ESPN to debut All-American Game

The ESPN All-American Game will debut Jan. 5, 2008 and will include 80 of the best players in the country. It will be held at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and will include televised practices and a skills competition. Dave Biddle checked in with ESPN recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert for much more on this breaking story.

Special to Gator Country

By David Biddle

The Worldwide Leader announced this week that it will be hosting and sponsoring the ESPN All-American Game, which will debut on Jan. 5, 2008 in Orlando, Fla. Eighty of the top high school football players in the country will be selected and the game will go head-to-head with the Army All-American Bowl which will be played the same day.

“It’s something we’re really excited about,” ESPN recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert said. “It’s something we’ve been talking about for a while, but wanted to make sure that when we did it, we did it right. We wanted to make sure we had all of our ducks in a row and we felt that this was a good time to do it. Not only could we put on a game, but really put on a weeklong experience. It’s going to be the first weekend of January and the game will be played on a Saturday. It’s going to be down in Orlando and the whole week of festivities will be down there.

“We’re going to have coverage of the game on ABC and we’re also going to have coverage of the practices on ESPN U and coverage of the skills challenge on ESPN 2. There will be a lot of opportunities for not just the kids and coaches to get involved, but for the fans to follow these kids throughout the week on TV much like fans have done with the Senior Bowl.”

With so many great football players across the country, it’s obviously not an easy job for Haubert and his co-workers to come up with a list of just 80 players. But they try to have some fun with it.

“Yeah, like you said, it’s kind of a double-edged sword,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun to get together and put our heads together and say, ‘These are the guys we would love to have in this game.’ But it’s also tough because the line is not very clear between 80 and 81. There’s a lot of good players out there. The difference in a lot of cases is almost negligible. So, to kind of say what kid belongs and what kid doesn’t is tough.

“Anybody who has had a chance to follow what we do, we do things on a grading system. So, when we evaluate a player and rank a player, it’s a little bit different. It’s more black and white than what some recruiting fans may be used to from looking at a star system or something like that. Each player has a grade and they kind of fall in line, so it makes it a little bit easier for us to look at the list and go, ‘This guy is ranked here – now let’s make sure we re-evaluate all of these guys in this group and make sure we have a consensus.’ But going into it, we have a pretty good idea of where those players land just because of the way that we evaluate throughout the year.”

ESPN is also taking a different approach in how to split up the teams. Instead of doing North vs. South, or East vs. West, Haubert and company came up with an intriguing idea.

“Instead of North-South, or East-West, we’re going to make it a classic and we think it’s going to be a lot of fun that way,” he said. “Because what we’re going to do is split the teams and make them as even as possible. It’s interesting to do the North-South or East-West, but we think it will be a lot more fun after watching many all-star games to just split them up. A kid from Florida might be playing with a kid from California. A kid from Georgia playing with a kid from Arizona and just making it the most competitive game possible.

“A lot of times when you try and split things up North-South, you have a huge concentration of players in the Southeast. And if you include Texas in that mix and Southern California, you’ve got a bunch of players. Then in the North, you’ve got your pockets like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Northern California, but when you get out to the plains states you lose a lot of population and you don’t have the most even teams possible. Same thing with East and West. A lot of times, all-star games will move Louisiana into the West to try and even things up. So, we decided to just get these guys together and split up the teams where we could have the most competitive game possible.”

Since ESPN is going head-to-head with the Army All-American game, there will obviously be some players that are selected for both games that will have a decision to make. For example, OSU recruit Mike Adams could get an invite from both events. But Haubert is confident that ESPN’s game will stand out.

“Well, the Army game has been around for a few years and myself and Tom Luginbill – who is our national director – we’ve gone and covered it the last few years and they were gracious to allow us to come down there and check everything out and kind of cover it,” he said. “But we always kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This would be great if we could do this because we could really put out a great product.’ But basically when you’re dealing with this, as you know from covering Ohio State recruits like Michael Brewster and J.B. Shugarts, kids are graduating early and other kids just have to go back to high school, period. So, there’s not a lot of time at that time of the year to put on a game.

“So, we just kind of sat down and said, ‘You know what, we’ve got a good product and this is the most opportune time of the year to put on a game. If there’s another game out there on the same day, we’re not looking to knock heads with anybody, but this is the best time for us to do what we’ve got to do. Let’s just go ahead and do it.’ I think that if the kids and the coaches look at the two events side-by-side, that even though we might not have the little bit of tradition that Army has having been around for a few years, I think the product that we put out there – from the day they step off the plane to the day they get back on the plane – will be a lot more exciting.”