Rejection memories still linger for coaches

For coaches who put their hearts and careers on their sleeve each February, nothing turns their stomach like the recruits who turned them down.

Updated: February 7, 2007, 11:49 AM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Ira Gershwin wrote his lyrics about love, not recruiting. But his words that paired up with Harold Arlen's music apply just as well to the coaches who put their hearts and their careers on their sleeve every February.

The night is bitter
The stars have lost their glitter
The winds grow colder
And suddenly you're older
And all because of the man that got away.

As Signing Day 2007 comes and goes, we asked several veteran coaches about the one recruit in their careers whose turndown still causes the coaching stomach to turn. Ever since this world began, there ain't too much sadder than The Player That Got Away.

Mack Brown
Texas head coach

(Brown took over at North Carolina in 1988 and went 1-10 in each of his first two seasons. In 1990, the Tar Heels surged to 6-4-1).

Heath Shuler
US PRESSWIREMack Brown tried to get Heath Shuler to be a Tar Heel instead of a Vol.
When I was at North Carolina in the early '90s, we were trying to turn it around. In 1991, Heath Shuler was a great player with a big name in the state and nationally. We felt like he was a guy we needed to make a huge step in building our program.

Heath was a really talented quarterback but most importantly, when you watched his high school games, he was the guy that took over as the leader on the field and made everyone on the field play better. That, and the name recognition [he had] as a high-profile recruit, was something we desperately needed. We felt that we couldn't make that turn in the program until we got one of those guys that sent a message that Carolina was the place to be, the place to go.

Heath and I had a lot of great conversations, and I really enjoyed getting to know him. He came in for a visit and we thought it was down to us and Tennessee. We were really disappointed when we didn't get him. It worked out well for him because he had great success at Tennessee and ended up being a first-round draft pick.

In our latter years at North Carolina, we started getting the top in-state guys but we weren't quite there yet when we recruited Heath. We still were in the building process. Heath was one of the big targets we had early on there and we felt like we just missed on him.

Sparky Woods
Former head coach, South Carolina, Appalachian State
Alabama running backs coach (2003-06)

I was at Iowa State coaching (1979-82) and I recruited Chicago. I had been recruiting this running back for about three years. His name was Alvin Ross. He was from West Aurora High School in Aurora, outside of Chicago. I had a great relationship with him. He came to our camp. We had Dwayne Crutchfield (a two-time All-Big-Eight back). He was going to take over for Dwayne.

Oklahoma was recruiting him. Alvin had told me he was coming to Iowa State. I signed five kids out of that area that year. One of them ended up being captain. I had a good year. When Alvin went on his trip to Oklahoma -- the rules were a little different then -- I could go to the airport and carry him home. Billy Sims flew back to Chicago with him on his way back to Detroit.

The first time that (Sooners coach) Barry Switzer came to Alvin's school, they turned out classes and Barry spoke to an assembly. Oklahoma and UCLA were in on Alvin. I thought we were OK because Barry was going to sign Elijah Pitts' son out of New York at 8 a.m. The plan was for him to fly from there to Chicago and try to sign Alvin.

Alvin had told me he was going to sign with us at 8. I had our head coach Donnie Duncan there. Again, the rules were different then and he could do that. Well, Elijah Pitts' son changed his mind and went to UCLA. Barry came straight to Chicago and spent the night on Alvin's couch. The dad got involved. Alvin signed with Oklahoma at home. We were out in the yard, trying to get in.

Recruiting is a lot better than it used to be.

I never thought the kid wanted to go to OU. I thought he wanted to come to Iowa State. He went to Oklahoma and had a great freshman year. [After that,] I don't really know what happened.

I invested a lot of days in him and didn't get him.

Tom Williams
San Jose State defensive coordinator
Former Washington assistant

For me, there were guys at Washington that we didn't want to take that still bother me, like Kenechi Udeze. Coming out of high school in 2000, he was 330 pounds. Udeze played offensive line and defensive line in high school. We thought at 330 he fit in as an offensive lineman. He had nimble feet.

Kenichi Udeze
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesKenechi Udeze excelled at USC after Washington let him get away.
When I looked at him, I was thinking he was going to be a good offensive lineman. Our head coach, Keith Gilbertson, was looking at video of him. He said, "Yeah, he's got really good feet. He moves well. I just think we can find better."

I'm thinking, "Gilby's been around. He knows what he's talking about."

Udeze goes to summer camp at USC before his senior year at 330. USC tells him, if you lose weight, we'll consider bringing you in here in January. He shows up at 280 and ends up a first-round draft choice at defensive end.

I feel good about my evaluation. I wish I was able to be more persuasive. It was hard for Gilby to see him being a great player at 330. If he didn't lose the 50 pounds, he would have been a good offensive lineman. It would have been hard to imagine him being a good defensive end.

Bill Walsh (Williams played linebacker for Walsh at Stanford) always said, "Don't tell me what he can't do. Tell me what he can do." Can he run fast? Change direction? All the things that God gave him, and then, with coaching, he can become a player.

