. It's okay, he loves the [team],' and starts talking who needed to get what. And so I was a part of it. I wanted to be."
Once properly vetted, your money usually buys you first or secondhand access to information most fans (or journalists) would kill for: player run-ins with the law that go unreported, what certain coaches are really like, what kind of power an A.D. or president really has, and most importantly, who really is in charge of your football program.
II. Discover Crootsylvania, the Pay-Me State.
Southern states feature vastly different cultural, economic and physical territories, but every state with a school in the SEC contains a few consistent features from which a kind of map can be built:
The university housing your team.
A capital city. Your school likely has some concentration of lawyers or elected officials.
The metro area (sometimes also the capital), the state's most populated and therefore talent-rich area.
A community or city closest to your state's border with another conference state.
Enemy territory. Just as your team has boosters active in other states, so too are enemy agents inside your borders. In many cases they're concentrated in a single area, like an in-state rival's town, a town close to the border, or just an area with a concentration of sidewalk fans who support someone else.
From these areas, borders are drawn and districts are created, but over time specific territories are shaped by the bag men in them. It's a somewhat fluid map, at least over long amounts of time.
Regardless of the state, a school's bag men gravitate towards two centers of power: the university and the state's metro area, the latter because of population, the former because of power. Regardless of where top-dollar shadow boosters and bag men might live, the university town serves as the primary center of operations. After all, that's where the coaches and players are.
III. Even shadow governments have staff meetings.
Bag men tend to operate in plain sight. And while there might be a kind of cabal of particularly rich boosters who direct operations at private meetings, there aren't dungeons and robes or some kind of "X-Files" syndicate in a smoky boardroom.
"No secret lair, although a couple guys have some pretty ridiculous-looking hunting camps. I mean, we're shooting the shit about college football players. That in and of itself isn't a crime. Sometimes we go to the Waffle House."
The rules of communication tend to follow your typical sleeper cell or drug-dealing outfit.
The rules of communication tend to follow your typical sleeper cell or drug-dealing outfit. Talk in person as much as possible, preferably in group settings. Don't use email. Never interact with the media and avoid the university's public relations or sports information departments whenever possible. And buy burners. Lots of burners.
"It's the bat phone. Everybody has a bat phone. Buy some in a gas station out of town, use 'em for a while, toss 'em. The worst part was convincing my wife it wasn't so I could carry on an affair, because I wouldn't let her use it or see who I was talking to."
Burners are seasonal and used mostly around the height of recruiting season, when local bag men need to communicate quickly with other shadow boosters across the state and region higher up the fiscal chain. Later on they'll be used to communicate directly with active players. But calls are often made to a person's primary number, and in a pinch basic code-talking will suffice.
"I can call up a guy in real estate and say, 'Hey man, we thought about it, and let's do that 24-acre plot. How's a 4 p.m. meeting sound?'"
The first number is the player, usually designated by a jersey number. Here, it's player No. 24. The time is the cost. In this example, $4,000. Listen long enough and it's not much of a code, but there's never been much to codebreaking here, either.
"I don't sell drugs. I don't even speed on the highway. No one's listening to me."
IV. (Don't) get to know your head coach.
There's a weird code of personal conduct for a bag man. It's okay to be flashy, but within the limits. Set up your lavish tailgate, put a deposit down on a luxury box, or name your child after a famous player or coach. After all, you're passionate enough to be paying, so you might as well enjoy yourself.
But while drawing attention to yourself is fine, drawing importance to yourself is forbidden. You are now somebody in one very small social circle but forever destined to be nobody in the public eye.
"Coach has met me a few times. I've talked to Coach. But Coach doesn't really know me from Adam. How many other folks do you think he meets a week? After he got hired, I walked up and shook his hand, and the guy introducing us says, "Hey Coach, this here's [first name], he takes care of stuff for us.' Now, what does that really mean? Do I charter planes for the university? Do I run a company that sells concessions to the stadium? Or do I make sure kids get taken care of? Coach doesn't know what I 'take care of.' He knows someone out there is doing this, and that's all."
