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Cars: college football recruiting’s most storied currency

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The most American invention has always fueled the market of the most American sport.

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Duke students in a car. Mark Kauffman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

Name me three things more American than college football, the automobile, and cheating.

The NCAA has existed, in some form, since 1906. Even before that, schools wrestled with the business of athletics and education. Friends of the program have looked to subvert the NCAA’s definition of amateurism. They haven’t done it purely out of the goodness of their hearts — it’s primarily about keeping up with the Joneses, and that drive helped the car become a unique form of currency in the sport.

Just like the schemes athletes play in, the cars they drive tell a cyclical story about what is cool. The classics will always be cool. The Mustang hasn’t been in production since 1964 for no reason. The cars the players of today love are the same ones you probably recognize because they were as popular around the time you were their age.

It has been like that from the beginning; it will be like that for as long as we pay athletes, either above or below the table. But swerving around the NCAA’s rules takes many forms beyond tossing an athlete a set of keys. This is that history, explained through the stories of those who got caught.

Let’s start even before college athletics as we know it were invented.

1852: From the outset, corporate influence was leaning on competition in college sports, with the transportation industry at its center

A lake in New Hampshire was the setting for a Yale-Harvard regatta that indirectly jumped the engine to the multi-billion dollar behemoth collegiate sports would one day become.

In order to encourage rail travel to the resort area of Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, the Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad provided the college crews with an all-expense-paid, two-week vacation in return for participating in the resort’s regatta.

The company promoted the event with bright red fliers and advertisements of excursion train schedules.

Yale and Harvard kinda deserve credit for commercialism in college sports, I regret to inform.

1892: Chicago uses trains in crootin’

Decades later, with organized football still in its infancy, travel perks were already being used to entice recruits. The University of Chicago was a charter member of the Big Ten’s predecessor, the Western Conference. Six years before that league was born, the Maroons were starting up a football program by making Amos Alonzo Stagg both coach and “director of the department of physical culture.” He was handsomely compensated for those services.

Stagg’s directive from the school president (who taught him while he was a student at Yale) was clear:

William Rainey Harper set out to publicize the university by establishing a winning football team. ... Harper gave Stagg unambiguous instructions: “I want you to develop teams which we can send around the country and knock out all [other] colleges. We will give [the players] a palace car and a vacation too.”

Since Day 1, the local car company has been involved in compensating athletes in one way or another — only in this case, it’s not an automobile company. A “palace car” refers to a fancy train car that a rider can sleep in. They were made by the Pullman Car Company, which happened to be based in Chicago.

Photo shows the interior of a Pullman Palace sleeping car. Ca. 1902.
Bettmann Archive

1929: The Carnegie Report details the commercialization of college athletics, and transportation plays a big role

Professional football started in a car dealership right on the showroom floor because the owners present couldn’t fit in a small office. By the time The Great Depression began, the car had been in mass production for only about 20 years, and yet it was already being used as a type of compensation in a way that was sophisticated enough for legitimate takeaways to be formed through observation.

Consider how elegant illicit player compensation already was in 1929. Forty years before the first Dodge Charger rolled off the line, there were bag men ready, willing and able to foot the bill to transport a recruit to campus. From a report written during that era:

It was once the custom of an individual alumnus to operate a kind of recruiting excursion - several special Pullman cars hired at his own expense to take athletes from the city of his residence to the campus of his university (Indiana).

Even at a university of high ideals (Michigan), the alumni treasurer writes to a fellow-alumnus who was willing to pay a school athlete’s expenses in traveling about four hundred miles to visit the campus, that he is ‘spoken of most highly down at the Athletic Association offices and they certainly appreciate what you have done.’”

That Carnegie Report explored the many different ways endorsements were being handled at the time, in ways not too dissimilar from what’s happening now. You can read the whole thing here, but this is just another taste:

Testimonials from college athletes have been repeatedly purchased by payments in kind, if not in cash - by gifts to fraternities of which they were members, and by the bestowal of such valuable considerations as automobiles, clothes, typewriters, and haberdashery

80 years later, the urban philosopher Clifford Harris, Jr. would summarize this phenomenon more succinctly, in contemporary terms: “Money, hoes / cars and clothes / that’s how all my niggas roll.”

1933: Speaking of pop culture, cars as an inducement was already being one joke in a larger satire about college athletics

In a largely forgotten movie called College Coach, the car could already be found as a trope to make a point about the status of college athletics. Long before any conference signed a multi-billion dollar television deal.

A bumbling lineman threatens to transfer: “Me goin’ Atlantic Eastern College. They make me fine big offer. Every week check I get 50 bucks. With besides automobile drive myself. Anyplace I want go … She got six cylinders.”

The canny Coach Gore makes a deal to keep the player on the roster: “I’ll get you one with seven cylinders.”

What comes next? The NCAA steps in to make rules that everyone will creatively break for years to come.

The NCAA didn’t really get into the enforcement business until the 1950s. We have a trove of official reports that tell us who got caught for what, and when. As violations got more colorful, their full scope often came out in news reports instead of from the NCAA, because the sport’s governing body can only verify so much (see: Newton, Cameron).

