College football programs all over America come rejoicing this week, bringing in the sheaves. They will sign ballplayers who eventually will determine whether they’re bowling in Pasadena or Shreveport or not at all.
It’s all a great mystery, this recruiting roundup that gets everyone in a lather. The quality of the talent collection is more abstract than French art. We must depend on the kindness of strangers to determine whether Billy Joe from Pine Bluff is better than Jim Bob from Burkburnett.
But 25 years ago this week, I got to peek behind the curtain.
In February 1985, then-OU recruiting coordinator Scott Hill invited me along on a five-day recruiting trip with an itinerary straight out of the Amazing Race.
Fly to Dallas on a Monday afternoon. Fly to Indianapolis on Tuesday morning. Fly to Newark, N.J., on Wednesday morning. Fly to Seattle on Thursday morning. Fly to Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon. Fly home on Friday morning.
A 7,000-mile trip. Six recruits visited. Three sets of parents met. Innumerable impressions formed.
Recruiting has changed in a quarter century, starting with, no way is someone letting me — or anyone else — ride shotgun on a recruiting trip. Bob Stoops would sooner turn over his game plan to Mack Brown on OU-Texas Friday than allow a tag-along make a home visit on Jackson Jeffcoat or Blake Bell.
But times then were a little simpler. A little more trust. A little less paranoia. A little less media. I’ll leave it to others to decide which way is best.
I just know that I learned a lot that week. Rules change and kids change and tactics change. But universal truths remain.
Some kids are better equipped than others to handle the pressures of recruiting. Same with parents. Recruiters have to tailor their message to the audience. They must be chameleons, adapting to the environment.
That’s not an indictment. That’s what good communicators do.
Hill that week visited six players. They included players who never will be forgotten (Jamelle Holieway) and players who never were remembered (Mark White). Players who had strong home bases and players who obviously lived on the brink of oblivion.
Hill, then as now, had a winning personality. He eventually would be fired by then-OU president David Swank for NCAA violations, most pertaining to allowing players to call home using university phones. Then Hill spent three months in federal prison after pleading guilty to felony drug charges.
But before those troubles, Hill was a dynamic recruiter who related well to players and parents. Long on charm, short on BS. Before the scandals that rocked Hill and the Sooner program in the late ’80s, he seemed destined to be Barry Switzer’s successor.
Those qualities were on display on the trip.
We went to Lonnie Finch’s middle-class home in Irving, Texas. Finch was a quiet guy who clearly wanted to be a Sooner. His mother was not so sure.
Finch and his father sat silent while Finch’s mother grilled Hill. Demanded to know all about OU’s academics and didn’t settle for stock answers. Asked Hill why she shouldn’t assume Oklahoma was all about football and nothing else.
I’ve never seen Hill on the defensive like that, before or since, even during his later troubles. But he scrambled to recover. Provided the answers and assurances Finch’s mother sought. By the time we left that house in Irving, she had consented to letting her son sign with the Sooners.
The next night, in a dilapidated Indianapolis neighborhood, the tone was completely different. Ken McMichel sat with his family, and Hill held court. No interrogation.