Why a coach's second recruiting class may be his most important one of all
- A coach's success or failure with his second recruiting class can make or break his tenure. Just ask Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.
Kirby Smart would rather not relive those first frantic weeks of recruiting after he became a head coach for the first time. “It was a mad scramble,” Georgia’s second-year coach said of his pursuit of the class of 2016. “You’re finding out about kids at the last second. You’re flipping. You don’t really have the relationship that maybe a team that’s been on them the whole time does.”
After the scramble ends, the real work begins. A coach’s second class—the first one in which a new staff has a full cycle to recruit—is a much better indicator of the program’s long-term prospects.
If the recruiting rankings are accurate, Smart’s second class could be a cornerstone for future success. The Bulldogs finished No. 3 in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, which marry the rankings of all four major recruiting services. Only Alabama and Ohio State, winners of four of the past six national titles, ranked higher.
Smart and his staff still have to coach the group well, and the jury remains out on that front after an 8–5 debut season. We don’t know if or when five-star offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson will be able to shore up the Bulldogs’ suspect offensive line. We don’t know if four-star quarterback Jake Fromm will ever see the field with former five-star Jacob Eason playing in front of him. We don’t know if defensive back Richard LeCounte III will become a star in the secondary. But Smart did this past recruiting cycle what some of the best coaches of this generation have done: He acquired a lot of key ingredients. Now he and his staff have to cook the meal.
“Somebody had told me when I got the job that your first full cycle will be your best class,” Smart said. Smart didn’t say who told him that, but his former boss Nick Saban might agree based on history. Saban’s 2001 class at LSU included a huge contingent of difference-makers (Joseph Addai, Rudy Niswanger, Andrew Whitworth, Marcus Spears, Michael Clayton, Marquise Hill, Travis Daniels, Ben Wilkerson) that would help LSU win the national title in 2003. Saban’s 2008 class at Alabama might have been even better. It included a group (Julio Jones, Barrett Jones, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron, Marcell Dareus, Mark Ingram, Damion Square, Dont’a Hightower, Terrence Cody, Robert Lester) that helped turn Alabama into the monster that continues to dominate the sport.
Urban Meyer, the other coach atop Smart in this year’s recruiting rankings, also has signed his most important classes to start year two. In 2006, Meyer stood behind a lectern in the south end zone at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and said this: "I've been fortunate to coach a bunch of guys who never had any stars by their names. I’ve got a bunch of championship rings upstairs because of those players.” But Meyer didn’t have any national championship rings at that point. He hadn’t had access to four- and five-stars at Bowling Green and Utah. The Florida job offered his first chance to recruit against the best, and Meyer proved dominant. His 2006 class in Gainesville included Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham, Riley Cooper, Brandon James and Marcus Gilbert. Some of those players—Harvin and Tebow, for example—helped put an already talented 2006 team over the top for a national title. The rest of that group formed the nucleus for the 2008 title. But like Saban, Meyer’s best second class came at his second national championship stop. His 2013 Ohio State class included Ezekiel Elliott, J.T. Barrett, Darron Lee, Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, Joey Bosa, Gareon Conley, Jalin Marshall, Billy Price and Tyquan Lewis. Some of those players played critical roles in the Buckeyes’ 2014 national title, while others emerged in the two seasons since.
Those are the results second-year coaches such as Smart, Nebraska’s Mike Riley, USC’s Clay Helton and Maryland’s D.J. Durkin hope to achieve. Helton has a head start on the others because of his on-field success in his first year, but he also had a recruiting head start because he was part of the staff in 2014 and was elevated to head coach after serving as the interim following the firing of Steve Sarkisian. Wednesday, Helton continued to roll. A strong late push helped the Trojans finish No. 4 in the 247Sports.com composite rankings. “It was one of those days where everything came together,” Helton told reporters on Wednesday. “It was one of those perfect days.”
Closer comparisons for Helton might be Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, who were already on their respective staffs when their predecessor was shown the door. Like Helton, Swinney was an interim head coach who earned the full-time job. Fisher was the coach-in-waiting behind Bobby Bowden. In each case, the future national title-winning coach signed a great second class.
Swinney, whose ultimate success came more slowly than some of the other coaches mentioned here, hauled in a group in 2010 that included DeAndre Hopkins, Vic Beasley, Martavis Bryant and Bashaud Breeland. Later that year, Swinney almost got fired. It would take decisions like hiring offensive coordinator Chad Morris before the 2011 season and figuring out Beasley was a defensive end, not a tailback or a linebacker, before Swinney hit on the formula.
Fisher, meanwhile, was already on his way. His second class in 2011 (featuring Devonta Freeman, Kelvin Benjamin, Timmy Jernigan, Nick O’Leary, Bobby Hart, Rashad Greene, Josue Matias and Tre’ Jackson) helped set the table for the 2013 national title.
All the second-year coaches mentioned above aspire to the same level of success, but Helton and Smart’s programs probably have the best natural advantages to help them reach that level. But natural advantages and highly ranked classes don’t guarantee success. Coaches must choose carefully, and sometimes it takes two or three years before we know if they did.
