On the Road Again

Texas football recruiter Bobby Jack Wright knows that signing season can make or break a team
February 20, 1989

Tuesday, Jan. 17. It's 8:12 a.m. in Austin, Texas. Gray. Cold. But Bobby Jack Wright, 38, an assistant football coach at the University of Texas and recruiter extraordinaire, has sunshine in his heart. He's pumped up and wound tight: "Whooee! It's time to haul ass and go get us some college football players." Wright must try to land, above all others, Robert Strait of Cuero, a 6'1", 220-pound running back with brilliant inside speed. "There is not a better football player coming out of Texas," says Wright. "I have to get him."

And with that, he whips a Lincoln Town Car onto I-35, flips on his Escort radar detector, pushes the speedometer needle to 85 mph and punches the buttons on the radio until he finds Tammy Wynette still standing by her man. Then he is on his portable phone, calling R.A. Johnson, the football coach at Sam Houston High in San Antonio. The Longhorns like a running back there named Rongea Hill. "I just wanted to holler at ya," says Wright to Johnson. They chitchat, and soon Wright says, "R.A., did you hear the regents voted to lower the academic requirements for the players—but raise them for the coaches?" They laugh. Wright hangs up. He will visit Hill later in the day.

"Hey, look at us," chortles Wright. "We're listenin' to Patsy Cline a-singin', lookin' at this beautiful country goin' by us, and we're on our way to get us some college football players. Things don't get any better than this. Whooee!"

No question, this is a happy man. And no wonder. In three previous years at Texas, he has gone after 11 hotshot high school players and has signed 10. Bobby Jack Wright has the touch. He had better: Strait is a tough customer with wandering eyes that sometimes seem to drift toward Baylor and Miami.

Why is Wright so good? "I just love recruiting to death," he says. "The players lie to you. They tell you they're comin'. Then they don't. They give you their commitment and then break it. It's great. The key is to be somebody the players can trust."

Says Texas coach David McWilliams, "Bobby Jack has a good line of bull."

At the request of the radar detector, Wright slows.

And so it goes in college football recruiting—the most important part of the game. Which is why Wright, who coaches the Longhorns' defensive secondary, says, "If they can't play, I can't coach." From Nov. 1 to Feb. 8, adult football coaches hit the road to beg, plead and cajole high school teenagers to, pretty please, come to our school. It's crucial. It's frantic. And it culminates when the players sign letters of intent accepting scholarship offers. This year Wright had five players in his South Central Texas recruiting area who interested the Long-horns—to varying degrees.

One of the for-sures is Bubba Smith, a linebacker for Clark High who, Wright says, is "just a good ath-o-lete." As Wright slows for the De Zavala Road exit, where construction work is underway, he says, "Man, I could be on that backhoe or diggin' a ditch like that guy over yonder. I did a little labor when I was a kid, and I didn't like it."

At Clark High, Big Mike Robbins, the coach, is waiting.

"How you doin'?" asks Big Mike.

"Fine," says Bobby Jack. "I'm still employed, which was my goal."

"Yeah, if you're a coach, first thing you do when you get a new job is call up U-Haul and make sure they've always got a trailer available to take your stuff out of town," says Big Mike.

Talk turns to Texas's awful 4-7 '88 season. Wright laughs and says, "Hey, McWilliams is responsible. They didn't put that record behind my name."

Smith walks in, wearing a Texas sweatshirt. A great sign. Smith has said he is going to play for the Longhorns, but he also plans to visit Texas Tech this weekend for a look-see. Says Wright, "If you change your commitment, I'm gonna blow your house up." Smith swears his undying devotion to the Longhorns—but nothing is certain until the official signing day, Feb. 8.

Early on, Smith, 6'2", 215 pounds, had been interested in Texas A & M. "They asked me to come over to an orientation," he says. "While I was there, I talked to people and they were real nice to me. A few days later I got a letter from them that said, 'We're sorry you couldn't attend our orientation.' " A football star not remembered is a ticked-off football star. So long, Aggies.

NCAA rules say that a representative of a college can visit a prospect at his high school only once a week. So Bobby Jack has come calling at Clark every week, just to check Bubba's temperature. It's normal.

Wright strides toward the car. "He's solid. He's comin' to Texas. O.K., let's go get us some college football players." Having an athlete all but locked up is a comfort, and Wright is tickled to death with himself. "I'm just plumb intelligent," he says. "I read the morning paper to see what they left out." Then he falls silent. He's thinking of Strait. Finally he says, "Damn, Strait's an impact player."

Next stop is at Sam Houston High to see Hill. This is a touchy one. The Longhorns are interested, sort of. So they are slow-playing Hill—feigning big interest but harboring smaller interest, although maybe, just maybe, they will need the kid desperately if they fail to get the players they prefer. A mud hen can look good if nothing else flies by. Says Wright to Hill, "If you're afraid of competition, then Texas isn't the place for you."

