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Published: Tuesday, 2/5/2008

Religion significant for some college football recruits

ASSOCIATED PRESS

CLEMSON, S.C. - On one of the first visits to Clemson coach Tommy Bowden's office, prized recruit Dalton Freeman noticed the Bible on the desk.

Freeman, an active churchgoer, learned that studying the Bible was as essential to Bowden's routine as breaking down an opponent's game plan.

"It's part of my daily life," Bowden told Freeman.

"Kids have a lot of respect for coaches when they hear that," said Ben Freeman, Dalton's father as well as his high school coach at Pelion High.

When Kenneth Page, an offensive lineman from A.C. Flora High, outlined his college choices last month, he noted Bowden was a "good Christian man."

Both Freeman and Page have pledged to attend Clemson.

Tomorrow, hundreds of other prospects across the country will officially sign to play college ball. They weighed factors like academics, playing time, coaching staff and a campus' quality of life. For some, a place to grow spiritually was also high on the list.

There's a reason, Bowden says, the Southeast is called "the Bible belt." To not discuss faith in some fashion with prospects and their families, "to me, I think you make a mistake."

It's often difficult, according to coaches, family members, analysts and even the recruits themselves at times, to pinpoint what factor got them to sign.

"I've seen it from every angle," said Grant Teaff, the former Baylor coach who now heads the American Football Coaches Association.

In some households, religion is a critical component, while other families have a more secular approach to selecting a college. Increasingly, Teaff says, coaches try to address all issues that may sway a recruit's decision.

Teaff always called it a "three-legged stool" in developing an 18-year-old physically, mentally and spiritually his next four or five years in school.

"My belief was it was part of my responsibility in taking a youngster to come and be part of our football program that I had to provide opportunities for growth and development in all three areas," he said.

Georgia coach Mark Richt says families are more at ease "turning their child over to someone" who shares their belief system.

"I think that's natural for people," Richt said.

Coaches vary on how much they publicize their faith. Bowden has made no secret of his beliefs during nine seasons with the Tigers. He and his father, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, have often spoken at Fellowship of Christian Athlete gatherings when the teams play each other.

Last year, however, the South Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said Bowden violated his players' constitutional rights when they had to opt out if they didn't want to attend the team's annual church visit. The school and Bowden have said the outing is voluntary and no student who refused to go was ever disciplined.

Still, the university did tell the coach he could no longer use publicly owned team buses for the trip.

Other coaches see their role as molding football players, not stepping into the pulpit.

South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, the son of a preacher, doesn't spend much time publicly discussing religion. Spurrier neither hides his faith nor pushes it on others, introducing his program's chaplain to players and letting them know what chapel services are available.

"My profession is trying to be a football coach," Spurrier said. "I don't think my calling was to be a preacher."

Barry Every, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, says faith plays a bigger role with prospects where both parents are involved.

"That's where the moral side of it comes into play," he said.



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