From the start, cars were part of some of the very first cases the NCAA investigated. A number of these remain, as Mr. Newton will tell you, nothing more than ongoing investigations.

1957: Kansas gives Wilt Chamberlain a car to keep him in school

(Editor’s note: where available, the years referenced from here are listed by date of NCAA report, not necessarily when the violation(s) occurred)

In Wilt’s case it was as simple as just handing him some keys. Chamberlain was gifted a red and white 1956 Oldsmobile convertible so that he wouldn’t leave KU. It probably looked a lot like this:

Custom Oldsmobile Convertible Photo by Spence Murray/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images

Look, do what you need to do to hang onto one of the best players to ever play the sport.

1957: West Virginia gives recruit a gasoline credit card

If you’ve got a car, you’ve gotta put some gas in it. Might as well have it paid for.

1966: Houston players are get a car to go to and from school between semesters

This was before stipends. Dudes just needed to hitch a ride back to campus during the Christmas break. Separately: a player’s family was given round trip transportation to two freshmen games.

1967: A Nebraska booster provides a job in auto repair to a recruit

A prospect got a job in which he only had to work one day a week, with his $600 car repair to be deducted from future earnings. The NCAA called that a loan without interest. I call that an employee discount.

1970: Need a promissory note for a car loan? A UCLA booster can arrange that

We all need a co-signer from time to time. The cost of the car is one thing, but the nuts and bolts of the purchasing process is another. When adjusting for inflation, the $1,767.12 needed for this particular car loan would be over $11,500 today. You really expect a recruit to be able to come up with that?

1974: Illinois players got to use boosters’ cars

In addition to free movie tickets, golf on the university dime, and PUTTING UP CASH FOR A PLAYER’S BOND, some boosters gave their cars to players to drive. One day I hope to have the disposable income to hand a 20 year old with no relation to me a Chrysler Cordoba or something.

1977: Hawaii assistant basketball coach **Rick Pitino** was involved in a scandal that shows how this is more mutually beneficial than just the team and the player

The first thing to get out of the way here is holy shit, Rick Pitino worked at Hawaii? The second thing: the university gave free football and basketball tickets to a local car dealership. You see how all this flows? School gets a player. Player gets some wheels. Dealer gets some free tickets. Everybody wins.

The scandal also involved roundtrip plane tickets for a player to get from Honolulu to New York, and handing players coupons for free McDonalds.

1977: John Wooden’s guy got players free cars, among other things

We probably should put CHEATIN’ on the bottom of that fabled success pyramid.

1978: Here we have an interesting use of a very common recruiting violation:

An Oklahoma State booster said he’d buy a recruit’s free tickets from him. Sounds simple enough. Recruiting scandals that popped up in the ‘70s and ‘80s usually involved players’ complimentary game tickets and boosters paying a lot of money for them. It’s like low-stakes money laundering: I’ll give you way too much money for these tickets and you can go buy a car with the cash.

But in addition, this deal involved a booster giving a player’s mom a car and free driving lessons to boot. (Good recruiters will tell you that getting in mom’s good graces is usually the key to getting the player to sign.)

1980: Even Army can do a little rule breaking when it wants to:

I guess the NCAA doesn’t respect the troops (from the report):

A representative of the academy’s athletic interests transported a prospective student-athlete round trip by automobile between his home and an Army post to take a required medical examination for admission to the academy and purchased a meal for him.

1983: Jackson State foots the bill for car costs for high school coaches

Much like getting in with mama, endearing yourself to high school coaches in the area is a big deal. If you bring the kid to campus we’ll cover the car is a nice way to scratch that itch.

1985: Florida commits a litany of violations, including $50 for a car wash

Before Steve Spurrier showed up to take UF to powerhouse status, the Gators were cheatin’ their asses off to work their way to relevancy. They got busted in the mid-80s for a record-breaking number of allegations during the Charley Pell era, from 1979-1984. Among their hits from that time: giving a player cash to get a booster’s car washed, a comprehensive level of cheating that makes sense for the famously detail-oriented coach.

Pell is a largely forgotten figure in the history of Florida football because of all the success the program has had since 1990, and the athletic department likes to boast about its NCAA cleanliness since ‘85. But Pell should be credited in large part with actually modernizing the program before Spurrier came back to his alma mater. He fixed facilities, revolutionized the way the program fundraised and, well, how they used that money.

Ok, so you’ve gathered that cars are very much a thing. Now let’s supercharge the spending involving them.

The days of sanctions for a ride to the airport look like summer camp compared to the more notable car recruiting scandals of the 1980s and beyond. As college sports evolved from cottage industry to full blown industry, everything got more expensive. That inflation hit recruiting in the form of the cost of the cars themselves.

1979: Naturally, that brings us to SMU, Eric Dickerson, and that Trans A&M Am

We’re first gonna hop back in time briefly, because it gets no bigger than this, the grand poobah of car-related NCAA rule breaking. Dickerson, one of the greatest high school running backs in history, was being recruited by the impressively renegade Mustangs.

