Countdown to signing day's a sprint to finish for coaches

The recruiting trail is well-worn as signing day fast approaches.
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh recently spent a full day with a recruit — starting one minute after the NCAA “dead period” ended. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh recently spent a full day with a recruit — starting one minute after the NCAA “dead period” ended.LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Published January 20 2016
Updated January 22 2016

TAMPA — The most preposterous all-nighter Chris Harvey ever pulled in college came well after graduation.

Harvey, recently named Clearwater Central Catholic's new football coach, was building his resume at Division II Fairmont State (W. Va.) a few years back when he and fellow assistant Dan Gayton scrunched themselves into a rented Ford Focus late one Sunday night and headed south in search of Florida recruits.

Eleven hours later, they still were in West Virginia. So much for beating the bushes. They were all dead, frozen on the figurative branch.

"We drove through a blizzard," recalled Harvey, whose small-school budget eliminated flying as an option. "So a drive that would normally take 14 hours from Fairmont to Tampa … took us 23 hours. So here we were in a Ford Focus for 23 hours.

"And we did that (trip) three times in two months."

This time of year, no college football coach stops for Mother Nature — unless she has a son with 4.4 speed. Recruiting, after all, is any program's lifeblood, and late January is when staffs are circulating like mad through every possible artery — be it a turnpike or two-lane state road — in search of four- and five-star wealth.

From Jan. 14 (the day after the NCAA's mandated "dead period" ends) until the end of the month, any glamour associated with Division I coaching is traded for a grind.

GPS devices, overnight bags, caffeine and an understanding spouse are essentials. For nearly three weeks, coaches will see far more of recruits' families than their own.

"The biggest challenge is being away from home and away from your family," said USF coach Willie Taggart, whose intake of Red Bull and coffee spikes this time of year.

"Sometimes you don't come home for a week, and then when you're home for the weekend, you have recruits in for the weekend, so you're really not home."

National signing day, the first day high school seniors can sign binding letters of intent, is annually the first Wednesday in February.

Flanking that frenetic day (Feb. 3 this year) is the Jan. 31 "quiet period," followed by another "dead period" from Feb. 1-4. Both of those time frames essentially prohibit coaches from in-person, off-campus contact with recruits (though coaches may still write or phone recruits).

But Jan. 14-30 is the "contact period," when head coaches can make one off-campus visit per recruit, with assistants allowed to see a prospect once a week. When those shackles are unlocked, some coaches get mostly unhinged.

At 12:01 a.m. Friday, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh reportedly showed up at the doorstep of prized in-state recruit Quinn Nordin — a kicker, no less — and spent the night there. He then went to school with Nordin, then to Ann Arbor to show him around.

"It was awesome," Nordin told the Wolverines fansite "We had the chance to spend the whole day together and really got the chance to get to know one another."

• • •

What Ron Zook lacked in flair, he atoned for with frugality.

The former Florida and Illinois coach regularly told the story of a recruiting trip he took with a Gators assistant, who began grumbling when Zook wouldn't stop for dinner. Convinced Zook was going to skip the meal, the assistant hopped out of the car at a red light and raced into a convenience store for a candy bar.

Not that proper nourishment is sacrificed. Tuesday night, Taggart said one family treated him to a dinner of fish, shrimp, rice, asparagus and a river of sweet tea.

"I just ran through the sweet tea," he said.

But every night can't be a buffet; time won't allow it. Minutes are precious when you're traveling, stopping at a recruit's school, checking in with the recruit's coach and arranging for a home visit that night. If a kid's parents are separated and he splits time at two homes, it gets more complicated.

"Now if it's an area where you have two or three kids, you're going to try and do maybe one or two of 'em in a night, and that's tough," said Admiral Farragut assistant coach Rick Kravitz, whose career as a college assistant spanned nearly three decades and included stops at USF, North Carolina State and Memphis.

"You try to get one done maybe earlier, and then you see another one 7:30 or 8 o'clock at night, depending on what the family can do. Sometimes the family's not available and you have to go see the dad or the mom or somebody at work.

"So you're really hustling around, and you'll do that from one day to the next depending on how many recruits and how close the areas are."

By Friday of each week, coaches return to their respective campuses to entertain recruits making official weekend visits. By Sunday evening, the grind resumes.

"I talked to Jim (Leavitt) the other day and he was in Hawaii, and the next day he was flying to Utah, then he was going some other place," Kravitz said of his former boss at USF, now Colorado's defensive coordinator.

"It's that way. You can be in one city one night, get done with your recruiting, get up early in the morning and fly into another and do the exact same thing."

Hence the reason most Division I staffs bolt for a few days of decompression after national signing day. Smaller schools? Not so much.

"In D-II, that's just pretty much when all the fun starts," Harvey said.

"Now you get to see, 'Okay, which (recruits) are still available? Now we get to go back.' Two years ago, I made three different trips to the state of Florida over a two-month span, and that's in a car. It's really two different recruiting seasons based on the level you're at."

With one common denominator: Craziness.

"For me myself, I enjoy it," Taggart said. "I get to go on the road and meet a lot of different people, and sometimes I get to see the same people, and I get to recruit and try to sell your program. It's pretty cool."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.