The evaluation period for UCLA football coaches, when they can be out at high schools evaluating prospects, began April 29th. It's been nine days and Johnson has already been personally to approximately 40 high schools, three states, one Nike camp, two combines, and has seen probably over 600 high school football players.
And he's not even halfway through UCLA's four-week evaluation period.
This is the way it works: During the spring, there is a seven-week period (this year it runs from April 15th to May 31st), when a coaching staff can be "out," that is, evaluating prospects. Each coaching staff gets to be out for 4 straight weeks during that period. A coach can visit a high schools campus and evaluate a prospect in person, while not having any personal contact beyond saying "hello." There can also be no formal workout arranged for a visiting coach, so the coach must observe the prospect in normally scheduled events. That could be spring football for some recruits, or it might mean a track meet, or it might be just that the college coach gets to watch a prospect lift weights.
Each coach has a specific region that he's responsible for in recruiting, so the goal is to get to every single high school in his region. Most coaches have a local region they're responsible for, as well as a national region. They also, then, share responsibility for recruiting players at the position they coach, which then sends them to other regions around the country.
While the seven-week evaluation period began April 15th, UCLA coaches, because they had spring practice until April 27th, reserved their four-weeks of evaluation for later in the period. They began their evaluation time out on April 29th, and will be out on the road through May 24th.
To get a sense of exactly what a coach goes through during the evaluation period, we actually found Don Johnson in Virginia, and he gave up some valuable sleep time to give us a sense of it.
Don Johnson's local recruiting area of responsibility is the Greater Los Angeles area and Long Beach.
Day 1 (April 29th):
Long Beach Wilson
Long Beach Milikan
Long Beach City College.
BRO: What is the object of trying to get to every high school in your region? There isn't really a recruitable athlete at every high school…
Johnson: "We touch base with coaches, do public relations. It's just not if there is a player at the high school that you'll recruit, but you have to establish and maintain a relationship with the high school coaches. You want a high school coach to remember you, and they remember if they haven't seen you for a while. It's not easy to recruit a player if you haven't been to that campus in three years. With some coaches, you should go to talk to them every opportunity that you have. Plus, we're making sure that every rock is not left unturned. We don't want a recruit to fall through the cracks. There are some kids who transfer in, or who blossoms late."
BRO: But you really try to get to every single high school?
Johnson: "My region is the greater L.A. area, the Hollywood high schools to Long Beach high schools, and west of the 605 freeway. And speaking for myself, I will get to every high school. Our goal at UCLA is to go by every campus in each of our coaches' regions."
Day 2 (April 30th):
Long Beach Jordan
Long Beach Cabrillo
Long Beach St. Anthony's
BRO: What are some of the circumstances under which you can see and evaluate a recruit during the period?
Johnson: "It fluctuates. We can watch him work out, but it can't be anything that's scheduled for my visit. It has to be within the normal realm of what they're doing. But sometimes the high school hasn't started football workouts. Some don't start football until the latter part of May. So we have to try to find the prospect any way possible. He could be in track, or baseball. We might just observe them in the weight room. Many times I'll sit down with a coach and watch tape."
BRO: Since you're talking to the high school coach on these visits, what are some of the things you'll discuss with a high school coach about a recruit?
Johnson: "We try very hard to secure a transcript. That's big. Then you try to get some background information on a player. His character, work habits and such."
Day 3 (May 1st -- also the first day that college coaching staffs can contact players by phone):
BRO: Did you start May 1st with phone calls?
Johnson: "I called a few. At UCLA, the head coach makes most of the calls in the first couple of days, but I made a few. And then, actually, you have to figure whether you want to be the first call of the day to a prospect, or the last one of the day."
BRO: What makes you determine that?
Johnson: "What type of kid he is, and feedback from his coach. Also who else is contacting him, what the competition might be, and when is the best time to reach him."
Day 4 (May 2nd):
La Southwest College
BRO: Since you're getting many transcripts during this period, how do you handle a situation when you're visiting a high school of a prospect that you can't recruit due to his grades?
Johnson: "You just have to be upfront with them. It's better to be from day one, at the beginning in May. So the player is confused, neither is the high school coach, and none of us are wasting our time."
BRO: How many prospects a year that could play at UCLA do you decide you can't recruit because of academics?
