Recruiting playing field leveling out
Boise State coach Dan Hawkins is going to South Africa for spring break. His daughter, Ashley, is studying abroad this year, so the intrepid Hawkins family is going to meet her in Capetown for an African adventure.
Ashley Hawkins told her father that it will be nice for him to finally go someplace and not be recognized as the coach of the Boise State Broncos. Dan has a c-note that says she's wrong.
"I've bet her $100 that I'll be in South Africa and I'll meet somebody who sees me and says, 'Hey! Boise State!'" Hawkins said. "I'll bet they do."
It's been that way at every airport, every hotel lobby and every rental-car counter this recruiting season. The coach wears his blue-and-orange colors, and Boise State fans spring out of the woodwork to congratulate him on the Broncos' unbeaten regular season.
"It just blows my mind," Hawkins said. "We're able to basically go anywhere and have people know about Boise State."
You do that, and suddenly it's "Cheers" out there: Everybody knows your name.
Including the recruits. None of the three is ready to shoulder aside USC, Tennessee and Nebraska at the top of the recruiting rankings, and you won't see them signing any national Top 50 players Wednesday. But all three coaching staffs adamantly declare that their breakthrough seasons on the field have translated into breakthrough successes in recruiting.
"How successful we were and how often we were on ESPN really helped us," said Louisville offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. "All the kids I contacted, they all knew about us. No question, we were in on a lot of kids out of state we wouldn't have been in on before."
"It's opened up a bunch more doors than in the past," said new Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, formerly the longtime defensive coordinator. "We've had dramatic improvement of our recognition in California and Texas and so forth. It's had an impact on the level of kid who knows and understands what the University of Utah is."
"We now have access to more guys with legitimate Pac-10, Big 12, Big Ten kind of interest," Hawkins said. "We're not losing as many to teams in our conference (the WAC). We're losing to Michigan, Washington, Oklahoma, UCLA. We still lost a couple to teams in our conference, but we got a kid from Jersey, got a kid from Pittsburgh. We're in a lot of new areas."
Most recruiting services list Boise State at the top of the WAC's recruiting classes. UTEP is making hay off its turnaround season under Mike Price, but the Broncos are still the team to beat on the field and the recruiting trail.
Utah crashed both the BCS and the top five but had to bounce back after losing coach Urban Meyer to Florida and quarterback Alex Smith to early entry in the NFL draft. Whittingham acknowledged that the coaching change "might have impacted a kid or two." But the Utes generally are considered to be pulling in one of the top two recruiting classes in the Mountain West.
Louisville is the runaway leader in Conference USA -- except that the Cardinals are leaving that league for the Big East. They might wind up with the best class in that league, too, pending a couple of 11th-hour developments.
One of those is the signing-day decision of offensive lineman Brian Roche of Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey, who chose Louisville over Notre Dame on Wednesday.
In years past, the only time Louisville and Notre Dame were in the same recruiting battle was when the player came from a Louisville high school. (Example: quarterback Brian Brohm.) The fact that the Cardinals, just seven seasons removed from a 1-10 year, beat out the Fighting Irish for a lineman from New Jersey illustrates their enhanced clout.
With Big East membership coming, Louisville targeted talent-rich New Jersey last spring. Coach Bobby Petrino spoke at a clinic in the state in May, and his assistants swarmed the top prospects.
Roche could be the big payoff, but there were other successes as well. Louisville wrangled a visit from Tom Lemming's No. 14 overall player, linebacker Brian Cushing. The Cards were on the same list with USC, Miami, Notre Dame, Florida, Virginia and Boston College -- for a defensive player from the East Coast.
"We feel like we can go after the best players now," Paul Petrino said. "You'd go into high schools and the coaches used to say, 'These are my five prospects. You don't have a chance at this kid, probably not with that kid, go for the other three.'
"Now, we're maybe going to go for the top three instead of the bottom three. With the season we had and going into the Big East, we have a chance to go after everybody."
Even though Louisville didn't get a superstar talent like Brohm or fellow hometown kid Michael Bush, the coaches believe this will definitely be their best overall class in Petrino's three years.
"What schools always used to use against us is that we couldn't be in a BCS bowl," Paul Petrino said. "Now we've taken away a lot of what people can use against you. We can do it if we win our league."
Utah did it without an automatic berth, of course. Crushing Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl to complete a 12-0 run is as powerful a recruiting pitch as any you can put on videotape.
"We've gotten in on some higher-level kids and we're battling some higher-level schools," Whittingham said. "I'm not sitting here and telling you we're going to beat the USCs of the world on a consistent basis for players, but with scholarships the way they are, they can't take 'em all."
At Boise, Hawkins sounded remarkably serene for a guy in the final days of recruiting. That's partly because he's had to do less last-minute scrambling than in years past -- and that, he says, is attributable to his program's sustained success over the past several seasons.
"We've been a late-January recruiting outfit, waiting to see who was falling off guys," Hawkins said. "Not this year. This weekend we were done. We had nobody in. In previous years we'd have 16 prospects in each of the last two weekends. Now we're able to work earlier in the recruiting cycle, and we're able to get commitments."
And a bangup recruiting season helps make for an enjoyable -- if not anonymous -- spring break in South Africa.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.