- Mike Fish, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- Here's a tip: If you're a college football recruiting junkie, think again before following in lockstep praise over the talent haul of Notre Dame, USC and Florida. Let's see who really develops into the five-star players down the road, anyway. And who couldn't draw impressionable kids to those locales?
Now, if the idea is to make this a reality check and toss in dicey obstacles, nobody in the college game pulled in a better class than Chris Scelfo and his Tulane coaching staff. According to the self-ordained experts, they landed an assortment of gritty, two-star athletes. There probably wasn't a kid that a Penn State or a Texas bothered sniffing at. That said, it was a sales job worthy of Dale Carnegie just getting 24 Division I-A prospects to fax their national letters of intent Wednesday morning to a school that only reopened its doors a few weeks ago.
Consider the scene as the Tulane staff nervously sat around, often cell phone to the ear, waiting for the official signatures of approval. They huddled in a vacant third-floor room that used to house the athletic training staff, the air conditioning still not operable yet. With neither blinds nor shades to block out the sun, the open windows offer a panoramic glimpse of downtown New Orleans and the Superdome.
There are no donuts or coffee. And the bleary-eyed assistants don't let up on first-year recruiting coordinator Brad Smiley.
These aren't the plush digs of Oregon or Georgia, not by a long shot. The first floor of the Wilson Center, home to the Tulane athletic department, took on three to four feet of water when the levees broke in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The ground level remains a ghost town, devoid of any staff or function, and the glass trophy cases in the rotunda sit empty. The elevator remains down.
The coaching staff only got back in the building in mid-January. Until then, they set up quarters at Louisiana Tech in upstate Ruston, making the bulk of their recruiting trips by car. Four coaches had homes destroyed in the storm. And it wasn't until the last two weekends in January that they could even bring recruits on campus for visits.
Tulane's academic standards are higher than Katrina's floodwaters, and though the waters have receded, the school's entrance requirements have remained the same. The average SAT score for this year's class was 1050. As they did during a 2-9 season that closed with eight straight losses, as they did during a season in which they teed it up in 11 different stadiums, the Green Wave coaching staff persevered through the adversity. They worked against the national image of New Orleans, still wobbly and in disarray after the pounding of Hurricane Katrina. They worked to mitigate the damage done when the city's controversial mayor created a firestorm recently with talk of his vision for a "chocolate" New Orleans.
Asked Wednesday the most frequent question posed to him by recruits' parents, Scelfo quipped, "Is Hershey going to be the Superdome sponsor?"
That isn't to say parents didn't have real issues about Tulane, specifically the city it calls home. Only 34 recruits made official visits to the Tulane campus, down from the typical 45. But of that group, 25 came with parents in tow.
"After all the negative vibes sent out nationally, the biggest challenge this year was getting players to come down and take a look," Scelfo said. "We had to take it from perception to reality in getting kids and parents to visit. Fact is, what's in peoples' minds is what happened to the city of New Orleans back in September. That is not reality. The campus is up and vibrant. And we're getting brand-new facilities.
"For us, the parents were critical. I've got kids. I know that I would want to see what's going on here."
Scelfo offered the example of Nick Landry, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound offensive tackle from Beaumont, Texas, who wanted to visit despite his mother's refusal to grant her permission. As a compromise, coaches talked the mom into coming along two weekends ago when 28 other recruits and parents showed up, which required a full coach bus and mini-bus to shuttle them around town -- and a nice recruiting pitch from Tulane president Scot Cowen.
"I joked with her all weekend," Scelfo recalled. " 'Hey, look, I'll have a bulletproof vest for you. I'll make sure you got 24-hour security guards. And you'll leave safe. If any of that is not needed, now, you consider Tulane.' And that was a case of perception vs. reality."
With his mother's blessing, Landry signed with Tulane, shunning offers from Baylor and Oklahoma State. Others, too, followed suit.
First in the fold was Kevin Leary, a 6-3, 280-pound offensive lineman, whose letter came across the fax machine at 6:04 a.m. Leary made his decision after visiting with his dad last weekend.
"We heard all the stories of the devastation, but unless you're down here you don't see the recovery," Leary said by phone from his home in West Chester, Pa. "Wow, we thought it was incredible down there. It wasn't anything like we expected. I got to go to the French Quarter, got to eat the local food.
"I made my decision right there on Sunday morning. I told Coach, 'I want to be part of the Green Wave.'"
By 7 a.m., three other East Coast kids had officially signed on. Still, Smiley -- the recruiting coordinator casually dressed in jeans and Green Wave jacket -- anxiously hovered over the fax machine. Assistant coach Darryl Mason broke from his cell phone long enough to tell Smiley the six players he recruited from the state of Georgia would be sending faxes from their high schools within the hour.
One of them, Andre Anderson, a running back from Stone Mountain, promptly earned himself the nickname "A" when his letter showed up with only his initial.
Running backs coach Greg Davis Jr. placed a call to another Texas recruit to make sure everything was cool. "OK, just getting a little nervous," Davis said after being told a fax would come soon.
By 7:45 a.m., Smiley's mood picked up after a signed letter of intent spun out of the fax machine from Chinonso Echebelem, a defensive back from Duncanville, Texas. Stepping out into the hallway, the coach dialed up the Nigerian native with words of encouragement: "Good man. Work hard and get your butt down here ready to play in the fall."
Smiley later walked into the room where the coaches gathered, waving a white sheet of paper and calling out: "The Explorer." Tulane had closed on Oscar Ponce de Leon, a 6-1, 305-pound defensive tackle from River Ridge, La.
On the day, only five players from Louisiana would sign. Tulane has typically scored well in-state, with 38 Louisiana players on its roster last year. But high school football in Louisiana was disrupted post-Katrina and coaches struggled to track kids whose families packed up for neighboring states.
So the staff cultivated talent in Texas, signing nine players. Another six came from Georgia, two from Virginia and one each from Florida and Pennsylvania.
"The biggest problem is kids left and then trying to find them," said assistant Garret Chachere, who recruits Louisiana. "On one team, you might have a kid who went to Texas, another kid to Georgia and another to Alabama. Now, the coach is somewhere else and he's not sure where everybody is. It's like everybody was just getting out of Dodge."
That's OK -- the staff persevered, as it had done all fall. By 11:15 a.m., when Scelfo met with the local media, the coach was able to announce this year's recruiting class and chat up all 24 signees. The Green Wave didn't have a blue-chipper in the bunch, but the eighth-year Tulane head coach said this is "as deep and talented a class as I have had here."
Only one early commitment shied away. In the end, the coaching staff overcame the troubling image of New Orleans, the perception of a big city still in chaos. And yes, it also dealt with a touch of negative recruiting in the bitter fight for teenage players.
"Oh, it was very prevalent these last 10 days," Scelfo said. "It was stuff like, 'Well, you know the city is in disarray. The levees are going to break again next year. There are going to be more hurricanes.'
"The way I look at it, is everything is fair in love, war and recruiting. I don't ever take it personally."
With that, Scelfo and staff broke for some much-deserved R&R.
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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