College football recruiters live by their own calendar in the last weeks leading up to National Signing Day.
Dead period and live period.
Verbal commitments and de-commitments.
These are the terms that dominate their conversation.
References to time are irrelevant. You never turn your cell phone off, never reject a call regardless of the time and are thankful for a full night’s sleep, if you are able to get one.
You will be judged on Feb. 2 when players are allowed to sign a binding letter of intent to the college of their choice. Their selection will determine how people will measure you as a football coach and person.
Your life is in the hands of 17- and 18-year-old kids who are often being coddled and are capable of turning their emotions in a different direction over the smallest of factors.
If you haven’t laid the groundwork for this day, it will be a disaster.
“If you wait until the last 30 days to recruit a kid, you don’t have a chance,” says Manatee County product Ray Woodie, who was Western Kentucky’s most successful recruiter last season in his first year at the school.
Woodie has a suitcase full of hats he must wear. He must be part psychologist, father figure and friend. He must have boundless energy. He must be immune to rejection. He must be prepared for anything and weigh the baggage of talented, high-risk players.
“I have kids call me at two or three in the morning and parents and grandparents who call at 5 a.m. before I go to work,” Woodie said. “If your phone is off the hook, you may lose a recruit. You have so many different personalities you are dealing with, and they have questions that need to be answered no matter what the time.”
Though many coaches have been known to twist the truth, Woodie believes honesty is the best policy.
“If you do one thing to hurt their feelings you can be cut off. Trust is so important. It’s something you don’t want to lose,” Woodie said. “It’s beneficial to tell the truth. You don’t want kids and their coaches questioning you. High school coaches have a lot of influence over their players.”
One of Woodie’s cardinal rules of recruiting is never take anything for granted. High school players get pressured into verbally committing all the time, but they are free to change their minds until they sign letters of intent.
“I call those last 30 days the last hour. A lot of things can happen,” Woodie said. “You should know your kids inside and out and have a good feel of what they are going to do. You never really know what is going to happen until you see that fax coming in (signed letter of intent). It’s a neverending battle, and you go until the last second. I am calling kids all the way up until we can’t do it.”
The trust issue is important because while coaches are limited to how many contacts they can initiate, recruits can call anytime.
The worst thing that can happen to a college coach is to lose a long-standing recruit in the final week or even on the final day. It brings negative attention.
“It looks bad if a kid you are recruiting seems to be headed your way and in the last hour he goes off in a direction. That happens, but you don’t want to have too many situations like that,” Woodie said.
The Internet compels a college coach to be honest with recruits because those kids can see if someone who plays their position is headed to the same school. But technology has created gray areas the NCAA seems unprepared to deal with.
A couple years ago, Alabama head coach Nick Saban spoke to a prospect on a webcam, which caused a firestorm of protests, but no violation. The player, Athens (Ala.) High defensive lineman William Ming, eventually signed with the Crimson Tide over archrival Auburn.
Saban, not shy of controversy, caused a stir recently when he showed up in Oklahoma on the high school campus of junior Barry Sanders (son of the NFL Hall of Famer of the same name) and says he accidentally bumped into him. NCAA rules prohibit a college football coach from contacting a prospect off campus until after July 1 following his junior year. If a chance meeting occurs, only a basic hello is allowed. Saban said the meeting was not planned, and he only asked Sanders about his injured foot. Some published reports said otherwise.
But his actions are not unusual. Everyone is looking for an edge.
“When you talk to a recruit, you have to communicate well and tell them you can’t call them, but they can call us anytime. It’s a part of establishing a good relationship,” Woodie said. “In the end, we look at a player’s character, academics and athleticism. If he comes with a lot of baggage, you have to decide whether it’s worth trying to clean up.”