Inside Read: Good and bad of playoff, Georgia's Gurley picks up new sport
As recently as 2007, former Ohio State president Gordon Gee declared, “They’ll have to wrench a playoff system from my cold, dead hands.” But as we head into the 2014 season, the debut of the four-team College Football Playoff epitomizes how much the sport has evolved in the past decade.
The playoff arrived thanks to two definitive on-field turning points that suggest it will inevitably expand beyond its current four-team format. The first came when Auburn was left out of the national title game after going undefeated in 2004, formally beginning SEC commissioner Mike Slive’s quest to bring a four-team playoff to college football. Slive got stonewalled for years until two SEC teams -- LSU and Alabama -- played for the national title in 2011. “All of a sudden, we were talking about a playoff,” said Slive, his devilish snicker offering more insight than his words.
What do those drastically different seasons have in common? They prove the most powerful change agent in college football is exclusion. And the way the new playoff is structured, we’re entering an era where exclusion could end up defining the season-long narrative. The debate over which teams and league -- or leagues if Slive gets his way -- get left out should end up as big of a part of the season-long conversation about who gets in. And as history has shown us, college football leaders unhappy with exclusion will push ahead toward creating more inclusion.
“I think it’s a solid theory,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “It’s hard to quibble with the theory.”
There’s plenty to quibble with in terms of timing and application, and we’ll get to that. But let’s start with the most obvious change from expanding the postseason from two teams to four. A four-team playoff field picked from five major conferences (and Notre Dame) means that at least one league will get left out every year.
The space between No. 4 and No. 5 -- a subjective choice likely between two one-loss teams from different leagues -- quickly becomes the biggest gap in all of sports. And with the nebulous selection criteria for the committee still leaving many around college football skeptical -- how much will strength of schedule really matter? -- the fine line between No. 4 and No. 5 ends up leaving teams a galaxy apart. Many around college sports expect the playoff to be more controversial than the muddled polls and constantly changing formulas that made the BCS a cauldron of controversy since 1999. The new playoff’s model has an inherent tilt toward exclusion that is going to lead to hurt feelings, bruised league reputations and, as the years pass, pressure for expansion to occur.
“The focus of the season,” said American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco, “will be who gets left out as much as who is in.”
“To me,” said Washington athletic director Scott Woodward, “it’s a no brainer.”
Now comes the reality. This will not happen fast. The primary reason is that none of the sitting commissioners has expressed any interest in it. And there’s zero interest at the presidential level. Issues that playoff expansion will face range from academic concerns, health and safety issues, and a television calendar that would nudge into the NFL playoffs. Sadly, the last issue is probably the biggest factor. There’s also a 12-year deal with ESPN on the current system.
Beyond the obvious, there’s the same behind-the-scenes strife that slowed down the move to this playoff. The Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl offer an astounding $80 million annual payout to their league partners. The Orange Bowl gives just $50 million, meaning that leagues would have to hand over income and potentially prime television real estate to bring another round of playoff games. (The theory here being that all those bowls would have to enter the eight-team playoff rotation to sustain relevancy).
So yes, there are issues. But remember that eight years from now there’s a chance all five major commissioners could be gone. Slive, the Big Ten’s Jim Delany and the ACC’s John Swofford should be retired by then. The Pac-12's Scott is the commissioner most likely to leave for a professional sports league. The Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby should still be around, but there’s always rumblings that he could end up as the next NCAA president. Change is relentless in college sports. Remember, Scott’s hiring in 2009 led to the hairpin turn in that league’s position on a playoff. But for now, there’s status quo.
“There has been zero discussion in the room about expanding the playoff,” Scott said. “I think we’ve very much gone into this in good faith that this will be the system for the 12 years. Would I sit here and tell you it’s impossible? No one in their right mind would tell you that.”
Now that the playoff has been snagged from Gee’s cold, dead hands its evolution is inevitable. The only variable is time.
1. Georgia's Gurley opens up about ... golf
Georgia star running back Todd Gurley is a man of few words. In interviews, the 6-foot-1, 226-pound junior’s answers are generally short and to the point. His bothersome sprained left ankle that plagued him last season is now healed (“It’s good.”). The three games he missed last season because of the injury are ancient history, even though he still rushed for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns. (“It kind of sucked.”).