SMU nabbed him and his backfield battery mate Craig James in the same recruiting class, a haul that stunned the sport at the time. Later, it would all come crashing down and the program would get nuked by the NCAA for running a literal player payroll, but before it did, there was Dickerson — and there was his gold 1979 Pontiac.

The Mustangs felt they had Dickerson in the bag when, days before signing day, he committed to Texas A&M instead, mysteriously around the same time he started driving that car. Dickerson and his family felt he had to commit to A&M because their boosters provided him with that car. SMU’s coaches and boosters cleared that confusion right up.

“[A&M] made the down payment on the car, and then we helped him with it after he got to SMU,” a former Mustang assistant said during the documentary Pony Excess.

According to A Payroll To Meet (the book the doc is based on), SMU had the registration of the car switched from Dickerson’s stepfather to his grandmother. An NCAA official happened to be at Dickerson’s high school the day he showed up with it on campus. Per the book, he asked for a ride in it around the block before questioning Dickerson.

“What are the Aggie boosters really going to do? Who can they tell? ‘Hey, we bribed that kid and he’s not honoring the bribe?’” Dallas TV reporter Dale Hanson said.

1983: When a booster shows up with a car for you, a teenager, what exactly are you supposed to do?

The September ‘83 edition of Texas Monthly detailed the recruitment of receiver Marquis Pleasant and how he obtained a Camaro Z28 in exchange for signing. In it, there’s an anecdote about how an SMU alum “drove it up in the driveway and said, ‘sign the paper and the car is yours.’”

Picture yourself as a teenager. What would you do?

Pleasant would indeed sign at SMU.

1982 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

1985: TCU also shows how expensive paying players can really get

Like their Methodist friends across the DFW Metroplex, the Frogs enjoyed their own mid-80s recruiting scandal. Included in this episode were automotive down payments of $5,000, $3,000, and another $2,500 for tires.

That’s in addition to the $15,000 signing bonus and $25,000 trust fund that were both funneled to the same player.

1989: Oklahoma State offers a Nissan 300ZX

1990 Nissan 300ZX Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

This offer from an assistant coach to a recruit included a $5,000 cash payment, $200 monthly allowance and these wheels. Sticker price on this bad boy was $27,300 back in 1990.

1995: An Ole Miss player wanted a Mustang. Problem is, the booster couldn’t find one.

I’ll let the report do the talking here:

The athletics representative informed the prospective student-athlete during one of the telephone conversations that, although he was serious about obtaining a car, he was having trouble locating a new red Ford Mustang 5.0. The representative asked the prospective student athlete if he would accept a red Ford Mustang 5.0 belonging to a student-athlete who was a member of the university’s football team. The prospective student-athlete told the athletics representative that he would like that automobile.

1996: Never forget that a Ford Explorer brought down the Michigan Fab Five

On a recruiting visit, a car rolled over containing, among others, then-prospect Mateen Cleaves. An inquiry followed, leading to links between Michigan hoops and booster Ed Martin, a former Ford employee.

Banners came down, legends were excommunicated, and coaches were fired. And it all happened because of a car that was the same model my friends in high school received when they turned 16 because it was “safe.”

2005: Reggie Bush and that damn Chevy Impala got him shunned from USC

Bush’s saga isn’t entirely about a nice car, but it is extremely mid-2000s because of that fact. It’s not about the kind of car you have as long as it’s sittin’ on dubs.

Not only did Bush get the car, he requested cash in order to purchase rims and a sound system. Nothing could be more 2005 than that.

NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via

2011: Terrelle Pryor drove a few loaner cars at Ohio State. The NCAA said there was nothing to see.

You may not realize this, but there are a lot of things the head coach of your college football team doesn’t pay for, because in America it pays to be rich and it’s expensive to be poor. Boilerplate contract language in coaching contracts reads like this (from Urban Meyer’s Ohio State deal):

Coach shall receive a stipend of Twelve Hundred Dollars ($1,200.00) per month to be applied toward two (2) automobiles, while Coach is employed as Head Football Coach.

Right before Meyer got to Columbus, the Buckeyes found themselves in some NCAA trouble. The scandal you remember has to do with players trading tattoos for autographs. But Pryor was found to have not broken any rules in a separate scandal where it was alleged he and other Ohio State players were getting cars for autographs.

He got three traffic tickets in three different loaners.

And that brings us to the 20-teens, Alabama whips, and the future.

Derrick Henry and his Dodge Charger, Bo Scarbrough and the Chevy Camaro, Ronnie Harrison and his Dodge Challenger ... insert basically any Tide recruit since Saban got the program firing on all cylinders and you’ll find a message board post showing how the Tide is cheatin’, PAWWLLLLL because certainly those players can’t afford those cars just like they couldn’t in any era before them.

What I’m trying to say, through all of this, is that the car is as inextricably linked to the sport as tailgating and rivalry games.

There is a more legitimate next act in the saga that is college athletics’ love affair with the automobile. In the future, when players are rightly able to profit from their likenesses, commercials for your local dealership featuring them may become as ubiquitous on a fall Saturday as green grass and screaming fans. The car’s influence in recruiting will not go away; it will simply shift into a different gear.