Commentary

UCLA shows its hunger for success

Updated: February 4, 2010, 1:26 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Show up hungry.

For dinner, that is.

Just some wisdom UCLA defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough has picked up over the years on the recruiting trail.

Show up hungry, he says, "Because when you go into a recruit's home, you gotta eat. You can't turn food away."

Common sense, but also common cause for UCLA's staff during this recruiting season, which netted one of the Bruins' best classes in years.

"We pass the phone and we work," said coach Rick Neuheisel, whose bleary eyes looked as if he'd been pulling all-nighters for the past week and a half studying for midterms.

"One man's hunting is another man's recruiting."

The payoff comes on the first Wednesday in February, also known and spelled in big capital letters these days, as "Signing Day."

Even before Pete Carroll left USC the second week of January, UCLA seemed hungry for a big, impressive haul this year.

After Carroll departed for the NFL, the Bruins recruited as if they hadn't eaten in days.

They recruited hard, they recruited smart and they recruited until the final buzzer, refusing to give up on players until they absolutely had to.

"I don't like trying to change guys' minds for the sake of changing guys' minds," Neuheisel said. "But if I see a legit reason that it makes sense to pursue, then I'll stay after it."

[+] EnlargeDietrich Riley
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIUCLA was persistent in its recruitment of Dietrich Riley and it paid off on signing day.

In the end, 22 signed letters of intent came through the fax machine on the third floor or UCLA's Morgan Center on Wednesday, none more important than some of the final files received, as highly touted safety Dietrich Riley (La Canada, Calif./St. Francis) and defensive lineman Owamagbe Odighizuwa (Portland, Ore./Douglas) gave the Bruins an impressive flourishing finish to the day.

Riley was one of several recruits Neuheisel and staff were able to "flip" in the final days before signing day.

Riley, who announced his decision on ESPNU, said that he'd initially given a verbal commitment to Carroll on Dec. 18 and called Neuheisel to tell him the news.

"He just said, 'I'm glad you called and told me,' " Riley recalled. "Now I'm going to recruit you even harder."

Defensive tackle Cassius March (Westlake Village, Calif./Oaks Christian), who switched his verbal commitment from Louisiana State to UCLA last week and signed a letter of intent Wednesday morning, said much the same.

"They recruited me really hard," Marsh said. "They never gave up recruiting me."

That determination is part of the reason why the Bruins ended up netting the No. 10-rated class, according to ESPN's rankings.

It's also one of the biggest differences between UCLA under Neuheisel compared to previous regimes.

"I heard they didn't really come out here much with Marc [Tyler] and Jimmy [Clausen]," Marsh said of the prized 2006 class at Oaks Christian. "But it wasn't like that with me at all. They recruited me really hard."

Neuheisel said that making inroads into area powerhouses such as Oaks Christian -- which yielded Marsh and this year's Gatorade Player of the Year, running back Malcolm Jones -- and Mater Dei in Santa Ana -- which produced offensive lineman Chris Ward -- was one of the Bruins' goals this year.

"That goes back to the concept of territory," Neuheisel said, referencing a statement he'd made last week about there being "an opportunity to claim this territory" because of Carroll's departure.

"There's no question those are big-name operations, well-respected programs, and the head coaches there are icons in the industry. So to go in there, and be successful, bodes well for our future."

All that said, USC had an impressive day too. New coach Lane Kiffin finished strong Wednesday, landing a commitment from the No. 2 overall player in the country when Minneapolis offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson announced around 2:30 p.m. he would sign with the Trojans. However, late Wednesday, the New York Times reported Henderson had not signed his letter of intent. His father, Sean, told the newspaper that Seantrel would wait until USC appears before an NCAA infractions committee from Feb. 19-22 to hear about possible sanctions for the program before deciding whether to sign.

On this day though, UCLA had reason to celebrate without needing to compare its class to USC's.

After spending three or four days of each week for the past six weeks on the road, racking up so many minutes on their cellphones that chargers are ubiquitous in the football offices, sleeping on couches and dreaming about the whirring of a fax machine, it was finally time to rest.

"We all have great wives," Bullough said, when asked how the recruiting process affects the coaches' personal lives. "We all either have great wives, or ex-wives."

Now that this recruiting season is over, he might actually be seeing her a few more hours a day.

The travel is a grind, he says, "But the miles are great.

"My wife and I are going to Hawaii over spring break with all those miles. I've been there a lot the last few weeks for recruiting. Usually I'm just on the ground four hours and then back on the plane. It's tough seeing everyone there on vacation at the beach while you're working."

Was that sunny beach what he was dreaming of in the three hours of fitful sleep he caught on the couch in Neuheisel's office between the hours of 1-4 a.m. on Wednesday night?

"No, I mean we felt pretty good about all the guys last night," he said. "But you never really know until you see the fax come through.

"A couple years ago a kid had told us he was coming and we're waiting all day by the fax machine and it never comes. Then we hear he ended up signing with Cal.

"You never really know. You're putting your life in he hands of 17- and 18-year-old kids. But you've got to enjoy it. If you don't enjoy it, you're in the wrong profession."

And of course, it's best if you show up hungry.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

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