Relationships run recruiting at USC

In this three-part series, we delve beyond primary and secondary recruiting designations to spotlight the importance supports staffs have on modern day college football recruiting.

Leading all schools in overall NFL Draft picks with more than 500, the USC football program is sometimes referred to as the league’s 33rd team. 

[RELATED: Recruiting Ninjas: USC support staff Pt. 1]

The cynical college football fan would see that as recruiting propaganda. College coaches hit the recruiting trail like snake oil salesmen with whispers of guaranteed playing time and NFL stardom in place of cure-all elixirs.

But Gavin Morris, KeynodoHudson and Keary Colbert are quick to correct the assumption that recruiting is all fast-talk and slogans. 

Unlike Hudson and Colbert, Morris did not come to USC as a coach. Instead, he was a marketing analyst and personnel director with training outfit B2G Sports. 

“I got into the business of recruiting through B2G,” said Morris. “I owe a lot to Ron (Allen) and Henry (Bell), who gave me my start there. 

“I didn’t deal with a lot of big-name college coaches, but I got to hear what parents liked and didn’t like, what made kids tick…. just overall, what honesty gets you. Even if telling the truth hurts you early on with some people, it will pay off in the long run. 

“Kids and parents find out who is telling the truth. Over time, they know. I always tell them, ‘My job at USC isn’t X’s and O’s. My job isn’t even dependent on wins and losses. My job is making sure these players are successful student-athletes.'

“Once they get here, it’s about getting them to class and getting them graduated. I’m not a coach and have never set out to be a coach. Turning kids into men is where I come in. I’m never going to teach you how to backpedal or tackle. We have great coaches here who can do that.

“My job is to help these kids and give them that big brother or male role model. Even at B2G, I never tried to coach kids up. My job was to help kids with recruiting and give them guidance. And I helped kids that went to USC and a lot more who didn’t go to USC. Not just guys who went to UCLA or Cal either, but guys who went to Montana State and Idaho State.”

Hudson, who was arguably one of college football’s most prolific recruiters as a support staff member at USC, remembers when Morris was hired by Steve Sarkisian. 

“We didn’t have to teach Gavin very much when he came to USC,” said Hudson, who has moved on to a full-time assistant coaching role for Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic. “He walked in the door with great people skills. 

“‘Every Pac-12 team we played on the road last season, players from the other team would want to pose for pictures with Gavin after the game. Every game it would be like that. Gavin had no angle when he came to USC. He genuinely likes being involved in those kids' lives.

“Coming from the 7-On circuit, people see those guys as street agents, but Gavin has no angle. Thing is, there are plenty of high school coaches that do have the street agent angle, so you can’t judge just based on that.”

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Colbert got his coaching start as a graduate assistant for the Trojans in 2010. He would return to USC as a support staff member in 2016 after serving a similar role at Alabama. 

Last January, Colbert found himself on the road recruiting safety Isaiah Pola-Mao

“I didn’t know I was going on the road,” said Colbert. “It wasn’t planned. We had some assistant coaches that had some surgeries, so we were down a couple of coaches. 

“We didn’t want to be down two coaches in recruiting, so I went with it and did my best to help close the deal.”

Both Morris and Colbert point to social media making the transition of on-campus to off-campus recruiting easier. Colbert also echoes the importance of relationships in recruiting. 

“I think with the way the rules are with social media and text messaging, you build up relationships with kids over the course of the recruiting process even when you’re not on the road,” said Colbert. “So for me, I was already seeing kids I knew and had a relationship with. 

“And recruiting is all about relationships and getting the correct information to recruits and their families. Coach Helton’s philosophy is to team-recruit, as he calls it. There’s going to be multiple people in our building who will be recruiting a player. 

“I piggyback and champion what Coach Helton wants to recruit. I’ve been around a lot of great coaches and we have guys on our staff that have recruited great players. Tee and Clay Helton have both been at USC when they’ve recruited some of the best players in school history.

“So us younger guys just fill in when we’re needed. How I end up with one recruit or another has to do with relationships. Maybe I showed that family around on a visit or know someone in the family. Maybe I lived in that recruit’s area and have connections there. 

