For new coaches, recruiting equals damage control
For Brian Kelly, Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley, the first priority at their new jobs was just keeping it together.
Keeping together the recruiting class, that is.
Coaching changes at Notre Dame, Southern California and Tennessee have added intrigue to the end of the recruiting season as three of the nation's marquee programs have scrambled to hold on to their blue chippers.
"This is maybe the most suspenseful recruiting season in the 12-plus years I have been doing it," said Jeremy Crabtree, national recruiting editor for Rivals.com.
The end is near, however. National signing day is Wednesday.
Kelly became coach of the Fighting Irish last December in what was expected to be the most dramatic hire in college football after the 2009 season.
The timing of Notre Dame's switch from Charlie Weis to Kelly was fairly typical, giving Kelly about eight weeks to put his stamp on a class that for the most part will be Weis' last mark on the Fighting Irish.
Kelly's task was to quickly establish relationships with players who had spent months getting to know Notre Dame football through Weis and his staff.
"That's probably the most difficult part," said Kelly, who was recruiting before he even had a staff in place.
Kelly and the Irish lost the highest-rated player who had given Weis a nonbinding verbal commitment. Defensive end Chris Martin of Aurora, Colo., is now expected to sign with California. Another highly touted defensive end, Blake Lueders from Zionsville, Ind., switched his commitment from Notre Dame to Stanford.
Lueders said the firing of Weis was a factor in his decision to change his commitment to Stanford, but not the sole reason.
"It's tough when you're recruited by one staff and you build a relationship with them and then a completely new staff comes in and tries to act as if nothing happened," Lueders said. "It's hard to build a relationship in such a short time."
Quarterback Andrew Hendrix of Moeller High School in Cincinnati reconsidered his commitment to Notre Dame after Weis was fired, took a visit to Florida, but ultimately stuck with the Fighting Irish.
"If coach Kelly had not been picked as coach and somebody else had been picked whose system I didn't fit well or if I couldn't get along with them, something like that, I might have gone to Florida," Hendrix said.
While Weis landed several recruiting classes that were ranked in the top 10 nationally by the experts in recent years, Notre Dame's first post-Weis class is poised to receive a ranking of somewhere from 15-25.
For Notre Dame fans worried about their new coach's ability to lure top talent to South Bend, Crabtree preaches patience.
"We cannot judge Brian Kelly on what he did in the last month and a half," Crabtree said. "Recruiting is a year-round process."
If Kelly started the recruiting race late, then Kiffin and Dooley were practically running with refrigerators on their backs. Each took over less than a month before signing day.
Before Pete Carroll left USC for the NFL he had already lined up verbal commitments from a group of prospects that was short on numbers but long on talent.
"The first thing Lane had to do is to convince them that just because you're disappointed that Pete Carroll is gone, there's still reason for you to be here," said Allen Wallace, the California-based national recruiting editor for Scout.com and SuperPrep magazine.
Kiffin, a former USC assistant with a reputation as a relentless and charismatic recruiter (much like Carroll), was able to keep those Carroll commitments locked up and add to them.
While the Trojans probably won't land a top-five class, which was the norm under Carroll, signing day shouldn't be a letdown for USC fans.
Nor is it likely to be a gloomy day in Knoxville, Tenn.
When Kiffin left Tennessee, panic ensued among Volunteers fans. He had already lined up a recruiting class that was expected to be among the 10 best nationally.
Before Kiffin was even introduced as the Trojans' new coach, there were reports he and his staff were trying to lure some of those Tennessee recruits to Los Angeles. Kiffin said he would only recruit a Tennessee commitment if the player reached out to him, interested in making a change.
While several players decommitted to Tennessee after Kiffin left, through Monday, none of those players had subsequently committed to USC. The most prominent player to bail on Tennessee was defensive end Brandon Willis from Duncan, S.C., but he's now committed to North Carolina.
Receiver Markieth Ambles from McDonough, Ga., cooled on Tennessee, took a visit to USC, but still could end up with the Vols or North Carolina.
The hiring of Dooley, the former Nick Saban assistant at LSU who had a sub-.500 record at Louisiana Tech, didn't generate much buzz nationally. But Dooley and his staff have done a tremendous job of damage control.
"With everybody in the dog-eat-dog recruiting world of the SEC coming after their kids, to keep together a potential top-10 class is nothing short of amazing," Crabtree said.
That's because the coach has to deliver a potentially contradictory message. On one hand, he's trying to convince a teenager that change is good. On the other, he's trying to convince the player that, really, things aren't changing THAT much.
It seems as if Kelly, Kiffin and Dooley -- to varying degrees -- have been able to get most of the recruits their predecessors left behind to buy into that idea.
AP sports writers Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind., and Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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