Outside of staying healthy for a Bulldogs team that will need him plenty this season with a new starting quarterback in Hutson Mason, Gurley has no individual goals (“I’m ready to go. I’m back at the top.”).
Gurley took up the sport in May at the recommendation of Bulldogs kicker Marshall Morgan and punter Collin Barber, both avid golfers. He’s just as blunt in his critique of his early trips to the driving range. “I sucked pretty bad,” Gurley said.
But Gurley is much improved now after visiting the range two to three times a week this summer. So far, his greatest golf accomplishment is making a birdie. He’s also figured out one of his strengths: putting. “That’s where the money’s at,” Gurley said with a laugh.
And Gurley is likely to make plenty after this season if he declares for the NFL draft as expected. He could be the running back who breaks the streak of one not going in the first round the past two years.
“I’m going to get there one day,” Gurley said.
He’s talking about his golf game again, not his NFL future.
2. East Carolina QB Shane Carden on record pace
Time after time, quarterback Shane Carden earned praise from assistant coaches at Colorado, Kansas and Boise State who saw him throw the spring before his senior season. It inevitably led to an invite to attend the respective school’s summer camp. Carden went to more than 10 of them in the summer of 2009, but didn’t receive a single FBS scholarship offer. “It always seemed like it was just me and one other guy,” Carden said. “They always liked the other guy a little bit more.”
Five years later, Carden is more than just another guy. He’s smashing scoreboards at East Carolina, where he has developed into one of the nation’s most prolific signal-callers under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. Last season, the 6-2, 221-pound redshirt senior was Conference USA’s Most Valuable Player (4,139 passing yards and 33 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions) as the Pirates won 10 games for the first time since an 11-victory season in 1991. This season, he leads East Carolina into its inaugural year in the AAC and the Pirates are a trendy pick to win the conference.
Not too shabby for a prospect out of the Houston area's Episcopal High, who up until a couple of weeks before Signing Day in 2010 thought he was headed to play for FCS Stephen F. Austin. “It’s definitely been a wild ride,” Carden said.
The journey started with the help of former Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons, whose wife worked for Carden’s father, Jay, a former minor league pitcher turned real estate investor. Through that relationship, Symons, who is still the FBS single-season passing yardage record holder (5,833 yards in 2003), started working with Carden.
And when current East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeil, a former Texas Tech assistant, was hired in 2010 and brought Riley with him, Symons called both men. Shortly thereafter, Carden had a scholarship offer from the Pirates. By then Central Michigan had also offered. Carden planned to visit both schools the weekend before National Signing Day, but ultimately decided to visit just East Carolina, making his college choice before even visiting Greenville, N.C. “I loved the offense,” Carden said.
But Carden didn’t get to play in it in his first two seasons. He was on the scout team, where he often played quarterback, but also played wide receiver and tight end in weeks he wasn’t deemed fast enough to replicate the opposition’s signal-caller. “It wasn’t an easy time,” Carden said.
Carden finally got his shot in a 48-10 loss to South Carolina in early 2012, leading both of the Pirates’ scoring drives. The second was the start of a lethal connection, a 34-yard touchdown pass to star wide receiver Justin Hardy, now Carden’s favorite target and the nation’s returning leader in receptions from a year ago. Ever since, Carden has been East Carolina’s starting quarterback.
And he’s caught the attention of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who said recently that the Pirates are “a lot tougher” than programs at the bottom of the Big Ten, a comment Carden found humorous and accurate. South Carolina faces East Carolina on Sept. 6.
“When we’re at our top level,” Carden said, “I think we can beat anybody in the country.”
East Carolina will have its chances to prove that early this season. After South Carolina, the Pirates play at Virginia Tech and then host North Carolina. It’s a brutal non-conference schedule that Carden doesn’t mind. After all, he’s been overlooked before.
3. Virginia Tech's Foster happy with 'dream job'
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster gets asked the same question almost daily. It’s a logical one after his more than three decades as an assistant, all under Hokies coach Frank Beamer: does he want to be a head coach? “I want to be a head coach,” Foster said. “But I’ve also wanted to be a head coach at the highest collegiate level.”