“Overall, I’ve just learned to never give up and to maintain those relationships. Being around these veteran coaches, I’ve learned it’s not over until it’s over. You have to continue to recruiting until signing day.”

One of Morris’ first endeavors as an off-campus recruiter for USC came in 2015 when he traveled to Georgia to visit four-star offensive tackle E.J. Price. While Price is no longer a part of the Trojans' football team, he remains a student at USC. 

“Nothing prepares you for going into the Southeast,” laughed Morris. “Just going into Atlanta and the SEC . . . football is a different animal down there. 

“They look at recruiting differently. Knowing that Clay trusted me to go down there and represent USC meant a lot. You’re building those relationships over the course of months, if not years, and then you have that one day -- signing day. 

“Like with football on the field, you prepare, practice and play each game during the season. Then there’s the Super Bowl. National Signing Day is our Super Bowl in recruiting. All that time you put in preparing, texting, staying up late to make sure you’ve answered every question on the phone . . . it all comes down to that last couple of weeks to close.  

“In 2015, I learned that building those relationships with those kids mattered in the end. I don’t recruit because I don’t just tell kids what they want to hear. I am a brutally honest person and I tell kids the truth. Man-to-man, friend-to-friend, my relationship with these kids doesn’t end with USC. 

“No one knows where I’ll be in 10-years and no one knows where these kids will be either. All you have is your word because that lasts. I build a lot of trust with recruits because they know I don’t sugarcoat college football. Instead of selling a fantasy, I give them the reality. Some kids like that, some kids don’t. 

“But when you tell them like it is, kids can never come back at you about it later. And when you’re going through hard times, they’ll still believe in you. If you’re telling kids something that doesn’t turn out the way you sold it, you have to deal with that after the Letter Of Intent is signed. Once you lose a kid’s trust, it’s hard to get it back.”

As Director Of Player Development, Morris is not only tasked with getting kids to USC, but managing them on a day-to-day basis once they are on campus. It’s a responsibility which has opened his eyes as a recruiter.

“Clay is big on fit and recruiting the right type of guy,” said Morris. “Before I got to USC, I never really understood team chemistry. I thought that if you had 22 great players, you should win. 

“But then you become a part of a winning team and you start to understand how important chemistry is. You can have great talent, but if things go south, you might have guys who will lay down or not show up. 

“We started 1-3 last season. If you don’t have a tight-knit group with great team chemistry, there’s no way you go from 1-3 to a Rose Bowl. We learned from the year before that it’s all about team chemistry. You may have some players that don’t run the fastest or jump the highest, but leadership and the willingness to be team-first can overcome adversity where raw talent won’t. 

“Every team needs an Ajene Harris or a Chris Hawkins. Those guys are leaders who will sacrifice their numbers for the team. So it’s not all about finding the most talented kids; it’s about finding the right kids who add to the team’s chemistry. If I’m walking down the hallway at some school 2,000 miles away, I’m watching to see how that top recruit interacts with the kids around him. 

“You don’t just judge off one instance. You do your homework, talk to people that know the kid and build a case. But when you see him walking down the hallway and no one is acknowledging him, you start making conclusions on whether this kid is a people person. USC is a melting pot, and to leave home and excel in Los Angeles, you have to be open to a diverse group of people. 

“Stanford recruits a specific type of kid with a certain GPA. Most of those kids have similar backgrounds. At USC, you’re recruiting kids with high academic standings, but then also kids that don’t have those high GPA’s or SAT scores. You’re bringing in kids from public inner-city schools that don’t have those advanced placement classes with kids who graduated from Mater Dei, Harvard-Westlake and St. John Bosco. 


“What makes USC so unique is that you’re bringing together kids with different backgrounds and united them with one goal. A majority of schools recruit kids with a common background. We have kids from like nine different states, public and private schools. It definitely reflects the diversity of a city like Los Angeles.”

 

In part three of our three-part series, Hudson, Morris and Colbert discuss the future of college football coaching in light of the NCAA's new rules on recruiting and staffing. 


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