For example, Smart’s former Georgia teammate Will Muschamp signed the No. 4 class in the nation in 2012 at Florida. That class featured some excellent players, including future first-rounders Dante Fowler Jr. and D.J. Humphries. It also included one quarterback, Skyler Mornhinweg. Mornhinweg, the son of former Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg, was the player then-new offensive coordinator Brent Pease and Muschamp had decided was the best available fit at the late stage of the process when Pease was hired. Pease flipped Mornhinweg from Penn State. Had Mornhinweg stayed with the Nittany Lions, that scholarship would have gone to a little-known Wing-T quarterback from Deltona, Fla., named Paxton Lynch. Mornhinweg chose Florida, and Lynch went to Memphis, where he became a star and a first-round draft pick. Had Pease and Muschamp realized Lynch would become the better player, we’d probably refer to Muschamp now as Florida coach Will Muschamp and not South Carolina coach Will Muschamp.
That’s a pitfall of a coach scrambling to evaluate and offer players on a compressed timetable. Muschamp wasn’t new to Florida, but Pease was. He had just arrived from Boise State, so he hadn’t seen Lynch in camp. Smart, knowing he’d have better relationships and better evaluations for his second class, purposely did not sign a full class in 2016. “We had slots open and people wanting to take them, and we didn’t jump at anybody,” he said. “We didn’t reach for anybody. We kept those spots knowing that we could use them this year more judiciously.” That also allowed the Bulldogs to begin recruiting in earnest the players who signed Wednesday.
Either luck or careful selection—and probably a mixture of both—gave Georgia a relatively drama-free ’17 class. Twelve of Georgia’s new players never took an official visit anywhere else—and not because no one else was interested. “You don’t have that much anymore in college football,” Smart said. “Those kids were committed to Georgia and committed to each other.”
That should help Smart and the Bulldogs in the ’18 cycle. While other programs tied up loose ends on the ’17 class, Georgia had turned the page to the next class. Smart also had a chance to recruit some more critically important players for the ’17 season. The decisions of tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy to return for their senior seasons will make Georgia far deeper than originally expected. “It’s probably more important, I would think, to have them than the guys coming in,” Smart said. “They can impact the game more.”
Smart knows his fanbase and administration aren’t going to be patient. He replaced Mark Richt, who averaged 9.7 wins a season over 15 seasons in Athens, and won eight games. The Bulldogs want championships now, which means some members of this class will have to contribute immediately if Smart wants to remain at his alma mater for an extended period. The recruiting rankings suggest he handled his second class perfectly. Now he has to develop those players into winners if he wants them to join the other second-class citizens who turned their programs into juggernauts.
A random ranking
In honor of the Patriots’ comeback to win Super Bowl LI, we’re ranking the five best musical comebacks.
1. Elvis Presley
Presley didn’t sing live from 1961–68, concentrating instead on (mostly mediocre) movies. He roared back with his live Comeback Special in ’68, proving he hadn’t lost his musical chops. The next year, he released “Suspicious Minds.”
2. Johnny Cash
Cash’s time as a relevant musician seemed long done when he released American Recordings in 1994. It turned out that the Man in Black’s voice was as strong as ever.
3. Tina Turner
Freeing herself from abusive husband/musical partner Ike Turner came at a great professional cost, but the former Anna Mae Bullock didn’t stay down long. Turner labored without a solo hit through the end of the ’70s and into the early ’80s. A 1983 cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” put her back on the charts, and the 1984 album Private Dancer made Turner a superstar again.
The death of lead singer Bon Scott could have meant the end of the band, but AC/DC came back just as strong with Brian Johnson.
5. Meat Loaf
The guy who sang “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” had a second huge album in him, but it took 16 years. Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell was released in ’93, and America learned that Mr. Loaf would do anything for love—except, you know, that.
1. Read Michael McKnight’s story on the woman who accused former Colorado assistant Joe Tumpkin of abusing her for two years. You’ll get mad. This is what it looks like when a head coach and an athletic director worry more about covering their butts than doing the right thing.
2. Speaking of people who refused to do the right thing, former Baylor coach Art Briles was back in the news last week. The specifics shouldn’t surprise anyone with a modicum of common sense. Coaches as successful as Briles don’t get fired unless what happened was really, really bad. Of course the specifics are disturbing. This should end any chance Briles had of ever becoming a major college head coach again, but college administrators’ capacity for cognitive dissonance never ceases to amaze.
3. ESPN’s Outside The Lines reported that NCAA investigators are “casting a wide net” to determine whether any NCAA rules were violated at Baylor. The NCAA would love to punish Baylor, but don’t expect anything like what the NCAA did to punish Penn State following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The NCAA was embarrassed in court in that case because it didn’t follow its usual disciplinary process.
If the schools had wanted to make it easier for the NCAA to punish athletic departments and individual athletic programs in cases that involve criminal acts or acts that violate students’ rights under Title IX, they could have changed the rules. But they didn’t. So while the NCAA faces pressure to do something about Baylor, there isn’t much it is allowed to do unless it can somehow twist what happened into extra benefits violations or find other violations (recruiting, etc.) committed by the old staff.
