Each recruiting season is like a snowflake, with every story and every recruit markedly different regardless of how they might appear from a distance. Remember, we are dealing with 17-18 year-old kids and we are dealing with coaching staffs fraught with human frailty. The fact that more weird stories don't come out of that mix should be the real wonder…
I am fortunate to deal with dozens and dozens of great kids throughout the year and they generate many more dozens of great stories. Plus, there are the parents, the gurus, the critics, the coaches and the assorted extras that all play a part in this choreography.
But each year, I get handed a great story on a silver platter, and 2002 provided me yet another such opportunity.
This story starts here in Dayton where a couple of kids were invited on a recruiting trip to Penn State. Better yet - I was invited to go along in a strictly civilian role - certainly not as Mr. Bucknuts!
We got up at 4 AM and caught a very early flight to Pittsburgh where - miraculously - there were still seats left on a State College flight that could get in by 10 AM. We landed in State College on a slate gray day with moisture coming from all sides. From there, we called a cab to come out to the airport (not a busy place…) and the cabbie got us as close to Beaver Stadium as he was allowed to get.
Let me tell you - the treatment that recruits receive at Penn State is exemplary. Everything is first class. They have just finished an addition on the stadium that is solely used for recruits. It's very easy to get overwhelmed. Oh yeah, for the kids, too!
So I was living vicariously through the recruits as we went to our separate entrance, listening to the buzz of the fans trying to guess who was Big Time. There were packets of information and special badges inside. And then two young women escorted us to the luncheon buffet provided for all the recruits and the hangers-on. That day, there were only 16 high school recruits at the game so everyone got a lot of attention. Hey - it was the Northwestern game, after all.
Me, being me, I scoured the list of attendees to see which high profile guys I might know. The two biggest names were Joel Holler (a national O-line recruit) and Jonathon Stupar (one of the best high school tight ends in the country). So I made it my business to become their buddy. Holler was great. He had his family and his football coach with him but he introduced himself and was genuinely interested in our little group. There is no way to exaggerate how big Joel is. They list him as 6'6" or so and maybe 330 pounds. He looks a lot bigger! We all became buddies with a junior recruit named Greg Harrison, an offensive linemen from Shenandoah PA. Greg is 6'3" and 290 and he looked tiny next to Holler.
I asked my Ohio linebacker in our group if he saw himself taking on these two guys as linemen trying to block him and he smirked, looked at Holler and said, "I'll kick their ass!" Proud words…they both took it in stride and Joel asked, "Hey, aren't you a little puny to be an inside linebacker?"
Even though Joel tried to hang with us - his newfound friends - the press on him by the PSU coaches was unbelievable. Really, almost comical. One coach asked him three times, in front of all of us, "Joel, we want you here, man. Just tell us yes and I'll leave you alone". And this was still more than an hour before the game.
Holler couldn't have been more polite but demurred each time. Then the rest of the coaches came out. Jay Paterno (recruiting coordinator) led the charge and finally Joe Paterno himself, looking positively legendary. Joe introduced himself to my kids and to Mr. Bucknuts the Hypocrite, and then turned his full radiance on Holler. Finally, the coaches invited Holler and Harrison to the pre-game locker room. We started to follow but were politely told to hit the buffet line again…
Once the two huge kids returned, flush from meeting the team and being feted in the locker room, my junior linebacker sat between the two of them while he polished off his fourth plate of food. As his recruiting "position coach" approached, I hissed, "Get out of there. You look like you're 5'2" and 160 pounds between those guys!" The coach responsible for recruiting our linebacker was polite but not enthusiastic. He asked our young hero, "So, son, what linebacker position you wanna play here at Penn State?" He answered forthrightly, "Middle linebacker, sir. The same as high school". The coach smiled, passed on some gracious generic comments and moved along. The kid turned to me and said, "Man, did I say something wrong". I thought about it. "Well, you are 190 pounds and there's a bunch of big kids here. Maybe the coach thought you were on the small side". We let it drop…
They ushered the group of us out on the field. It was in great shape and it was fun to see the casual warm-up violence up close and personal. We stood alongside Jimmy Kennedy. Man, that dude is huge! We got to meet the McHugh family from Cleveland. Kevin - the father - was a very big man. His son, Sean, is a big kid, too with some significant athletic talent. Northwestern looked puny and out-numbered. The weather looked like it was going from "really ugly" to "worse".
