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The Country\'s 30 Best Recruiters

Recruiting is an inexact science as some of the nation\'s best explain.
by: Patrick Finley
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John Blake has a secret. Along with other members of coach Bill Callahan’s staff, the defensive line coach helped recruit what many called the best incoming class of the 2005 season. Blake recruits the talent-laden areas of Southern California and Southern Texas, in addition to Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

“Some people have a gift,” said Blake, who was the head coach at Oklahoma from 1996-98. “One of my gifts is to speak to people. I just know what to sell. I know what’s important to kids and moms and dads. I have a different way of expressing that.

“It’s hard to explain. Even if I could, I wouldn’t really want to (explain it). That’s something that I cherish.”

Blake views it as a trade secret. But this much we do know – when Callahan started at Nebraska, he sat down and established a recruiting strategy with his coaches. One of the focal points, Blake said, was to target the absolute finest kids as early as possible, and establish a relationship with them.

The second part was to stress the storied history of Cornhusker football, a move designed to exploit Nebraska’s successful past and endear himself to fans who were at first wary of him as an outsider.

The plan seems to be working on the recruiting front, and Blake, considered one of the finest recruiters in America, is in part a reason for that. The results haven’t necessarily shown in the win column yet, but Blake said that will change.

“Coaching plays a major part because you have to develop players, obviously,” he said. “But it’s so much easier to develop a player that is big, fast and strong.”

Blake admits that he has an advantage over many schools because, well, Nebraska is Nebraska. But the same principles apply throughout college football divisions, big and small, and the ability to succeed regardless of school size or national prominence makes some of following coaches unique.

“X’s and O’s are a major part of it,” said Patrick Ross, the head coach at NAIA Lindenwood (Mo.) University. “But the bottom line is, whoever has the best players often finds a way to win.”

That said, there are different ways to land a player – but few basic principles. Many times, the main differences between approaches can be credited to circumstances. A coach at the Division I-A level has a different outlook on recruiting than, say, an NAIA coach, obviously.

Dale Lennon, the head coach at Division II North Dakota, doesn’t rely on junior college recruits often, if ever. Redshirting your freshman year at North Dakota is mandatory, with rare exception. That might be a far cry from the perception of how a smaller school operates.

“Being where we are, and what we’re about, we need to make sure retention works,” Lennon said. “We spend a lot of time making sure that a kid is a good fit for us. Our schemes are complicated, so having that extra year helps.”

The extra year also helps Lennon sort out his financial aid. No one at North Dakota receives a full scholarship, so players’ partial aid increases with playing time.

The case at Division I-AA schools is far different. Many I-AA players are transfers from D I-A schools who move down because there’s no one-year waiting rule before you can start playing again.

“Since this is a preferred option for many I-A transfers, I-AA schools are always in competition for the best transfers, especially at the quarterback position,” said Matt Dougherty, who follows D I-AA schools for The Sports Network.” In last year’s playoffs, five of the eight quarterfinal QB’s were I-A transfers.”

Those schools are allowed 63 scholarships – I-A schools give out 85 – and many of them are used on prep players and transfers from the school’s region. However, Ivy League and some Patriot League schools recruit nationally, Dougherty said.

“The universal truths are an active, energetic staff that has to find players early and be consistent with sending guides, school information, helping get players set academically,” Dougherty said. “Non-stop effort is needed in recruiting across the board. The transfer impact is more unique to the I-AA level.”

At Div. III Redlands, Mike Maynard prides himself on nonstop work.

“What’s different between us and other levels is that it never starts and it never stops,” he said. “It’s a cycle that goes 365 guys. D-I and D-II schools have signing dates. There’s a season for recruiting. For us, it never really ends.

“You never know who’s going to be here until halftime of the first game.

“There’s a misnomer that because we don’t offer scholarships, we don’t recruit. The reality is that our recruiting has to be more important, because of the caveat that we don’t have scholarships.”

With such varied opinions – and such well-thought out approaches – it’s easy to see why the coaches have been selected as some of American Football Monthly’s best recruiters for the past season. Like recruiting itself, the ranking is purely subjective, but here are 30 coaches who are at the top of their game:

Division I-A
John Blake, Nebraska
While his official title is defensive ends coach at Nebraska, make no mistake about it – Blake is invaluable to coach Bill Callahan because of his recruiting prowess. The former Oklahoma head coach has the ability to sway recruits from across the country, but focuses on two of the most talented regions – Southern California and southern Texas. Blake credits his success to following Callahan’s formula and being genuine with parents and kids alike. “Kids know when you’re being fake,” he said.

