At the Jan. 7 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, one blue-chip recruit after another enjoyed his own 15 seconds of nationally televised drama by picking from a table of baseball caps to announce his college choice. It's an annual rite. Only this year, the most popular hat wasn't that of Alabama, Florida State or another predictable hot spot. Three highly touted players -- safety Shaq Thompson, defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy and receiver Jordan Payton -- pledged to join the Cal Golden Bears, a team that's never reached a BCS bowl in coach Jeff Tedford's 10-year tenure and has gone 12-15 in conference play the past three seasons.
The common denominator: Cal's then-defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, a 30-year-old former Bears player whom Rivals.com named its National Recruiter of the Year in 2010, was the primary recruiter for all of them, as well as several other highly ranked members of a potential top-10 class. "He's undoubtedly the top recruiter on the West Coast," SuperPrep's Allen Wallace said of Lupoi, who continually preached a family bond among current and future Cal players embodied by the #calgang Twitter hashtag he perpetuated.
But on Monday Lupoi did what a lot of position coaches do this time of year: He took another job. Pac-12 rival Washington, looking to revamp its defensive staff following its embarrassing 67-56 Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor, lured away Cal's ace recruiter just two weeks before Signing Day by reportedly offering a huge increase from his previous $164,000 salary. (Washington has not released an official number; the Seattle Times reported it could be in the neighborhood of $500,000.) There, he'll be reuniting with one of his own mentors, new Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, a Cal assistant when Lupoi played there.
The ripple effect has been unlike anything normally seen over a position coach changing jobs. McCarthy, a five-star defensive tackle from Monrovia, Calif., immediately switched his commitment to UCLA. Sacramento's Thompson, the crown jewel of Cal's class (he's Rivals.com's No. 4 overall prospect) and brother of former Bears standout Syd'Quan Thompson, tweeted: "I have a lot of thinking to do." Thompson then told Scout.com: "Washington and Cal have been my final two for awhile, but now that this has happened I am really torn. I am pretty much split 50-50 between the two schools." Payton, a four-star receiver from Westlake Village, Calif., is now visiting Washington this weekend.
And then there's the guys Lupoi was still recruiting. "WOWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!!! The Game Just Changed ... I want to cryyyyyy," tweeted five-star defensive end Aziz Shittu from Atwater, Calif., who is choosing between Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA. Four-star defensive end Arik Armstead, from the Sacramento area, was set to announce his choice earlier this week and reportedly favored Cal; now, he's delayed his decision and is reportedly considering Auburn, Oregon and Notre Dame.
All because of a position coach?
"Kids seem to gravitate toward him," Rivals.com West Coast analyst Adam Gorney said of Lupoi. "Because he's so young and has such an engaging personality, they really like the guy. Tosh does a solid job of recruiting while keeping it real with the kids."
Cal fans, in turn, are apoplectic. The fan site BearTerritory.net published four stories and a video Monday about "Lupoi Watch." "Tosh the Traitor Backstabs Jeff Tedford, Backstabs Cal," wrote an SB Nation Bears blogger. Fans and media have taken Cal's notoriously cash-strapped athletic department to task for failing to pony up and keep Lupoi and receivers coach Eric Kiesau, Washington's new offensive coordinator. The school felt compelled to release statements from Tedford and AD Sandy Barbour assuring they "exhausted all of our resources" to keep the pair and "wish them the best."
Again -- all of this over a position coach?
"It kind of amazes me the attention this is getting, because there's a lot of staffs that have coaching changes," Teford said by phone Wednesday. "Things are so different now with social media. If one recruit tweets something, then all of a sudden millions of people seem to follow it, lock onto it and it spreads like wildfire. It's a very interesting phenomenon."
Tedford, understandably, is trying to downplay Lupoi's departure, but those that follow recruiting closely say this was not your average coaching change.
"This really is a huge move, especially within the [Pac-12]," said Gorney. "Sometimes the Pac-12 doesn't get as much exposure as other conferences, but if a coach is going from Tennessee to Alabama or Alabama to Tennessee and can pull pretty much any player out of that class, it's a huge deal in the SEC."
One or two kids switching commitments is not going to make or break a program, but Cal is trying to stave off an even larger chain reaction. Several key commits, including four-star quarterback Zach Kline (who officially enrolled this week) and four-star receiver Bryce Treggs, have reaffirmed their allegiance to the Bears, but others, like four-star receiver Cedric Dozier -- a Washington native -- may be back on the market. "Pretty much everyone in the entire class is going to consider looking around," said Gorney.
Thus, Tedford's primary job over the next two weeks is damage control.
"The main thing is that recruiters are messengers for what the program stands for, and that hasn't changed," he said. "Be it academics or location or football, whatever they're making their decisions for, you hope that kids will come here for the right reasons. You can't base your decision on one [assistant] coach, because coaches change all the time."
While fans are understandably focused on the next two weeks of recruiting, Washington's raid on Cal's staff speaks to a rapidly changing competitive climate in the Pac-12 that could hold more significant consequences in the coming years.
The conference's lucrative new long-term deals with ESPN and Fox, as well as the implementation of equal revenue sharing, will soon double to triple each school's annual take, and some are already putting their new windfall to use. It started with high-profile head coaching hires like Washington State's Mike Leach ($2.25 million a year, up from predecessor Paul Wulff's modest $600,000) and Arizona's Rich Rodriguez ($1.9 million, up from $1.4 million for Mike Stoops), but now, much like in the SEC, it's trickling down the ranks.
Washington AD Scott Woodward came from LSU. He knows well the value of a top-notch recruiter. By all accounts, Cal was willing to bump up Lupoi's salary, to the point where the 12-year member of the program (as a player, GA and assistant) initially turned down the Huskies' overtures. But Washington came back offering more and Cal simply couldn't match it. Now Bears fans are understandably concerned the program may soon fall behind its counterparts.
"We did everything we could," said Tedford. "We adjusted our resources to try to do this; it's not like we haven't made an effort. But each program is different. We have to follow the structure of what we are here at Cal. ... If you look at average [salaries], we're competitive, but [Lupoi's offer] was at the very high end. We try to stay competitive within reason."
Tedford said his No. 1 priority right now is finding capable replacements for Lupoi and Kiesau, and by Wednesday night, he'd already named a new receivers coach, former NFL assistant Wes Chandler. While Lupoi is known primarily as a recruiter, he also coached two defensive ends, Tyson Alualu and Cameron Jordan, who went on to be NFL first-round draft picks the past two years. Outside of USC's Ed Orgeron, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone of similar credentials on the West Coast.
But as Tedford said, coaches change jobs all the time. New adversary Washington fired one coordinator (Nick Holt) and lost another (Doug Nussmeier, now at Alabama) this offseason. It's too soon to say whether all the commotion over Lupoi's move was an overreaction based on the tweets of a few recruits or a valid concern over potential long-term consequences for both programs.
One parent of a Cal commit expressed a little bit of both this week, telling the SacramentoBee's Joe Davidson: "Losing Tosh changes it for our son & may cost Tedford his job long term."
If so, that's one awfully important position coach.