I sidled up to Jonathan Stupar and acted as obsequious as possible. He was a lot of fun. I asked him why he wasn't considering OSU any more. He looked genuinely surprised. "Man, they've got Louis Irizzary coming. That's it for me…" He also told me he was from State College but absolutely wasn't going there. He wanted to get away from home, even though he loved the Nittany Lions and Coach Paterno. I reflect on that sometimes when our Ohio players decide to leave the state…
We were then introduced to our coed escort down on the field. Let me say this: Mr. Bucknuts is prone to both hyperbole and to shamelessly gawking at beautiful young women. This girl was an 11.5 on a 10 scale. The players started getting closer to us just to say hi. I asked her, "Gosh, you must be a big Penn State football fan." She gave me a smile that would have melted Chirac's heart. "No, not really," she answered. "I just like to get in free to the games and meet the players". I was hopelessly out of my depth.
I turned to one of my charges and pointed to his date. He smiled and whispered to me, "That is the hottest girl I have ever seen, including magazines and TV". I said, "Welcome to college, son. There will be lots of choices!"
I thought that the recruiting trip was going particularly well.
We were ushered, with great "fanfare" (I now understand what that word means…) into the stands, right at the 50-yard line and about six rows up. I was checking out our hostess. The fans were checking out the recruits. The players were still checking out our hostess, too. And everyone was cold and wet.
The game, itself, was a laugher. Larry Johnson ran wild and PSU slaughtered the Mildcats 49-0. And we were trapped, since we couldn't leave early and we couldn't get dry. Or warm. I talked with Kevin McHugh at halftime. I asked him how Paterno got his son away from Ohio State. He laughed and said, "You know, when we asked Joe about the age question, he said, "Listen. Sean is being recruited by Coach Cooper at OSU and by Coach Davie at Notre Dame? I'll tell you this - I will be around long after they're gone". And he was right."
The game mercifully ended. Our hostess quit talking to us by mid-third quarter as she was obviously questioning the sanity of her free-game strategy. By that time, we were just happy to get back inside the luxurious recruiting center and out of the elements. For the kids, the trip was winding down. For Mr. Bucknuts, the excitement was just beginning.
I said good-by to our hostess, promising that I would stay in touch. I think she smiled as she left but it could have been a grimace or a wince. I hustled over to the media area and watched close-by the post game interview with Paterno.
This is a coach that absolutely intimidates the media. When he didn't like a question, he would question the credentials of the reporter. He also commented on the intelligence of a number of queries. When he got tired of the badinage, he got up and simply walked out. We hung for a while with Larry Johnson as he - more graciously - offered some insights on his record-breaking day. I was getting a bit nervous about Penn State's next game - which was the following week in Columbus! Coach Paterno refused to entertain any questions about the Buckeyes.
It was almost 3 PM now and some of the recruits and coaches were leaving. The defensive coordinator came over to my linebacker and thanked him for coming. He asked, "So, where do you hope to play in college?" My kid's a quick learner. "Probably outside linebacker, Coach". This got us a nod instead of a smile, which I took as an improvement.
I asked the coach if we could hang out at the sumptuous TV lounge and check out the upcoming OSU-Wisconsin game on ABC. I explained that our flight didn't leave for two hours (true) and that I was casually interested in the Badgers (false). He couldn't have been nicer and said we could stay as long as we wished. Just be careful of the door as we go out because it locks behind us and there's no way to get back in.
So I insinuated myself over at the Holler table and we flipped on the game. As Joel and I chatted, I let on that I was Mr. Bucknuts. Joel expressed genuine surprise and said he had just spoken with Duane Long the day before, for over 30 minutes. I asked Joel if he was going to give OSU a shot and he told me, "Absolutely. I'm coming down for the Michigan game". He knew every Ohio State O-lineman's name and class year. I took that as a good sign He peppered me with questions about the Buckeyes (as did his coach…) and I admitted my obvious bias. When he got up to leave some 30 minutes later, he smiled and shook my hand and said, "Tell Coach Conley that I'll be down there". I promised that I would.
My players all left me to go to the Penn State souvenir store and there I was, eerily, as the only one left in the Recruiting Palace. Meanwhile, the Ohio State game wasn't going well. If you remember, it looked like OSU couldn't score and couldn't stop Anthony Davis either! I was getting depressed and thinking about Penn State coming to the Horseshoe next week and thinking about…hey - we had a plane to catch!
