The coaching transition is one of the most difficult challenges a new head coach has to face. Fans think that a Nick Saban or Butch Davis can run roughshod in recruiting the minute they step on campus when it reality the exact opposite happens.
Why? It's simple. Recruiting is about building relationships. An existing staff recruits most of their players for many months, sometimes a year or two. A new coach and his new staff have a mere few weeks. This is a serious disadvantage for any new staff, regardless of who the new head coach happens to be.
First things first, Nick Saban, Butch Davis or any other coach taking over a program can't do it by themselves. They have to go out and hire a staff or should I say recruit a staff. Mind you this has to be accomplished in a shorter time then filling out their respective recruiting class. They also need to evaluate what is on campus within their respective programs and see where they recruiting needs will be.
In terms of recruiting, the easy answer to all of this is to say a prospect should pick a college based on the school, not necessarily the coach or his staff. But that rarely happens, as the coach and his assistants court prospects for months, sometimes years. These recruits and their families and coaches become close with these coaches. There is a comfort and trust level established. There is a bond. When you only have a mere few weeks to try and build what other coaches have been working on for so long it's often impossible to play catch up.
"Recruiting is based on relationships," said John Blake, North Carolina Associate Head Coach and Recruiting Coordinator. "It takes time, lots of time. Then you factor in all the restrictions we (the coaches) have now and it makes it that much tougher. Coming to North Carolina at the time we did it certainly isn't near the amount of time we would like. But you just have to focus on the key guys."
Despite the short recruiting window North Carolina and all the other schools that went through a coaching transition have two main goals; keep the committed players committed and fill out the rest of the recruiting class with prospects that fill needs. "First, you have to honor the existing commitments," said Jerry Petercuskie, NC State Recruiting Coordinator. "At the same time, you have X number of slots of available and you have to go out and get those guys. It's tough to do because you have such a small window to do it when you start over at a new school."
Sometimes honoring the existing commitments is tough. First, a prospect that is committed may want to explore his options and visit other schools regardless. Second, it just may not be a good fit with the new staff and what they want to run scheme wise.
"You have to make sure you keep all the committed prospects committed and that's big but at the same time you have to be honest with these kids, said Lance Thompson, Alabama Linebacker Coach and Recruiting Coordinator. "It's a two way street and you always have to honor the scholarships but you always have to evaluate the kids and see if they fit into your system. But you have to be honest and let them explore options, especially if the fit isn't right."
"You have to look at the kids that were committed prior to us being here and keep them committed," said Blake. "Second, you have to go find some guys to fill out the rest of the class. For us, we wanted to jump on all the top guys because that is what we are going to do moving forward. Third, you have to go get the right kids. We feel good and gave a real good effort."
So it is a two step process for a new staff in trying to secure the prospects that have already committed and then going out to finish up the rest of the class. The later is probably the most difficult thing to do because the essence of the recruiting game is relationship building. When you have just a few weeks to accomplish this it becomes so tough. Sure you may get some elite prospects to take an official visit to your school, but closing the deal is another story.
"First you have to really identify your needs," said Thompson. "Every staff will do it differently. Then you have to establish a (recruiting) board and go get them. But you have such a short timetable it makes things really difficult. You just hope it lays the groundwork for next season and beyond.
"We have been at it 24 hours a day since day one and there is still not enough time. You have to really scramble. You just have to use your network and contacts. We can also sell Coach (Nick) Saban's reputation. That has helped and we have gotten some visits from some great players. That's a good thing but we have to close them and it's hard to do."
More times than not programs under this coaching transition just grind it out, hoping for the best. "We just tried to get these kids and their families to get to know us because UNC sells itself," said Blake. "It's (North Carolina) a national name and it's time to go get those great recruits."
There is no doubt that teams like Alabama and North Carolina should see some benefit from the hard work in recruiting. The Crimson Tide already got a commitment from defensive end Luther Davis (West Monroe, La.), while the Tar Heels have come out of now where to land wide receiver Rashad Mason (Nashville, Tenn.) and they are going toe-to-toe with Florida State for the nation's top defensive tackle, Marvin Austin (Washington D.C.). On the other side of things Alabama has lost a few of their previously committed recruits to other teams while UNC is trying to hang on to wide receiver Dwight Jones (Cummings, N.C.), who is also considering Clemson and Tennessee.
