The process has become much more civil and sane.
National signing day for high school football recruits used to coincide with tales of front-lawn brawls, or an assistant coach moving into a house down the block from a prospect to keep close tabs. All this in the effort to secure the services of a teenager not old enough to vote or who hasn’t yet attended his senior prom. The livelihood of college coaches forever lay in the hands of recruits.
In 1979, assistant coaches from BYU and Cal were in hot pursuit of Rio Americano lineman Trevor Matich. The coaches bumped into one another at then-Rio Americano coach Max Miller’s home to sign Matich, and fists began to fly.
“They got into a big fight on my front lawn,” Miller recalled amid laughter. “Just crazy. (Recruiting has) mellowed.”
Matich wound up signing with BYU, not because the Cougars’ coach was the last man standing in Miller’s yard with grass stains and dirt in his eye.
“BYU just fit me better, but it was nice being wanted,” said Matich, who won a national championship with BYU in 1984 and logged 12 NFL seasons.
Recruiters no longer collect signed letters of intent from prospects. Those treasured documents are signed and faxed directly to university athletic departments or transmitted digitally, and it will play out anxiously again Wednesday as student-athletes participate in national signing day. It’s become a big deal – enhanced by social media and exhaustive ESPN cable TV and Internet coverage – because college football is a big deal.
Even though college football today is bigger than ever, instances of a recruiter renting a house and selling his soul to land a prospect have faded.
In 1982, Washington instructed an assistant coach to rent a house near Parade magazine Player of the Year Kevin Willhite of Cordova to escort him to school or leave a flattering note in his backpack. Willhite, a tailback who remains the area’s most heavily recruited athlete, signed with Oregon, explaining: “I’m so glad I did.”
The Washington assistant coach down the street? He lost his job.
“That was a ridiculous amount of pressure on Kevin Willhite,” said Miller, now retired “I’ve seen a hundred different weird things. The recruiters do a much better job with it now.”
Kris Richardson agrees. The Folsom co-coach, who led the Bulldogs to a 16-0 state championship season, will have seven players sign scholarships Wednesday. That’s quite a haul considering most schools are fortunate to have one.
As for civility, Richardson said it’s the norm now, mostly, for recruiters.
“Most of the guys that come through are very cordial, and some are friends with each other,” Richardson said. “The recruiting game has changed for the better. A lot of the recruiters hang out at national coaching conventions, and they don’t want to be known as a jerk because they may wind up working with each other.”
Signing day can be equally stressful and exhilarating, a trend that dates back decades. Danny Farrell of Christian Brothers set regional receiving records in the early 1970s but was left without a scholarship on signing day in 1974. He waited for Stanford assistant coach George Seifert to visit the campus with scholarship papers, but Seifert never showed up.
Seifert had accepted a job that morning as the head coach at Cornell , and the offer to Stanford was gone. Farrell signed with Santa Clara, and Seifert eventually went on to 49ers coaching fame.
In 1983, lineman Curt DiGiacomofrom Foothill and American River College was torn between San Jose State and Arizona. He was prepared to sign with San Jose State because of his fondness for coach Jack Elway but changed his mind when Arizona offensive coordinator Steve Axman stopped by with letter-of-intent papers in hand. DiGiacomo’s family dog bit Axman, prompting the recruit to feel guilty enough to change his mind and sign with the Wildcats. He went on to play in the NFL.
In 1996, Del Oro’s Randy Fasani, the nation’s No. 1 quarterback prospect, awoke from knee surgery with three Stanford assistant coaches hovering. Cal coach Steve Mariucci also was very interested in Fasani, but he wasn’t in that hospital room. Upon waking up, Fasani joked, “Hey, Mariucci, you look different.” Stanford had the last laugh. Fasani signed with the Cardinal and played in the NFL.
In 1999, Bee Player of the Year Lance Briggs couldn’t decide between Arizona and USC. The linebacker had a cellphone from coaches from both schools pressed to each ear, listening to final, desperate pleas. Briggs settled on Arizona and rode the decision into a Pro Bowl career with the Chicago Bears.
“It’s so hard, but when you do what feels right, you can live with it,” Briggs said. “I know it changed my life forever. No regrets.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.