The Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times once sponsored gala All-Area banquets to recognize the best high school athlete in the city and suburbs in football, boys and girls basketball, soccer, volleyball, softball and baseball. But they were shuttered years ago because of the skidding economy.
They were grand events conducted at the Como Inn, which has since gone the way of the banquets it once hosted. Some of the leading college coaches in the nation were guest speakers, including Bob Knight, Pat Summitt, Ray Meyer, Lou Holtz, Lute Olson, Johnny Orr, Vivian Stringer, Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr. Isiah Thomas and Cheryl Miller also spoke.
Ironically, the last speaker at the football banquet was recruiting analyst Tom Lemming of CBS Sports Network.
"That was in 2000. I was so impressed with the Sun-Times banquet. I was there for the first time in 1980 when (Thornton Fractional North quarterback) Mike Tomczak was Player of the Year," Lemming said.
"All the college coaches were at there. I realized that coaches don't have a lot of time to eye-ball the kids. But they let the kids know they were there. It was good interaction. The Sun-Times always did a great job of honoring the kids. They were so excited to be there."
After the Sun-Times banquets were discontinued after 2000, Lemming decided to organize his own All-Area football banquet. "I was surprised when the Sun-Times dropped its banquet. I wanted to do something similar, to keep it going," he said.
So the Tom Lemming/NCSA Underclass All-Area Banquet was founded. It is sponsored by the Chicago-based National Collegiate Scouting Association, which assists male and female student-athletes in all sports to find the right college. Chris Krause, NCSA's founder and president, was a linebacker at North Chicago in 1984 when he was evaluated by Lemming.
He also wanted to expand the event to include the top players in all classes. "I wanted to invite the best players in each class who have had great seasons or great potential. It is important that they get as much exposure to college recruiters as they can," Lemming said.
Lemming's 10th annual All-Area banquet will be held on Wednesday, Dec. 5 at Soldier Field's banquet hall. The guest speaker will be Michigan coach Brady Hoke. The event isn't open to the public.
A total of 60 players have been invited, including six seniors, 40 juniors, 10 sophomores and four freshmen. The seniors are Maine South quarterback Matt Alviti, Joliet Catholic running back Ty Isaac, Lemont tackle Ethan Pocic, Marian Central quarterback Chris Streveler, Crete-Monee wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and Bolingbrook quarterback Aaron Bailey.
The junior list is headed by Hales Franciscan lineman Denzel Ward, Plainfield South linebacker Clifton Garrett, Stevenson safety Matt Morrissey, Lincoln-Way East center Nick Allegretti, Hinsdale Central center Brian Allen, Bolingbrook safety Parrker Westphal, Crete-Monee linebacker Nyles Morgan, Glenbard North running back Justin Jackson, Richards running back Tommy Mister and Marist tight end Nic Weishar.
One of the biggest players on the list is 6-foot-6, 285-pound freshman tackle Erik Swenson of Downers Grove South. He is the first freshman in 33 years to start for coach John Belskis. He was invited to the Michigan camp as a seventh grader.
"If they are starting as freshmen, they will be great players as seniors," Lemming said. "Swenson will be a national name in three years. Not too many freshmen start in big-time programs."
Last year, 70 college coaches attended Lemming's event. In past years, the list of speakers has included Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, Illinois' Ron Zook, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Nebraska's Bill Callahan, Notre Dame's Charlie Weis, Purdue's Danny Hope and Minnesota's Tim Brewster.
"My main reason for doing this is to get as many colleges as possible to come to Chicago to recruit kids," Lemming said. "Our high water mark was the class of 1986, which had 141 players sign full scholarships to Division I schools.
"Of course, there are NCAA rules to follow and limitations on the amount of contact a coach can have with a player. Coaches can come and say hello but they can't talk to the kids. They sit in the back of the room and eye-ball the kids. It's a win-win situation. The kids know which colleges are represented and who is interested in them."
Lemming is determined to persuade more college coaches to recruit in Chicago, like they did in the 1980s. He hopes to attract at least 100 this year. There still are some schools that don't come to Chicago but there are some that have been making frequent visits in the last year or two, including Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Alabama, Vanderbilt, LSU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, New Mexico, New Mexico State and Miami (Fla.).