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The Vinny Cerrato Rule

(2005 TWP photo by John McDonnell)

Googling "Vinny Cerrato Rule" yields exactly one return, an eight-year old Washingtonian article about the Redskins that included this passage about Cerrato joining the team:

Cerrato's résumé included a stint as chief recruiter for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame, where he'd gained notoriety for impressing prospective recruits by standing on the Notre Dame sideline during televised games feeding them play calls in advance via cell phone--a tactic the NCAA later banned with a special "Vinny Cerrato rule."

(Ok, it's not as good as unearthing Cerrato's role in Kindergarten Ninja, but trust me, it gets more interesting.)

The passage, you'd have to guess, was borrowed from an exhaustive and largely negative Leonard Shapiro WaPo story from the summer of 1999 that spent much time delving into Cerrato's background. Shapiro's story included this bit:

Much has been made of Cerrato using a cell phone to call recruits from the field at several bowl games, including the national title contest against West Virginia in 1988, and telling them they were being counted on to replace the players they were watching on television. The NCAA subsequently wrote a rule against such practices several years later.

"I call it the Vinny Cerrato Rule," said Lou Holtz, who had Cerrato as a graduate assistant coach when both were at Minnesota and brought him to Notre Dame when he took over there in 1986. Eventually, when Cerrato was ready to move to the next level, Holtz strongly recommended him to the 49ers' [Eddie] DeBartolo, a Notre Dame alumnus and heavy financial supporter.

"In my opinion, he's the best, a very hard worker, very talented, can evaluate talent with the best of them," said Holtz, now South Carolina's coach. "He's committed, he's dedicated, it's his life. I'm a very big fan of his. I made him my recruiting coordinator when he was 23, that's how much I think of him. Sometimes, it appears he may be a little helter-skelter, but that's an illusion."

And those are the only two references Nexis brings up for "Vinny Cerrato Rule," a phrase that could be on the verge of disappearing from the American lexicon, like "Spurrier Work Ethic" or "Redskins Super Bowl Parade."

Cheap shots aside, what's interesting is that, pre-Vinny Cerrato Rule, when the future Redskins boss was moving around the Notre Dame sidelines according to the whims of the high schoolers he was phoning mid-game to tell them what play was coming next, this technique was regarded as groundbreakingly brilliant. Because it's June and I can't think of anything else to write about I thought it might shed some insight into Cerrato's way of thinking, here's one of several effusively positive stories from those days, which details exactly what actions inspired the Vinny Cerrato Rule.

"When he Phones, Prospects Listen"
By Bob Greene
Chicago Tribune, January 15, 1990

Vinny Cerrato, the recruiting director on Notre Dame's football coaching staff, should be able to find a good job in the world of business if he ever tires of sports. He has already proven that he is a born supersalesman.

What Cerrato did at the Orange Bowl game was the stuff of sales genius. It had nothing do do with football strategy; other coaches called the plays against Colorado.

Cerrato, 30, stood on the sidelines with a cellular phone and a list of 35 high school seniors. Actually, he had two phones - a spare, and a pocketful of extra batteries. The 35 high school seniors on his list were football players in whom Notre Dame was interested, and who had either visited the campus or had been visited by Cerrato.

When the game started - remember, this was potentially for the national championship, and was telecast in prime time - Cerrato started calling the high school athletes.

"They were all watching the game," Cerrato said. "I knew they would be. So I called their houses all over the country, and I said: 'This is Vinny Cerrato from Notre Dame. I'm on the sidelines at the Orange Bowl. You watching?' And then I'd tell them what the next play was going to be."

That's correct - Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz sends in each offensive play, and Cerrato made a point of finding out what the play was going to be. He knew how effective this would be over the phone.

"The high school kids could hear all the crowd noise, and they could hear our players hollering," Cerrato said. "I'd say: 'I'm on the 35-yard line. I've got the play for you. We're going to run a 34.' A 34 is a handoff to the fullback over the right side. I'd say to the high school kids, 'Watch the fullback.' And while I was on the phone, the fullback would run that play."

Cerrato first tried this cellular phone technique a year ago, at the Fiesta Bowl. "But it didn't work," he said. "I didn't have my own phone, so I borrowed one from the hotel, and it broke after only three calls. This year my phones worked perfectly. I was making calls from a few moments before the opening kickoff until the final gun."

Occasionally Cerrato would put one of the Notre Dame players on the phone. "They just said hello real quickly, but you can imagine how it made the high school guys feel," Cerrato said.

Perhaps Cerrato's finest moment came when he was talking on the phone to an extremely talented high school prospect, and Notre Dame speedster Rocket Ismail saw what he was doing.

According to Cerrato, "Rocket asked me who I was talking to, and when I told Rocket he said, 'Tell him if I give the thumbs-up sign when I'm in my stance, that means I'm going deep.' That's got to be pretty impressive to a high school football player - a message like that from Rocket Ismail in the middle of the Orange Bowl game."

Because Cerrato felt that the phone calls would be most effective if they came totally by surprise, some of the high school players weren't home when he called. "They were over at their buddies' houses watching the game," Cerrato said. "So I got their buddies' numbers from the parents of the players, and I called their buddies' houses. In a way that was even better - their friends could get on the phone and listen, too."

One high school player talked to Cerrato and said, "I can't see you. Stand behind Coach Holtz." So Cerrato did just that - he and his cellular phone moved behind Holtz.

"The kid started laughing," Cerrato said. "He was watching his TV, and he said: 'There you are! There you are!' "

According to Cerrato, all of this is well within college football recruiting rules. There are limits on how many times representatives of a college can visit a high school player's house, and how many times the player can visit the campus. But, Cerrato said, there are no limits on phone calls to the player - even calls via cellular phone from the sidelines of the Orange Bowl.

Back in the days when Knute Rockne was coaching at Notre Dame, he had to depend on other methods to persuade high school stars to enroll. Vinny Cerrato would never compare himself to Rockne, but he seems to have taken recruiting into a new era. His best line - repeated to more than one high school player after especially good Notre Dame plays - is a hard one to beat.

With the roar of the crowd in the background, Cerrato would say: "Just look at this. This could be you next year."

By Dan Steinberg  |  June 18, 2008; 2:29 PM ET
Categories:  Redskins  
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