Passion Play - Part 2

In case you missed this, this is a MUST READ NOW! This article appeared in a recent edition of <B>FightinGators magazine</B>. If you love the Gators and recruiting, you will LOVE this article. If you are not signed up for FightinGators magazine, this is what you are missing. <P> <B>Betty Ling</B> has turned her love of the Gators into a career that has contributed to Florida's football success. <P> Part two of three

Passion Play - Part ONE

The sheer volume of mail Ling has generated over the past 24 years is mind boggling. During the NCAA investigation in the early 1980s, she had to document everything that had been mailed out from her office. In one year, close to 80,000 pieces of mail were sent, including some 700 cards each week, all of them hand signed by either members of the coaching staff or Ling. It's pretty much guaranteed that every high school coach in the state of Florida since 1979, at some time, has received a card or letter from Betty Ling. Any high school coach who has attended a Gator football game since 1979 with a ticket provided by UF has talked to Ling before they got that ticket.

While all the correspondence has made a 14-hour workday spent between her office and her home the standard over the years, there has been much more to Ling's efforts than all those cards and letters to recruits and coaches. She has been an innovator in the entire recruiting process, a pioneer of recruiting techniques that have been copied by other schools throughout the country.

"In 1980 we started setting up the lockers for the recruits (during official visits). I think we were the first ones to ever do it," Ling said. "We were in the locker room and I said 'Can I ask something?' and coach Pell said 'Sure.' I had never been in the locker room on game day so I asked Bud (Fernandez, the Gators' longtime equipment manager) if it was difficult to set up a locker so that when that kid walked in the room he'd see his name on the locker, he'd see his jersey with the high school number he's wearing now and his pads and his shoes sitting there just like, hey, you're going to play. We expect you to play. We're ready for you right now. Bud said oh no we can't do that and then coach Pell said we certainly can do that. That's when we started it. Coaches leave here and take stuff we were doing here with them. All of a sudden Florida State started doing the lockers."

Florida State and other schools may have picked up the "locker" idea from Florida, but in at least one instance, the recruiting ploy backfired on the Seminoles.

By 1986, Ling had helped recruit so many athletes to Florida, that her meticulous attention to detail in preparing for each recruit's official visit was legendary. In getting ready for an official visit by superstar running back Stacey Simmons of Dunedin, Ling learned that Stacey's 6-year old nephew Terrence would be coming on his uncle's official visit, so she took the locker ritual a step further than usual.

After borrowing a kid's jersey from one of the local shops that sold Gator gear, Ling not only had a locker set up for Stacey Simmons but had an adjoining locker set up for his nephew. Simmons' nephew was thrilled when he entered the Gator locker room with his uncle and saw his own locker and jersey.

A week later, Simmons and his nephew went to Tallahassee for an official visit. A locker was set up for Stacey Simmons, just as it had been at Florida. But something was missing and Terrence wanted to know why.

" Terrence went up to coach Bowden in the locker room and asked him where his locker and jersey were," Ling explains in relating the story Stacey Simmons told her about the trip. "Coach Bowden patted him on the head and told him that when he was big enough to be recruited he'd get a locker and jersey too. Terrence said it wasn't like that at Florida. They already had his locker and jersey ready for him. That really caught Bowden by surprise and he didn't know what to say."

Several weeks later, Simmons signed with Florida, lettered three years and went on to play one year in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts.

Recruiting is a 12-month-a-year job the way Betty Ling does it. At the peak of the recruiting season in January and early February, she works 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Things are a lot slower during the football season. She only works 75-80 hours per week and does take an occasional day off.

Once Signing Day is over in February, it's time to start all over again, with letter writing to juniors who are becoming seniors and the gathering of prospect lists and tapes from high school coaches, so that when Gator coaches head out to high school spring football practices around the state, they know who to look at.

"I don't write heavy to the juniors. If you do, by the time they become seniors they're tired of hearing from Florida. They want to hear from people that don't know about them and that makes him think, 'hey everybody's recruiting me."

The spring recruiting list includes some 1,500 names before the whittling process begins. By the start of the high school football season, that master list is trimmed to about 500 names and remains there through November while coaches get a chance to see players in action and the high school prospects' transcripts pour into the recruiting office. This is the time to find out which kids will be able to get into the University of Florida.

As Jan. 1 rolls around, the recruiting list is trimmed to 95-100 prospects. A maximum of 56 will be allowed to take official visits to UF. But that's always been more than enough to build a solid recruiting class.

