Valdosta’s Malcolm Mitchell was one of the most important recruits in Georgia’s 2011 Dream Team recruiting class.
And Mitchell’s recruiting was a total mystery to recruiting insiders and college coaches themselves. He came down to Alabama and Georgia in the final stretch of the 2011 recruiting cycle. Since picking the Bulldogs that winter night in Valdosta, Mitchell has helped the Bulldogs go 29-9 in games he’s played in.
Malcolm Mitchell might not have been the been the best player for the Bulldogs over the last five years, but he’s been one of the most consequential. Mitchell was the the player Aaron Murray targeted on the final snap of the Bulldogs’ painful 2012 SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama. Mitchell was the player who exploded for the game-winning touchdown against No. 2 Florida in 2012. He made a huge play against Tennessee in 2011, and against Auburn later that fall. He’s been a major playmaker, and has become the top receiver for the Bulldogs this fall.
But there was no guarantee he would play for Georgia in 2011.
It was a turbulent time at Georgia - the stain of a loss to UCF in the Liberty Bowl was still fresh - but Mark Richt's time at Georgia was on the line, and the program needed to move quickly in the recruiting world. It was a late-January Thursday in the winter of 2011, and Georgia was at a critical moment not only in that recruiting cycle, but in the tenure of Mark Richt at Georgia.
Malcolm Mitchell was nearly as must-get as a slew of guys, and he was about to announce.
Mitchell stood up and slapped his hands together – rubbing them as he smiled.
Meanwhile Mike Bobo and John Lilly were stationed outside in a parking lot across the street from a home improvement store in Valdosta – nervously waiting to hear what was about to happen.
Georgia fans across the state were listening to an AM radio station steaming Mitchell's decision over the Internet. The feed from the station was fading in and out due to the amount of online traffic.
One way or another Mitchell was about to provide or take away momentum for the Bulldogs at one of the most pivotal moments in recent Georgia history. If Mitchell picked the Bulldogs, Mark Richt and his staff of coaches would have momentum going into the final stages of recruiting. If Mitchell picked Alabama, the Bulldogs and their fans would again ask what went wrong – wondering just how far the ship could sink.
It was the pivotal moment in a month full of pivotal moments. Mitchell's announcement was quintessential recruiting – fast and furious – the silly season of speculation was in full view for the world to see. But unlike so many other times in the recruiting game, no one knew what was about to happen.
Not much had gone right for Georgia on the field or in recruiting for the previous couple of seasons, so the winter of 2011 was a critical one for the program. The Bulldogs were coming off of their worst season in 14 years – the only losing season of the Richt era. The pressure was on for Georgia to win in a big way in 2011, and in order to do that they needed to close strong on their 2011 recruiting class – the so-called "Dream Team" – a term used by Richt and company as a recruiting tool to describe the abnormally talented 2011 class of prospects in the state of Georgia.
Three weeks into January Georgia's hopes of closing strong had not yet happened… and that happening was not guaranteed.
During the madness that is the lead up to Signing Day it's easy to forget that the outcome of the critical moments of January and early February are days, months and even years in the making.
It's also easy to forget that relationships, which are built up over the years, can be second-guessed and affected by almost anything that pops up in the winter air. Huge decisions for prospects are made even more complicated with every variable added to the mix.
The events of January 20th – which saw two high-level prospects commit to the Bulldogs and an assistant coach leave to take another job – were in the making long before that day. The events of that day had a profound effect on the trajectory of the Bulldogs' program.
By the time Malcolm Mitchell took to the airwaves that Thursday night it was nearly 7 p.m. Georgia head coach Mark Richt had been up since 6:31 a.m. His travel companion from the day before and offensive coordinator for the previous five years, Mike Bobo, spent the night in Valdosta and only got six hours of sleep. He was probably tossing and turning all night because he knew the importance of signing Mitchell was not limited to him simply playing for Georgia – it was also about keeping the explosive playmaker from choosing Alabama. John Lilly joined Bobo in Valdosta by the time Mitchell took to the airwaves.