"Yes, sir."

"We've got some good football players, and you're gonna have to line up and fight like a dawg."

"Yes, sir."

So the channels of communication are kept open with Hill. Wright gets back in his car, points it south on Loop I-410, moves into his natural environment—the left lane at 85 mph—and heads toward Cuero (pop. 7,124), 80 miles southeast of San Antonio, the home of Robert Strait. No player is more important to Texas than Strait. He's a big, ornery back who can make a difference. Everybody wants him. Past the mesquite and cactus and across the Guadalupe River, Wright is thinking about how to press Strait's button. "I was born at night," he muses, "but not last night. I'll figure a way."

Since Nov. 1, Bobby Jack has been writing to Strait twice a week. He also telephones twice a week, at 2:40 p.m., in order to catch Strait at the field house. A Texas player also writes to Strait once a week, and a member of the Texas Angels, a group of women students, writes every day. Since Dec. 1, Wright has driven to Cuero every week. "I try to keep as good contact as I can without becoming a pain," he says. "They have to know you love 'em."

This day is special. McWilliams will make his visit to Strait this afternoon. According to the NCAA rules, a head coach can visit a boy only once. McWilliams was supposed to fly into the tiny Cuero landing strip, but fog has diverted his plane to Victoria, 25 miles away. Wright hits the highway to fetch McWilliams. "We're gonna find out how good this radar detector is," he says. He screams out across Irish Creek toward Victoria.

At 4:02 p.m. the two coaches arrive at Strait's home, carrying a VCR to show him the excitement of Texas football. Alas, Wright's daughter, Melia, 3, has jammed a tape, Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree, into the machine, and complicated things by forcing in an audio cassette, Bialosky Bear: A Camping Trip. McWilliams and Wright frantically try to pry the tapes out. Finally they succeed, and show their quarry a 25-minute minidocumentary about the school and the football program. Afterward, Strait says, "That film gave me chills." Says Wright, "That's what it was supposed to do." A good sign.

Then McWilliams plunges in, extolling the academic, athletic and social virtues of Texas. Strait says nothing. Most prospects are similarly stone silent on such occasions. Strait gazes at a sign on the wall of his living room: WAKE ME IN TIME FOR THE WEEKEND.

There's a pause, and Wright says, stretching the truth just a tad, "Robert, Texas has played in more Cotton Bowls than the rest of the conference combined. Texas has won more Cotton Bowls than the rest of the conference combined. Texas is second to Notre Dame in total television appearances." Strait shows no outward sign of life. Bad. Lying on the coffee table are some laminated newspaper clippings sent to Strait by another Southwest Conference school; it's against NCAA rules to send that sort of gift to a prospect.

Strait's mother, Shirley Robinson, says, "I haven't heard nothin' bad about Texas." Good. The visit lasts nearly three hours, and as it is ending, Wright tells Strait that he has a message for him from former Texas and NFL star Earl Campbell, who is now doing public relations for the university. "Earl said, 'You tell Robert Strait to come to Texas and break all my records,' " says Wright. Strait smiles. Good sign.

McWilliams and Wright leave, buy some pretzels at the Circle K and hurry to the Victoria airport, where McWilliams boards his plane for Dallas for another recruiting trip. Driving back to San Antonio, Wright says, "We're in good shape with Robert, but I don't feel confident we're gonna get him."

At 9:36 p.m. Wright stops for his first meal of the day, fajitas and iced tea at the Alamo Cafe in San Antonio. "Tomorrow," he says, "we get to go to Houston and see the best defensive back in Texas, Grady Cavness. And frankly, I don't think we have a snowball's chance in hell of gettin' him."

It's past midnight. Wright has been on the phone with prospects, including Smith. Now, one more task before he rests: a note to Strait.

Wednesday, Jan. 18. It's 6:41 a.m., and Wright has already run four miles.

"Come on. Let's go get us some college football players," he says as he heads toward the San Antonio airport for a flight to Houston, where he will talk to kids who play in the secondary; he's the coach of the Longhorn secondary. While the Houston players are not specifically assigned to him, he clearly has an interest in which ones come to Austin. "If they can't play, I can't coach," he says.

A prime target is Van Malone of Waltrip High. Yesterday he committed to TCU; today, with Texas calling, he's not so sure. Another Texas assistant, Clarence James, picks Wright up at the airport with the good news: "Malone is back on the market."

At Waltrip, Wright wastes no time with Malone. "We want you to come to Texas," says Bobby Jack. "I want to coach you. You're a good football player: I know that, you know that. We not only want you, we need you. We didn't exactly set the world on fire in our defensive secondary last year, and with all four starters coming back, you should jump for joy."

It's called begging.

