TAMPA — The morning after the keys of Florida State’s football program had unofficially been turned over, new coach Jimbo Fisher sat in the principal’s conference room at Leto High with a handful of coaches, administrators and senior running back Jeremy Deering.
The way Leto recruiting coordinator Frank Rose describes it, Fisher pointed at the clock, then told Deering, one of the bay area’s top recruits: “This is my first day as Florida State head coach, it’s 9 in the morning, and you’re the first recruit I’m coming to see.”
“You could hear a pin drop in that room,” Rose said.
For coveted prospects like Deering, the toughest part of the recruiting process is weeding through the pitches college coaches spin. Their lines vary as much as the recruits they covet.
Deering has narrowed his list to five schools. In the past month, Fisher, Illinois coach Ron Zook, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier and Rutgers coach Greg Schiano have visited Tampa.
A resounding theme in Fisher’s pitches, according to Rose: “I might only have you for three years until you go make some money,” alluding to FSU’s track record for sending players to the NFL.
Zook focused less on a program’s success and more on keeping athletes content: “It’s all about where you’re happy. I know a lot of kids who win a lot of games who are miserable.”
During an official visit to Rutgers this past weekend, Deering said players and coaches told him “it’s a good time to break away and see other places.”
And the night before his trip to Rutgers, Deering sat at Lee Roy Selmon’s, listening as South Carolina assistant G.A. Mangus tried to convince him to change his schedule and make the Gamecocks his final official visit.
“In the end, you listen to everything they all say, but you’ve just got to do your own research and make what’s the best decision for you,” Deering said.
“The bottom line is that recruiting is all about relationships and how they’re forged between a kid and coaches,” Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg said. “Some pitches evolve as the program does, but the great recruiters don’t change too much.”
Tampa Catholic quarterback Christian Green is ranked the ninth-best prospect in Florida and 61st overall. Green says all of his finalists (Florida, Florida State, Georgia) pitch winning, banking on past successes.
“A lot of the time, Florida tells me it’s about national championships,” Green said. “Come to Florida and you have a chance to win national championships.
“(FSU) is one of those programs that always has great tradition. They have a couple down years, but they’re on their way back up. Jimbo is a heck of a coach. He knows what he’s doing. I feel looking at FSU, it’s heading back in the right direction.
“(Georgia) always tells me, ‘Come up there, they’re going to have a chance to win the SEC Championship.’ ”
Robby Pruitt, football coach at Fitzgerald (Ga.) High, has seen his share of pitches. Formerly the coach at Lake Butler Union County and Jacksonville University Christian, he has sent players to Alabama, Florida, FSU, Georgia, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Through the years he has dealt with the likes of Bobby Bowden, Zook, Spurrier, former Huskers coach Tom Osborne and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
And one stood out from the rest.
“To me, it was Bobby Bowden,” Pruitt said. “He’d just have the grandmas and grandpas eating out of his hand. He’d say he knew how to take care of (his players), how it was a family (at FSU). He just had that personality. He felt like granddad. He had a way of making you feel like he cared about you. He just had that presence.”
The Gators also pitch family. Hiram Green, Christian Green’s father, accompanied his son on his official visit to Gainesville two weeks ago. Part of the visit involved a stop at coach Urban Meyer’s house.
“It was nice event,” Hiram Green said, “a family environment. That’s what he stressed, being part of a family. His home is really welcoming. You can tell it’s a family-type home. The kids enjoy it.”
The key, above all, is forming a connection, and even smaller programs are becoming formidable. Take Florida International, just five years in Division I, which is making strides in the Tampa Bay area, having offered more than a dozen prospects. FIU assistant Alex Mirabel immediately found common ground with Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia.
“I remember the first time I met (Mirabel),” Garcia said. “He walked into our conference room and the first thing he said was, ‘I was a high school coach for 12 years, so I know what you’re up against.’ That means a lot.
“He knows what it’s like to coach at the high school level, to order buses and organize pregame meals. Think Lane Kiffin knows that?”
We asked Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg to give us some of college football’s top pitchmen who also recruit the South well.
James Coley, offensive coordinator, Florida State: Coley has high school coaching experience in the Miami area, so he knows South Florida well. He first worked with FSU coach Jimbo Fisher in 2004 as a grad assistant, so he knows Fisher’s values. Stints with the Miami Dolphins and FIU also show he’s been around the block.
Ed Orgeron, recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach, USC: Orgeron didn’t have much success as a head coach at Ole Miss (10-25), but he is well known as one of the game’s top recruiters. Returns to USC as Lane Kiffin’s right-hand man with seven years of Trojans experience.
Charlie Strong, coach, Louisville: Former Florida assistant head coach and defensive coordinator knows the South after time with South Carolina, Ole Miss and Florida. He has a great reputation for connecting with recruits. His departure to Louisville was expected to hurt UF’s class, but hasn’t.
Rodney Garner, assistant head coach/recruiting coordinator/DL coach, Georgia: The prime trumpeter of Bulldogs coach Mark Richt’s pitch of faith and family, he knows the Georgia program well after coaching under Richt for eight years.
Doc Holliday, coach, Marshall: New Thundering Herd coach spent three decades as an assistant, mostly at West Virginia, so he has seen the recruiting game change over the years. Also knows this region well after time at UF and N.C. State.
Giff Smith, defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator, Georgia Tech: Smith, who has spent nearly 20 years as an assistant, has been the recruiting coordinator at Georgia Tech and Tulane, and was an assistant at I-AA power Georgia Southern.
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Keith Niebuhr can be reached at email@example.com