Wednesday, August 22
Spartans coach hopes image makeover lures recruits

By Darren Rovell

College football recruiting is a cutthroat business. College coaches will do just about anything they can to land the blue-chip high school star. They send kids personalized videos, a stream of letters and seduce them with the lure of campus life on official visits.

Fitz Hill
San Jose State hired Fitz Hill this offseason, the only black head coach to be hired by a Division I-A school.
But Fitz Hill, the new head coach at San Jose State, utilizes a new recruiting tool. Competing with powerhouses which mine athlete gold in California, where some 400 Division-I-caliber football players are recruited each year, Hill needs that extra edge. The Spartans enjoyed a winning season last year, but it came on the heels of seven consecutive losing seasons.

So when Hill, one of five African-American head football coaches on the Division I-A level, first arrived on campus, he asked what brand of jersey the team would wear and what it looked like. "That's because it's one of the first questions kids ask when you recruit them," Hill said.

He was told the contract was open and he could choose between Russell, Nike, Reebok and Wilson. But the problem was that the Spartans, unlike college football's powerhouses, had to buy their own jerseys and received no up-front compensation from the apparel makers.

"If we're marching into the Coliseum to play USC on Sept. 1, and we have that company's logo on our shirt, we're giving them free advertising," Hill said. "But I'm not going to invest in some company that's not going to invest in us."

Hill said he also knew, as a small fish in a big pond, he wouldn't be able to have a great deal of control over the design. Larger companies prefer to be conservative, and Hill wanted to make a statement.

"It's to your advantage to be in, like the baggy shorts at Michigan with the Fab Five," said Hill, who stayed up on trends as recruiting coordinator at Arkansas the past two seasons.

"We're not Notre Dame, we're not Texas and we're not LSU," he said. "Kids don't dream of coming to San Jose State all their lives, because we simply don't have that football tradition. But being in one of the country's top media markets, if I could have an original uniform that would stand out, that kids will say, 'I like your look,' that might give me the edge I need."

4-PlayersOnly is believed to be the first minority-owned sports apparel company to outfit a major college football program.
So Hill opted to use a smaller company to supply San Jose State with on- and off-the-field apparel, and signed a two-year deal with, an urban sportswear brand based in Grapevine, Texas. Loletha Williams, who owns the company, has just four employees. Nike has 23,000. But she has proven to be more accessible, making modifications to the uniforms based on conversations with Spartan players.

"The alumni were very cautious of making a change," Hill said. "But I emphasized to them that it's important since I believe it will help us recruit in the end."

Already, the switch is paying dividends -- for both Hill and Williams.

Hill said he lured away one player who already had made an oral commitment to attend Nevada by showing him the Spartans' new uniform. That could mean new business for 4-PlayersOnly.

"I was told that University of Nevada wanted to talk to me because they were aware that one of their kids switched to San Jose State, in part, because of the uniforms," Williams said. Now Nevada, Oklahoma State and several other schools have expressed interested in having apparel designed by 4-PlayersOnly.

For Williams, having the responsibility of outfitting a college team has been a challenge.

"I eat, drink and sleep San Jose State right now," said Williams, whose 4-PlayersOnly is believed to be the first minority-owned company to outfit a major college program. San Jose State makes up 95 percent of the apparel company's business, but revenue is expected to top $500,000 this year, Williams said.

The school also can make significant revenue of its own if its licensed apparel catches on with retailers like urban sportswear makers FUBU and Sean John have in recent years. Williams already has inked a contract with Foot Action, which has 550 stores nationwide, and she is currently negotiating a deal to have San Jose State jerseys in Walmart stores.

The school ranked 74th of 175 schools in the Collegiate Licensing Company's royalty revenue report last season. That was up from No. 108 for the 1998-99 season and No. 93 for the 1999-2000 season, according to CLC data. "If they tap into what becomes trendy, they can definitely rise pretty quickly up the list," said Catherine Singer, a CLC representative.

And if the jerseys make it out of regional bay area stores, Hill will be doing recruiting in all parts of the country without even knowing it.

Another bloom off Rose
If you've been to Pete Rose's official Web site lately, you might have seen a banner and pop-up advertisements for Casino on Net, an online gambling site. But after being asked by on Wednesday to comment on the advertisements, CMG Worldwide, which represents Rose's business and licensing interests, said it had removed the ad from Rose's Web site.

"We have 200-plus Web sites with rotating ads, so it's not like Pete had any clue about this," said Bill O'Neil, CMG Worldwide's senior marketing manager. O'Neil said the company blocked advertising on the site Wednesday afternoon.

Lindros memorabilia
After taking the past 15 months off from hockey, Eric Lindros will return to the ice with the New York Rangers. With Monday's news, the volume of Lindros memorabilia and collectibles on eBay substancially increased to more than 700 items.

Lindros turned in his Flyer orange for a Broadway blue jersey.
One of the sellers capitalizing off Lindros' return was Sam Ernst, general manager of Sports-Atlantic, a sports memorabilia store in Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

Ernst might have been the quickest to the punch on Lindros' new threads. He bought 150 Rangers jerseys -- without tie-downs -- last month, expecting to sew Lindros' No. 88 on the back of each.

"The demand for Lindros' Rangers jerseys will be extremely high," Ernst said. "His absence has not hurt his marketability. Any time a superstar like Lindros goes to a high-profile market like the Rangers, it can only add to his already proven superstar status."

Ernst's jerseys have received bids between $74.99 and $95 on eBay, and he said he has sold 15 in his store at $119 each.

Milt Byron of Byron's Collectibles, the official vendor of Flyers game-worn jerseys, said Lindros collectibles "have not been doing anything" over the past few months.

"I don't even put Lindros' cards in a case anymore," Byron said.

Darren Rovell covers sports business for He can be reached at

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