Not that the 55-year-old Foster hasn't tried to land such a gig. He interviewed for the Virginia job in 2001 that went to Al Groh, the Illinois job that Ron Zook got in 2005 and the Clemson job in 2008 that Dabo Swinney holds. There was also the Pittsburgh job in 2011 that Todd Graham took. But Foster is hopeful that his patience will be rewarded with his “dream job,” eventually replacing his mentor, the 67-year-old Beamer, who is entering his 28th season with the Hokies.
“I don’t think there is any question about Bud’s ability to be a head coach,” said Beamer through a spokesman. “From a knowledge standpoint, from a people standpoint and from a detail standpoint, Bud would make an excellent head coach.”
Beamer, however, didn’t answer perhaps the biggest question about Foster’s future at Virginia Tech: how he feels about Foster potentially succeeding him once he retires. There’s speculation that Beamer would like his son Shane, the Hokies’ associate head coach and running backs coach, to follow him.
“I work for the best head coach in the country,” Foster said of the elder Beamer. “The guy does things always the right way, treats people right, is very ethical and very loyal and been that way to me.”
Foster’s loyalty to his mentor traces back to his playing days at Murray State, where he was a safety and linebacker under Beamer, who was then the school’s defensive coordinator. When Beamer took over as the program’s head coach in 1981, he gave the newly graduated Foster his start in coaching as a graduate assistant. Foster was promoted to full-time assistant two years later and followed Beamer to Virginia Tech in 1987. He coached linebackers initially and oversaw special teams for several years, helping cement the unit’s knack for big plays, aka Beamer Ball.
In 1996, Foster was promoted to his current position as sole defensive coordinator and the Hokies’ defenses have been among the nation’s stingiest ever since. Outside of his father, Foster credits Beamer for being his greatest influence professionally and personally. “He’s very good to me,” Foster said. “I think in return I’ve been very loyal to him and I think maybe people look at that (like) that’s a bad thing -- being loyal and trusting somebody. I think that’s a good trait more than it is a negative trait. People from the outside think that I’ve been at one place too long, don't have the connections, which is totally false. The place has made a big influence on me.”
Foster has had plenty of opportunities to leave for other defensive coordinator positions over the years. The closest Foster ever came to doing so each involved Steve Spurrier, at Florida and South Carolina. The latter was in 2007 when Spurrier wanted to make Foster then the highest-paid assistant in the country.
Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, Georgia's Mark Richt and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin also talked to Foster about running their defenses in recent years. That helped Foster land a lucrative contract in 2010 that now pays him approximately $500,000 annually and includes a deferred compensation package of $800,000 if he remains through this season or if Beamer resigns before this season.
Staying at Virginia Tech hasn’t been just about football for Foster. He likes to fish, but particularly wakesurf on Claytor Lake, southwest of Blacksburg, where he has a house. Wakesurfers use a tow line from a wakeboard boat to get up on a short board, then let go of the rope and ride the boat’s wake. (Watch Foster wakesurf.)
“It’s pretty cool,” Foster said. “Good for older guys, because I can tell you, you lose the weight.”
While Beamer hasn’t been forthcoming about Foster’s long-term future at Virginia Tech, Foster has been with Hokies athletic director Whit Babcock, who was hired in January. When Babcock asked Foster where he saw himself in a few years, he had a two-word reply: “Right here.”
“This is my dream job,” Foster said. “I spent 27 years helping build this program and I’m not done with it. I feel like I have a lot to give.”
* Bobby Petrino says he’s changed. But in reporting a story about the new Louisville coach that is in SI’s college football preview, it appears Petrino is still just as difficult to work and play for. Sources with ties to the Cardinals’ football program and Petrino said there’s significant friction between Petrino and feisty defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. The two have feuded often since Grantham’s hiring in January.
So much that one source insists Petrino would have already gotten rid of Grantham if not for his guaranteed five-year contract that pays him nearly $1 million annually. He came to Louisville after four seasons as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. “He’s stuck with him,” a source said.
“He’s a mean guy,” said Jamaine Brooks, a former Louisville defensive tackle who left this past spring. “He cusses you out. You’re never doing enough. He’s still Bobby Mother------- Petrino.”