Now Wright says, "If you go to TCU, you're still a good football player. But I do happen to believe you'll enjoy four years in Austin more than you'll enjoy four years in Fort Worth."

"Yes, sir," says Malone.

On to Kashmere High and defensive back Vernon Lewis, who seems both inordinately shy and tremendously interested in Pitt. "We need your help," pleads Wright, "which you could tell if you watched any of our games on TV."

"Yeah."

"We got riddled pretty good."

"Yeah."

Wright's next stop is Willowridge High, where he tells quarterback William Shankle—whom Texas wants as a defensive back—that "you are awful important to us."

Says Shankle. "I told Coach Mac that I most likely will be coming to UT" He does say that he will visit Oklahoma but tells Wright not to worry.

Moments later Wright is in earnest conversation with Cavness, a teammate of Shankle's and a player of Strait's caliber. In Cavness's presence Bobby Jack knows no shame. He is in full beg: "Whooee, we want you! You're gonna fine up and win games for us. You're the best DB coming out. If we could get one defensive player, it's you. If you come to Texas, I'll be one of the top secondary coaches in the country."

"Thank you," says Cavness.

"We're gonna treat you like a king."

"Thank you."

"And all we expect is for you to play like a king."

"Thank you."

Later, on the flight back to San Antonio, Wright sighs and says, "I tell you, Cavness will play football on Sundays one day. I hope he enjoyed me as much as I enjoyed him."

Thursday, Jan. 19. Wright is up early, rushing to the airport to fly to Dallas "to get us some college football players." Prospects in the Dallas area are not really Wright's business either. But he has taken over the players who had been assigned to former defensive coordinator Paul Jette. (Jette, who was an assistant at Oklahoma State before going to Texas in 1986, resigned on Jan. 6 after the Cowboys were placed on NCAA probation and Jette was accused of unethical conduct.) Wright gets into a rental car at the Dallas airport and drives to Commerce to see Phil Brown, a running back who is just a notch below Strait. This should be no sweat. Brown is all but committed to Texas. Bobby Jack calls the office on his portable phone and says, "I've got my nose down. I'm on the scent."

But there's trouble in Commerce. Brown is wavering. No longer is Texas a lock. He will visit TCU before deciding. Wright leaves in gloom. "We went from him being committed, to Texas being at the top of his list. That means he's not committed. I don't feel good about this child. This is not a done deal."

Silence. Wright is thinking about Brown—and Strait. He drives on to Denison to see defensive back Brian Gray, who says he loves Oklahoma State. "When I got to my hotel in Stillwater," says Gray, "they had a fruit basket with my name on it. I liked that." Wright swears his love to Gray. Gray nods but does not return the sentiment.

It's getting late, and Wright heads back to the Dallas airport, making reservations on the car phone for the flight to Austin. "I don't know what I have to do to get Strait," he says, "but I have to do something."

Tuesday, Jan. 24. Wright is back in Dallas, at the Summit Hotel. He picks up a newspaper and reads that Brown has told TCU he will sign with the Horned Frogs. "Oh, brother," he says. "Oh my gosh." He jumps in his car and races to Commerce, 69 miles away. Brown tells Wright the Frog recruiters were saying that Texas was in disarray after firing two coaches and hiring new offensive and defensive coordinators. Wright soothes the young prospect, putting the best face on the staff reorganization.

"I'm really confused," says Brown. They agree to talk more later. For the moment, Bobby Jack has staved off disaster.

Monday, Jan. 30. Wright wakes up in Austin in a fine mood—until he opens the paper and learns that Strait will announce his decision today. He calls Cuero and talks to Strait's coach, Pat Blessing. "We're sittin' here right now tryin' to decide," says Blessing. "We'll call you back." They don't.

Wright calls them an hour later and hears the dreadful news from Blessing: "He decided to go to Baylor." Strait never calls Wright. Baylor had an advantage in that two of Strait's friends from home play for the Bears. Wright is despondent. He says, "We busted our butts and never got close. Man. we wanted him." Silence. No more letters to Robert Strait. Wright sighs, "When you used to ask girls to dance, they didn't all say yes. So you learn early in life you really have to learn to take rejection. But I'll be honest, rejection tees me off."

Later, Wright props himself up and calls Brown. "Really, I always wanted to come to Texas," says Brown, "and I'm coming." It can't rain all day every day.

Saturday, Feb. 4. This weekend marks the final push before Wednesday, letter-of-intent day. Coaches, coeds and Texas football players are escorting prospects around the Austin campus, pointing out landmarks like the Texas Tower and 80,000-seat Memorial Stadium. The prospects are ushered through a feed line of ribs and barbecued chicken, and dine with coaches, professors and the Texas Angels. Brian Gray is visiting from Denison. Apparently the Oklahoma State fruit basket wasn't enough. He says he'll come to Austin. "I chose Texas," he says, "because every other school seemed to compare itself to Texas."