‘Doc’ Holliday, University of Florida
What happens when recruiting star Urban Meyer has to pick his own recruiting coordinator? He picks Holliday, a former assistant head coach at North Carolina State who found quarterback Philip Rivers from a small school in Alabama. Holliday had a short season to work with this year – being that Meyer didn’t leave Utah until after its bowl game – but will use his Southeast expertise in the years to come.

Bobby Petrino, Louisville
While Petrino has a reputation for being one of the nation’s best recruiters – and he is – some of the credit goes to his cornerbacks coach, Joe Whitt Jr. Whitt, only 26 years old, signed 20 of Lousville’s 70 recruits this season, continuing to bring talent to a school moving into a bigger football conference.

Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Ferentz has drawn interest from national college and pro head coaching jobs, and with good reasons. Since taking over the Hawkeyes, Ferentz has turned them into a talent-rich squad in an already-competitive conference and region of the country. Recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson might be his secret weapon.

Tom Amstutz, Toledo
Both Toledo and Miami (Ohio) have recruited star players despite having to compete with teams from larger conferences. While Shane Montgomery will take over the Redhawks this season, Amstutz will continue to do what he’s done best, perhaps surprisingly so – recruit talent from all over the country. The MAC team has many players from Ohio and Pennsylvania, but runs the gamut from California to Florida to New York, and even to Germany.

Division I-AA
Bobby Hauck, Montana
The Montana native and former University of Washington assistant has kept the Grizzlies atop the I-AA pack, using his connections to recruit high school players from Montana and Washington. Along with recruiting coordinator Pete Kaligis, Hauck landed two I-A transfers this season, a quarterback from Bowling Green and a wide receiver from Colorado State.

Mike Sewak, Georgia Southern
Sewak traditionally brings in top talent to the powerhouse school, and it showed last season when the Eagles led the nation in rushing yards and scoring en route to their eighth Southern Conference title. Recruiting mostly high school players from Georgia and Florida, Sewak inked four quarterbacks this season in an attempt to fill the team’s biggest hole following graduation.

K.C. Keeler, Delware
The strength of Delaware’s recruiting prowess, and coaching of that talent, is shown by the fact that three assistants left the program this off-season to take positions at Western Michigan, Delaware and Maryland. Keeler, who won the I-AA national title in 2003 and has gone 30-11 in three seasons, has shown a knack for recruiting preps from around the country. This year, he signed recruits from Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.

Mickey Matthews, James Madison
This must be scary for I-AA foes – the Dukes won the 2004 national title and followed it with what coach Mickey Matthews called “our best class” in terms of quality and quantity. After using fewer than 10 scholarships to sign recruits two years ago, the Dukes used 22 to sign 25 players, mostly preps, this year. Perhaps what’s most impressive is that the Dukes were able to land recruits from seven states despite the fact that they are four deep at running back. They didn’t land a quarterback, but are two deep there, with the starter entering his junior year.

Scott Stoker, Northwestern (La.) State
Signing mostly preps from Louisiana, Stoker landed maybe the best quarterback prospect in I-AA when he signed Sean Santos, the all-time leading passer in the New Orleans Catholic League, in February. A record-shattering Northwestern State quarterback himself, the third-year coach will guide Santos en route to encouraging more big-time prospects to come to Natchitoches.

Division II
Dale Lennon, North Dakota
Lennon doesn’t resort to many of the ‘quick-fix’ tactics that other coaches may use to make a quick improvement. Lennon almost never accepts a transfer and mandates that all his freshman players redshirt. With a solid base of talent for years to come, Lennon has organically grown a powerhouse.

Chris Hatcher, Valdosta State
It’s no secret that Valdosta State is one of the great teams in Division II. Hatcher is one of the division’s best coaches, no doubt – he is 58-7 since coming to VSU. You can’t do that without landing some great players, and Hatcher farms some of the most rich soil in America.

Richard Cundiff,
Texas A&M-Kingsville

The Javelinas were once a home for many Division I-A and junior college transfers, but Cundiff is trying to solidify the program by relying on more high school players. Texas A&M-Kingsville is thinking long-term, and Cundiff is the architect, said Division II expert Brandon Misener.

Mel Tjeerdsma,
Northwest Missouri State

The Bearcats contend for a title almost every year, and do it without many transfers. Tjeerdsma recruits mostly high school players and is one of the most well-liked coaches in all of Division II. His success on signing day confirms that.

Ken Sparks, Carson Newman
Sparks is well-respected and well-liked, and has gained a reputation as a good molder of young men and someone whose players trust above anything else. That reputation precedes him, as he almost always has a great signing day, said Division II expert Brandon Misener.