"In all the years I've been here we've only used all of our visits once," Ling said. "When you get them to that point it's a matter of elimination. You go into that last weekend with maybe five slots open. Last year we had five or six scholarships open that last weekend, but we had twenty people coming in for visits. You just hope the right five fall where you want them. You could lose all twenty that last weekend. We lost about three we thought we were going to get. That's why you have to keep going with all those numbers. If you were down to 30 or 40 people in January when you started your visits your chances of getting the twenty-five out of that wouldn't be too good.

"The last time we had the number one (recruiting ) class with coach (Spurrier) we had something like thirty-two visits and we signed twenty-four of them. It was unbelievable. That's the best percentage-wise we've ever done."

With all the various recruiting services available, rating signing classes has become an industry unto itself. But how much stake do coaching staffs put into those rankings?

"I asked that question once," Ling said. "Coach Pell told me that on paper it may sound like something, but if you can get seventy percent of your signing class to become players during their four years, than you've done a heckuva job in recruiting. Nobody can tell a recruiting class until a couple years after it's over.

According to Ling, Spurrier had an undeserved reputation as a coach who didn't like to recruit. The truth was he didn't like to sell.

"Steve loved the University of Florida. He couldn't understand why everybody didn't want to be here. That was hard for him. Our first recruiting weekend with him he was shocked. He said, 'None of these people committed. What's wrong with these people?' In his mind he couldn't admit that everybody doesn't love the University of Florida like we do. It was hard for him to think he had to beg someone to come here. He wasn't going to do that.

"It wasn't that he didn't like to recruit. He did whatever we asked him to do. One time he flew into Texas in a snowstorm, watched a kid play basketball and then flew all night coming back. He just could never understand why someone wouldn't want to come here because this place was his life and he loved it so much."

Often it was the recruit who sold himself to Spurrier, not vice versa.

"Teako Brown (a defensive back from Miami) came up for an official visit but he had not been offered a scholarship. He was a good kid and played hard, but he wasn't big for a defensive back and he wasn't high up on our recruiting list. He went in to see Coach and said how much he loved Florida and went on and on. Coach was so impressed that he said if you want a scholarship here that bad, you got it.

"Well our coaching staff was having a cow when they heard he had offered Teako a scholarship. We had our recruiting boards and you have the guys who are prefers and none of them had even been in for a visit yet and Coach gave a scholarship to someone down the list. But that was him (Spurrier) and Teako proved him right. He was a great player for us.

"If you loved Florida he loved you. That's the way it was with Shane (Matthews). Shane was on the bottom of the pole when Coach arrived. But he loved Shane. It was the same way with Danny (Wuerffel). You could never predict what he was going to do.

"Danny was very quiet when he came here. Danny told me the reason he came to Florida was because I fed him good cookies, " Ling said in jest. "Danny was heading to Alabama the whole time and he came here and played in the state championship game (at Florida Field). Coach wasn't sure if he had the arm, but he loved the kid. That's why when he came here Coach stuck with him and watched him and kept working with him. He recruited him hard."

Then again, Spurrier's outlook on recruiting was very different from that of Ron Zook.

" Ron came in here running as an assistant coach when he was recruiting," Ling explained. "Whenever we had a kid here who we wanted, but he just couldn't push the button, Ron would take him out on the field and walk him around. He'd get next to him and he'd never let up. He didn't get them all but he got a lot of them. So I knew when he came in as head coach that I wouldn't have to worry about him, that he'd do whatever we had to get done.

"I think the thing Ron realized, because he was an assistant, and he was always out in the high schools, he learned the value of the high schools in the state. Ron took time during the Gator Clubs to go visit as many schools as he could. He was personally going into the high school and how many head coaches in the country do that?

"You build a much better high school base. When I came here there was no high school file. We did nothing for high school coaches. They wouldn't even talk to us. That's one of the things coach Pell told me. If you do nothing else but turn the high school program around, get it to where the high schools like us and they'll accept us and they'll read our mail and come to our games then that's all I'll ask you to do. That's what we worked on. We set up a ticket program for the coaches so they could come to our games. Usually we have eighty-five coaches and their guests that come. We always run out of tickets by Tuesday before the home games. When they call that gives me a chance to talk to the coaches personally. That's what coach Pell wanted.

"Now you have to remember it was different when Steve was an assistant (in 1978). Back then we didn't have any competition in the state. If you visited Florida, you came to Florida. That's just the way it was."

Passion Play - Part ONE

Part three coming tomorrow.

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