Recruiting coordinators navigate long and winding road to signing day

2/1/2008 - College Football

Wake Forest recruiting coordinator Ray McCartney, who came from a family of five salesmen, learned from his late father that "no means maybe, and maybe is an absolute yes."

As a football recruiting coordinator for nearly a quarter century, he learned that "yes" doesn't mean a thing -- until the letter of intent is signed.

McCartney was talking to one of the Demon Deacons assistants last weekend about a football player who had verbally committed (mentioning names is an NCAA no-no until they sign). McCartney asked where they stood with the player and was told the kid just wanted to take a peek at one more school.

"And then he mentioned the name of the school, and I looked the coach right in the eye and said, 'Coach, that's like telling me that he has one more date and it's with Angelina Jolie,'" McCartney said. "You know something's going to happen. Somebody's marriage is going to get wrecked.

"My point is, we lost that kid. You have to fear everybody. You can't assume anything. The reasons they decide to make these decisions [are] incredible."

The unpredictability of the job is one of the few constants for recruiting coordinators, and with the Feb. 6 signing day rapidly approaching, many have spent every night this week on the road. Some are making their final sales pitches to fickle teenagers; others need some reassurance from the players who have already committed. The coordinators are like the control towers, mapping out what living rooms the assistants and head coach will visit next. During official visits and "junior days" they're more like event planners, setting up meals, academic visits and accommodations -- but every assistant is accountable for luring talent.

Now, their yearlong efforts come to fruition in the form of faxed letters of intent -- or not.

"In recruiting everything goes out the window this time of year," McCartney said from his cell phone in the Philadelphia airport earlier this week. "You thought you were going to Cincinnati, but now you're going to Dallas. You thought you were going to Miami, but now you're going to Newark. And it all is because of the whims of a 17-year-old with pimples that can't make up his darn mind.

"I've had a couple in the last 24 hours tell me they're going to other schools. All we do is say, 'Hey son, best of luck. You're a wonderful kid. Hope it works out for you.' And you hang up the phone and it just kills you. You've gotta remember they're kids. … Right now, being the recruiting coordinator, I'll be in the fetal position under my desk on signing day. There's three or four out there we think we're going to get, but it's like getting engaged -- doesn't mean you're married."

There's no question it's a long courtship, and it's already begun for the Class of 2009.

At Mississippi State, assistant Ryan Hollern is the coordinator of recruiting operations, which is not a position coach, but he doesn't go on the road. Hollern has the sole responsibility of organizing everything from the office, and he's already begun a database for next year's class.

The information these coaches compile on recruits is akin to something along the lines of an FBI file. They know each player's interests, his birthday, address, phone numbers, jersey number, every statistic and each of his family members -- even their girlfriends' names. (At Oklahoma, they run background checks on the players who have signed.)

In addition to inputting each player's personal information into a database, Hollern goes through roughly 30-40 DVD highlight films every day, categorizes them by position and logs the ones with the most potential into a shared computer system in the office. He slaps a numbered sticker on the DVD and files it away. (This week he was on No. 1,375.)

There are also a few basic tasks that simply cannot be overlooked -- like making sure there is paper in the fax machine on signing day.

"It hasn't happened here, but I've heard some horror stories about guys sitting there waiting for a fax, and then finally they check and they're out of paper," Hollern said. "I'll probably do that next Tuesday night."

Hollern also cuts highlight videos from recruiting Web sites and logs them into a popular computer database system called Recruiting Radar, a Web site with a logon so coaches can work from home or send mass e-mails to every recruit at once.

"We're definitely efficient," Hollern said.

At Nebraska, where a new staff under Bo Pelini had to play catch-up on the recruiting scene, linebackers coach Mike Ekeler went to great lengths to ink a standout linebacker who was heavily recruited by Illinois and Missouri. Nebraska had one chance left to win the recruit over, just two days before he was expected to announce.

On Sunday, just two hours before their visit, Ekeler took a trip to "Guns 2 Roses," a tattoo parlor in downtown Lincoln that squeezed the coach in after he pleaded his case.

Ekeler walked out with a temporary tattoo of a rather large skull and crossbones on his shoulder, and the word "Blackshirts" underneath it. The recruit's last name was written in Old English letters around it.

"It looked awesome," Ekeler said, laughing. "I said I'm going to get this to remind me -- and I pulled up my shirt, a big tattoo on my arm -- I said I got this to remind me that if you don't sign with us you're making the biggest mistake of your life, and I have to look at it for the rest of my life. … It was classic. They were rollin'."

Nebraska recruiting coordinator Ted Gilmore, normally a pretty serious and professional guy, loved it. Then again, it worked -- two days later, the recruit called Ekeler and committed.

It's not always that easy -- or enjoyable.

About two years ago, Arizona State recruiting coordinator Matt Lubick was in Tampa looking for a football recruit when he found Jesus instead.

Well, kind of.

Lubick, then an assistant at Mississippi, accompanied the player's mother to an inner-city church where he was called onto the stage for a little spiritual healing (a video of this exists somewhere).

"It was nuts," said Lubick, son of Sonny Lubick, the longtime head football coach at Colorado State. "The recruit's mom invited me to church with her. Thought I needed to go up in front of the church and get saved."

His prayers, though, went unanswered.

"We didn't even get the kid."

It certainly wasn't for lack of trying.

Some players just have different priorities -- uniform color, stadium size, bowl rings, TV appearances -- you name it, coaches have heard it all. USF recruiting coordinator Carl Franks said even heard about a player who once saw an animal crossing the street, and it happened to be the school mascot so decided it was fate.

"So they took that as a sign of where they needed to go," Franks said, from somewhere in the middle of Florida between Okeechobee and Sebring.

"When you've been a college coach for a number of years, things cease to surprise you or where you wind up. Sometimes you can be in the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale, where you can see dirt through the floors of a house. And you can be in the upper end, where you may be in a $2 million dollar home. I've been down a lot of dirt roads, a lot of nice places and everywhere in between. The most enjoyable part is the chance to get to meet all different types of people."

If all goes as planned, the coaches eventually earn a family's trust -- and some of their best recipes.

Oklahoma recruiting coordinator Cale Gundy, head coach Bob Stoops and defensive coordinator Brent Venables were at a running back's home in East Texas last week. They had been traveling for about 10 hours, and it was around 8 p.m. when they were finally offered some tortilla soup and corn bread.

"We hadn't eaten all day," Gundy said. "…All three of us went straight to the kitchen, got some bowls and started eating the soup."

McCartney had some chicken wings at a home in New Jersey -- one stop on his five-state tour in 36 hours. And that was just Monday and Tuesday.

"Hey, signing day is on Wednesday," he said. "Whatever it takes."

Heather Dinich is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at espn.hd@hotmail.com.