Division III
Mike Maynard, Redlands
Mike Maynard’s success at Redlands has been built around hiring a staff that knows how to recruit. In a certain sense, Maynard said, he can teach a coach Xs and Os. He can’t teach a coach how to recruit. “You can’t just make 25 phone calls and go home,” he said. Maynard, entering his 18th season at Redlands, has won nine of the last 13 SCIAC titles.

Jim Purtill, St. Norbert
Purtill has been extremely successful despite the fact that the Midwest Conference doesn’t allow off-campus contact with recruits, said Pat Coleman, editor and publisher of He sticks to recruiting his state of Wisconsin as well as Illinois and Michigan.

Regis Scafe, John Carroll

Scafe has shown a knack for bringing recruits to Don Shula Field, named after the school’s most famous alum. Scafe has led the Blue Streaks to a national ranking for the last 15 years.

Jay Locey, Linfield (Ore.) College
Linfield finished the 2004 season with a perfect record and won its first-ever Division III football title, adding onto its prestigious history. Linfield had won three NAIA Division II titles in the 1980s. Locey, for that matter, was named the AFCA Division III Coach of the Year after leading his team of mostly Oregon and Northwest recruits.

Pete Fredenberg,
Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas)

Fredenberg, a two-time AFCA Region II Coach of the Year and past Schutt Sports American Football Monthly honoree, led the Crusaders to three trips to the Division III Championships in the past five years, including a loss to Linfield in this year’s title game. He recruits from his home state, one of the most rich talent bases in the country. Only one player on last year’s squad was not from Texas.

Patrick Ross,
Lindenwood (Mo.) University

Ross tries to operate his team as if it were a Division I program – he signs players on their signing day, because that’s when the best players sign. Ross said he tries to sell the school as much as the football program. Unique rules – players must sit in the first three rows of class, so they have to arrive early, with the penalty of five miles of running at 5 a.m.; also, no hats are allowed – establish discipline and trust among players and their parents.

Fred Slaughter,
Northwestern Oklahoma State
Fred Slaughter utilized junior college transfers again this off-season to help bolster his squad. This season, Slaughter inked 10 transfers and nine high school players to add to a team that went 9-2 last season and lost in the first round of the NAIA playoffs. Slaughter will begin his second year as head coach after serving as the team’s co-defensive coordinator. Along with Ross, Slaughter is among the nation’s best recruiters, according to NAIA expert Jason Dannelly.

Todd Murgatroyd,
Urbana (Ohio) University

Murgatroyd and recruiting coordinator/ assistant head coach Tim Place announced a class of 21 athletes from Ohio, Texas, New York, Georgia and Florida in February. Murgatroyd, who worked as an assistant under current Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and former Tennessee coach Johnny Majors, mostly recruits high schoolers. He called the 2005 class “one of the best recruiting classes in school history.”

Mike VanDiest,
Carroll (Mont.) College

What’s not to love about the way VanDiest has coached his team? Carroll College won its third-straight NAIA title in 2004, the first time the feat had been accomplished since Texas A&I did it in the 1970s, and the first such feat since NAIA merged into one division. VanDiest recruits mostly from Montana and the Northwest, landing seven players Feb. 2, five of whom were from Helena.

Bill Cronin, Georgetown (Ky.) College
Focusing mostly on players from Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, Cronin has built Georgetown into a juggernaut in his eight years there. He’s been named NAIA coach of the year twice and won back-to-back national titles in 2000 and 2001.

Troy Morrell,
Butler County Community College

Morrell is known for a tireless work ethic when it comes to recruiting. He recently completed a four week road trip through the southeast. In 2004, after his team was named the J.C. Grid-Wire co-No. 1 in 2003, Morrell led his team to an 11-1 record. He is known for landing blue-chip prospects.

Jeff Leiker,
Coffeyville Community College

Like Morrell, Leiker is an outstanding recruiter. Both schools have depth that most coaches would kill for. Their teams are stocked with talent, too, making Leiker a perennial recruiting star.

Greg Croshaw, Dixie College
Croshaw attracts players both from within Utah – the school is in St. George – and nationally. Often times, his recruits play for a year before leaving on a Mormon mission. After staying in touch with their coach, the players return to play one more year at Dixie College, said JUCO expert Hank Ives.

Chuck Lyon, College of the Canyons
It’s pretty easy to make the list when you’re the 2004 National Champion, but Lyon won’t be resting on his laurels. In addition to taking advantage of his newfound national attention, Lyon will continue to pursue recruits as hard as he always has.

George Rush,
City College of San Francisco

The coach of the 2003 National Champions is an expert at filling the holes in his lineup. Despite being criticized by some for recruiting nationally, Rush’s recent rosters reflect a decidedly regional flare, said JUCO expert Ives.


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