Human factor usually holds the most sway with recruits

Published February 1, 2005

Schools' nonathletic aspects can take a back seat to relationships with coaches, even those not guaranteed to last.

Danny Tolley had a decision to make, perhaps the most important of his life.

The Wesley Chapel senior offensive lineman did the research, talked to the right people, even visited the campus.

But when the time came to choose a college, one consideration trumped all others.

"For me, it was a coach," said Tolley, who credited South Florida offensive line coach Greg Frey with securing his oral commitment last month. "He started recruiting me as ... a junior, and we just got along great right off the bat."

More than academics, social life, campus, location or tradition, many prospects make their decisions based on the most unstable part of a program: coaches who could leave at any moment.

In Division I-A alone, 22 schools - nearly a fifth of the 117 - including four in the SEC, have changed football coaches recently.

The effect on recruiting, particularly late in the season, has been significant.

"I think it is a bigger year because of all the changes, especially in the Southeast," said Jeremy Crabtree, editor of the recruiting Web site rivals100.com. "It's happened in the past, but to this magnitude it's something I haven't seen since I've been covering recruiting in eight or nine years."

In some cases, a coaching change was enough to make a prospect drop a school he had long considered. For others, the right name turned an also-ran into a front-runner.

Cornerback Bryan Evans of Jacksonville Ed White, a four-star recruit, according to rivals100, might be the best example. Largely because Evans' former high school coach, Dan Disch, was an assistant at Florida, Evans seemed a lock to go to Gainesville. But after coach Ron Zook and recruiting coordinator Mike Locksley left for Illinois, Evans orally committed to Georgia.

Running back Antone Smith of Pahokee, Florida's Mr. Football, shied away from Florida after Zook left because he didn't know anything about the new coaching staff, Pahokee coach Leroy Foster told Jamie Newberg, the national recruiting analyst for scout.com.

Florida lost out on former Plant and Southern Cal receiver Mike Williams a few years earlier. Williams said at the time he would have gone to Florida had Steve Spurrier not left for the NFL.

"What I believe is critical in recruiting is the player-coach relationship," Newberg said. "A lot of kids will tell you, "I'm committing to this school because I can play earlier,' or "I like the program,' or "It's the SEC,' or "I'm on TV,' or "They put players in the (NFL).' But at the end of the day, probably the biggest factor is the player-coach relationship."

College coaches build relationships with players, their families and high school coaches.

But it's not usually the head coach laying the foundation.

Most schools assign an assistant to recruit an area of the country. The position coach and head coach follow up with players who interest them. Typically, the position coach spends the most time with the player with the head coach brought in to seal the deal.

In some places, that is starting to change. Unlike Florida State's Bobby Bowden, who leaves most of the recruiting to his assistants, Zook, Phil Fulmer of Tennessee and Pete Carroll of Southern Cal get involved much earlier. Rather than wait until December or January to close a deal, they begin working during the May evaluation period.

Frey, a tackle on FSU's 1993 national championship squad, started recruiting Tolley during his junior year. Though Tolley liked USF's new sports complex, Big East affiliation and proximity to his Wesley Chapel home, in the end, it was Frey who steered him toward the Bulls.

"I liked his personality," Tolley said. "He just liked to joke around and have fun. But when it came down to business, he'd get after it, and I just loved that."

Jefferson running back Alex Suber looked for honesty. He considered San Diego State, USF and Indiana but went with Middle Tennessee because he believed its coaches were sincere in describing his future role.

"They never promised me anything," Suber said. "They told me I could be a running back but never promised me anything. They told me if I worked hard I could earn it. They would give me a shot."

That's fine as long as the staff remains in place. The trouble with committing to a coach is there is no guarantee he will be there for all or even part of a player's stay.

Before Florida fired him, Zook heavily recruited quarterback Jonathan Garner of Daytona Beach Mainland. But Zook's replacement, Urban Meyer, prefers a different style of quarterback. So Garner fell off the Gators' wish list before committing to Georgia Tech, said Larry Blustein who publishes floridakids.us and covers the state of Florida for scout.com.

Middleton lineman Will Bergen immediately saw the pitfalls of choosing a school based solely on the coach. Three schools he considered, Illinois, South Carolina and Pittsburgh, hired new coaches.

One change, however, worked in Bergen's favor.

Zook and former offensive line coach Joe Wickline originally recruited Bergen to Florida. When Wickline followed Zook to Illinois before joining Mike Gundy's staff at Oklahoma State, the initial contact led to opportunities for Bergen at all three schools.

"A lot of doors opened with coaching changes," Bergen said, "particularly if they really want you and they continue to follow you as they change colleges."

Though Zook was a big part of his decision to choose Illinois, Bergen said academics ultimately swayed him away from South Carolina.

"They didn't have a strong enough engineering program," said Bergen, who travels 45 minutes every day from Valrico to Middleton because of its engineering program.

Blustein believes a school's tradition is the major factor.

Former Orlando linebacker Brandon Siler said Zook was a consideration in his decision to attend Florida. But he looked at other factors, too.

"When you come to a big university like this, you look at all the stuff they have on the table. They have a big support program. They have great academics. They have great football, and they're going to have some of the best coaches," Siler said. "But when you get here, you've got to make sure it's an environment that you want to be around. And you've got to make sure that the people are people that you can spend the next three, four or five years out of your life with."

Blustein said if a player grew up cheering for a school, he is likely to go there no matter the coach.

Offensive lineman Davin Joseph, for example, committed to Oklahoma a couple of years ago despite offers from Miami and other schools simply because he wanted to attend the school, Blustein said.

"The school sells itself," Blustein said. "The University of Florida on a Saturday afternoon against Tennessee, against Arkansas, against anyone else, is going to put 80,000-plus people in the seats. And the kids want that and (to) go on the road to Mississippi State, go to Jacksonville to play Georgia."

Coaches recognize it is smarter to sell recruits on their school and its history because they always are going to be there, Blustein said. If the coach leaves, he likely will be replaced by an equally successful one with similar aims.

"When you talk about Miami, Florida, Florida State, I don't care if tomorrow everybody left because you know tomorrow who they hire is going to be fairly high profile," Blustein said. "At the end, it's going to be the program and what they've done and what they're going to do."

Florida is showing that now. Though it lost recruits in the weeks after Zook's departure, Meyer won many back. Louis Murphy of Lakewood, a Florida oral commitment, took trips to N.C. State and Maryland after Zook was fired but recommitted to the Gators after meeting Meyer.

Coaches, however, remain a powerful draw.

Each year, Rivals has Junior Days throughout the country where it invites speakers to educate prospects about the recruiting process.

"The speaker says, "Don't ever make a decision based upon a coach,"' Crabtree said. "Make a decision based upon academics, your teammates who are going to be there for you, geography, location, other things like that."'

The players might appear to get the message. But after a year or more of contact with a coach, the words sometimes get drowned out.

"They build them up, recruit their family. It's real difficult not to make a decision based upon an emotional bond you built," Crabtree said.

"But this is a lifetime decision for these kids. Once you sign that paper, you're known as a Florida Gator or a Miami Hurricane for the rest of your life."

--Times staff writer Antonya English contributed to this report.