I left the recruiting center (being careful not to leave anything behind since the door would lock) and went off looking for my companions. It was hard to find the group and harder yet to plead with a cab to come pick me up. But, soon, we were off to the dinky State College airport, me calling friends to get updates on the second half of the Ohio State game.
Finally, we got to the airport, checked in and ran to the airport's little restaurant to see the rest of the game. This "café" had two tables and the NBC game on. When I pleaded with the other table to turn to ABC and the Buckeyes, they smirked and said, "This place only gets NBC and CBS". My heart sank, particularly when they told me the Buckeyes were in trouble.
But that's where it just started to get interesting…
As I looked closer at my dining companions, I realized they were the ESPN2 crew, who had been in State College to do the Penn State-Northwestern game as a regional telecast. And on even closer inspection, I saw my "old buddy" Chris Spielman at the table. I can say "old buddy" only because we interviewed Chris on the Bucknuts Radio Hour and because Jerry Rudzinski is Chris's regular substitute host on 1460 Radio. I re-introduced myself to Spielman as Jerry Rudzinski's "other" radio partner and Chris lit up "You know The Vulture? Yeah, Jerry's been trying to take my job for years! On the radio, I either call him The Vulture or #35. He's not gonna get any publicity from me!"
My high school guys were buying something to eat (it was their fifth or sixth meal of the day - I had lost count…) and when our intrepid linebacker joined me at the table, he had the same expression he had looking at our Penn State Hollywood starlet hostess. I don't know if he was more impressed that he was sitting with Chris Spielman or that Chris Spielman seemed to know me!
I told Chris what we had been up to and his interest was genuine. He turned to our intimidated linebacker prospect and asked, "So what position you hope to play?" The kid swallowed hard and said "Strong safety, Mr. Spielman." I asked the linebacker - later - what was that all about? He said, "Are you kidding? I'm talking with Chris Spielman, the greatest linebacker ever. You think I'm going to tell him that I'm a linebacker, too?"
Hmmm, we had come a long way in the course of a day. We started out as a middle linebacker, segued to an outside backer and ended the day as a strong safety. You can see what exposure to the real world can do!
The rest of that afternoon was a gas. We talked football, we talked "Spielman". But the most fun was Chris calling 1460 on his cell phone. He then told them to put him on hold. That defaulted to whatever was playing on the radio, which, of course, was the Ohio State, game. So there we were - a couple of kids, one tired Mr. Bucknuts, Chris Spielman and the ESPN crew, gathered around a cell phone - which he had placed in the middle of the table - listening as OSU beat Wisconsin down the stretch!
I felt like I was sitting around a radio in World War Two, with family and friends, waiting for some news from the front…
As the game wore down, we were made aware that we still had a flight to catch.
The plane was headed to Pittsburgh where Spielman et al were going on to Columbus and we were catching another plane to Dayton. The cell phone/OSU crowd was virtually the entire flight but we were all dragging our feet to get on board because the game was still in the waning moments. We actually caught the last minute of the game on the phone as we were walking up the steps to get on the plane (in the rain). There was a collective yell when the Buckeyes won and I felt like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Chris probably felt like the Pied Piper. As soon as he turned off his phone, we all resumed our normal lives, feeling just a little bit more sheepish, perhaps.
Well, there wasn't much more to report (that's not enough?). We said good-bye to Spielman once we switched flights in Pittsburgh. Two more meals and one flight later, we were back in Dayton (11 PM) putting a tidy ending on a 19-hour whirlwind day.
When I asked our rapidly maturing player what he thought was the most exciting thing he saw that day in State College, what do you think he said?
That's right. "Chris Spielman".
Me? I wasn't afraid of the weather, the flights, or all the chaos. I feared for the next week that I would be undressed as the impolite imposter that I was, glomming on to a recruiting trip. I was sure Joel Holler would tell someone that Mr. Bucknuts was up there, under cover, insidiously swaying away impressionable recruits. But you know what? Holler committed to Penn State anyway and no one seemed to care about Mr. Bucknuts' little caper.
Now, the story can be told. And it has been.
I'll tell you this - we had a hell of a good time!
E-mail Mr. Bucknuts at firstname.lastname@example.org