The other part of this is that you don't necessarily have to have a change at the top to be affected in terms of a coaching transition. Look at Florida State. The Seminoles dominated recruiting for so long and are one of the nation's top programs. Yet they have stumbled on some hard times, by their standards, and legendary coach Bobby Bowden made some drastic coaching changes on the offensive side of the ball recently. Those changes coupled with the Seminole '06 season have really put FSU behind the eight-ball in terms of recruiting this season.
"It was mid-November when Jeff (Bowden) stepped down," said John Lilly, Florida State Tight Ends Coach and Recruiting Coordinator. "It was around January 7th when Coach (Jimbo) Fisher arrived to take over as the FSU Offensive Coordinator. We are talking about almost two full months when we didn't have an Offensive Coordinator. That's a long time and much longer than you prefer. Plus, we had four coaches doing the job of an entire staff for that time frame. It was hard because everyone wants to know who the new guy (OC) is going to be and what the philosophy is going to be. It was very difficult because you really just don't know what to tell everyone."
To make matters worse FSU is in need of playmakers at wide receiver and some offensive linemen. Any time you replace the entire offensive staff and things go in limbo for seven weeks recruiting is bound to take a hit. But this is Florida State after all and if history is any indication Coach Bowden and the ‘Noles will be just fine.
"FSU is still FSU. Period. There was always a big concern with the prospects and their families," said Lilly. "Certainly you understand. They want to know about the coach and the system. If we lost a player, coach (Bobby Bowden) would just say there are prospects all over. Go get them."
What you often see at schools like Alabama or North Carolina is that they will pull a few key recruits and scramble to fill out the rest of their class. It's nothing that the Tide or Tar Heels did wrong. This is just how it is for every school that went through the coaching transition. It happens to everyone. It happened to Urban Meyer and Pete Carroll when they took over Florida and USC respectively. It also happened to Mack Brown, Jim Tressell and every other coach. The fact of the matter is that if you are a school under transition in coaching and you find yourself in the top 30 at the end of the day then consider that a job very well done, especially considering how competitive and cut throat the game of recruiting really is these days.
Right now, North Carolina checks in as the top rated school with a coaching change at the top. The Tar Heels are sitting at No. 28 overall in the country and they are moving up. Alabama (No. 30), Louisville (No. 45), Michigan State (No. 46), Boston College (No. 48), Arizona State (No. 50) and N.C. State (No. 63) are holding their own, some more than others.
Louisville, under new Head Coach Steve Kragthorpe has captured the momentum of what former coach Bobby Petrino had started. Since Kragthorpe became the Cardinals head coach he has reeled in some super prospects like linebacker Willie Williams (Culver City, Calif.), running backs Victor Anderson (Louisville, Ky.) and Dale Martin (Bolingbrook, Ill.), safety C.J. Peake (Trotwood, Ohio), and cornerback Woodny Turenne (Visalia, Calif.).
The Sun Devils and new coach Dennis Erickson took quarterback Samson Szakacsy (Camarillo, Calif.) away from USC. Arizona State has also received commitments from coveted prospects like offensive guard Po'u Palelei (Las Vegas, Nev.), quarterback Chasen Stangel (San Jancito, Calif.) and defensive end James Brooks (Flagstaff, Az.).
The new staff at Michigan State was able to land a big time corner in Cedric Everson (Detroit, Mi.) while Boston College grabbed offensive guards John Elliott (East Meadow, N.Y.) and Mark Spinney (Nashua, N.H.).
Recruiting is about relationships and you can't build them without effort. Sure it's a lot easier to do with a year or more to do it. But the reality is so different with schools in a coaching transition. For these schools, the recruiting grind will end on Wednesday. Regardless of what happens they will all have a clean slate as they immediately begin to work on the Class of 2008. It will now be a level playing field and all the teams under transition this season should certainly find recruiting much easier next season.
And the coaching carousel will continue with coaching changes next November and December. It's a cycle of college football that will never end because college football is always under transition.