There is no dead bag man memorial on the campus of any football powerhouse.
A good bag man will never be famous. He will never be that guy hovering right next to the head coach after a big win. His name will never be known by the majority of students, fans, and alumni of the university he loves. There is no dead bag man memorial on the campus of any football powerhouse. There are no memorial scholarships named after the guy who gave a running back's mother $3,000 a month for four years.
"There's some guy I know. He's in the [official booster club for the university]. I've known him almost all my life; he's a friend of my family. Guy gives about $50,000 a year to the program. And so he gets to wear a jacket and have his name in the [annual alumni magazine] and gets to shake hands with the coaches and feel really goddamn important. I see this guy all the time, and we talk about the team, and he's always trying to big dick about how important he is to the program. Now let me ask you, who do you think is more important to this team winning next season? Him with his $50,000 getting bathrooms painted in the basketball arena, or what I do with not even a quarter of that much money?"
Bottom line: if you're successful in landing a player who is in turn successful on the field, and you can't abide people not knowing you had a hand in the process, you're in the wrong field of athletic support.
V. There is never a bank account. There is only cash
You've probably read a detailed breakdown on some message board about how your rival school managed to land that prized wide receiver, and it probably involves something to do with a bank account.
The player might have been bought, but he didn't pop into the local savings and loan to pick up his check. Bank accounts carry more potentially traceable information than any other facet of an illegal payments system, even more than phone records. Yet in almost every popular Internet rumor about a recruit's family being paid off, there's some mention of a bank account or a slush fund that boosters pay into and athletes take out of.
"If you hear stories about bank accounts, they're fake. Why would there be a bank account?"
"If you hear stories about bank accounts, they're fake. Why would there be a bank account? 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 fucking ad?"
There might not be a FDIC-insured savings account at a local bank branch, but there is always a pool from which money can be accessed quickly. A majority of fundraising occurs in the offseason, when coaches visit alumni and booster clubs throughout their schools' regions.
"The coach or coaches come in, say their piece, bullshit with the folks and take pictures and then they're in the car and headed back home. When they leave, we start talking. What we figure out then is what we need to put together in that area [of the state] for anyone we're trying to land from that area. That's when the hat gets passed."
The actual money is never collected in a single area, but a collective of shadow boosters keeps an unwritten counter on how much each of them can contribute in cash at any given moment for three major purposes:
- Large single sums to be paid out in order to convince a recruit to sign with the school.
- Maintenance payments to current players, delivered in an ongoing basis.
- Cash owed by an out-of-area shadow booster to a bag man living in the college town. Sometimes a player whose sponsor lives back at home needs money immediately, so a local bag man not assigned to that player will pay the player, with a marker going to his booster back home.
The small business fuels America. Cash that doesn't have to be accounted for exists in any variety of ways. Sell a pair of lower bowl tickets to a guy you know from church? Cash. Sell a bass boat on Craigslist? Cash. Run or own a restaurant? Cash. Work in agriculture? Lots of cash.
"We all do different things. Finding liquid capital is not a problem for any of us. If it was, we wouldn't be doing this."
VI. The rules of courting
Some towns or high schools have already made a recruit's decision before he's out of diapers. These are strongholds. The local money, the high school coaches and principals, the parents and the "uncles" are already all on the same team.
This is built by heritage and takes decades and sometimes millions of dollars. Maybe it's a local business that employs working-class families. Jobs for parents can be arranged with ease, as can pressure on those currently employed.
A player can be identified as a prospect in middle school, either by a coach friendly to your program or a bag man himself. A collegiate head coach would never inform a bag man of his preferences, but in a well-run program, his desires would be known without communicating them.
Extenuating factors to consider when putting together a plan:
What's the climate of the high school? Does the high school coach lean towards or away from your college program?
Is this a stronghold town or disputed territory? How fast will competition come in? Or is someone already in with the family, meaning you're the competition?
What's the economic status of the family? Any criminal history? Could other incentives (jobs, cars) be arranged?