Johnson: "Unfortunately, quite a few."
BRO: Are you faced with other situations where you feel it's important to be upfront with them at this time in the recruiting process? Say, is there a situation where a kid wants to be recruited at a different position than where you project him?
Johnson: "Sure. It's a shame, too. Because I'm not going to lie to a kid and tell him we're recruiting him at a position where I just don't see him. Many kids hurt themselves that way, when they can play a multitude of positions. Let's say there's a recruit that is a great athlete, but he just wants to play quarterback. He's really limiting his opportunities by saying he doesn't want to be recruited at any position but quarterback."
Day 5 (May 3rd):
BRO: What happened at Inglewood?
Johnson: "I was caught in a locked down situation there. I arrived but then found out that there was an emergency, possibly a bomb scare, so they locked down the school. I couldn't get in. There were probably 25 police cars. But then they wouldn't allow me to get to my car to leave either. So I was stuck there for 45 minutes. I'll make sure I get back to the school when I'm back in Los Angeles. I never made it on campus actually so it doesn't count as an evaluation."
BRO: So, then did you go home that Friday night, the 3rd?
Johnson: Just long enough to pick up a suitcase and then get to LAX to catch a plane.
Day 6 (May 4th):
Red eye to Houston, Texas
Drive to College Station for Nike Camp
Drive back to Houston
BRO: What's a typical visit to a high school entail?
Johnson: "Each visit is usually about a half hour to an hour on average. Some are longer. I've spent a few hours at a high school at a time. You make your schedule for the day and try to stick to it, or you'll get behind. You start out very early, and you go by the schools where you know the coach is an early riser. I like to be there when a coach arrives on campus. It's also different from coach to coach. Some you know better and you spend more time. Also, since you know them, you give them a better sense of when you're visiting. But most of the time I try to contact them all ahead of time, drop them a letter and give them a sense of when I'll be coming by – the first week, the second week. Some parameter when they can be expecting me. If you know a coach pretty well you know his routine and you can work with that. Most of the time the day begins pretty early and ends around 7:00 p.m. My goal is to get to at least six schools a day."
BRO: What are the chances that, in this process, you'll discover a sleeper that you didn't know about before?
Johnson: "Once in a blue moon. Normally, at the end of the winter period we started gathering info for the upcoming recruiting class. We have found sleepers, but most of the time we've already been doing the research and information gathering on the recruits since winter, so we're not surprised most of the time in May. Sometimes the biggest surprise is a matter of trying to keep track of where a kid transfers."
BRO: Speaking of "sleeper", why the redeye flight?
Johnson: "It save so much time. You can get there in the morning and hit the ground running."
Day 7 (May 5th):
Flight to Norfolk, Virginia
Day 8 (May 6th):
Drive to Hampton, Virginia
Back to Norfolk, Lake Taylor High School for the Coaches Corner Combine
BRO: What'd exactly did you do at Lake Taylor?
Johnson: "First, I watched film for about 3 hours. Then the combine had 14 schools represented, all from the local area, and about 150 kids. It was a good opportunity. I was going to this area to see specific kids and then it coincided with the combine."
BRO: How do you plot out your itinerary?
Johnson: "Locally, you try to do it geographically to cut down on driving time. But it also helps to stay within leagues. That way you can cross-check on kids. You can talk to a coach who played against a recruit and get his opinion on how the kid played. Nationally, it's really the same, when it's in your region nationally. But then when you're going to check out kids not in your region, you really have to try to coordinate it with the other coaches, or have it coincide with a combine in the area."
Day 9 (May 7th):
Drives to Virginia Beach, Ocean Lakes High School for 2002 Showcase Combine
Johnson: "It was another opportunity to check out some prospects I had to see and then it gave me a chance to see the combine. There were 11 schools at the combine and 158 kids."
BRO: With some college coaches visiting high schools, how many college coaches would you say go by an individual high school in a day?
Johnson: "On a strong week, maybe 10 to 15 a day."
Day 10 & 11 (May 8th – 9th)
Drives to Richmond, Virginia, to check out Richmond high schools
Back to Norfolk
Flies to Tulsa, Oklahoma
Visits high schools in and around Tulsa
BRO: Is there a reason you're going to Oklahoma?
