The New Big Shots of the Gridiron
The Subject of Bidding Wars
January 6, 2007; Page P4
At Monday's championship game, the most-coveted member of the University of Florida's staff might not be head coach Urban Meyer. That honor probably goes to John "Doc" Holliday, the college's best recruiter and subject of multiple bidding wars that have quadrupled his compensation to more than $200,000 over the past decade.
Little-noticed among the rise in coaching salaries in recent years has been an even more dramatic pay hike for a less visible job: recruiting specialist. The coaches whose job it is to persuade top prospects to enroll at their school have become college-football's most-prized free agents.
In the past three years alone, at least six of the biggest names in recruiting have themselves become the target of recruiting wars that bumped their pay as much as 50%, in almost all cases above $200,000. (Five or six years ago, only a handful of assistant coaches made that much.) The University of Georgia's Rodney Garner saw his pay jump to more than $230,000 from $155,000 after both Louisiana State University and the New Orleans Saints tried to woo him away. And just last month, the University of North Carolina hired John Blake away from the University of Nebraska, using some of the money from a $2 million donation earmarked for assistant football coaches.
Today, the best recruiters are sought-after because of their connections to high-school coaches in talent-rich regions and their willingness to send as many as 50 text messages a day to recruits. Probably no one deserves more credit for the University of Southern California's current dynasty than Ed Orgeron, now head coach at the University of Mississippi. Between 2002 and 2004, Mr. Orgeron helped land three straight top-five recruiting classes, as ranked by college-recruiting Web site Rivals.com, including recent Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and star wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett.
For most of the year right up until so-called National Signing Day on the first Wednesday in February, recruiters engage in an all-out effort to entrench themselves in the lives of their recruits, a job that includes figuring out which family member has the player's ear. "Whoever their guardian is, he'll tell you who that is if you just be quiet and let him talk," says North Carolina's Mr. Blake.
Mr. Holliday has spent most of his career forging ties with coaches and families in South Florida. Currently, one of the best high-school running backs in the country is Armando Allen, a senior at Hialeah-Miami Lakes. In the third quarter of a game this season in which Mr. Allen suffered a leg injury, an assistant coach at the high school received a text message from Mr. Holliday saying the injury had not diminished Florida's interest. Mr. Allen ultimately chose Notre Dame, but Mr. Holliday's move helped vault Florida into the top spot for awhile. Mr. Holliday, a 49-year-old former college linebacker, has only been at Florida since the 2005 season, so most of the team's starting lineup wasn't recruited by him. But Florida had Rivals.com's second-ranked recruiting class for 2006, and so far, for 2007 as well.
Penn State University's Larry Johnson, named the nation's top recruiter in 2006 by Rivals.com, started wearing a jacket and tie on recruiting trips to differentiate himself from his casually attired counterparts. Other tactics are more controversial. In late 2005, when it looked like highly touted quarterback recruit Mitch Mustain was leaning toward another school, University of Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt offered Mr. Mustain's high-school coach a job as Arkansas' new offensive coordinator. (National Collegiate Athletic Association rules forbid offering a high-school coach a job to land a recruit; Arkansas says the hiring wasn't motivated by its interest in Mr. Mustain.)
While a select group of colleges used to hoard the top recruits, NCAA regulations and the growing role of technology have leveled the playing field. Teams are allowed only 85 scholarship players, and it's no longer just the big-budget programs that have the resources to evaluate talent. The explosion of recruiting Web sites like Rivals.com and Scout.com has given all schools easy access to statistics and video of top prep athletes, and e-mail and text messaging make them easier to reach. Plus, more players now want to play as freshmen, which raises the appeal of a less-prestigious program.
NCAA rules require that only members of the coaching staff can recruit, so all recruiters also serve another function on the team, like coaching the safeties or wide receivers. The NCAA also limits the number of calls coaches can make to recruits, but text messaging provides a way around these limitations. Another coveted recruit, wide receiver/defensive back DeMarcus VanDyke from Miami, recently announced he will attend Florida after originally committing to the University of Miami. The reason: Mr. Holliday continued checking on Mr. VanDyke and his family even after the Miami commitment. One morning as he was leaving for early practice, Mr. VanDyke was surprised to see a text message pop up on his phone at 5:45 a.m. It was Mr. Holliday, "just saying good morning," says Mr. VanDyke. "Doc is relentless. That's how he got me."
Write to Russell Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org