BYU Recruiting When a Coach is Under Fire

<b>COMMENTARY:</b> Heading into its MWC schedule, BYU was 1-3 and the murmur of dissatisfaction with head coach Gary Crowton and his staff turned into a roar. A disappointing offense, especially on the ground, a record of 0-5 versus ranked teams, the possibility of three losing seasons after following the successful run of one of the greatest coaches ever... it's been a dismal picture on the field in recent years and the natural question is, "How will this impact recruiting?"

Here, presented in a good-news, bad-news format is the state of BYU's football recruiting efforts in a nutshell.

BAD NEWS

History has shown that a coaching change doesn't impact recruiting prospects half as much as the threat of a coaching change. Why? When a new coach is brought in, he has no losses and the optimism of going in a new direction gets everyone excited, including recruits. The cloud of uncertainty is gone and players in the program and potential signees can look ahead.

However, when rumor is out that a coach's head is on the chopping block, practically no recruit wants to invest in a football future that could change and bring in strangers who could drastically change things for the worse. For example, what big-time quarterback wants to sign with Texas Tech only to see a new coaching staff come in and install a Wishbone offense?

It's no coincidence that BYU entered the season with no public commits (although Stephen Covey would soon be the first known verbal) unlike past years when the summer camp alone would provide some good news. It doesn't seem too long ago that a relatively unknown running back from Oregon named Luke Staley committed at the BYU camp before his senior season.

Ironically, recruiting has been one of Crowton's strengths, certainly in terms of closing on some great players. We only have to look as far as the receiver position to see two impact players this year, Todd Watkins and Austin Collie, who believed in this staff enough to come on board.

The worst thing about BYU's situation is word is out publicly, true or not, that if Crowton and crew don't win seven games he's gone. In recruiting, the axiom "perception is stronger than reality" is really true. College coaches/recruiters are like sharks; they smell blood and will go in for the kill.

You can absolutely count on the fact that negative recruiting regarding the coaching staff is going on and will get stronger the more uncertain the Crowton's future is at BYU. This is a major reason coaches get extended contracts – to prevent damaging rumors from gaining momentum.

The best thing BYU's administration can do is make a public announcement, whether Crowton stays or goes, and make it in a timely manner. If he stays, announce it as soon as it is finalized. However, if a change is made, timing is everything: you don't want to do it when it will be a distraction or, worse, look cruel... like the day before the Utah game, for example.

The termination of BYU's men's and women's athletic directors in September was a public relations nightmare and another misstep like that with the head coaching picture could set the program back for years.

The final concern is timing. The longer the coaching position twists in the wind, the more impatient top recruits will get and the higher the likelihood they'll pull the trigger and go elsewhere. Let's put it this way: if you're a great LDS recruit and have BYU and Utah after you, the color red looks a lot more appealing than it did only a year or two ago.

GOOD NEWS

The best thing going for BYU football recruiting is the same today as it was 30 years ago – and it will be the same 30 years from today: the LDS Church. Talented LDS players are always going to go to BYU as much for the "off-field" experiences as the "on-field." No matter whom is the BYU head coach, Gary Crowton or Garry Shandling, BYU will always get players other schools would drool to have.

You think UTEP or Louisiana Tech would kill to have BYU's pipeline to LDS athletes? And that's only getting bigger and better as the Church membership grows exponentially.

Last year was the worst year for LDS talent overall in the last five and BYU still came out with studs like Collie, Isley Filiaga, Ray Feinga and Jacob Bower, all prospects who were recruited heavily by BCS schools in the Pac 10, Big 12 and Big 10.

This year, BYU is in the driver's seat for probably the top five LDS players in the Class of '05: Offensive lineman Matt Reynolds from Provo Timpview High (it will depend on the job status of his father Lance, an assistant at BYU); wide receiver Spencer Hafoka from Kahuku, Hawaii; offensive/defensive lineman Russell Tialavea from Oceanside, Calif.; Vic So'oto from Carlsbad, Calif.; and Anthony Moeaki from Wheaton, Ill.

Don't be surprised if all five sign with BYU if no coaching changes happen – or if a high profile LDS coach with national credibility is named to replace Crowton next year.

Notice one thing about four of the five: they're Polynesian. BYU fans often bemoan the fact that BYU struggles to get the top African-American athletes. This is true generally although efforts have stepped up recently and appear to be successful. But the quiet success story few are acknowledging is that BYU's "minority" success is coming with the Polynesian athletes and this will only get better as BYU coaches learn how to better sell the awesome history and new facilities on the Provo campus.

Surprisingly, BYU's recruiting efforts should be strong again this year – despite all the instability and with or without a coaching change. Why? If Crowton is kept, he and his staff are good recruiters and have a lot to sell, including the fact that freshmen get to play immediately – a huge aspect of USC's great success recently.

Moreover, Crowton's job status would be secured, the negative recruiting would dissipate and recruits could hear the tantalizing words, "We've struggled and need you, Johnny Bluechipper, to come in and provide help right away." That's music to any recruit's ears.

Or if Crowton is not brought back: A new staff can come in untarnished and sell the positivism that comes with change. All the other pluses, the Church, the football history, the crowds, the academics, the facilities, etc. are still there and the recruits could easily get caught up in the enthusiasm of a new staff.

Still, there is one concern that must be addressed before all the chips fall: BYU seemingly has had its best recruiting classes ever in the past few years, yet the on-field results are the worst seen in the last three decades. Why is this? Crowton fans say the pipeline is loaded and just needs more time to be developed, including the anticipated return of quarterback Ben Olson. He signed with BYU not just because of football, but because of family connections at the school and the missionary work he could do being a representative of BYU.

Crowton critics will respond with two questions: "If recruiting is so great, why aren't the players excelling more on the field? Are they not being developed properly?" The arguments could go round and round, but these are the issues that administrators will have to consider regarding the future of BYU football.

Either way, there's a lot riding on the chosen direction and the way they handle it publicly. Recruiting has been a major strength in recent years and it will be interesting to see if Crowton and his staff get to build on it – or if there have been too many losses to keep him in the driver's seat.

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