What is the family dynamic? Who other than the mother or grandmother is workable? ("I've never encountered a situation where a parent or guardian worried about the legality. I can't say that's ever even been asked of me.")
Who is the one person that can be trusted to take payments before the player signs and keep the money out of public view?
"If mama's been working all her life to provide, you can make that work. That's a very manageable situation. But if you've got an uncle talking about being the kid's manager or agent, talking about his rap label he's starting or interviews with ESPN, shit ... you better hold on, or reevaluate how bad you want this player."
Often a full assessment of a recruit's situation reveals that a promise of cash payments isn't the way to go. Sometimes a recruit's family could be so far under the poverty line that any kind of sudden flush spending would draw the attention of the NCAA, or the recruit is so high-profile that he's receiving multiple cash gifts from competing boosters. That's when the personal touch becomes a better option.
"I've paid to put a single mother through rehab. It was the recruit's older sister. He's playing ball and mama's raising two grandchildren, his sister's kids. Mama's tired and doesn't want to raise another set of kids. So we make the calls and arrange for the daughter to go to rehab, then set her up with a job when she's done. Fast track her to a job at a private business, nothing suspicious. Now mama can enjoy her son playing and the daughter is back on her feet. And when it came time to sign, we made sure she saw something [cash], but I promise you that meant more than just money."
The most common non-cash gifts to recruits are cars. In every major city inside the Southeastern Conference's footprint is a tangle of auto dealerships with varying ties to particular schools.
"Go tell the NCAA you think we're cheating because this kid's uncle bought him a used Tahoe in cash, you racist."
"There are jokes about kids getting cars, but that's actually pretty easy. We all have dealerships all over. You practically have to nowadays, anyway, just for the coaches. Think about it. Most schools, all the football, basketball, and baseball coaches and their wives are getting some kind of vehicle for free as part of their contract. Then they're turning them in every three years or so. That's a fleet right there. You need a lot of guys with dealerships, and you need them in different towns. Then getting a clean title on a member of the family is pretty easy."
Whatever the minimum of necessary paperwork to absolve a player of improper benefits received is, it's not a problem. A title for a moderately priced SUV can be created in a relative's name, as can a receipt of sale for a reasonable price.
"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? Shit, we don't know, but here's the receipt where he paid cash, and now y'all ain't got shit. Go tell the NCAA you think we're cheating because this kid's uncle bought him a used Tahoe in cash, you racist."
Resources, assistance, paperwork, and even a subpar explanation mean most needs can be taken care of.
"One time grandpa needed his tractor fixed. He and grandma were the primary care-givers of this kid out in a rural area. Well, they aren't going to turn down the money, and they didn't, but what they needed was a tractor to get fixed. But we couldn't take this tractor to get fixed just anywhere, because the guy who does that locally works for a business that's owned by a [rival school] fan."
Why not just buy a new tractor?
"Because that would be like a Lamborghini showing up in their driveway. See, you don't know how much a tractor costs. So we've got to get this tractor to a repair guy who we're comfortable enough calling up and saying, 'Hey, fix this. He's good for it. We're taking care of it.' The tractor gets fixed. Now you try and prove we fixed that tractor."
What about a receipt?
"You're a reporter. You can't demand a receipt from a private business. Besides, did you know that repair guy owed that farmer a favor? He did it for half the normal cost and the guy paid him in cash. You're not the IRS, anyway."
And the NCAA?
"He's a farmer. He got paid extra on a side job or made extra taking something to market. Paid for it that way. Whatever."
Still, why not limit the interaction to simply providing the money for the repair? Why get so involved when it only increases potential complications or chances of exposure?
Remember, your job as a bag man isn't to hide the benefit. It's to hide the proof.
"Because of the competition. If we're after a guy, what are the chances four more schools in the SEC aren't after him too? What you want more than anything else is the ability to sit down with that decision-maker, grandma or mama or the uncle, right before the time comes and say, 'Hey, we know that old so-and-so from [rival school] has come to see you. That's fine. But we know you know who's been here since the beginning and who's been taking care of you.' You want them to believe that you'll take care of them the best in the future, too."