Brooks initially supported Petrino’s hiring, which he quickly came to regret. “The way he came in doing business I didn’t like it,” Brooks said. “The way he treated people. He just wasn’t a good coach.”
* Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday has the keys to a Cadillac. That’s the redshirt senior’s description of being the triggerman for Cougars coach Mike Leach’s potent Air Raid offense this season. The one that ranked fourth nationally in passing last season (368 yards per game) and returns its top five wide receivers from a year ago. “We’re something that’s going to look good,” Halliday said, “and we’re something that’s going to get the job done.”
Halliday will get plenty of chances after attempting 714 passes last year, including a FBS-record 89 tries in a loss to Oregon. He racked up 4,597 passing yards and 34 touchdowns, but had 22 interceptions. He did so with a pretty anonymous group of wide receivers headlined by junior Gabe Marks (74 catches for 807 yards with 7 touchdowns). While the group lacks star power, Halliday believes as many as seven of his receivers could start for any team in the Pac-12. "Our receiving corps is probably the deepest in the nation talent-wise,” Halliday said.
Halliday has never been afraid to speak his mind. After Washington State’s season-opening 31-24 loss at Auburn last year in which he threw a late interception, he was critical of Tigers’ quarterback Nick Marshall. “If they could find a quarterback, they’d be a top-five team in the nation,” Halliday said at the time. “They just don’t have a guy who can throw it.”
Marshall and Auburn, of course, went on play in the national title game. Halliday rooted for the Tigers to beat eventual champion Florida State. “I never meant anything by it,” Halliday said of his comment about Marshall. “I was frustrated at the time. Nothing against him. He’s a heck of a quarterback.”
The outgoing Leach remains well aware of how emotional Halliday can get. So before Halliday made an appearance earlier this summer on the Pac-12 Networks’ new series Under Center with Rick Neuheisel, Leach gave his quarterback some sage advice about his inaugural television show appearance. “Just be yourself, answer the question,” Leach told Halliday. “Wait, don’t be yourself. We don’t need people thinking you’re an a------ already. Just be the complete opposite of yourself.”
* There’s been plenty of talk about LSU’s highly touted freshman class. It’s centered on running back Leonard Fournette, who Tigers coach Les Miles mentioned in the same breath as Michael Jordan, but wide receiver Malachi Dupre and quarterback Brandon Harris have also drawn rave reviews. Watch out for another freshman: ever-confident and outspoken strong safety Jamal Adams. He’s already drawing NFL All-Pro comparisons from Tigers running back coach Frank Wilson.
“He’s every bit of what Eric Berry, Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson and Eric Reid were,” Wilson said. “He’s a freaking animal. He’s in the league with those guys at this time of his career. He may be the steal of the class.”
Wilson would know. He recruited Mathieu to LSU and also watched Peterson and Reid in recent years. “This kid’s got first round all over him,” Wilson said of Adams. “He’s that legit.”
A heralded recruit from the Dallas area, the 6-0, 206-pound Adams has an NFL pedigree. His father, George, had a six-year career in the league and was a first-round pick in 1985. His godfather is former Kentucky coach Joker Phillips.
“He’s just a freakish athlete,” Wilson said of Adams. “He just oozes with confidence. He’s very vocal on the field in a positive manner. The leadership skills, the toughness. When you bark that stuff out, you better be a real dude and make a play and he can.”
If Adams doesn’t start at strong safety, he’s sure to be part of their nickel and dime packages. He’ll also be a kick returner, just like Mathieu. Wilson keeps seeing identical characteristics in the two.
“The same mannerisms, the same leadership, the same playmaking abilities,” Wilson said. “It’s the same kid all over again.”
He’s the only sure-fire NFL player of the four, and he’ll be the hardest to replace. He started 26 games his first two years in South Bend, and was included among ESPN Mel Kiper’s top underclassmen defensive backs. Russell is probably the player the Irish could least afford to lose. The second biggest loss would be senior receiver DaVaris Daniels, who caught 49 passes and had seven touchdowns last season. But Daniels isn’t considered as nearly as big of a loss as Russell. He’s perceived as an unreliable and inconsistent route runner. While his production and physical tools will be missed, he’s viewed as replaceable.
