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Recruiting's biggest challenge: to keep perspective

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2001


If you're a college football coach, recruiting has to be a pain. Especially as the young and ambitious mature into the aged and accomplished.

This is the February heart transplant that allows teams life in September. When a cupboard is shy of abundant, recruiting is seen as a life-or-death restocker.

Exaggerations? Always.

Check today's top 20 recruits. Reassess them in five years. Five will have blossomed into campus heroes, five will be solid starters, five will be bench-ridden flops and five will be gone from the NCAA radar screen.

Part science, part crapshoot.

Nonetheless, the signings of gifted teens give clues. Who's truly hot, lukewarm or cold? It's a solid bet Oklahoma, FSU, Miami, Washington, Oregon State, Texas, Florida and Tennessee are going to be strong for a while.

Miami did terrific work in overcoming the late departure of coach Butch Davis to the Cleveland Browns. Breathe easy, 'Canes.

Always, we must remind ourselves, these are kids. What, in a recruiting pitch, sounds obvious to a 45-year-old coach or 66-year-old alumnus can have near zero effect on a fellow scrapping to get a high school diploma.

Don't get floored if a guard picks Georgia Southern instead of Michigan State because his girlfriend is enrolled at Statesboro. Don't discount a blistering Tampa Bay area prospect opting to stay home and play at USF, turning down Nebraska and Notre Dame, so his grandmother can see him play in person.

It's selling, pure but not so simple. Tactics are creative but inconsistent. Too many coaches mislead, even lie. Some work hard at degrading the competition. Young minds are soft putty. Their concrete statements can be followed by 180-degree turns.

Fred Gibson, a football-basketball sensation from the little south Georgia town of Waycross, was pursued by dozens of schools. Last week, he chose Florida, saying he was "committing to Steve Spurrier," and mentioning how appealing it was to also play basketball for Billy Donovan.

Deal not done.

Today, that kid is headed for Georgia. Something happened. What sold him so devoutly on the Gators, then what swayed Gibson to the Bulldogs? Coach Mark Richt, the old FSU offensive coordinator, gives a high-five. Florida's Spurrier, at 55, can't be new to the feeling of being teen-rejected.

How remarkable that Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, in their 70s, both deeply wealthy and eternally famous, still can unbuckle enough zeal to go selling and pleading into the homes of 17-year-olds yet to athletically excel beyond their neighborhoods.

This morning, from Coral Gables to Seattle, voracious fans of university teams with such nicknames as Scarlet Knights, Golden Gophers, Red Raiders and Yellow Jackets are passionately asking, "How'd we do?"

Rich get richer.

As the bull flew and ink flowed, there wasn't much Wednesday gaining on the Oklahoma Sooners, reigning national champions. In the still-fledgling Bob Stoops coaching term, OU is back to dominating mentalities of yore, beginning to resemble the Bud Wilkinson '50s and Barry Switzer '70s.

But, let's get back to those revered elders, Penn State's Paterno and FSU's Bowden. This time, recruiting news is far happier in Tallahassee than State College. Bobby did a huge, quality restocking of his 'Noles roster while JoePa was being outsold in the East by middleweight Rutgers.

Not many days ago, Penn State was feeling chesty. Paterno seemed a lock to sign America's top-rated talent, running back Kevin Jones. Even through thick glasses, Joe could see the powerful, quick kid in an all-white, non-flamboyant Nittany Lions uniform. But then, Jones reversed his field, going to Virginia Tech.

JoePa got mugged. No matter a coach's portfolio or age, he must keep knocking on doors. Traveling, selling and stocking for autumn. Penn State is scrambling, not unlike a long-potent Big Ten Conference brother. Ohio State lost multiple recruits after a January coaching change from John Cooper to Jim Tressel, but rebounded a bit on signing day with Gaither's Lydell Ross. Bowden, after his Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma, took another hit as two-thirds of 'Noles regulars from an 11-2 season were suddenly gone, including Heisman Trophy quarterback Chris Weinke.

Bobby is a renowned reloader. His recruiting this time was the planet's best, an even more important haul than FSU's usual load, with so much incoming talent expected to be immediately competitive for vital roles.

After 15 straight seasons ranked in the Top 4, it would be considered a relative disaster at Florida State to drop to an 8-4 or 7-5 record. Always assuming a bowl will be part of the mix.

If the Bowden luck is good with the raw talent he just bagged, maybe it'll be more like a drop-off to, say, 9-3.

One more time ... Perspective.

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