Mitchell's commitment signified a slew of things for the Bulldogs. In a way, recruiting is a proxy war at every turn. Teams don't actually play on the field, but emotions from the just-concluded season run deep each winter in the South. Boosters are accused of cheating, bagmen (the person responsible for distributing illegal payments to prospects or their surrogates) are whispered about… it is the silly season in the world of college football.
And for Georgia, Mitchell's commitment date was the Dawgs' last best hope of winning a critical in-state commitment – a final chance to swing momentum their way in the fickle, but critical world of college football recruiting.
Earlier in the month two top Peach State prospects – Xzavier Dickson and Quan Bray – picked Alabama and Auburn on national TV. Insiders saw it coming, but fans didn't – and they were taking out their frustrations on Richt and company publicly on Internet message boards and social networks. Anything that could go wrong for the Bulldogs was going that way. The loss of Bray and Dickson on national TV pushed the Dawgs in the corner even more. Everything was piling up – the loss to lowly Central Florida started the ball rolling against the Dawgs heading into January. Bray's and Dickson's commitments elsewhere made things feel even worse – Mitchell's commitment was critically important to the Bulldog program if for no other reason than the way it would look if he signed with Alabama.
Looking back, January 5th 2011 was the low point for the program at Georgia. It was less than a week from one of the worst losses of the Mark Richt era and recruits Georgia needed badly – specifically Dickson – were turning their backs on their in-state school.
As it turned out the depths of the lows wouldn't outpace the height of the highs that recruiting cycle, but no one knew that on January 5th - and very few believed it would happen. It's easy, particularly after a losing season, for fans to predict that the world will end. Things were bad in Athens for sure, but across the South other teams were celebrating – and that made for an even more agitated bunch in red and black.
Less than a week after Dickson and Bray committed to Bama and Auburn, salt was poured into the Dawgs' wounds as a Georgia native, Cam Newton, led Auburn to the BCS national title.
Still, Richt must have been feeling somewhat OK about the future as one of Georgia's main rivals won the national title. No, he wasn't pulling for the Tigers. Instead, he took a phone call from Ray Drew at 11:20 p.m. that Monday night – just as the Tigers were kicking the game-winning field goal. The two talked for 26 minutes before getting off the phone just before midnight.
Drew, a prospect who lived only miles from Florida State, was uncommitted and was viewed as one of the players the Bulldogs could not let skip away in January. As Richt's conversation with Drew proved, the Bulldogs had a few rabbits in their hats at that time… a slew of high-level recruits were still out there to be had, and Georgia had to have some of them to win in 2011, and everyone knew it. The first ten days of the New Year were not good – but the following three weeks likely would determine the fate of Richt and his coaches. It was still possible for Georgia to get up off the mat even as the confetti fell on the Tigers in Arizona.
Still on the table in January were: Malcolm Mitchell, Jay Rome, Ray Drew, John Jenkins, Jeoffrey Pagan, Antonio Richardson and, most importantly, Isaiah Crowell.
Bobo and Richt both knew that they would have to gain a healthy percentage of that group. Crowell was the most important of the bunch, but would he come to Georgia if they didn't have recruiting momentum? Would he come to Georgia at all? Crowell, like everyone else Georgia was recruiting, had options – seemingly endless options.
Alabama was the main opponent in the fight for both Crowell and Mitchell. The Tide, who had won the national title two seasons before, was the source of much angst in the Bulldog Nation when it came to recruiting – probably because fans knew that losing Crowell and Mitchell would make for a very long 2011. That turned out to be true – Mitchell led the Bulldogs' wide receivers in receptions that fall; Crowell was named the SEC Freshman of the Year.
Richt and Bobo probably knew that losing the duo to Bama would make for a very long 2011. Actually, they knew losing those two recruiting battles might cost them their jobs.
In Valdosta on the night of Mitchell's announcement Bobo and Lilly wondered what was about to happen – they were genuinely in the dark. Mitchell's radio station was broadcasting remotely from a restaurant in Valdosta. Inside it was a packed house. Jay Rome, Mitchell's high school teammate had committed to the Bulldogs on TV earlier in the day, but he said he was unaware of what Mitchell would do. Fans at the event marveled at Rome's ability to put away the hibachi as it was served. They didn't know for sure if he could play football, but they knew he could eat. Like Rome, Bobo didn't know what Mitchell was going to do, either… in fact, almost no one knew.
