Not long ago, Florida A&M University would have pulled out all the stops to recruit Sasha Rodriguez.
A senior at Lecanto High School in Citrus County, Rodriguez was one of 800 National Achievement scholars named last week, meaning she is among the brainiest black students in the country. And in considering where to go for college, she loved the thought of a historically black school - like Spelman College in Atlanta or Howard University in Washington - but also wanted to stay close to family.
FAMU, in Tallahassee, might have been perfect.
"That's the funny thing," said Rodriguez, who has a 4.45 grade-point average and is instead headed to the University of Florida. FAMU officials are "not very impressive recruiters. I don't think they sent me anything."
Nothing shows how far FAMU has fallen, and how fast, like the sputtering of its once well-oiled program to snare National Achievement scholars.
For most of the 1990s, FAMU recruited top-notch black students like neighboring Florida State University played football: It didn't win the national title every year, but it was always in the hunt.
Harvard? Morehouse? UF? Didn't matter. Led by charismatic former president Frederick Humphries, Florida's only historically black public university took on the Ivies, the other big-name black colleges and the big-dog Florida schools and still came out ahead.
As recently as 2000, FAMU was tied with Harvard as the No. 1 recruiter of National Achievement scholars, with 62. As recently as 2003, it was still in the Top 10.
But then, recruitment stalled. In 2004, FAMU enrolled just four new National Achievement scholars, according to the National Merit Scholarship Corp., which bestows the awards.
In 2006, it enrolled one.
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"Sad and disappointing," said Marlon Moffett, 29, a former National Achievement scholar who graduated from FAMU in 1999 and went on to law school at Duke.
FAMU's recruiting fumbles have been obscured by its fiscal problems. But its failure to land the best and brightest shows its problems are bigger than sloppy accounting. More than new buildings or new programs, FAMU's ability to snare kids with gawdy GPAs and eye-popping SAT scores put a swagger in its step and showcased its growing academic power.
FAMU must regain that edge if it wants to keep drawing state and corporate dollars and growing overall enrollment, said president-elect James Ammons, who served as provost under Humphries and is now chancellor at North Carolina Central University.
Other prospective students "see the smart kids are going there, so they want to go," he said.
Rebuilding FAMU's recruitment machine will be a top priority for Ammons. But reclaiming the crown won't be easy.
Top-flight, majority-white schools are competing for elite black students like never before, with ever-sweeter scholarship deals. The result: Fewer National Achievement scholars seem to be choosing historically black schools
Last year, for the first time in years, no historically black school finished in the Top 10 in recruiting achievement scholars. Howard came closest, with 19 scholars. But that was down from 29 in 2005 and 71 in 2003.
With more interest for the same, small pool, "the competition for these students has become more intense," Stephanie A. Johnson, who directs the National Achievement Scholar program at Howard, said in an e-mail.
FAMU's current problems won't help it seal any deals, either.
If prospective recruits don't read the headlines themselves, said FAMU trustee Al Cardenas, "I'm sure the competition will bring it to (their) attention."
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It's unclear why FAMU's recruitment efforts faltered, and why they remain grounded.
The numbers fell dramatically during the short tenure of former president Fred Gainous, whose administration blamed increased competition. The administration of interim president Castell Bryant also makes the competition argument, but some observers say Bryant has simply been overwhelmed by other problems.
The leading theory: Former president Humphries was the recruiting program.
"He was personally involved," said state Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee, whose district includes FAMU. "After he left, of course, you didn't have that anymore."
Moffett, the former National Achievement scholar, said when he was in high school in Columbus, Ga., Humphries' office invited him to a recruitment reception in Atlanta, before a FAMU football game. In a room full of people, Humphries personally called his name and offered a full scholarship that included summer internships at a Fortune 500 company.
"At that time, I don't even think I had applied (to FAMU)," said Moffett, who's now an assistant county attorney in Miami.
Moffett ended up choosing FAMU over Harvard and Duke.
Nathan Brooks chose FAMU over Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The 1997 National Achievement scholar earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from FAMU in 2004 and now works in Switzerland, at the world's premier particle physics lab. Yale and MIT "are good schools," Brooks said in a telephone interview. But they didn't offer the opportunities FAMU did.
"I got won over," he said.
Fast forward to 2007. Several of the most recently named achievement scholars say FAMU didn't attempt to enroll them, let alone recruit them.
"I don't remember them sending me anything," said Janelle Lyons, valedictorian at Apopka High School, and one of 62 National Achievement scholars from Florida this year.
Lyons' parents went to Tuskegee University, a historically black school in Alabama. She'll be going to Duke or UF.
Antonia Link will be going to UF even though FAMU and another historically black school, Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, were on her short list. UF is closest to her hometown, Ocala, and Link wanted to stay close in case her father, who's in the National Guard, gets called to Iraq.
But it didn't hurt that UF put on the full-court press. Officials there arranged three campus visits and "mail, like whew, a few different letters a month," said Link, who plans to major in pre-med.
Link said she liked what she read about FAMU and was impressed by its Web site. But other than a few letters in the fall, she didn't hear from anybody. Would it have made a difference?
"It might have," she said. "If they really really wanted me, I guess they would have tried harder."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873. Comments can be posted on the Times education blog, the Gradebook, at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.