Defensive end Ishaq Williams, who was slated to start, is an underachiever who never met his considerable recruiting hype. Williams arrived in South Bend after being hailed as the player of the year in the state of New York. But his production has been modest at best, and his biggest loss is that it further exposes Notre Dame’s lack of defensive line depth. The fourth player involved, fifth-year reserve linebacker Kendall Moore, is a career back-up who the Irish will miss mostly for depth.
* When Mississippi lost defensive end C.J. Johnson to a season-ending ankle injury midway through last season, its pass rush also disappeared. Rebels coach Hugh Freeze already knew he lacked depth at the position, but what made Johnson’s absence even more painful was Ole Miss' struggles on third down in obvious passing situations last season.
“We just didn’t have a guy that could win a one-on-one,” Freeze said. “That’s difficult to feel like you always have to bring pressure and put your corners on an island in this league.”
The return of Johnson, who had 6.5 sacks in 2012, will certainly help Ole Miss’ pass rush, but Freeze is giddy about freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes. He enrolled in January after a season at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy and had two sacks with seven tackles in the spring game. Haynes originally signed with North Carolina coming out of high school in 2013, but didn’t qualify academically.
“He can make the quarterback very uncomfortable,” Freeze said. “We feel like he can win some one-on-ones.”
The 6-3, 230-pound Haynes still needs to gain some weight, but has the speed and acceleration of a tailback, according to Freeze. Haynes will likely start against opponents with spread offenses and probably rotate against those with attached tight ends, but will certainly be in against both on third downs.
Freeze wouldn’t be surprised if Haynes was this season’s SEC Freshman of the Year, a prediction he read recently. “He’s certainly changed the way we view our defense,” Freeze said.
* South Florida finished last season 2-10, opening with a loss to McNeese State and ending by getting blown out by Rutgers. In between, coach Willie Taggart saw plenty of reasons the Bulls needed wholesale changes. The biggest area where Taggart sees a difference is in the size of his offensive line. Taggart said his five starting linemen will average 310 pounds this season, a 13-pound per player upgrade from last season. As the Bulls transition to their offense away from the spread they need more beef and less agility from their linemen.
“We’re going pro-style, like you see with the 49ers and Stanford,” Taggart said. That’s not a surprising evolution considering that Taggart played for Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky and coached under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. And his bold talk about spread offenses not being able to win big certainly smacks of a Harbaugh-like bravado.
“We’re not trying to be like everyone else with the spread stuff,” he said. “We want to be able to run the football and play good defense. I think that’s what wins championships. You have to play really good defense and run the football. I know this, when you are bigger, stronger and tougher it usually means you win.”
* Last week at this time, the unofficial count of college coaches who’d taken the ALS Ice Bucket challenge was five. Well, the challenge has spread so quickly through the college football world that it’s more difficult to find a coach or program that hasn’t taken the Ice Bucket Challenge than those who have. Utah State’s entire coaching staff took the challenge, one by one. Ohio State got creative and had a backhoe dump water on the entire team. Even Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston took the plunge. So did the entire Navy team in a sweet video. The confluence of the star power, creativity and generosity that have made this movement as historic as it is prolific. And while college football has been a footnote in that, the spread of the challenge from BC to USC offers a microcosm of how and why its become a phenomenon.
The skeptics of the Ice Bucket Challenge have practically disappeared, as its helped raise $15.6 million in donations, compared to $1.7 million in the same time period last year. A terrific Boston Globe profile of Pete Frates, the former BC baseball star fighting ALS who helped popularize the Challenge, includes this quote from an ALS official that sums up just how powerful the Ice Bucket Challenge has been: “We have never seen anything like this in the history of the disease.”
And by next week, here’s hoping that every college football coach has taken a bucket and made a donation. We’re looking at you, Nick Saban. (Hey, Bill Belichick did it.)