Johnson: "The region around Tulsa is my national region. While I'm there I'll get out to Tulsa, Jenks, Broken Arrow and Edmond."
BRO: How many schools will you visit while in Oklahoma?
Johnson: In two days, my goal is about 16 schools. Sometimes you get handicapped by the driving distance and the traffic. I'll go out to Edmond from Tulsa, which is about a 2-hour drive, and then work my way back from high school to high school."
Day 11, 12, 13 (May 10th – 12th):
Flies back to Los Angeles for Mother's Day Weekend
BRO: So, you're not out during Mother's Day weekend?
Johnson: "Yes, I actually get Mother's Day at home. I'd go out except that there isn't much happening on that weekend at the high schools."
Day 14, 15, 16, 17 (May 13th – May 16th):
L.A. South Bay High Schools
Santa Monica High Schools
Venice High Schools
Hollywood High Schools
BRO: Will it be good to be back in L.A. at that point?
Johnson: "The best thing about it is most schools start on-the-field workouts on May 13th. So I'll actually be able to see the players on the field, rather than having to track them down and find where they are, or not find them."
BRO: Will you get back to Inglewood at this time?
Johnson: Yes, and that week and the next week is when I'll start doubling back to the programs with the premier players in Los Angeles. You get two evaluations at each school during the period. So, the kids who we really want to give attention, or kids we really need to eye-ball that we didn't see the first time, or just need to see again, this is when I'll get the opportunity to do this. It's great to then get to see them on the field. I'm still tracking down some kids who are in baseball or finishing up track, though. A league track meet is great, being able to see so many in one place."
Day 18 – Day 20 (May 17th – May 19th):
Palo Alto Nike Camp, May 18th
BRO: How often would you offer a prospect in May without having seen him play – just by what you saw during the evaluation period?
Johnson: That's very rare. If we offer someone, we've seen a ton of tape on him. And we've more than likely have seen him play during his junior season. Almost all of the kids we've offered we've seen play. Then we'll get the eyeball test, which is more for accuracy of height, weight and body structure. That's why it's important during the evaluation period to see a kid up close, rather than from a distance. We try not to offer without the eyeball test, but it does happen occasionally."
Days 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 (May 20th-24th):
BRO: Certainly Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida aren't also your assigned areas.
Johnson: "No, there are some kids nationally at my position that I have to go see. That's why I'm in Virginia, too. I'll see about 20 high schools that week in Ohio, Pittsburg and Florida. We wait until later in the month for some of the national kids so that we had time to get their film and transcripts. You don't want to make a trip, cost the university a flight, to see a kid if you have no way of recruiting him."
BRO: How do you orchestrate where all the coaches go across the country?
Johnson: "It takes a big effort to coordinate with each other. We have our national regions we're responsible for, but then we have national players at our position. If we had the opportunity to get transcripts and film on a national player, we will make sure we find a way to get to his high school. We plan it out with all of our coaches. If a coach will be in the vicinity, we'll plan for him to visit the high school. We also try to coincide a trip to a region to get most of out it we can. This year we've really taken good advantage of the combines."
BRO: It must take a lot of communication while you're out on the road.
Johnson: We spend a lot of time coordination with each other. I talked to Coach Dove three times today, Todd Littlejohn twice and Coach Bernardi. We have to be in constant communication. Say there's some kid that Littlejohn is interested in that's in Virginia. While I'm here I could get the kid's 40 time or something and I'll pass it along to him."
BRO: Are you re-booking flights at times?
Johnson: "Not too much. We try not to change flights because of the cost. But if there's a situation, we do what we need to do. Most of the time it would just be a matter of a coach making another stop while he's in one region already. We do a lot of work in preparation for this. We do a lot of evaluating so that we know what we're doing and where we're going before the planes take off. Every once in a while, though, something turns up late and you might have to scramble."
BRO: So you place a great deal of importance on preparation.
Johnson: Hours and hours of planning it. It's a well-coordinated effort. People think we just sit around, drink coffee and eat doughnuts. But this takes a lot of work. And not only in the planning of our trips, but even before we get to that point. We have to have a transcript in hand before we'll pay for a flight to see a potential prospect. And we want to see film. The prospect has to meet those two criteria because we don't want to be chasing ghosts. But if he meets those two criteria, then we start planning from that point."