TAMPA — George Baker ultimately made his own decision in signing with USF in 2008, but ask Bulls coaches, and the key to getting the coveted cornerback from Miami to back out of a commitment to Auburn was first convincing his mother that USF was the best place for her oldest child.
Stephanie Grant was a big part of Baker's college decision, which is no surprise. She has been a big part of everything in his life.
"My mom, she's a very strong, independent woman. Growing up, it was just me and her and my little brother and sister," Baker said this week as the Bulls prepared for their road challenge Saturday at Nevada. "She always did the best she could to provide for us. … We have a very close relationship. I thank her every day, tell her I love her every day."
Grant has worked the past 15 years as a security guard for the Miami-Dade County School Board. When Baker was younger, she worked two or three jobs — Winn-Dixie, Wendy's, Miami Children's Hospital — to pay the bills as a single mother. Juggling that and getting Baker to football practice wasn't easy, but she saw how much he loved the game.
"I knew there was potential when he started playing Pop Warner football. He was very small about 7," she said. "No matter where he went, he had that football in his hands."
After playing sparingly as a backup in his first three seasons, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Baker is starting as a fifth-year senior, finally finding the focus and awareness to match his speed and athleticism.
"Most importantly, I've stayed focused, kept a clear head, worked hard coming in and watching film," said Baker, who regularly watches DVDs of opponents on his laptop with USF's other starting cornerback, Kayvon Webster, also a senior from Miami.
He has built trust with his position coach, Rick Smith, who had been critical of Baker's lack of focus that led to missed assignments on key plays in last year's loss to Louisville. Smith knew he was ready Saturday — he had four tackles, one off his career high, in a season-opening win against Chattanooga — because he didn't go into a shell in the nervous final hours before the game, as he often had in the past.
"He was amongst everybody, smiling, loosey-goosey, just really relaxed," Smith said. "He's having fun. He's trying to do everything right. All my older kids, every time he did something good in the spring, they were high-fiving him. Everybody on defense wants him to succeed. Them having confidence in him has given him confidence in himself."
Grant was proud of him before the season, before he became the starter, knowing he graduated in May — in four years on campus — with a degree in interdisciplinary social sciences, with plans to work in law enforcement or corrections. Football had always provided a motivation for him academically, first needing good grades to qualify for a college scholarship, then knowing what his first priority was once he got to campus.
"I instilled in him that you need a degree," said Grant, who has been to every USF home game with her children and mother. "What happens if you get hurt? What happens when you can't play football anymore? You need that degree to get a job."
Listening to his mother got Baker to USF in the first place. USF assistants Rich Rachel and Larry Scott worked hard to convince Baker to take an official visit to Tampa with his mother, even as he remained committed to Auburn.
He had committed to the Tigers in September 2007, less than a week before the Bulls went to Auburn and pulled off an upset. Baker agreed to the visit, but insisted on bringing Grant along; the way the Bulls welcomed Baker as part of their family struck home with Grant.
"Going out the door, he was getting ready to head out. I looked right at his mom and said, 'You know he doesn't need to go to Auburn,' " Rachel said. "She said, 'We're going to talk about this all the way home. Coach, we'll be in touch.' That night, he said he wanted to come to South Florida."
Baker said he is building a relationship with his father, who wasn't around when Baker was growing up. Coaches and teammates talk about a maturity that he has found in the past four years, which showed in the classroom and is now providing benefits on the football field.
"I'm very proud of him. Very proud. I would always tell him, 'It'll all pay off in the end,' " Grant said. "He's grown up to a young man. It took him a long time to get there, but he has grown tremendously."