It was late December, not yet the end of the season, and already the wolves were circling. An assistant at a high-level Power 5 program knew two of his school's best young players -- one on offense and one on defense -- were being actively recruited by other programs. In fact, he said, it was "unbelievable" how many coaches were reaching out to players on his team's roster.
"The cheaters," the frustrated assistant said, "just keep cheating."
Tampering officially arrived in college football this offseason, leaving coaches to both lament the current state of the game -- and try to keep up.
They know if they wait for a quality player to enter the transfer portal to begin recruiting him, they're too late. So they've been reaching out to third parties and using players as go-betweens. It's a violation of NCAA rules, of course, but enforcement is nearly impossible.
An SEC head coach said that not only is tampering happening, "it happens most of the time."
A prominent high school coach told ESPN's Tom VanHaaren he has seen it increase to the point that he estimates 60% of college teams are doing it.
"With one player, last season I got four calls from four different conferences," the high school coach said. "'Is he happy? They're not using him like we would use him.' These are SEC, Big Ten and some big-name schools."
A Power 5 coach surveyed the current landscape. It looked to him, he said, like the "wild, wild West."
Others note how football's transfer market has begun to mirror NBA free agency. For years, the power rested almost entirely in the coaches' hands, and now players are exerting more control.
A former four-star athlete told VanHaaren he wouldn't have entered the portal this offseason if he hadn't known ahead of time that he would have his choice of landing spots. His high school coach had received calls from college coaches asking whether he was happy weeks before he made public his intent to transfer, he said. And a year before that, players he knew from high school were calling to say, "I need to come over there and join them."
Coaches recognize this shifting reality in which they feel that no one's roster is safe, but there's also a tacit acknowledgement that to survive, one has to play the game.
"You have teams trying to poach kids," an ACC assistant said. "There's a lot of shady s--- going on."
The transfer market has been growing steadily for more than a decade, and with it the concern for its unintended consequences. Alabama coach Nick Saban, as far back as 2017, advocated a "rule of civility" among coaches not to tamper with one another's players. "They have rules for that in the NFL," Saban said, "I think we should have rules for that in college football."
But a year later, the transfer portal went online, allowing players to formally signal their interest in changing schools and begin the process of recruitment. Then, in April, the NCAA approved a one-time waiver giving players the right to transfer once in their careers without the penalty of having to sit out a year of competition.
With that, the last guardrail was removed, the rules of engagement changed and the Era of Tampering began in earnest.
It's now blatant, the ACC assistant explained, and all the NCAA would have to do is check phone records to see what's really going on. But it won't, he added, because "I just don't think they want to do that stuff."
Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz scoffed at the idea of NCAA oversight. It would need to open an investigation, he said, and what good would that do when it still hasn't punished the coaches implicated in the FBI's investigation of college basketball?
"What kind of ferociousness is behind the enforcement if you have people on tape admitting to violations and they're still actively coaching?" Drinkwitz asked.
SMU coach Sonny Dykes brought up those wiretaps, too. He said he believes the NCAA's inaction is reinforcing the old adage, "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying."
"You want people in our sport to be ethical enough where they don't fall prey to that," Dykes said, "but ... you got to win and you got a high-pressure job and you have all these things and then all of a sudden, you look up and you go, 'Oh, they didn't punish anybody, and they're not going to punish me. So why not?'"
Stanford coach David Shaw has heard that rationale before, and he isn't buying it.
"To go behind another coach's back and recruit somebody on their roster, whether you go through a high school coach or a parent or a 'mentor' or street agent, I think it's disgusting," he said.
Bill Clark, who coaches Group of 5 power UAB, said his team played a game last season in which he knew for a fact that the opponent was actively recruiting one of his offensive skill players by reaching out to his former high school coach to signal their interest.
The player stayed, but a line had been crossed. Clark said point-blank, "That's tampering."
"We all hope we have a great culture," he said, "but you'd be lying to say it didn't worry you."
A Power 5 defensive coordinator told VanHaaren he wouldn't bother recruiting high school players if he was at a place like Ball State. If he helps turn that player into an all-MAC type, "A school like us is going to come take him."
Easier to avoid the heartache.
"Why spend all that time developing that kid only for him to leave me when I can go sign the kid who's unhappy as the fourth corner at a Power 5 school and he's a better player anyway?" he asked.
North Carolina coach Mack Brown said he's "absolutely" concerned about other repercussions.
"You play a team now and you don't go shake the coach's hand on the other side," Brown said. "You go shake the great tight end's hand. 'Hey, you look great, man. Aw, man, we should have recruited you. Wish you were here.'"
"Well," he said, "now he can be."
But what if it wasn't a coach not-so-subtly signaling his interest in a player on another team?
The high-level Power 5 assistant said he heard this offseason that one of his best defensive players was strongly considering going to a school in another conference, so he reached out to contacts he had on that school's staff. He believed them when they said they had no idea what was going on. Besides, they had just signed five recruits at the player's position. "If we take him," they said, "four of those guys are going to transfer."
