Finance senior Brandon Ruggles rarely pauses to take a breath when he’s talking. There are so many things to get said, so many moves to make, so many dreams to pursue. And not just his own dreams.
Ruggles and his good friend Ben Fouch (FIN ’17) are in the business of furthering the dreams of determined young athletes. Dark Horse Sports Recruiting, the company they registered officially this past February, helps high school basketball players move through the recruiting process to secure the best academic and athletic scholarship opportunities.
The 6’3” Ruggles is a die-hard competitor. “I’m tall, but not that tall,” he says. “But I was the second best rebounder in the state of Illinois my senior year.” Fouch, a Brownsburg, Indiana, native and 2017 Hesburgh-Yusko Scholar who laughs that he was kicked off the “C” squad in high school basketball, pours his energy into personal fitness and obstacle course races. The two clicked when they met as freshmen living in St. Edward’s Hall.
By their sophomore year, they were brainstorming ideas for businesses they could start together. They considered half-a-dozen possibilities. “We didn’t like any of them ultimately,” says Ruggles. “We did originally. Then we’d think about it, work through the math, do all the research, and decide it wasn’t going to work.”
But the answer was right in front of them all along — a combination of strengths that went together like chocolate and peanut butter. Ruggles, for instance, knew how to draw the attention of coaches to a young basketball prospect. Fouch, the youngest of four who didn’t want his parents to have to pony up for another college tuition, had an impressive understanding of the admission process and where to look for scholarship opportunities.
Fouch won’t brag, Ruggles says. So Ruggles does it for him: “Ben is an expert in two things — college admissions and the academic and merit-based scholarship process.”
Fouch’s ability to unearth scholarships, Ruggles believes, is what sets Dark Horse apart from other recruiting services. “I can find our kids opportunities to play college basketball,” says Ruggles, “and simultaneously, he’s working to help them get admission into those top schools, and find as much money as possible in the process.”
On admissions essays, Fouch says, he challenges his Dark Horse clients to figure out what is unique about themselves and then express that clearly and concisely. They then use that insight to find the programs that match students’ interests and capabilities. Dark Horse does charge a fee for its services, but any client who does not receive college scholarship opportunities of equal or greater value than the fee paid will receive half of his or her money back.
Ruggles is good at evaluating talent and getting players in front of coaches. He is the oldest of five from the western Chicago suburbs. His family is basketball crazy — so much so that Ruggles and his parents started a two-team youth athletic program called Mercury Elite. Four years and 33 teams later — 330 kids signed up this year — it’s become a big generator for college basketball players out of the Chicago suburbs.
By Ruggles’ estimate, he’s developed a network of coaches around the country a couple hundred strong. He started out cold-calling. But now, he says, coaches are reaching out to him, checking to see if he has a player that has certain skills to fill a gap. In the two years prior to making Dark Horse a business, Ruggles sent 40-some kids to play college basketball. As Dark Horse, he and Fouch have signed 70 clients so far. Right now, they are focusing on men’s basketball scholarships, but are strongly considering adding men’s and women’s soccer in the future.
Ruggles got his first taste for sports marketing when he drew the attention of college coaches to his younger brother Josh by promoting his virtuosic three-point shooting ability. (Josh holds the current world record for shooting the most three-pointers in five minutes — 135.) The world record, a half-million YouTube hits, half-dozen full scholarship offers, and an unexpected invitation for Josh to compete in an international three-point shooting contest in Spain brought home to Ruggles the power of marketing.
Neither young man takes much time out for sleep. “We treat Dark Horse like a full-time job even though we are students,” Ruggles says, laughing about their 3 a.m. “red-eye” business meetings. (Both are on the Dean’s List.) Ruggles turned down a banking internship after this summer to work on Dark Horse full time. “I understand there is some risk in not doing an internship. But I’m so passionate about this,” he says.
“For me, there is nothing more fulfilling than to help a kid who’s worked his entire life to become a college-caliber basketball player, to find opportunities and achieve his dream of becoming that player.”
Now, if he can just manage some time to breathe.