Q&A with Ball State coach Pete Lembo
No non-Big 5 conference has had more former head coaches go onto big-time jobs than the MAC. Alabama’s Nick Saban (Kent State), Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (Bowling Green) and Michigan’s Brady Hoke (Ball State) are among the conference’s former stars. The next in line could be Ball State’s Pete Lembo, 44, who is entering his fourth season in Muncie, Ind., where he has a 25-13 record that includes back-to-back bowl appearances. Quite an accomplishment for a program that nosedived during the two seasons following Hoke’s departure after the 2010 regular season. This past spring, Lembo signed a new contract that made him the highest paid coach in the MAC. That’s after he was edged out in December by former Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson for the Wake Forest job. And while Ball State is retooling some this season, interest in hiring Lembo will only continue to build.
You’re a native New Yorker who played football at Georgetown. Aren’t you supposed to be an attorney?
Either an attorney or on Wall Street, one of the two. That’s where almost every single one of my buddies ended up. Throughout my college days, I was just waiting on this inclination to get into coaching and finally came to peace with it during my senior year that this is what I wanted to do. The big challenge was breaking into the profession. At that time, the NCAA went from five graduate assistants to two and I was fortunate to hook on at University at Albany-SUNY and work for a great guy in Bob Ford who gave me my start. But it was a real struggle in my 20s and I really had to make a lot of sacrifices along the way to establish a good foundation in the profession.
You’re also a historian on World War I and II. That’s not exactly par for a college football coach. How did that interest sprout?
I guess I’m a little bit of a throwback in some ways. I like classic rock. I like old movies. I like history. I think there is an awful lot you can learn from the past. I’ve just always been fascinated with 20th century history going back to my grammar school days. I really would like to go to London and then over to Normandy and visit some of those World War II battlefields. I have visited Gettysburg. Had a chance to do that while I was the head coach at Lehigh. I went and spoke at a banquet at Gettysburg, and my wife and I had a chance to tour that battlefield the next day, which was really special.
You frequently tweet Winston Churchill quotes. What from him can be applied to football?
You’ve won at a strong academic school without scholarships (Lehigh). With scholarships at an academically rigorous private school competing mostly against public schools (Elon). In your current job at a previously slumping program in a new part of the country. What’s the secret to your success?
Culture. It’s surround yourself with the right people that believe in the same things that you do and try to instill a lifestyle in everybody in the organization so that it just becomes part of what you do. There’s no real separation between work and play. It’s more just this is what we do and how we do it. Through the years become more and more even keel and maybe more and more big picture about those types of things. If you hire a great staff and they’re experts in their given areas, you don’t have to micromanage those guys if everybody is on the same page. That allows me to focus on the players and it allows me to focus on the bigger issues that tend to be a part of coming into these jobs where they are rebuilding and you need to get everyone on the same page from the top on down.
So what’s your go-to classic rock?
The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Rolling Stones, The Who. Tying into a little bit of the history, the thing about The Doors was how they came together and how they were sort of a shooting star. They were only around for four years or so. The other thing is they were history guys. When you look at what they did, there is a little bit of classical music, there is a lot of blues. There is obviously, influences from the time in the mid-to-late '60s in what they do. You look at some of the epic songs like L.A. Woman and just how awesome what those four guys were able to put together. Creedence, they were an interesting bunch. Everybody thinks they’re from Louisiana or something the way their music is, but actually they are a bunch of California guys. So they kind of found a niche and made the most of it. The thing I like about The Who and the Stones is that those guys stood the test of time. They evolved. They stuck together, and they dealt with adversity themselves. But they are still around today, which is pretty amazing.
Growing up you were a Michigan fan. How’d that happen?
No cable TV. Growing up on Staten Island, we were the only borough that didn’t have cable. So you only had seven or eight, maybe nine TV channels. You had a very limited pool of games to watch, and Michigan was on a lot. I loved their style under Bo Schembechler, back then. Consistency, integrity, toughness.
The Assistant Huddle
* When Missouri cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford first started recruiting the St. Louis area 13 years ago, he heard the complaints. The area’s high school coaches bemoaned that they hardly ever saw Tigers coaches. So Ford has made it a priority to regularly visit all high schools regardless of whether they had prominent recruits. He did so to better get to know coaches and teachers as well as be a visible presence for students. “It’s all about relationships,” Ford said. “If you have a good relationship with the coach, he gives you an in to the player.”