"The only person who knew was my mother," Mitchell said. "I didn't tell anyone else. No one else knew."
Bobo called Richt, who was in Tampa, during the radio show. The two talked for six minutes. Mitchell was a big deal – there was no question about that – but Mitchell's commitment announcement wasn't the only thing on Richt's mind.
Three days before Mitchell's on-air announcement Richt boarded a plane with his offensive line coach Stacy Searels. The two headed to northwest Georgia and then on to Memphis on a recruiting trip to see Hunter Long. Just before wrapping up the day-long trip Searels called an Austin, Texas number at 7:21 p.m. Richt, who was also in Memphis at that time, made a final phone call just before boarding the plane at 7:17 p.m. Richt arrived back in Athens no later than 9:50 p.m.
Did Richt know that Texas and Searels were talking? That's unclear, but when he arrived back in Athens he received an important phone call. It's 10:26 p.m. on Monday night, January 17th, and Richt picked up the phone.
It was Mitchell.
"I can't even remember what I said," Mitchell said of calling Richt.
The Valdosta native had just returned from Alabama, where he and Rome were on an official visit with the Tide. It was still three days before Mitchell's decision, but he clearly had Georgia on his mind. He told Scout's Chad Simmons that neither Alabama nor Georgia had the edge going into the Thursday announcement, but his phone call to Richt that night seemed to indicate that he felt strongly about the Bulldogs – but insiders say no one at Georgia was confident about Mitchell… Bama wasn't either… the recruiting world, for once, was totally clueless.
The telephone conversation between Richt and Mitchell was the longest one Richt had all month. Richt knew signing Mitchell was important, but Searels' job was a critical one, too. At a minimum Richt was juggling multiple tasks in the air at the same time. It is a good example of a day that has happened every year of Richt's tenure – he's lost at least one assistant coach every year of his tenure.
But that didn’t stop the recruiting train. With or without an offensive line coach, Malcolm Mitchell was set to announce his college choice.
Mitchell reached down with his left hand to grab one of three hats on the table in front of him.
"It's going to be…" the radio host yelled into the microphone.
Mitchell grabbed the white hat on the table in front of him.
Barking began – and madness ensued.
Georgia's turnaround had just started for the public to see.
"The day I committed was the craziest day," Mitchell said. "In Valdosta everyone thought I was going to Alabama. At one point before I decided that I was going to Georgia, I thought Alabama was where I was going – I just wasn't sure. I set the radio show up a month beforehand. Around that time it was crazy in Valdosta because everyone knew it was coming up."
Mitchell was surrounded by loved ones in the restaurant, but not by coaches.
"I asked the college coaches not to be there because I didn't want to hurt them. I didn't call Coach Bobo and tell him anything. He knew where the event was going to be at – I guess he knew because he heard where it was going to be over the radio."
The recruiting world heard it over the radio – Mike Bobo and John Lilly listened to it outside the restaurant before rushing in to congratulate Mitchell on the decision. Richt called Bobo twice during the event before the prospect made his decision.
The day was one of the busiest days of the month for Richt, who was in the midst of replacing an assistant coach and stressing over Mitchell's announcement. He made 93 calls that day. It was also one of the few days in the month he didn't start his day in Athens. Richt, as it turns out, got no more than six hours of sleep that night.
"All I know is that recruiting is a battle," Richt said. "Recruiting is not always designed to be fun."
But the next night must have been very good sleep for the Georgia head coach. Mitchell, as it turns out, got the Bulldogs over the recruiting hump. With the momentum from the Mitchell announcement Richt and company went on to get commitments from Xzavier Ward, Ray Drew, Kent Turene, Isaiah Crowell and John Jenkins.
The Bulldogs' leading receiver, rusher and critically important nose guard all picked the Bulldogs on or after January 20th – the day of Mitchell's announcement.
It was the moment everything changed for the Bulldogs.
"I had no idea it happened that way," Mitchell said looking back on it.