Instead, they told the assistant to look at who's on their roster.
"The f---ing players he went to high school with are doing it," he said. "They're recruiting each other."
A prominent 7-on-7 coach pointed to the rise of so-called superteams in the NBA. "It started with LeBron James," he said. "He's the one who made it a reality."
An SEC assistant added: "Everyone thinks they're LeBron, even if they haven't played a lick."
Multiple coaches said it's not unusual for their players to serve as the conduit in recruiting transfers. Sometimes it's as simple as a player giving his coach a heads-up that his friend at another school isn't happy and is considering entering the portal, which is perfectly legal. But sometimes it's more nefarious than that.
"You can't hide," an SEC assistant said, "unless you're going through a player."
NCAA rules allow for players on opposing teams to talk to one another about transferring, so long as it's not done at the direction of a coach. But an ACC assistant said that's exactly what's happening "in most cases," because proving who orchestrated the conversation is difficult.
"So if they have someone who played with that kid in high school they can say, 'Reach out to so-and-so at Tennessee and see if he'd be interested in transferring,'" the assistant said. "That part is bulls---."
High school coaches and personal trainers are being used in much the same way. Technically, it's against NCAA rules for coaches to reach out to a third party to express interest in a player not yet in the portal, but who's to say that coach isn't calling to ask about a prospective high school athlete, which is perfectly legal? There's just too much plausible deniability.
"They're unethical and they're hard to stop and hard to track," Shaw said of those types of conversations. "And at the same time, everyone involved will just deny it."
Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, said coaches are in favor of harsh penalties if someone is caught tampering. They shouldn't be allowed to coach for five years, he said.
"You have the burden of proof," West Virginia coach Neal Brown said, "and I don't know how you prove it."
Former Coastal Carolina defensive back Nicholas Clark understands the frustration on the part of coaches. As a player back in 2017, he was included in an NCAA working group on transfers and heard all about the fears of free agency and the tampering that would result if they loosened transfer restrictions.
In the years since, Clark graduated and got his master's degree. He became an executive assistant at the NCAA in February and has realized that when it comes to coaches, "You can't legislate integrity."
What's happening is a difficult transition for coaches, he said. They're used to holding all the power, and now power is shifting toward the players.
"It's a correction, and they're not used to it," he said. "But who's to say it's a bad thing?"
Clark said that doesn't mean coaches' opinions are invalid.
"But imagine what that lack of control looks like for student-athletes when you get a new head coach and you get buried on the depth chart," he said. "You're never going to touch that field."
Every coach surveyed by ESPN -- more than a dozen in all -- said they were ultimately in favor of players' ability to transfer. No one begrudged them from seeking out a better situation. "If you're not happy, you need to go," one head coach said.
But there's a fine line between someone coming to that conclusion on his own and being nudged in that direction. "Players have so many voices in their ears," Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said.
Clark said that "tons" of players are persuaded to enter the portal with the promise from a coach that they'll sign them. But he added, "They told five guys that. Which one is the best?"
Shaw said he has heard of schools that have a high school recruiting board and then another recruiting board just for college players. An SEC assistant suggested that soon we'll see separate directors of high school scouting and college scouting the same way the NFL has directors of pro and college scouting.
We're well on our way to that reality, an ACC assistant said, in which a so-called "transfer department" will monitor FCS and lower-level FBS games and make a list. "This guy is a legit dude and he's from the area," he said, "he's an NFL-type player, let's see after the season if he's interested in transferring here."
To which Drinkwitz asked an obvious question: "Wouldn't that be the definition of tampering, if you had a director of college scouting and you were actively watching college players to determine whether or not they were good enough to be on your roster?"
So how much of this is self-inflicted?
At least some coaches are coming to the realization that they can't complain about having to continually recruit half their roster to guard against them transferring without wondering why half their roster might want to leave in the first place.
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said that every time they lose a player to the portal, it's a reminder of the importance of relationships.
"What we've always believed, but we sometimes lose sight of, is that you have to continually build your relationship with a kid," he said. "I've always done a great job of that with the kids that are playing, but I've done a bad job in all my days of coaching, I think, of kids who might not be the seven to eight [top] linebackers. ... You've got those redshirted kids and guys on the scout team and you said, 'Hey, that's a part of life. I'll see you in six months when the season ends.' And it's been a reminder to us that, for goodness' sakes, we weren't doing it right 15-20 years ago spending enough time to make sure we're building that relationship."
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman echoed that sentiment, saying that, "If losing a starter bothers you more than losing someone who hasn't played much, you're being pretty selfish."
"I think it's easy to say that someone tampered if you lose somebody," he added, "but in all honesty, we have to look at ourselves and internally in our program to say, 'Have we done all the things? Have we been honest and true? Have we built a relationship with us where he won't want to leave us?'"
It's tempting to get mad or frustrated when a player leaves. But then again, as Pittman said, "If you turn it around, you're going to go get someone from the portal, too."