Jan. 27, 2011
By Rob Wilson
Associate Athletic Director
It’s the late 1980s and the day before national signing day. This long-time assistant coach is still sitting in his car parked in the driveway of one of the state’s top recruits, his back seat rapidly filling up with burger wrappers and empty soda cans. A thermos of hot coffee is almost dry.
Coach X’s car faces the high school star’s home, but his eyes are on the rear view mirror. No one is getting past him to talk to “Mr. Big” until after he’s made it official by signing on the dotted line.
A rented Cadillac slides by on a side street and our assistant coach slams his hands on the steering wheel realizing the car in the driveway will follow Mr. Big to school and back home that night. His shot at a last ditch meeting with the kid literally blocked in the driveway.
Sound like a cheap movie? The story came right from the horse’s mouth. And up until recruiting restrictions were thankfully increased over the last decade it was all too common – and perfectly legal.
Ah yes, college football recruiting!
The phenomenon of following recruiting like it’s the stock market is a fairly recent event. The truth is if you are a true recruitnick you know where John Doe is having dinner while on his visit to Slippery Rock. But you don’t have to be that committed. You can just be interested.
One of my favorite FSU recruiting stories does put some perspective on the obsession that the process can become. The recruit, let’s call him World Class, was a “monstrous” lineman from a legendary Florida high school program. Now, my intent is to keep his identity hidden so it likely is not the guy you are thinking about.
At any rate, World Class had a “great” junior season vaulting him to the most wanted list on nearly every football recruiting board in the country. He was allegedly offered a scholarship by literally every Division 1A institution east of the Mississippi River and by most of the ones that had any sense to the west of it. Phrases like “can’t miss”, “sure bet” and “instant anchor on the line” were tossed around by grown men who shouldn’t be drooling about such things.
Our Seminole coaches were on him hot and heavy led by the guy who prided himself on being the one who often “landed the big one.” Coach X loved World Class and even enjoyed the fight to fend off all the other suitors who showed up at his door step. Coach X was a tad boastful about his role in getting a quiet commitment from World Class and when the nation’s biggest catch announced that FSU was his choice, W.C. nearly broke into song over how the Seminole staff had “outworked the nation” to get him.
National signing day came just a few days later and the media stuffed into World Class’ gym to watch him put on a cap and seal the deal. His post-signing interview was carried live on radio – this was in the earlier days of the hysteria – and FSU coaches circled the radio back at the Moore Center with Coach X leaning on it like a proud papa.
Remember, World Class was the biggest fish in the sea and an outstanding student to boot. Many believed he was headed to Michigan because they were very strong in his declared major. Others believe Ohio State would be his choice because of a perceived pipeline at his position to the NFL. Still others were sure he wanted to go out of state.
“You had your choice of anywhere in the country, why FSU?” asked the host. You could almost hear a drum roll in the background.
“Well, I just like the helmets,” said Mr. Big. The FSU offices burst out with laughter as Coach X nearly melted into the floor.
“I like the helmets,” just about sums up the inexact science of college football recruiting and why talent evaluation, a true strength of Jimbo Fisher and his staff, is so important. The rest of the story is that Mr. Big did indeed come to Florida State and was one of the biggest flops in recruiting history. Great guy, wonderful person, good teammate, but couldn’t play dead in a funeral parlor.
Now, let’s fast forward to this year’s team and a much different story. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes has been named to virtually every freshman All-America team out there and certainly had a tremendous sophomore season.
But where did this star come from? Credit Fisher, then an assistant coach, for that one.
Rhodes was a talented wide receiver/running back from Miami who eventually earned All-Dade honors as senior. But it was a year before that when he was attending the Bobby Bowden football camp that Fisher stood back and watched the kid from Norland High. Schools liked him as a possession receiver, a definite need for FSU, but Fisher was seeing something else – a natural at cornerback.
FSU started recruiting him but he never was labeled more than a “three star” level player. Anybody want to trade him now for the “five stars” from that class?
I could go on about recruiting. I could tell about the star who literally fell asleep on Coach Bowden’s couch while he was talking to him nearly sending him into a fit; about the entire city street that was lined with people tailgating in their front yards waiting to welcome the FSU coaching contingent; about the little girl who fell asleep in a coaches arms; the hot shot recruit who talked hard to get until he walked into Doak Campbell and reached for the scholarship on the spot; there’s the one about … Well, you get the picture.
Now days we have cell phones, robo texting and the like. The Internet has made nearly everyone an expert and coaches are second guessed like never before.
The NCAA gets bashed for a lot of things, but the tightening up on recruiting rules that turned coaches into undercover agents is one they have gotten right. Even if it has made recruiting stories a little less dramatic.