tampabay.com

Twisty road led Murdock to S.C.

Coaching chaos pulled the Middleton standout every which way before he landed with Spurrier.

By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published February 8, 2005


TAMPA - As the clock inched past midnight and Feb.1 turned into Feb.2, O.J. Murdock killed time in front of the television watching Fresh Prince of Bel-Air , listening to rap music and preparing his clothes. Typically, he'd be in bed by 11, but this evening he was up until 2:30 a.m.

"I tossed and turned all night," Murdock said.

At a national signing day ceremony that morning before friends, family, high school classmates and coaches, the standout Middleton receiver, one of the country's top football prospects, pulled a red and white South Carolina Gamecocks cap from his lap, placed it on his head and proudly announced, "I'll be attending the University of South Carolina."

The decision wasn't easy.

More than 40 colleges offered scholarships, from Miami to Pittsburgh, and the tugging didn't stop until Murdock signed on the dotted line. Promises were made and recruiting trips offered. Coaches called often, as did the media and Internet sites. At times it was fun. At times it was exhausting. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone had advice.

"I think he learned a lot," Middleton coach Harry Hubbard said.

The process lasted more than a year. The letters began arriving when Murdock was a junior, and in April he flew onto the radar screens of national recruiting services after performing well at a camp in Miami. "We watched him on film and he was just incredibly fast," said Jeremy Crabtree, an analyst for the recruiting Web site rivals100.com.

Murdock's speed was never more evident than at the 2004 Class 3A state track meet in Gainesville, where he placed third in the 100 and 200 meters. During the spring, he had conversations with then-Florida coach Ron Zook, then-LSU coach Nick Saban, Nebraska coach Bill Callahan and FSU coach Bobby Bowden. In the summer, his name began appearing on numerous top-100 national recruiting lists.

Murdock grew up a Florida fan and initially called the Gators his front-runner. But seemingly every week, his list of colleges changed. For much of the process, Murdock never considered leaving the state. But Tennessee crept into the picture. Later, South Carolina did the same. Then Florida fired Zook in October, and when asked after a season-ending loss to Armwood if he still was considering the Gators, Murdock did not hesitate: "No way."

"That really threw him a curve," Hubbard said.

The knuckleball came next. Throughout the fall, Murdock repeatedly told South Carolina assistant David Reaves he wasn't interested. But on Nov.23, the school hired former Florida coach Steve Spurrier, and before long the Gamecocks had Murdock's attention.

On Dec.3, Florida picked Utah's Urban Meyer to succeed Zook. Ten days later, Meyer met with Murdock at Middleton, and when the conversation was over the Gators were back in the picture. "I don't think it was confusing for O.J.," Middleton assistant Deon Maddox said. "I think it was challenging."

The first week of January, Spurrier and Reaves visited Murdock at the player's home and Murdock met the coach for the first time. Sitting in the Murdocks' living room, Spurrier, wearing his 1996 national championship ring, gave his best South Carolina pitch while Hubbard and Murdock's family (parents Kelvin and Jamesena, and grandmother Ernestine) listened, too.

"He told it like it was," Hubbard said. "He really laid the cards on the table."

Spurrier made a good sell, and the prospect of early playing time was alluring. It was then that Murdock began to seriously think South Carolina might be a fit. It had become a two-team race. The program he always loved was battling the coach for whom he always had wanted to play. "Was he confused?" Hubbard said. "I would say so."

Murdock left for Columbia, S.C., on Jan.14 and not long after arriving was watching tape. Not just any tape, mind you, but tape from the Gators' 1996 national championship team. As Florida's offense went up and down the field, Murdock's mind drifted. For a moment, he pictured himself playing for the Gators. But then his thoughts shifted to South Carolina.

He continued to assess the depth chart. One key receiver was leaving. Another, he was told, had grade issues. Before he returned home, Murdock made the call. He committed to South Carolina.

He told only a few people, including his father, but kept the news from his mother and most of his friends because he wanted to surprise them on signing day.

In a brief phone interview with the Times on Jan.27, Murdock said he was leaving for Gainesville the next day. It wasn't until Monday that Hubbard discovered his player didn't make the trip.

"I could have gone," Murdock said. "I just didn't want to. I had been there five or six times before."

Some Internet sites buzzed with questions about Murdock's academic qualification. He says that's not an issue; he expects to qualify. But Florida, he said, would have required him to take an extra foreign language course before he graduated, something he wasn't crazy about having to do. He says that wasn't a major factor in his decision, however, and maintains the Gators never rescinded their scholarship offer.

"It wasn't really a big issue," he said "They were still calling."

They weren't the only ones.

"When they found out he didn't visit (Florida), Florida State called," Hubbard said. "They wanted to know if they still had a chance."

They didn't. And neither did Florida.

As signing day approached, Murdock began screening his calls. One of the ones he didn't answer came from FSU assistant Daryl Dickey.

"I just turned it off a couple of times," Murdock said.

His nerves the night before signing weren't out of fear of making an incorrect choice. He simply was too excited to sleep. Earlier that evening, he told his mother his intentions.

"She already knew," Murdock said. "She could tell."

Not long after Murdock signed, things returned to normal, the way they were before every recruitnik from Tampa to Tulsa knew his height (6 feet) and weight (178). The mail has stopped, the only calls come from family and friends, and as Murdock said Monday, "I'm sleeping now."