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The hard sell: Recruiting players to a program with no football history

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Thu. September 29, 2011 | Laura Keeley | Email

The hard sell: Recruiting players to a program with no football history

In the beginning, there was nothing.

There were no football facilities at the University of South Florida in 1996. There was no field house at the University of South Alabama in 2008. And there is nothing today at Florida Institute of Technology to show potential recruits when trying to convince them to play for a football team that does not yet exist.

But Tampa Bay players came — and are coming — anyway.

“Whether I’m going to be playing a lot or sitting on the bench, it will be a great chip to have on my shoulder to say, ‘Hey, I was part of that team, the very first team ever at Florida Tech,’ ” said Jesse Hevia, a former Pinellas Park quarterback and a member of the school’s inaugural recruiting class.  

Florida Tech, located in Melbourne, plans to field its first team in 2013 and already has its first recruits on campus. The Panthers may not have any practice facilities or a stadium, but they do have a $2.7 million fundraising goal, a five-year plan designed to take the team from inception to Division II championship-caliber status and a university president who started the program at Florida Atlantic, said John Thomas, the school’s director of football operations.

There are other blueprints to follow, too: seven schools in Florida, Georgia or Alabama have founded scholarship football programs since 1997.

While USF, South Alabama and Florida Tech represent a wide range of schools — from Bowl Championship Series hopefuls to transitional Division I-A programs to future Division II startups — their initial pitches were remarkably similar.

Come start something. Come be our history.

“A lot of schools out there, they recruit by preaching tradition,” said C.J. Bennett, a 2010 Alonso graduate and current South Alabama quarterback. “But there’s not many schools out there that can say, ‘You’re going to be the tradition, you’re going to be the one making history.’ ”

That pitch works on coaches, too.

Most of Steve Englehart’s past jobs had been with “programs that had seen success, but then fell to the bottom of the barrel,” he said.

So when Florida Tech approached him about its head coaching position while he was the offensive coordinator at Indiana State University, he was intrigued.

“The level of talent here in Florida was obviously very attractive,” he said. “The location of this school is ideal for recruiting, and the fact that we are currently the only Division II program in the state of Florida makes us very attractive to that level of athlete.”

There’s more than enough talent in the Florida-Georgia-Alabama region to grow a new program, said ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Hooker. And the option of staying in the state could be enough to persuade a recruit to go to the Division II level rather than a small, faraway D-I school, he said. This scenario would fit perfectly in line with the goals Florida Tech’s board of trustees endorsed in the football plan: increased enrollment, campus spirit and community involvement.

Jace Browne, a former Osceola running back, found Florida Tech’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and his Pinellas County home appealing. After the Panthers found him through an online recruiting service last year, he visited the campus and decided it was a good fit. He thought so highly of the school that he recommended it to Hevia, whom he had played with since childhood.

“I really didn’t have anyone even talking to me anymore,” said Hevia, who after tearing his ACL early in his senior season had no college offers. “The only school that even had a little interest was South Florida, and they didn’t have much.”

After Browne told him about the new program in Melbourne that he planned to join, Hevia went to his high school coach, Kenny Crawford, who got in touch with Englehart. After Florida Tech checked his film and he visited campus, Hevia committed in August.

Both Browne and Hevia opted to wait until the spring to enroll in order to play all four years at Florida Tech. Currently, both are working at jobs and in the gym. The coaches and players keep in touch via email, Browne said, and football practices and scrimmages will start next semester and continue through next year. While there are a few unknowns, such as where the team will build its practice fields and play games after its initial year of using Palm Bay High School, neither recruit is concerned.

“You just don’t know how it’s going to be in the season, and everyone there is new, but you just have to believe in the program,” Browne said.

In the beginning, there was nothing — nothing but the hope to be remembered for all posterity.

“They told us we were the beginning, that 10 years from now, everybody will remember the beginning,” said Joe Sipp, a member of USF’s first recruiting class. “In that first year, being down with the teams low on the totem pole, it was tough to see that. But we kept battling, and it got easier to believe.”

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