Recruiting No Joke For Coaches


Feb. 8, 2007

By Adam Caparell



Adam is's football editor and national football writer.
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John Bunting was able to make light of it, laughing at the irony of the snide little comment.


In front of the former North Carolina coach, someone had remarked how they didn't know anything about recruiting.


"Some people would say that's why I'm here," Bunting chuckled.


But after a few disappointing seasons in Chapel Hill, partly due to the fact he wasn't able to land the kind of players that would have elevated the Tar Heels to the top of the ACC standings, last Wednesday Bunting spent his first signing day in a long time not fretting over the fax machine.


And it was the same story for John L. Smith, the former Michigan State coach who was let go because he was losing too much, in part because his players weren't talented enough to get him more Big Ten W's.


Success in college football, of course, has always largely been predicated on having the best players, but only recently have the implications of recruiting shot through the roof.


With the advent of the Internet and the subsequent sprouting of web-based recruiting services, there's been an incredible surge in fans' national interest in their teams' recruitment of 17- and 18-year-old kids. No longer are there any unknowns out there. Fans are well aware of the recruits--which ones are available, which ones aren't and who's better than the rest. Most importantly, they want to know why their team can or can't reel them all in.


"Everybody knows about everybody," Smith said. "The old days of finding a kid under a rock are less and less. You can't do it anymore. The kid in Timbuktu, everybody knows about that kid in Timbuktu."


The increased focus on recruiting has raised the stakes for coaches like never before. Expectations can be unreasonably raised amidst the press and publicity surrounding the landing of a few talented top-tier recruits. On the other end, bringing in a less-than-stellar class of freshmen leaves the fan base grumpy and groaning with diminished expectations and can potentially shrink support for a coach and his staff.


"There's so much emphasis placed on your recruits," Bunting said. "You're never going to hear a coach say that we had a lousy recruiting season. I look back onto my first one, when we beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, we did have a lousy one. And I let two or three coaches go because we didn't do well."


Losing erodes the patience of fans and administrations alike, as winning is clearly priority No. 1 in college football. That pressure to win has put more coaches' jobs on the line than ever before, meaning that when it comes to recruiting, you literally either sink or swim.


"It's the second season," Bunting said. "It's so important nowadays because of the age of the Internet. Everybody is following you; everybody is judging you based on what you do."


Recruiting and the days leading up to national signing day have become one of the most agonizing parts of a college coach's job. To have their livelihood resting on the word of a kid has shot stress levels through the roof as coaches try to land the players who hold the key to their future.


"This day is so important," Bunting said. "To me, the chase and the hunt were fun. You'd get your heart torn out maybe prior to signing day, but the last 48 hours when you can't go out and see anybody and you're hearing things and reading things, it drives you nuts. I would go crazy."


And no longer is recruiting just a few months a year deal. It never stops.


"Recruiting is a year-around process from signing day," Smith said. "Some of it has started two years earlier. We committed a kid as a sophomore. Some of those kids we've tried to hang on to for two or three years. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't."


Recruiting is also one of the sketchiest parts of college football. The stories of money under the table, promises never kept and ethical breaches on the part of coaches have plagued the game for years.


"It's turned into a bad part from our standpoint because every coach is pressuring that kid, pulling at that kid, `Well, you really didn't mean that, did you?'" Smith said. "Even though you as a coach, on the other hand, are trying to keep your commitments, `Oh, come on now, you have to be solid. Your word means everything.'"


The top-rated recruits get pulled in a thousand different directions, pressured from every conceivable angle before that first Wednesday in February when they can officially sign with a school. Even if a player has already gone on the record as having verbally committed to a school, very rarely does that stop the badgering.


Smith said whenever Michigan State learned one of the players it was recruiting decided to commit to another school, they would back off. But he knew of plenty of schools that would never stop going after a recruit until he was signed.


But that's the nature of today's recruiting game, a game that has so drastically altered the landscape of college football that, according to Bunting, the two most important positions in a program have become the director of football operations and the recruiting coordinator.


And it all culminates in signing day, that anxious day when the fax machine is stalked endlessly while waiting for recruits' letters to arrive. 


"Once the final fax comes in and you know where you stand, clear and cut, then it was time as a staff to have a little get together," Smith said.


Once those few hours are done, it's time to start fretting and stressing over who the next batch of freshmen is going to be. There are kids all over the country, in only seventh or eighth grade, who will one day hold the jobs of hundreds of coaches hostage. It's all part of the game. Smith and Bunting know it as well as anyone.



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