Ford’s efforts have paid off particularly at East St. Louis (Ill.) High, a perennial hotbed for talent. In recent years, many of the school’s players have gone on to play in the Big Ten. Missouri’s move to the SEC has seemingly helped change that mindset. Until Ford reeled in safety Greg Taylor in the last recruiting class, the Tigers hadn’t signed a player from the school since 2009.
This season, Ford has already received a pledge at East St. Louis High from heralded running back Natereace Strong, one of Illinois’ top prospects. However, the biggest prize is his teammate, 6-4, 293-pound defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr., the nation’s third-ranked recruit according to one service. He’s the most highly touted St. Louis-area recruit since former Missouri and current New York Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season. Beckner Jr. has been compared to Richardson, who Ford landed for the Tigers.
Beckner Jr. is a throwback in today’s social media era. He doesn’t have a Twitter account and generally doesn’t give much insight on his recruitment in the rare interviews he does. He has offers from a who’s who of college football, including Florida State, Ohio State and Oregon. Yet there’s just one coach he talks to consistently: Ford.
It appears those relationships Ford has worked so hard to cultivate are paying off. “Eventually people see what you’re doing and respect you,” Ford said. “They start to buy in to what your program’s about.”
* A 32-year-old former starting major college quarterback with roots in Houston, recruiting expertise in the Miami area and experience as an offensive coordinator. That’s the resume of Florida International running backs coach Kerry Dixon, who’s quickly making a name for himself among major college coaches. He solely recruits the Miami-Dade area for the Golden Panthers and is responsible for six of their current 15 commitments. They are highlighted by Homestead (Fla.) safety Ocie Rose, who had an offer from Arkansas, and Hialeah (Fla.) outside linebacker Irick McDonald, who was offered by Central Florida.
“I’ve signed kids from Texas and Miami,” Dixon said. “I feel like with that experience, I can go in anywhere and build on those relationships and just show people who I really am. I think that’s what draws people to you.”
Dixon was previously the running backs coach at Florida Atlantic for two seasons, but was let go after last season in the aftermath of former coach Carl Pelini’s resignation. That was despite the Owls setting a school record for rushing yards in a season (2,190).
But he’s got a major college football pedigree, having started two games at quarterback for Baylor as a true freshman in 2000 before finishing his career at Hampton. At Booker T. Washington High in Houston, he played for Texas A&M running backs coach and recruiting whiz Clarence McKinney.
This preseason camp, Dixon has been taking a page out of the book of a legendary coach. He and his running backs read and discuss daily “Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success: Building Blocks For a Better Life,” the book written by the legendary UCLA basketball coach. “It’s confidence, not cockiness,” Dixon said. “I let my work speak for itself.”
* So what happened to Ron English? The former Michigan assistant never found traction at Eastern Michigan as the head coach and was fired after a 11-46 record in five seasons. The 46-year-old is currently doing an internship with Cleveland Browns in preseason camp and worked the team’s minicamp earlier this summer.
English’s dismissal in November came after a tape recording surfaced in which he used a homophobic slur during a film session with players.
“It gave me a chance to step back, evaluate myself and get myself together in a lot of different ways,” said English of his firing.
Not coaching full-time has allowed English to spend more time with his wife and three children. He’s been working closely with his 15-year-old son on academics. “For 21 years I’ve never had any time off so it’s actually worked out pretty well,” said English, a former defensive coordinator at Michigan and Louisville. English expects to resume coaching either in college or the NFL during the next coaching cycle.
What happens in Las Vegas is supposed to stay there. UNLV coach Bobby Hauck isn’t shy though about naming his favorite restaurant in Sin City, Michael’s Gourmet Room in the South Point Hotel and Casino. Moved from the former Barbary Coast Hotel and Casino in 2007, the old time, 50-seat restaurant is located eight miles south of The Strip. It’s known for its fine dining in a lush velvet and rich mahogany setting with a tuxedoed wait staff.
Hauck recommends starting with the quail eggs and olives from the complimentary relish tray. His favorite entree is the savory lamb chops with the infused mashed potatoes, typically with “any beer in a green bottle.”
The desserts rotate, but Hauck sticks to those with ice cream. He usually only visits for special occasions, mainly with his wife, Stacey. He also brings in his good friend who turned him on to the restaurant, St. John’s basketball coach Steve Lavin. The two were roommates as young coaches at UCLA.