Forget all the stories you’ve heard about wild recruiting trips when prospects take their official visits to campus. The good stuff, as football fans learned Thursday at the Bill Dooley Pigskin Preview, comes from the coaches who travel from city to city to lure these players.
Coaches and their assistants spend hours on the road, traveling across the country to the homes of high school athletes, selling their school to the kid and why they should sign.
These trips include long hours in rental cars and a lot of down time in airports. Home visits are common and it gives coaches a chance to sit down with the entire family, on their turf, to get to know each other better. Kids come from all kinds of backgrounds, and their living situations aren’t always ideal. But it is necessary to make that connection in the home, maybe the most critical part of the process.
At the Pigskin Preview, Triangle coaches David Cutcliffe, Larry Fedora, Dave Doeren and Jerry Mack told their best stories from their many years being on the road.
Cutcliffe, Duke’s head coach and resident storyteller, recalled a time when he was a young assistant at Tennessee. This particular trip took Cutcliffe and another assistant to south Georgia at a time when a cold wave had come through the deep south. Cutcliffe said it was 14 degrees outside and he was going to see a family that was raised similar to himself, not very affluent, as he put it.
“There were a lot of cracks in the walls of this home and they have one piece of furniture,” Cutcliffe said. “They have a plastic covering on this couch and that’s where I was directed to sit. They have space hitters going. It was 14 degrees outside and 125 degrees inside.”
Sweating through his coat and tie, Cutcliffe was giving his pitch, selling Tennessee to this kid and his entire family, which suddenly included some unwelcomed guest who were apparently trying to soak up some of that heat as well.
“I realized every cockroach in that area had come to find that heat,” Cutcliffe said. “I had them crawling them up my leg. That was one of the shortest home visits I ever had.”
Cutcliffe suddenly started questioning just how good that kid was and if it was worth it to sit through the home visit and put up with insects making their way up his pants leg. In the long run, he didn’t sign the player.
There were roaches, but luckily there wasn’t food involved. As Doeren, head coach at North Carolina State, explained, you always eat the food when you go on a home visit.
“You want the player, you’re going to eat the food,” Doeren said.
Doeren’s travels took him to Los Angeles, and like Cutcliffe, into a home where the family didn’t have much. What the family did have was a talented wide receiver who “could fly.”
Doeren was asked by the mother if he wanted some aqua, the spanish word for water.
His reply, “si, I’ll take some aqua.”
When the mother returned, she had two glasses of water from the tap. The only problem was the water looked like tea and had some objects floating around.
“Water isn’t supposed to have things floating in it,” Doeren said. “Coach looked at me, I looked at him and we kind of gave each other a nod and we drank the water down.”
The rest of the conversation Doeren looked over and the assistant coach who travelled with him was constantly picking objects from his teeth. Doeren, however, said they stayed a long time and drink all the water offered and, yes, they signed the kid.
“The things you do at the dinner table,” Doeren said. “It’s not healthy, but you’re not saying no.”
Mack, the fourth-year coach at North Carolina Central, found himself traveling to Virginia for a player. The kid kept calling to make sure Mack and his staff were still coming. Mack assured the player they were on their way to the home. Once they arrived, the player greeted Mack and his staff outside, relieved they had arrived in time for the big meal. Once inside, Mack and his staff saw the spread of Little Caesars pizza waiting for them.
“That was the full court meal they worried us for hours and hours about coming to get,” Mack said.
Sometimes it doesn’t take much to impress a prospect. When Fedora, North Carolina’s head coach, was an assistant at Baylor, he was recruiting a defensive end from the state of Oklahoma, who was already committed to Nebraska, at a time when Nebraska was on top of the college football landscape. Fedora said the player had been on other visits and didn’t like to fly, so they got him to drive from Oklahoma to Texas to take his official visit. Fedora admitted he didn’t think they had a chance to sign the player, but he came down anyway. As they were walking around campus the tour guide pointed out the bear den on campus, where they keep, obviously, the bears. That made the prospects’ ears perk up.
“‘You have a bear on campus?’” Fedora remembered the kid asking. “We were the Baylor Bears, so we had a live bear on campus.”
The player was suddenly all about seeing the bear. He went down to the den to see the bear and after a few minutes he was sold.
“He turned around and said, ‘you got a bear, I’m committing,” Fedora said. “He went onto be a first-round draft choice and played for many years in the NFL, so you never know.”