4. The 10 Minnesota players whose suspensions were the subject of a December boycott have had their disciplinary hearings. Four players have been expelled, two have been suspended for a year and four have been cleared, according to The (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune. A woman had accused multiple Minnesota players of sexually assaulting her during a postgame party on Sept. 2.
5. In happier news, an Illinois State-bound offensive lineman from Lawrence, Kan., named Kobe Buffalomeat became an instant celebrity on National Signing Day.
6. Former LSU tailback Leonard Fournette told the NFL Network that it wasn’t his decision to sit out the Citrus Bowl.
This is yet another story that doesn’t pass the Common Sense Test. If LSU trainers and coaches had told Fournette not to play in the bowl game, coach Ed Orgeron would have said “Leonard isn’t playing,” and that would have been that. There would have been zero backlash against Fournette, who wouldn’t have held a press conference announcing that he wouldn’t play. Everything would have been much easier for everyone involved, as a matter of fact. No one involved would have had any incentive to have Fournette say he was voluntarily skipping the game, so that press conference never would have happened. (In fact, LSU would have been wiser to say Fournette was medically ruled out in the first place. Everyone knew he was struggling with an ankle injury. That would have spared him the criticism.)
This likely will go down as a blunder by Fournette’s management team. Such a logic-defying statement will only make NFL teams ask more questions about Fournette. Saying nothing about a dead issue would have been a much smarter move.
7. Ready for spring practice? No? Too bad. It has already begun. Duke, which has started early in recent years, kicked off spring practice Friday. The Blue Devils’ spring game is March 4.
8. Lane Kiffin made a video last week to goose Florida Atlantic season ticket sales. It probably didn’t.
9. But it did inspire me to try my hand at convincing some readers to subscribe to SI.
10. Now let’s all watch Jim Harbaugh dance.
What’s eating Andy?
The search for a decent version of the “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” video got me thinking about another video involving a castle: Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” One of the great tragedies of the decline of the music video as an art form is the subsequent lack of parody videos. Oh well. YouTube can always take us back to the glory days.
What’s Andy eating?
I’m losing my edge in my old age. Upon learning that I’d be visiting S.O.B. Burgers on a recent assignment in Bradenton, Fla., I did some research on the website. A younger Andy would have stopped at The Punisher.
What’s the Punisher? It’s a burger that combines two-and-a-half pounds of meat, six slices of bacon, six slices of cheese, grilled jalapeños, mushrooms, caramelized onions, a pound of fries, cheese sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion an egg and a helping of macaroni and cheese. If a diner eats the thing within 30 minutes, he wins a T-shirt and has his picture posted on the wall. If he fails, he owes $50.
As a twentysomething, I ate a three-pound burger to win a free T-shirt. (I also had pie after that.) I also once ate 75 wings, walked across the parking lot and ate a large order of Cold Stone ice cream in a chocolate-dipped waffle bowl and went to the gym and ran five miles on the treadmill. Those days, alas, are long past.
I had to come to grips with my stunt-eating mortality as I stared at the S.O.B. menu. My failure to consume the totality of the Boss Logg at Meat in Lansing, Mich., last spring still burns. Or maybe that’s lingering heartburn from a sandwich that included burger patties, brisket, pulled pork and bacon. Either way, I realized as I gazed upon that menu last week that my days of eating for pure shock value are probably done. I realize this is the mature decision that likely leads to the longest life. That doesn’t make this any easier.
Still, I don’t need to consume the annual beef export of a small nation-state to have a satisfying meal. I can still leave vegans mortified with slightly less shocking portions. S.O.B showed me that.
We started with the Bretzel Me Baby, an order of four pillowy soft pretzel sticks designed to be dunked in beer cheese. Hard pretzels are my least favorite member of the empty-calorie snack family, but soft pretzels are my appetizer Kryptonite. Left to my own devices, I’ll spoil my main course by plowing through pretzels. This is especially true when the pretzels are as soft and buttery as the ones at S.O.B. Fortunately, one aspect of the menu kept me from ordering two more sets of sticks and leaving no room for the burger.
Every burger at S.O.B. is available on a pretzel bun, so I held back knowing that my main course was also suitable for beer cheese dipping. I ordered the Holy Grail, a two-patty burger topped with American cheese, bacon and a scoop of the house macaroni and cheese. I doubled the bacon because I fear no fake news about a shortage.
I didn’t see the actual scoop that took the mac and cheese from the pan to my burger, but I can only assume it was the size of a catcher’s mitt. A massive hunk of the King of All Side Dishes spanned my burger and hung over both sides of the patty stack. Tendrils of bacon wrapped around the beef. That same soft pretzel bread cradled the entire creation. I squeezed down and took a bite…
I didn’t need the Punisher. I have plenty of T-shirts, and I’d rather not eat something that would only inspire regret. All I needed was a reasonably massive burger that still left me wanting just a little more.