The Wild Month

ATHENS - January can be the most taxing month of the year on a college football coaching staff. Why? Recruiting.

It was along a rural road in a one-stop town when Georgia assistant coach Jon Fabris got his last speeding ticket.

He was on an early winter recruiting trip along one of the many backwoods routes he spends navigating five days a week for more than a month as soon as football season ends each year.

The offense was questionable, Fabris said, but his name and affiliation weren't buying him any benefit of the doubt.

"I could tell by how long he stayed in the car, I'm not getting out of this one," Fabris said.

Eventually the deputy got Fabris out of the car, issued him a ticket and instructed him on how to pay it. The problem, Fabris said, was the courthouse's address printed on the ticket was incorrect.

"That's all wrong," the deputy said, scratching the address out with his pen and writing the correct one down in its place. "This is just my old pad from my last job."

It was one of hundreds of colorful country scenes Fabris has witnessed in the thousands of miles he travels each year in a setting far removed from the well-appointed team buses and charter flights the Bulldogs typically use to travel from one Southern hamlet to the next.

During that last final recruiting push, there are no hordes of rowdy players, no marathon film sessions, no well-worn playbooks to study. After four months of non-stop football, it's just a coach, his car and the open road.

"You look at the countryside and just kind of unwind a little bit," Fabris said. "It's a time of reflection to kind of take stock."

Fabris said the long road trips are the perfect opportunity to get back to the basics, enjoy the scenery and even catch up on phone calls he had been meaning to return for months, but was too busy with the grind of football season.

It's a time to work on your sales pitch, too.

From the final week in November until signing day, coaches are allowed six contacts, which Georgia recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner said are typically split evenly before and after the Christmas holidays. When the season finally ends with a bowl game after a five-month span of 90 and 100-hour weeks of preparation and game planning, the focus shifts, but the hours don't change much.

"Every other moment that we're allowed to be out on the road, we're on the road, either at a school, at a home or they're on our campus taking an official visit," head coach Mark Richt said.

Sunday evening, the coaches hit the road, destined for a small town or big city, and recently more and more of those trips are aimed toward destinations far beyond the state's borders.

The road trips typically last four days before the coaches regroup in Athens on Thursday night. Friday, they have an organizational meeting to debrief and decompress, but recruits making on-campus visits usually arrive that afternoon. They entertain the recruits on campus through the weekend, and then head back out on the road again the next Sunday night.

"Everything during the season is more structured," said Fabris, who did manage to get out of that speeding ticket. "You know what a Tuesday brings, what a Wednesday brings, your routine is a grind. You're always around other coaches, you're responsible for your players, and you see them every day in meetings and out on the field. Then all of a sudden, you're gone. In some respects, it's refreshing not to have to be at this meeting or not to have to prepare for this or watch this film."

That's not to say the pressure isn't intense.

Recruiting has become a high-stakes marathon that often begins when a player is a sophomore or junior in high school. Coaches spend months and years talking to prospects, but that final month can be an intense sprint to the finish line.

Richt said recent years have been good to the Bulldogs. Many of his January visits involve a celebration rather than a sales pitch.

"There really wasn't much recruiting going on at all," Richt said. "We had them all committed. We just went there, everybody laid out their best spread of food, and we had a party."

Even then, the coaches need to keep a close eye on the commitments they've already received.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford was one of the nation's most highly recruited players before he made his decision to come to Georgia, but even after his plans were set, he said, schools continued to contact him, wondering if he might be persuaded to change his mind.

Stafford was steadfast in his choice, as are most players, Garner said, but that doesn't mean the coaches can afford to simply rest on their laurels.

"If you've got a lot of guys committed, you're touching base with them every week, and you get a jump start on your junior recruiting," Garner said. "If you don't have a lot of guys committed, you're trying to get guys and keep the ones that you do have."

Those players still waiting on a final decision in January might be uncommitted for any number of reasons.

Some players are simply holding out for a better situation. Some players haven't yet made the right connection with a school or coaching staff. Some players are hoping they'll get an offer from another school before giving an answer to the ones who have already expressed interest.

And some players, like Georgia defensive tackle Jeff Owens, simply didn't want the recruiting process to overwhelm their senior season in high school. And make no mistake, recruiting is overwhelming.

"You've got people calling you here, people wanting to come for an in-house visit, wanting you to fly here or fly there," Owens said. "Then you've got the little all-star games you can play in, so you kind of get overwhelmed."

