Tales from recruit trail
Tales from recruit trail
BY ETHAN J. SKOLNICK | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
February 3, 2008
Chan Gailey, like anyone who has coached college football, has many memories of the recruiting trail. Some gratifying. Some frustrating.
"I had a red velvet cake one night," Gailey said. "Whew! It was just unbelievable."
Gailey is no longer leading the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, fired after six seasons. Now that he's off the trail, however, he has a better shot to be lighter on the scale.
"There's some great eating out there, some mamas that can really cook," said Gailey, the Kansas City Chiefs' offensive coordinator. "We recruited a bunch of kids from Georgia two years ago, and the mamas tried to outdo each other. They'd say, 'I heard you ate a lot at the last one, so we fixed a lot for you!' Then you feel obligated. I gained 10 pounds."
Current college coaches are hoping to gain something different on Wednesday, which is National Signing Day:
They are hoping to secure players that help them tip the scales against rivals. They are worried that their bloated stomachs could be churning by day's end.
For decades, recruiting has been a gut-busting and gut-wrenching experience, one that leaves coaches with plenty of tales to tell. Quite a few revolve around food. Rubin Carter, Florida A&M's former coach, will never forget the pigs' feet: "You hate to turn it down, but you just take a few nibbles and say, 'Hey, thank you very much,' and get on with the recruiting. But yes, I ate a little."
Other meals leave a more pleasant aftertaste, one that can last nearly a half-century.
"The one that tasted the best and was most satisfying was those chicken and dumplings," FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger said.
That was the meal that Joe Namath's mother prepared in 1961, on the night that he invited a young Alabama assistant into her Beaver Falls, Pa., home. That was the night when the high school quarterback announced that he would make an official visit to Tuscaloosa, Ala., where Schnellenberger worked under Bear Bryant.
Of course, Schnellenberger's work didn't end there. Short on cash, he wrote two bad checks to get an airline ticket and then a stopover hotel room for Namath. Then he had to hope, down to his last 50 cents, that Namath wouldn't want breakfast.
"I bought him a cup of coffee," Schnellenberger said.
The rest, as Schnellenberger says, "is history."
Within days, Namath joined the Crimson Tide and later won a national championship ('64).
Schnellenberger's history includes countless unforgettable recruiting experiences.
A few years before landing Namath, he was working for Bryant at Kentucky and recruiting a Louisville-area talent named Pete Dudgen. Dudgen gave a verbal commitment, but Schnellenberger knew that a local car dealer worked for Purdue and was skilled at stealing players.
Night after night, after staying as late as possible at the house, Schnellenberger parked his car around the corner, out of sight but with a view of the porch. Every morning, after waking up, he would clean up in a bus station bathroom, then return to take Dudgen to school.
Once Schnellenberger got Dudgen to Lexington, he assigned three responsible Kentucky players to monitor the recruit's every move until he could officially join the team. One day, one watchdog was negligent. Dudgen disappeared. Schnellenberger called the state highway police. He alleged a kidnapping. He suggested it might have been by someone in a Cadillac with a particular license plate. The police set up a road block, to prevent passage to Indiana.
"I thought we still had a good chance to get him back," Schnellenberger said. "But time passed, and he never broke into the dragnet. I read in the newspaper that he showed up on Purdue's campus."
These days, restrictive rules have changed recruiting. Schnellenberger laments those that have limited home visits, preventing coaches from getting to know players as well, through their family interaction. He maintains that some coaches are just offering scholarships based on ratings on Rivals.com, with less comprehension of an athlete's character.
Maybe the trail isn't quite as colorful. Still, it hasn't become totally bland.
Former Florida International coach Don Strock learned to expect anything, especially after chatting with a wide receiver prospect's mother in Palm Bay … when a state policeman walked in.
"Don't worry, that's my husband," the woman said.
"All right," Strock said. "I thought maybe I did something last night that I forgot about."
Terry Bowden got to do something not every son does: compete with his father.
In 1993, he and his brother Tommy, who was working for him at Auburn, were working on a player named Louis Battles. So was Bobby Bowden, for Florida State.
"Me and Tommy talked about how old he was," said Terry Bowden, who now writes for yahoo.com and co-hosts a radio show on Sirius. "We said 'By the time you are a junior, my Dad will be 65. When you want a recommendation, you won't know what golf course my Dad will be on.'"
The next night, Bobby paid his official visit.
Battles' high school coach told the FSU coach what the sons had said about his "imminent" retirement.
"Son, I promise you one thing," Bobby told Battles. "I'll be at Florida State longer than Terry will be at Auburn."
By 10 years, and counting.
"He was very prophetic," Terry said.
Terry didn't get as many home-cooked meals as his father had in earlier, simpler years. He had a simpler desire.
"I used to consider a coup if I could get families to turn off the TV when I was talking to them," Terry said. "I want to give a speech, and I don't want to be giving it over Jeopardy." Some speeches are forgettable. So are some names.
Terry recalled one visit to a linebacker's home in the Louisiana bayou.
The turnip greens. The brown sugar. The ham bone …
"I may not know where that kid is today," he said. "I don't think he ever played a lick. But that was as good an eating as you could ever have in your life."
Ethan J. Skolnick can be reached at [email protected]