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February 4, 2014
PATE: A lesson in recruiting evolution
AUBURN | Recruiting has transformed dramatically since I went through the monotonous process. The level of intrigue, drama, passion to follow, media devotion to young men having never stepped foot on a collegiate playing surface seemingly grows exponentially each year-and for good reason.
These young men represent the lifeblood, the future of college football. Just as each season ushers in renewed hope, optimism, a clean slate, each new class represents a promising future come fall Saturdays. These kids hold our aspirations and desires for game day successes within their control. Will they put in the required work? Will they mesh and fill holes in our current roster? Will they be quality teammates, people, performers?
Today, with each kid that commits to play for our school, we answer in the affirmative to all those questions. We see what we want to see in each commitment, each targeted player. We see the potential, the needs we hope they meet, the expectations to contribute immediately and discount the realities, the negatives, the uphill battles many face.
That's not a knock on the recruits or those that fervently track it. That's college football. It's what makes recruiting worth following and why sites such as this one flourish. We study every nuance, obsess over eighteen year old twitter posts, wring hands over positive news coming out of rival sites. It's craziness. It's theater. It creates wounds that never heal and joy that only comes on game days. Over the years it's evolved beyond recognition from my personal experience.
I was the tenth rated player in the state of Alabama in 1997, slotted by most as a safety, but in today's world would have been labeled an athlete. Auburn wanted me to play safety, Alabama-outside linebacker, Florida- H-back, Duke- tailback, Vanderbilt-tight end. Long before the days of accessible mobile phones and social media, my communication with schools was mainly our home phone. Every night I was stuck on it. Georgia Tech, Arkansas, Stanford, Tennessee was an average night. No caller ID to screen calls with. The annoying click of an incoming call while on the phone with another school was inevitable.
"Excuse me, Coach Willingham. Coach Ford from Arkansas is on the other line."
"Would you rather talk to Arkansas or become a Stanford man?"
"I'd rather just get my homework done and watch TV to be honest!" was my constant thought. It was droning. It was difficult to be cordial and give up nights of rare freedom on the phone with schools you really had no intention of playing for (UAB, Air Force), yet at the same time not burn bridges or tarnish your reputation with a less than stellar attitude.
Recruiting was new to me. It was a game to them. Several coaches would extend an offer in a nonchalant way, which would draw thanks and appreciations from me. Some would act shocked I didn't think I had a firm offer the entire time. "I can't assume anything coach. I've never done this before. You do it every year. If you don't make it obvious, I'm certainly not making suppositions." That conversation happened often.
These schools do their due diligence. They knew everything about me. They knew my family down to aunts and uncles. They knew everything about my girlfriend.
I'll never forget meeting with Tyrone Willingham of Stanford. He spent all day at my school reviewing both the transcripts of me and my girlfriend, Dana. Mine passed the Stanford test; hers…not so much. His response on the phone that night…"We have some excellent community colleges in Palo Alto for your girlfriend." That was hilarious!
Some of these young men will not live up to the hype. Others will thrive in the environment and make the most of opportunities. The difference is rarely talent or skill, but rather discipline and intelligence. Far too much attention is paid to size, speed, and raw athletic ability over heart, desire, intellect, and personality. It's recruiting meets the NFL combine.
I feel this staff does an admirable job of evaluating both ends of the spectrum. They will pass on a "can't miss" athlete lacking the intangibles of trustworthiness, loyalty, sought-after disposition. They seek to build a team with quality individuals sold on the idea of developing and maximizing their talents for the betterment of the team. They're a staff of tenacious recruiters with impeccable on-the-field results.
Auburn already sells itself. These coaches sell player development, championships, and family done with the firm affection of a father. They sell preparation for future goals in an environment conducive to growth and gratification. Recruits understand they'll be outworked by no team, the privilege comes at a high price, but they also recognize a staff and a community that adores their efforts.
Recruiting can be ugly. The battles to retain elite talent, plant doubt regarding your rivals, maintain unique associations with mommas and uncles and high school coaches, massaging relationships with each for years before the benefit is ever realized, if realized at all, is undoubtedly an incredibly complex task. It's a task well worth the effort, however, because not only is it the next opportunity to improve your football team, it's how you survive. It's the nucleus of a program capable of sustained success.
One poor class, one cancerous attitude that infiltrates a team's persona, one area of need in which you swing and miss can be all it takes to halt the positive momentum of a program, generate a negative perception of your brand, sink you in the ultra-competitive SEC. Finish fifteenth nationally in recruiting and you'll find yourself with the seventh or eighth best class in this conference.
Gus Malzahn has proven he is capable of taking a product he inherits and transforming it into something much better than he found it. It's the reason he's the national coach of the year. Going far beyond "good to great" Malzahn and staff repaired broken into champions. The genius of Malzahn stems from adapting and modifying with whatever cards he's dealt.
That's what makes recruiting under this staff exciting. Malzahn has been masterful creating successes with the talent he's given. In the Bill Parcell's vernacular, he's created gourmet feasts using someone else's groceries. How much better a product can he create when he shops for the just the right ingredients to execute his plan?
I rest assured the young men signing scholarship papers with Auburn University have been vetted by a veteran staff composed of impeccable recruiters, coaches, and men. Lead by a head coach as meticulous and demanding of the intricacies of the game, those exact attributes will carry over into recruiting to pay enormous dividends. The demands of excellence will be placed upon them with the stroke of the pen. They'll be signing into a lifelong family of support and solidarity. They'll play for some of the best coaches in America.
They won't all make it. They won't all have a Chris Davis moment, a Tre Mason career, or a Nick Marshall story. But each of them has the opportunity to make the college they choose to attend a better place.
Auburn football will improve on National Signing Day, and the lives of roughly twenty-five new members into the Auburn family will forever be changed.