Remember, your job as a bag man isn't to hide the benefit. It's to hide the proof. In a region as passionate about college football as the American South, there's no real moral outrage when new cars or clothes or jobs for relatives appear.
"We can only get away with whatever's considered reasonable by the majority of the folks in our society. That's why it's different in the SEC. Maybe that's why we're able to be more active in what we do. 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?'"
VII. You will know your enemy.
Rural Southerners make a habit of knowing each other's business. Chances are you'll become aware of and -- believe it or not -- friends with bag men for rivals schools. Not that there's such a concept of friends in love or war.
"It's a small group. If you grow up in the state, you end up knowing folks. It's really that simple. But that won't stop them from trying to bury your ass when it gets down to it. A few years back, we were fighting hard for a kid in their backyard. We went for a full year with the family, thought we had it wrapped up. Still thought we had it done the night before Signing Day. He liked our coaches. But the family keeps dragging it and dragging it. Late that night I get a call, and it's the player on the phone, the kid himself. You could tell he was nervous. He said, ‘Mr. [name], I talked to my mama, and we decided that $70,000 and we're going with you, if you can promise us $70,000 tonight.' I knew right away we were being recorded, and I knew the asshole down there who had set it up. I knew him personally. They had him. That part was done. But they wanted to get someone on tape to try and turn it over to the NCAA. So I said, 'Well gosh [player name], we'd love to see you here next season, but we just don't do that kind of thing.' Then I hung up."
The bag men associated with certain schools pay potential signees one-time bonus payments not to visit a rival school that's offered a scholarship. The going rate is stated to be $2,500. This has become a popular tactic in recent years, as the recruiting process has become more publicized.
If a majority of bag men want a particular coach out and an A.D. or president won't make a move, they'll just dry up funds.
"You can have a rival coach who is considered a great recruiter, and he might say, 'We feel great about this kid, if we can just get him on campus.' Well, what if you can't even get him to show up? How great a recruiter are you now?"
This tactic is not universally employed. Some coaches encourage players to visit other campuses to recruit other players. Some like for everyone to know how many other schools have offered a player before he makes his choice, making it look like the chosen school beat an even longer list of rivals. Regardless, it's a shining example of how influential shadow boosters are in the recruiting process and how crucial they are to the success of a coach's reputation as a good recruiter.
It's also how lame duck coaching staffs are created. If a majority of bag men want a particular coach out and an A.D. or president won't make a move, they'll just dry up funds.
"The coach won't know exactly when we decide to make that happen, but they've got a good idea. Then we get to see just how damn good a recruiter he really is. I know one of our guys once stopped putting in big bucks, way more than what I do, just because a head coach cussed too much on the team plane. [The coach] was losing anyway, but because he took the Lord's name in vain, that guy was offended by his morality and stopped illegally paying college football players."
VIII. Small, simple and frequent.
There's little use for an actual bag, especially once an athlete is signed and on campus. Rather than dole out large sums of money, the bag man usually prefers to hand over frequent payments of $200 to $500. It prevents the player from overspending, losing the money or getting robbed, and ...
"I don't like to run around with thousands in cash on my person, either. This isn't 'Scarface.'"
Think of how quickly the average student blows through a student loan check. The increased frequency of the meets help foster a better relationship, as each bag man is assigned or volunteers for particular players. The more often the meetings, the more casual and less clandestine they can become, but the level of maintenance can be stressful. This also means that bag men willing to either live in or near the university town are highly valued.
This usually isn't a problem, as most college towns are considered desirable places to raise families and operate businesses.
"I don't know how much some of the kids are getting. I just handle my guys. Obviously I know it's happening, but I can't tell you when or where or how much or how often. I just handle my guys."
IX. Just say no to bounties and bonuses.
"I had this one kid, great player, good guy. Never got in trouble, but never did much on the field. But he's calling me all the time. 'Hey, the sunroof in my car is leaking,' he says, so I tell him to come meet me. $150. Two days later it's: 'Hey, I'm going out this weekend with a girl, can you help me?' $200. Next week after that he's got $300 in parking tickets. So one day I go to meet him to give him money and I ask, "Hey man, aren't you a business major? Have y'all learned what ROI means yet? It means return on investment, and at this rate I'm going to need to start seeing some touchdowns.'"
