Commentary

Recruiting relationships pay off on signing day

Updated: February 6, 2008, 8:25 AM ET
By Heather Dinich | ESPN.com

Most people enter Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., through the front door. Not Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. He saves about 20 minutes, skips a few steps (including the metal detectors) and goes in through the lower entrance closer to the football coach's office.

"He knows when I'm coming," Locksley said of Dunbar coach Craig Jefferies.

The principal, guidance counselors, security guards, athletic director -- they all know Locksley.

[+] EnlargeMike Locksley
Illinois athleticsIllinois' Mike Locksley has walked away with a few D.C. recruits.

"When Illinois goes in there," he said, "it's kind of a household name now."

Once inside, Locksley doesn't hesitate to make himself comfortable.

"He comes in, sits back and he is almost falling asleep, he's relieved, like he's at home there," Jefferies said. "It's not a disrespectful thing, but he'll put his feet up and flop down, look around. If I'm eating lunch, he'll ask for some of my lunch. He's sincere about me being a friend to him, and he's being a friend to me. Some coaches come in, they want to try to get to know you so they can use what they know about you to recruit, but he lets you in on him, so you feel a little more connected to him.

"He's played in our league, he's from D.C. He knows what these kids go through. We don't have a state school. Maryland claims us when they want to, Virginia claims us when they want to. By us not having a state university, you have to connect to individuals from different programs."

Those connections are the foundation of recruiting, and coaches like Locksley who have been going to the same area for years naturally have an edge over an unfamiliar face. Some even consider their high school counterparts close friends. The most successful recruiting pipelines seem to develop because of a coach's prior ties there, or simply the length of time he has been coming back to the same schools. Regardless of how the relationships were forged, it's on signing day when they pay off.

Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has been recruiting at Gateway High School just east of Pittsburgh for about 20 years (so long that he knows the secret code to get into the securely locked building).

"He's a hometown regular here," coach Terry Smith said. "He walks into a comfortable environment when he walks into here."

Unlike first-year Maryland assistant Kasey Dunn, who was hired last week from Baylor and met Smith for the first time on Wednesday.

"He walks into my office yesterday and you've got to go through that whole new process of relationship building -- I don't really know him, he doesn't really know me," Smith said. "He doesn't know anything about our school and our traditions. You've got to start from Square 1 to get to Square 22. And he's a West Coast guy, so he really knows nothing about us.

"And it makes a difference because when a coach walks in the door and they ask me, 'Do I have a player for them?' the ones you have a relationship with, they trust when you recommend a player that he is a player. This coach from Maryland, he's got to go through that trust factor to make sure I'm not just giving him an average player."

It's an initiation process almost every college coach must go through at some point in his career, but it's paying dividends now to be a veteran.

"Recruiting is all about relationships and all about trust," said West Virginia associate head coach and director of recruiting Doc Holliday, who has embedded himself in many of the 130-140 high schools in the Dade, Broward and Palm Beach areas of South Florida since the early 1980s. "They know that when you come in and recruit a kid, you're going to take care of them and do the right thing.

"When you've been in an area as long as I have, it helps you because of the contacts you've made and just getting to know the coaches. They trust you and know what you're going to say is going to happen."

[+] EnlargeGiff Smith
Georgia Tech AthleticsGiff Smith has had success bringing Hawkinsville High players to Georgia Tech.

In talent-drenched Florida, where it's not uncommon for one coach to be walking out of a recruit's home as another is walking in, the longtime relationships are particularly beneficial.

Miami coaches are plugged in with Miami Northwestern and Booker T. Washington high schools -- neither of which is more than 18 miles away from campus.

"The high school coaches at those programs, they're not just people we follow up with, but they're actually very close friends of people on our staff," said Miami recruiting coordinator Clint Hurtt.

It also helps that Miami coach Randy Shannon was born and raised in Dade County, and played two seasons at Miami with Roland Smith, the former coach at Miami Northwestern who is still involved with the program.

"Their relationship has gone on for years, for quite a long time," Hurtt said, "so obviously you don't have the issues of trust, or not knowing the person, and obviously that coach can vouch to his kids that he knows who the young man is playing for."

At Cobblestone Golf Club in Kennesaw, Ga., it's not unusual to see Georgia Tech recruiting coordinator Giff Smith and Hawkinsville High coach Lee Campbell on the back nine together. The two of them have developed a friendship beyond their recruiting relationship, and it's paid off for both schools.

"Giff has been so good to us," Campbell said. "He's not one of these guys that comes in and says hi and bye. We've really gotten to be good friends the last several years."

Georgia Tech has nudged Georgia out of the Hawkinsville High hallways. After this signing class, the Yellow Jackets will have four players from there.

"It's been very much a University of Georgia town," Smith said. "We've kind of converted that area down there to be more Yellow Jackets. It's a combination of the success they've had here and also spending a lot of time down there with the high school coach, principal and people of the community.

"It takes a while. … It's not something that happens overnight. Your track record needs to be proven. Once they know they can trust you and that you really do have the best interest out for these young men, they're a lot more open to their kids going to your school. That doesn't mean they're going to push them to your school, but they're going to give you a fair shake."

The high school athletes aren't the only ones Giff has started to convert. Campbell's son Witt, who is in the fifth grade, "was a big Georgia fan," according to his dad.

"He likes Georgia, but he loves Tech," Campbell said. "He's been up there in the locker rooms and all that stuff. It was pretty neat, too, the relationship not only with Giff but other coaches, they remember your kids' names, and Giff, shoot, he knows my wife's name, and my kid's name. When we talk he'll ask how they're doing."

Similar conversations occur at Dunbar. When his visit is over, Locksley leaves the same way he came in. Eventually, a player or two will follow.

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

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