Bill Cubit
Head coach, Western Michigan

The one guy I had was Santana Moss, when I was an assistant here (in 1997). It was pretty amazing. He played on the Florida state championship team at Carol City. He only caught 18 balls. He was a state champion in the triple jump, a great athlete. They didn't throw the ball that much. They had eight or nine guys sign that year.

Santana Moss
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesSantana Moss almost ended up in the MAC instead of at Miami.
We had recruited Robert Sanford, a running back who is still the all-time leading rusher at Western, from Carol City.

Santana was a guy I was on and nobody else was on. I brought him to campus. He was really interested. He told me, "Coach, I have one little issue. If that works out, I'm coming to Western Michigan."

And then Miami offered him a track scholarship.

That was when Miami was on NCAA probation. We thought we had him. We recruited two other kids from Carol City that year who became four-year starters for us. I worked so hard to get Santana up here.

He was a joy to recruit. I didn't think he would be as good as he was. Nobody did. I thought he would be a good player in the MAC. My staff [knew] a couple of guys on the Miami staff. That fall they asked, "How's that Santana kid doing?" The Miami coaches said, "He's the best guy we've got."

I always tell our guys, if you see Santana, make sure you tell him you're from Western Michigan. I saw him the next spring after he signed. They have those jamborees. He came right up to me and spoke. He's a great kid and comes from a great family.

Woody McCorvey
Mississippi State offensive coordinator

For me, it was probably Tim Worley. I was at Clemson in the mid-1980s. He was in Lumberton, N.C. We felt like we really had a good shot at him. We were a running football team. He wanted to play tailback. I had been on him the whole time.

I figured it was between us and North Carolina but it came down between us and Oklahoma. Jim Donnan was coaching at Oklahoma. It went on a couple of weeks after the signing date. Jim and I still thought we had a good shot. Through the whole recruiting process I was about 80 percent sure we were going to get him.

And Tim went to Georgia. How did that happen? Bill Dooley had been the head coach at North Carolina. He knew something about the family in Lumberton. Jim had been on Bill's staff. Bill knew both of us were on Tim. The kid couldn't make his mind up.

Danny Wuerffel
US PRESSWIREWoody McCorvey thought Gene Stallings had convinced Danny Wuerffel to roll with the Tide.
Bill talked to his brother Vince (then the Georgia head coach). Georgia was really doing well. They featured the tailback. They had had a lot of good tailbacks. He was a good back. He had a good career and went on to the NFL.

Another one was Danny Wuerffel, when I was at Alabama in the 1990s. I had been recruiting Danny. He came to Tuscaloosa for a recruiting visit during the week. He didn't come on the weekend. Coach (Gene) Stallings had a lot of time to spend with him. Danny even went to a lot of classes. Coach Stallings took him bowling. That was something Stallings did with his son Johnny (who has Down's Syndrome).

Danny had a really good experience. The best thing that happened was he was there during the week. He was really looking forward to coming to Alabama. Being the type of person that Danny is, and seeing Coach Stallings in that environment, a lot more relaxed, it wasn't like a weekend when everything is hurried and rushed. Coach Stallings had a lot more time to spend with him. It opened his eyes up to where he thought, "Maybe Alabama is a place where I could thrive." He got back and got in that Florida environment. As [signing day approached], he turned to Florida.

Al Borges
Auburn offensive coordinator

When I was at UCLA, there was one kid that we got who then got away. We had J.P. Losman. I recruited him and got him. Losman is from Venice, not 10 minutes from UCLA. He came for 15 days of spring practice in 1999 and competed against four other quarterbacks. He didn't want to compete against four quarterbacks. He wanted to come in and play right away.

The job was open. Cade McNown had just graduated. The four quarterbacks were Cory Paus, Drew Bennett, now a wide receiver with the Titans, Scott McEwan, and Ryan McCann -- four kids who had been on campus. None of them had played.

How do you get five quarterbacks all the snaps you need to find a starting quarterback? After awhile, you have to make some decisions. He realized he wasn't going to be the starting quarterback and he jumped ship. After 15 days he left and went to Tulane.

Carson Palmer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesAl Borges regrets not trying harder to get Carson Palmer to UCLA.
What a great talent he was. I liked the kid and I liked the mom. I knew in time that kid was going to be a great player. He played behind Patrick Ramsey for two years at Tulane. It worked out great for him.

I sure would like to have kept the kid. He wanted to play right now. I didn't feel like he was ready. In time, I knew he would be ready. He could the throw the hell out of the ball and he was mobile. I knew he would be a talented quarterback. He would have been a good player at UCLA.

You want one that got away. Here's another one where it's more like I picked the wrong guy. Carson Palmer.

Here's the deal: When I was at UCLA, I had to pick between him and another quarterback, this kid from Thousand Oaks. I don't care to say who it is. (Note: When Palmer signed with USC in 1998, UCLA signed Ryan McCann from Westlake Village, the next town over from Thousand Oaks). I had Carson Palmer's tape and the other kid was a really good high school quarterback. Bobby Field brought in Carson's tape. I liked him. I didn't enthusiastically go on Carson. Boy, do I regret doing that.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com