Richt said coaches understand the intensity of the process for the prospects, and they often use it to their advantage.

The truth is, some players enjoy being recruited, but by January, nearly all of them are a bit worn down. Richt's answer: If you think you know what to do, go ahead and do it.

"The closer you get to the end, you start to feel that pressure, and you start making decisions under pressure," Richt said. "Let's not make the decision then. Let's make it when I have some peace and some time to reflect after a few visits and that kind of thing. When I get peace in knowing where I want to go, then let it go. Cut the bait, cut ties, and let's go. Don't look back. If you're not sure, don't do it, but if you're sure, don't wait until the end, because you're going to get confused and it'll be a mess."

That's more or less how Owens remembers it.

Georgia was actually the first campus he visited – a trip that came in mid-November. He wasn't really considering Georgia. He was more interested in Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Florida, he said, but at a high school coach's behest, he made the trip to Athens, too.

The rest of his visits came in January, and increasingly, he found himself comparing each campus, each locker room and each coaching staff to Georgia's. In his heart, he knew where he wanted to be, but he just hadn't made up his mind – until Richt arrived. And Garner. And defensive coordinator Willie Martinez. And everyone else on Georgia's staff.

"I had an in-house visit from Georgia – probably one of my first in-house visits – and they brought everybody," Owens said. "They brought the whole staff. I was very impressed with that."

Of course, his recruitment didn't end there. Even after he finally committed to Georgia, the coaches still made sure Owens knew he was loved. In fact, Owens said, Garner stopped by so often, he joked that the Georgia recruiting coordinator had become part of his family.

Not all in-house or in-school visits, however, go quite so well or end with such a firm decision.

"Some coaches are going to tell you what you want to hear, but the main thing is you've got to know what you want in a school," Owens said.

Not every player is quite so focused, and there are plenty of external influences clouding the decision-making process, too.

Recruiting web sites begin scouting players and reporting on their interests even earlier than coaches, and the process of talking to reporters often complicates things, Richt said.

"They've been calling those guys for years, not for weeks and months," Richt said. "Those recruiting web sites, they don't have any rules. The NCAA doesn't legislate that you can only call so many times. These kids get worn out. I think more early commitments are happening just because of the amount of early coverage, just the time it takes to answer the phone and talk to these people. They just get tired of it after a while, and they think, ‘I'm going to end this thing and enjoy it and just have some peace.'"

Often, a prospect's family makes his decision even more complicated.

Much of recruiting is about chemistry – who do the players and their families connect with the most? When they visit a campus, where does the recruit feel most comfortable?

Usually the way it goes, Owens said, is that the player doesn't exactly see eye-to-eye with his family.

"You might be leaning toward one school, and you might have an in-house visit and your mind might be changed, and you're all screwed up," Owens said. "You have your family likes one school, your mom might like one school, your dad might like another one, your grandma might like another school, and it's like, where do I go?"

At the end of the day, Richt said, the vast majority of players eventually make their decision based on relationships they build with the coaches who are recruiting them and the players they'll soon be teammates with.

That's what makes those January trips to homes in small towns and high schools in rural neighborhoods so important.

"I think it just comes down to the relationships, who they feel the most comfortable with," Richt said. "If all things are equal, playing time and opportunity and all that kind of thing, education – it comes down to the relationships, who they trust the most and who they feel the most comfortable with. That's the bottom line."

And if that doesn't seal the deal, there's always the old "ticking clock" technique, which Garner said often becomes a necessity. By January, there are only so many scholarships left to offer. In Georgia's case this season, that number may be just two or three. So when an offer goes out, Garner said, the recruit knows it comes with a movable expiration date.

"It's going to come down to when you get a kid at a particular slot, and then it's over," Garner said. "That's what you're dealing with. We've got one scholarship left at this particular position, and the first guy that commits, that's what we got."

When signing day finally arrives and coaches are able to park their car in their own driveway for more than a few hours at a time, Fabris said, there is no deep breath of relaxation.

It's simply the next step. There are a new group of players to coach, a new set of plays to teach and on the horizon, a new schedule of opponents to plan for.

Less than a week after signing day, the Bulldogs will have their first round of mat drills. Shortly after that, spring practice begins. Those phone calls start going unreturned again, and the grind begins anew.

There's no rest for the weary, Garner said, but it's the price they pay for the job they love.

"As long as you're in this profession, you get used to it, you get accustomed to it, your family gets accustomed to it," Garner said. "It's just the next season. That's what it is. You're going into next season."

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