Tomorrow hundreds of prospects will sign National Letters of Intent. Several of the nation’s top recruits will end the process by announcing their college destinations live on national television.
It wasn’t always that way.
The recruiting process used to happen in the shadows without viral photos of some of the most respected college coaches hanging from trees or taking selfies in a classroom with a prized prospect. Long before coaches arranged for team equipment trucks to travel hundreds of miles just to impress a prospect, the recruiting process used to be much simpler.
“There was nothing like that back in my day,” said Rashon Powers-Neal, one of the nation’s top running back prospects who signed with Notre Dame in 2001. “I heard stories of other top recruits in other states receiving these recruiting tactics but I don’t recall anything like this. Coaches would show up to school, which was great. There wasn't a ‘Pot of Gold’ yet.”
The Pot of Gold that Powers-Neal referenced is one of Notre Dame’s current recruiting tactics. The Irish send a mailer to its top prospects with cutting edge graphics and information on the school and football program. It’s a hit on social media even as the volume of mail has decreased from hundreds of items to just dozens. Notre Dame’s first Pot of Gold included more than 400 pieces of mail to represent every NFL Draft pick in school history. This year’s version was designed as scratch-off lottery tickets.
Speaking of social media, that’s another aspect of recruiting that emerged long after Powers-Neal went through the process.
“Coaches would come to your home, sometimes one right after the other,” he said. “We didn't have cell phones yet so the house phone was always tied up. It was nice though to be able to get away from all of the calls though; just leave the house and it is difficult for them to get ahold of you. You really developed a strong relationship with these guys recruiting you. It’s easy to see how guys commit two or three times in a recruiting process. The amount of fans; these kids are instant celebrities now.”
It’s easy to see why Powers-Neal garnered so much interest from college coaches.
As a senior at Cretin-Derham Hall, he rushed for more than 1,900 yards and scored 38 touchdowns, a Minnesota single-season record. He was all-state at both running back and linebacker and was a Super Prep All-American. On the track, he finished fifth in the 400-meter dash at the Minnesota state track meet and he had a brother, Leon, who played for the Indianapolis Colts.
Colleges from all over the country made offers.
“I don't remember the total amount of scholarships,” Powers-Neal said. “I got tired of the process and once I had my top three or four I sort of shut it down and just stuck to those schools.”
Most of the Big Ten and Big 12 schools offered and Powers-Neal remembered Georgia Tech recruiting him the hardest.
He narrowed his college decision to Notre Dame, Minnesota, Nebraska and Stanford.
He visited three of his favorites and had planned trips to Stanford and Wisconsin but canceled after he committed to the Irish about two months before National Signing Day.
“I went to Minnesota because it was the hometown (school) and I wanted my father to experience the pampering and Nebraska was a school I was really considering,” Powers-Neal said. “They were still really good and I wanted to get a feel for the area. I came to ND for what was considered the big recruitment weekend. It was during the banquet. I really liked it a lot. One of the aspects of ND that really sold me was how close the teammates are, especially the guys in the same class. That bond that is developed with your peers was incredible.”
The Irish pushed the academic side of attending Notre Dame, much like they do today.
“Notre Dame pushed the ‘40-year’ (decision) hard,” he said. “It’s a big deal. As an 18-year old kid you really don't know what all of that really means. ND does a great job of winning the parents.”
Still, no equipment trucks were dispatched to Minnesota to win over Powers-Neal and head coach Bob Davie didn’t conduct a sit-in at Cretin-Derham Hall to secure a commitment. Ultimately Davie never even coached Powers-Neal on Saturdays. He was fired after his red-shirt season, was replaced by Tyrone Willingham, who was then fired and replaced by Charlie Weis, who coached Powers-Neal during his final season.
The Irish did go to great lengths to show Powers-Neal how much they wanted him.
"After our Friday night high school games we would have an early AM workout the next day at the school," Powers-Neal said. "I would often stay at one of my friends, Kevin Salmen's house. He lived right next to the school and was one of my good friends. These workouts were at like 7 a.m. and we were getting ready that morning and the phone rings at his house. His mom picks it up and after talking for a little bit brings me the phone. It was coach (Greg) Mattison tracking me down to speak to me at a friend's house. I loved it. It sort of blew my mind."
Notre Dame’s efforts paid off as Powers-Neal eventually signed with the Irish, although he did it in a fashion almost unheard of in recruiting today.
“I remember sitting around wondering why I was waiting to commit,” Powers-Neal said. “Honestly, I went back and forth in my head between ND and Nebraska. Stanford was sort of out of my mind. It’s an amazing school, but I didn't want to play football for a school where football came second to another sport there; they had a great basketball program. I wanted to go to a place that was all about football when it came to sports.”
Powers-Neal also saw several other top prospects he had met during his official visit jumping on the Notre Dame bandwagon and that influenced his decision.
“When I finally committed it was actually really of anti-climactic,” he said. “I called Mattison later one night and got his wife on the phone and asked to speak to him and told him that I was ready to commit. I get to school and the AD asked why I did it that way. They wanted to do an announcement press conference. I’m glad I did it the way I did though. I never wanted to feel like I already ‘made it’ or was somebody. I hadn't done anything yet.”
What Powers-Neal did do was create a pipeline between South Bend and Cretin-Derham Hall.
The next year the Irish signed his cousin, Marcus Freeman, and the year after that Ryan Harris committed. Harris will start for the Denver Broncos on Sunday in the Super Bowl. Offensive lineman Matt Carufel followed, but the biggest get was five-star receiver Michael Floyd in 2008. Five years later Notre Dame signed James Onwualu, the sixth Cretin-Derham Hall prospect to go Irish this century.
“That was never my intention and I probably was the worst recruiter of those guys,” Powers-Neal said. “Being from Minnesota it seemed as though the top football players always ended up staying home and went to U of M. (It’s a) fine school but I always knew I was leaving. I wanted to go some place big. I wanted to be special.”
Being special came at a price.
“ND is a special place but it isn't for everyone,” he said. “They didn’t have the best facilities at the time. Cold. Isolated. Strict rules. I never wanted someone to be sold on a place and regret it and be mad at me, so with those guys, when or if I was asked I would keep it real with them on what ND was. While it was happening I never really thought about the significance of it. One thing that makes me proud is that all of those guys chose ND on their own, which helped create the CDH to ND pipeline. Being the first is amazing. Knowing that CDH and Minnesota has this connection is a great feeling. It’s hard, well it was hard, to really get noticed out of Minnesota. This is an option that is there and I was proud of the guys that helped create that.”
After committing to Notre Dame, Powers-Neal said this to the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
"When you graduate from Notre Dame, you are set for life. It has a lot of tradition and a great family network. It's a place I could see myself being.”
Over a dozen years later nothing has changed. Powers-Neal played for Notre Dame from 2001-05 then spent time with the Denver Broncos. He later moved to Seattle where he currently is a production manager and inside sales lead for Olympus Lock, Inc.
“That pretty much has held true,” Powers-Neal said. “Obviously the ‘set for life’ requires additional work, but I can go anywhere in the country and meet ND fans or alumni. If I need something it's not too hard to contact people that I have met through ND.
“Facebook has really enhanced this. I have access to a ton of ND fans, classmates, alums that I never would have had access to in the past; a lot of connections and people that have a lot of information about anything and everything. Tradition carries itself. I love wearing my ND stuff around.”