Sunday, Feb. 5. The night before the prospects are scheduled to return home, an ice storm hits Austin. McWilliams twice slides off the road, the second time into another car, prompting Wright to say, "He didn't learn much the first time, did he?" The kids don't mind being stuck at the Hyatt, with all expenses paid, for a while longer. Later, a private plane leased by the university takes Gray back to Denison. Wright says softly, "Damn, we needed Strait."

Tuesday, Feb. 7. Wright is having dinner in Dallas at Campisi's, a sports hangout near the SMU campus. Tomorrow, Signing Day, he'll drive to Commerce to sign Brown at 8 a.m. He hopes. Brown still has residual lust in his heart for TCU. With the recruiting nearly done, Wright, who was born in Mission, Texas, reflects on his own brief playing career at Southwest Texas State: "They said, 'You aren't good enough to play for us.' They were right. I was slow, small and weak, but I had a big heart. I made up for the deficiencies by being stupid."

Wright was an assistant coach at two high schools, head coach at one and an assistant at Texas A & I and North Texas State University before going to Austin in 1986. On the subject of recruiting, he says, "It's a crap-shoot. We have not got this down to a refined science. We get fooled every year." He heads back to his hotel, thinking about one person: Robert Strait.

Wednesday, Feb. 8. Signing Day. At last. "Man, time to go sack the bats," says Wright. At Commerce High, Brown, who ranks 39th in his class of 107, and his mother, Theda, are waiting. The scholarship papers are signed and everyone says how terrific this is. Wright slaps Brown on the back. "Well, Phil," he says, "this recruiting mess has finally come to a halt." Then he jumps back in the car. "He's a little Longhorn now," Wright says.

He heads out onto the two-lane for the 50-mile trip to Denison, where he will make a little Longhorn out of Gray. "Whooee!" says Wright. "We're gettin' us some college football players. We are stringin' the big-uns and throwing the little-uns back." On the car radio John Conlee is singing about Miss Emily's picture.

Wright drives into the high school parking lot at 10:05 a.m. The signing is brief, and Gray's coach, Marty Criswell, pats his star on the back. "This is a great day that's gonna change the rest of your life," says Criswell. Wright tells Gray that Texas is mighty proud to have him.

Then Bobby Jack hits the road for Dallas's Love Field and a flight to San Antonio to sign Smith. Says Wright of Smith, "He bleeds burnt orange." Sure does. Wright strides into Clark High and tells the waiting Smith, "The three most important things in your life, in order, are signin' with Texas, then gettin' married, then havin' children."

"Yes, sir," says Smith. All parties swear their affection for one another, for all time.

And so it ends. Bobby Jack Wright started with 100 prospects in his assigned area last May, had the list down to 15 by Nov. 1, invited five to the campus and didn't offer scholarships to three—including Hill, who signed with SMU—which left him with Strait and Smith. Hitting .500 keeps anyone in the big leagues. "I'm satisfied," he says.

Among the defensive backs he visited in Houston: Cavness signed with Texas and is the star of the class; Malone is also Texas-bound; Lewis chose Pitt; and Shankle got picked up by the Sooner Schooner.

Bobby Jack Wright stands in the afternoon sun in San Antonio and reflects on his labors. "It's a done deal now, and Robert Strait didn't like the Winnie-the-Pooh tape," he says. "What the heck. What we did was get us some college football players. Sure hope these children can play."

PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNAt dawn, a familiar hour, Wright climbs behind the wheel to resume the pursuit of prime prospects. THREE PHOTOSGEORGE TIEDEMANNTuesday, Jan. 17: Linebacker Smith (top left) is a Longhorn lock, but one more visit with Bubba and coach Bobbins (right) can't hurt. Texas is lukewarm on Hill (middle), but Wright and McWilliams shamelessly plead with Strait (bottom, red sweater) and his mom. THREE PHOTOSGEORGE TIEDEMANNWednesday, Jan. 18: Malone (top center) was tempted by TCU, but Wright and James arrive in time to change his mind. Lewis (center) likes Pitt and could be lost for good, but if Cavness (bottom) signs with Texas, Wright's recruiting season will be considered a success. THREE PHOTOSGEORGE TIEDEMANNThe Final Weekend: Imagine, Wright tells his prospects (top, with their escorts), what it would be like to play in packed Memorial Stadium. Gray (middle) tries to picture himself on the wall of fame, then tells Wright (bottom) he will return to Austin as a Longhorn. THREE PHOTOSGEORGE TIEDEMANNSigning Day: Smith (top right) signs, with an assist from his dad, Preston, and mom, Linda; Gray (middle) goes with Texas, and his mother, Eleanor Polk, is pleased; and Brown (bottom, background) returns to class, leaving Wright with an end-of-the-road grin.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)