Thursday, February 1, 2007

Cloak and dagger recruiting tales

It's impossible to really understand life as a college football coach on the recruiting trail. It's never simply a matter of contacting recruits and selling them on your school and program.

It's really a low-grade game of cloak-and-dagger, and the stories coaches tell (years after, when the top secret status has been downgraded by time and graduation) would make you wonder about the sanity of it all.

Consider the recruitment of John Jefferson, a story that has taken on a life of its own. Frank Kush once told a story about hiding Jefferson from late comers, and it has become bigger than life as it's been retold from booster to booster.

If you believe the latest versions, Kush sent staffers to Jefferson's Dallas home, moved him to a hotel, and hid out until he signed his Letter of Intent on the first day he could (a day which we've come to know as the magical First Wednesday in February, and which will someday be recognized as a national holiday).

Then there's the story of O.J. Simpson. ASU had him at the airport and had all but locked up the future superstar and, sadly, future social pariah. But back then, O.J. was just a blue-chip JC running back recruit in a full-scale tug of war between ASU and USC. As the story goes, an ASU assistant let O.J. go to the airport restroom where he was met by a USC recruiter who talked him into returning home on the sly. Of course, O.J. went on to star at USC and later in the NFL, with Buffalo as one of the all-time greatest running backs.

Then there are the stories that seem of tantamount of importance at the time, but never really fit the test of time. For example, receivers coach Karl Dorrell left ASU for a similar job at Colorado. Dorrell was perhaps the key in-state recruiter for ASU, and was recruiting All-American receiver Kenny Mitchell. For a moment, Dorrell had turned Mitchell's head towards Colorado, but ASU reversed him at the last moment to get him to sign with ASU. It seemed like a huge recruiting coup at the time, but Mitchell waited nearly 4 years before displaying All-American skills, while less heralded recruit Lenzie Jackson became Jake Plummer's workhorse receiver during that era.

There weren't many stories of this caliber under the Koetter era of ASU football because Koetter's staff took a very above-board approach to recruiting. They waited to evaluate recruits' senior seasons and more or less played in the pool of recruits that had yet to commit. They did not have a hard-sell agenda, and that appealed to some recruits, but probably resulted in a less-than-desirable annual yield.

We should probably expect more of these types of stories under Dennis Erickson's staff. There seems to be a pirate flag flying over Tempe these days, and the staff appears willing to pump recruits hard -- committed or otherwise -- until the NCAA rings the bell on the season's recruiting. While nobody wants other coaching staffs to raid their own stockpile of commitments, it does seem to be a reality that to produce big-time results, you have to play by the standards of your opponents. That means taking whatever you can get, even if it means pilfering from another program's stash.

In the meantime, it's probably not a bad idea to have a few cloak-and-dagger tricks and a hotel room or two to protect your own.


Stew said...

I never heard the OJ thing, though as I remember he was pretty good getting around in airports

John C said...

My father, who was very close to Dan Devine and Frank Kush, told me the O.J. story when he was ripping up the PAC-8. I've always held it to be true!!