Handing out $100 bills for interceptions or sacks used to seem like the bag man's top responsibility, but they've learned.
This is a newer wrinkle for the bag man. As a fan, the temptation might be to reward a player who's putting up great numbers, just as you might want to withhold from one who's thought to be showing poor effort. But as a businessperson, that's poor management. The 1980s Miami Hurricanes are in many ways a what-not-to-do guide for shadow boosters, but it was the system of incentives and bounties favored by 2000s Miami booster Nevin Shapiro that's shown the foolishness of incentives.
Handing out $100 bills for interceptions or sacks used to seem like the bag man's top responsibility, but they've learned. Performance-based rewards require some kind of record-keeping, which is the first red light. The second is a potential for competition among players that could bleed over into animosity or somehow affect on-field efficiency.
"I read the stuff Oklahoma State was accused of. The reason I don't believe a lot of it is because how stupid they come off. When they said players were getting cash envelopes handed out in the locker room after the game like it was Gatorade, I thought, 'surely this is a joke.' And if I was a player, stopped getting money because I was hurt or buried on the depth chart or was maybe playing through an injury you didn't know about, I'd go to the media, too."
X. You must keep the circle unbroken.
College majors like Exercise Science and General Education have long been assailed by critics as crip-course degrees, but shadow boosters see them as a vital way to perpetuate the cycle. If a player finishes out his eligibility and has no feasible future in the pros, he might return home and become a nearby high school coach. It doesn't matter if it's junior high or seven-on-seven camps; each means a new brand ambassador for the program.
"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."
It doesn't hurt that the system produces agents who often become the most powerful male influence in a young athlete's life. And there is, of course, a fiscal incentive for the ex-athlete to help steer future players in the same direction he went. The bag man doesn't expect any coach to push 100 percent of his Division I-worthy talent to any one particular place, let alone his alma mater, but rather pick spots for the big ones.
"Kids are going to grow up liking teams for one reason or another, but when it comes time to start seriously talking to them, you need as many folks as you can get. Mama wins almost every time. Mama's most important. But you get coaches with ties to the school, then you get one person who has all those kids' attention."
This system and the men operating it want you to know that they don't succeed so often and raise the stakes so fearlessly because they're that good. It's because so many people care so much. There might not be a cultural mandate, but describing an October Saturday in the South as a culture accepting of this behavior would be a raging understatement.
"Who's left that would object to seeing these kids getting some money?"
"I'm not Nevin Shapiro. I'm not telling these kids to give another player a concussion. I'm not paying for abortions. It's 2014. Who's left to tell that would get angry? Who's left that would object to seeing these kids getting some money?"
If you believe any of this happens with the frequency and level of organization described, you might assume that such practices surely couldn't go entirely unnoticed, that surely someone not involved in a conspiracy to illegally funnel money to college-aged athletes would expose the plot. It's happened before, after all.
"It happens, yeah, but now we start to ask, ‘Who would do that?' You try your damnedest to take care of everyone involved for a long as you can. Look at where we live. Look at how much everyone cares. Think about how much of a pariah any one of us would become if we spoke out, especially with no real evidence.
"I look at this as an investment. When you ask me why I do this ... let me ask you something. Who's your favorite sports team? Most favorite. Who do you live and die with? What if I told you that if you gave me $10,000 right now I could guarantee you they'd be better? That if they were usually bad that they'd have a winning season? Or if they were just a game shy of going to a championship that they'd get there next season?"
"Hey, man," he calls to the bartender.
"If I told you right now the [team] would win the SEC this fall and go to the Playoff, but only if you gave me 10 grand, would you do it?"
"Shit, man ... will you take a check?," the bartender asks. "But if you could really do that, I'd probably get the cash together in a day or two."
Bonus Author Interview:
Dan Rubenstein interviews Steven Godfrey about the reporting that went into telling this story: