Coaching insights from the WSU recruiting trail

MIKE PRICE didn’t wait long to present me with a challenge. Shortly after I joined his staff at Washington State in the late summer of 2001, he tasked me and receivers coach Mike Levenseller with this assignment: Bring Devard Darling to WSU!

Devard, who of course ended up having a great career for the Cougs and went on to play five years in the NFL, was transferring out of Florida State at the time. He had just been through a very tragic situation. His identical twin, Devaughn, had passed away during summer conditioning drills due to exhaustion tied to sickle cell trait. Devard (pictured above) subsequently was not cleared medically to play football at FSU.

All the medical data we could find said there was no reason Devard couldn’t continue playing. His family said the same thing. Moreover, our research showed that Devard was not just an outstanding football player but also a young man of great character.

The task at hand was to assist a quality student athlete to live out his dream of playing college football and honor the life and memory of his twin brother.

It didn’t take long for us to learn that most of the Western world wanted Devard as well, including charismatic first-year USC head coach Pete Carroll. Through a lot of hard work, we convinced Devard to become a Cougar instead of a Trojan and he wound up scoring 30 TDs on 105 catches for the Cougs before moving on to the Baltimore Ravens. To this day, he remains one of my all-time favorite players.

Devard came immediately to mind when the editors at Cougfan.com asked me if I’d be interested in writing a column about some of the intrigue that surrounded my three decades on the front lines of college football recruiting.

The circumstances surrounding Devard made his recruitment one of the most unique in my career. And the fact we were going to head-to-head against a program with a national history and a coach with a long NFL background made it all the more challenging — and satisfying when we landed him.

We never stopped, for even one minute, in our pursuit of Devard. That is lesson No. 1 in recruiting: If you are going to be successful you had better be involved with it 24/7. And not just part of the year, but every day of the year. The work, truly, is never done.

When I say that, I’m not just talking about the cornerstones of recruiting like writing letters and building relationships with high school coaches. I’m talking about pursuing leads, devouring film and looking where others might not think to or want to.


JASON HILL, TOP, AND BRANDON GIBSON

I know fans love looking at the recruiting rankings and pay great attention to how many stars are next to the name of the guys their school is after. Coaches, at least the ones that are worth their pay, could care less about stars. It’s all about the evaluations we make. That’s why our great Cougar teams of the early 2000s were full of starless wonders like Will Derting, D.D. Acholonu, Erik Coleman, Scott Davis, Marcus Trufant and more.

Jason Hill, Brandon Gibson, Ropati Pitoitua, Eric Frampton, Rien Long and Husain Abdullah — all future NFL guys — were other Cougars from the 2000s who hardly registered on the Who’s Who of Recruiting when they were high school seniors.

And that brings me to my next point: No matter how good a kid looks on film or paper, his development as a person and player is paramount to your program’s success. The phrase “coaching a player up” was one often associated with Coach Price. That meant great on-field and film-room instruction and staying on course academically, but also making sure each guy is playing a position where he can excel. So on the recruiting trail, we were always projecting where all a kid might play. Could this running back be turned into a receiver or linebacker? Could that tight end become an offensive tackle or defensive end?

The same holds true for size. Many schools felt that cornerback Jason David, for example, was too small to play in the Pac-10. But you can’t let preconceived notions cloud your judgment when you’re recruiting. All you had to do was watch Jason practice ONE time and you knew he had something special.


JASON DAVID

He was one of the fiercest competitors that I have ever been around. At WSU, he competed in every drill as if it was the Super Bowl (which, by the way, he later started in). He made our Cougar receivers better by challenging them each day. We used his level of competition when we evaluated future recruits. “Does he practice like Jason David?” That was a question we often asked in our evaluation process. I’m so proud he was able to go show his talents in the NFL.

Evaluation, projection and development. You couple those three things with tireless research and persuasive selling and you’re going to have success in recruiting.

NO MATTER HOW GOOD YOU ARE, NO MATTER how thorough you’ve been, heartbreak is going to be part of the life on the recruiting trail. Nothing is more disturbing in the entire process than losing a verbal commit in the final hours before LOIs are signed. Unfortunately, no coach will ever escape this empty feeling. Some kids call you to break the news. It’s awful but you appreciate the fact they were man enough to tell you directly. With others, the fax never arrives and then you hear their name being called for another school. Every time it happens your mind flashes to all the time, effort and commitment you put into them and their families. Just doesn’t seem right.

One outstanding young man we nearly signed at WSU was running back Jonathan Stewart, who now is a standout with the Carolina Panthers. He wasn't a verbal who flipped on us, but we went right down to the wire with him before he chose Oregon. In all my years of recruiting, I don't think I did a better job on anyone than I did with Jonathan, and I don't think a staff collectively could have done a better job. Jonathan truly was torn and you could hear that in his voice when he told us he was headed to Eugene instead. A lot of people around him were advocating WSU but when push came to shove we couldn't compete on facilities and couldn't fully win over the one person who tends to matter most in almost every prospect's thinking — mom. Jonathan definitely was a loss that kept me awake a few nights. He was a difference maker. He would have taken a huge load off of Alex Brink. A QB's best friend is a good running back and Jonathan was truly something special.

On the other hand, the winds can blow in your favor, too. Michael Bumpus, who became the most prolific receiver in WSU history by the time he left, is one of my all-time favorite stories in this category. And, like Devard Darling, this one involved Pete Carroll.

Bump had been verbally committed to USC for much of his senior season. In the week prior to Signing Day, we received a tip from an assistant coach at Bump’s school saying that he heard USC might be asking him to grayshirt in order to make room in their class for the late addition of the No. 1 receiving prospect in the nation. Kelly Skipper, our running backs coach and Los Angeles-area recruiter, had kept in touch with Bump throughout the fall even though he was solid for USC. Kelly did that for two reasons. First, because he knew Bump had had a great official visit to WSU earlier in the fall, and second, because in recruiting things can change quickly so you want to be ready for anything. This was one of those times that paid off.


TWO COUGS ORIGINALLY HEADED ELSEWHERE: BRINK AND BUMPUS.

When the tip on Bump came in, Coach Skipper and I huddled up fast to pin down a game plan for getting Michael to sign his LOI with WSU. Aside from closing the deal with Michael and his family, it was critical that his sudden availability be kept quiet. He was one of the top 100 overall recruits in the nation. Besides WSU and USC, he had taken an official visit to Arizona State, so we knew they would be all over him, and Oregon had wanted him badly earlier in the recruiting cycle — and Washington too, if memory serves — so we figured they’d go full tilt if they knew he was back on the market.

In this day and age with social media it’s hard to imagine keeping a lid on anything, but in those days it was plausible.

The first goal was to keep it quiet until the recruiting dead period before LOI Week started. That way no one could bring him in for a last-minute visit. We had this thing so air tight that Coach Doba and our compliance office — the folks who prepare the LOIs to be signed — were the only people outside of me, Kelly and the Bumpus family that knew what was underway.

Long story short, the recruiting world was absolutely stunned on LOI Day when we released Michael’s name as part of our new class. He of course became a tremendous player for the Cougs, and is also a truly wonderful human being.

I won’t hide it: pursuing and securing Bump was a heart-pounding endeavor. I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to see his LOI roll in on the fax machine that day in 2004. And yes, believe it or not, fax machines are still the center piece of LOI Day — and still the source of the greatest anxiety I ever felt in recruiting. That’s because in my first year as the recruiting coordinator at Arizona State, back in the Bruce Snyder days, I had forgotten a small detail in the run up to LOI Day. I always pride myself on leaving no detail to chance, but this one got by me: no paper in the fax machine. There’s nothing quite as unnerving as staring at a fax machine that isn’t moving on LOI Day. When the paper oversight was finally discovered, the LOIs came flying out and my growing concern over job security vanished. By the way, that subsequent fall we went on to have a magical season, going 11-0 in the regular season. When the old staff gets together we talk about many great memories, one of them being the empty fax machine!

A FEW THOUGHTS ON ...

What goes on in the heads of prospects:
Many recruits have a hard time saying “No.” They would rather tell every coach they are committed to his school than tell a coach “I’m no longer interested.” The recruiting process would be much more efficient if more players would just say get lost when they have no intention of coming your way. Another constant is how quickly the young mind can change course. From week to week, or even day to day. I once had a bona fide blue chipper commit, de-commit, re-commit, de-commit and re-commit. The day after the last re-commit he called to tell me he was re-committing -- I told him that he had re-committed the night before. I concluded that he so was confused about who he was telling what to that we couldn’t in good conscience keep our offer on the table. I was a bit nervous when he signed with another Pac-10 school, but his muddled thinking proved a harbinger of what was to come. He struggled to find playing time and eventually left school.


THE PRIDE OF RENTON: MKRISTO BRUCE.

The fun of in-state recruiting:
Wherever I was, I always loved in-state recruiting. I loved it for two reasons. First, battling with your arch-rival in anything is an adrenalin rush — and I’m not just talking about head-to-head battles but also the quest to find talent they don’t. And second, fans are thrilled when there are “home growns” on the team because, like Kevin Bacon, there’s never more than six degrees of separation — at least not in my experiences in Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Montana. Each recruit, though, represents a totally different type of battle to be fought. An entire plan can be formulated for each and every recruit depending on factors ranging from parents to grades, coach to neighborhood. At WSU we took great pride in getting in-state players. Our coaching staff included a number of former WSU players who grew up in the state, so that added a networking advantage to our in-state efforts. I previously mentioned some of the great Cougar players from the 2000s — Trufant, Acholonu, Derting, Coleman, Long, Gibson and Davis. All were Washington kids. So were Josh Parrish, Calvin Armstrong, Derrick Roche, Tyler Hunt, Collin Henderson, Jeremey Williams, Pat Bennett, Al Genatone, Mkristo Bruce, Steve Dildine, Cody Boyd, Jeremy Bohannon and Andy Mattingly, just to name a few.

Recruiting QBs:
The recruiting of quarterbacks is a science of its own. Sometimes an individual coach or the style of offense can make all the difference when recruiting a QB. Mike Price is convinced he lost Jake Plummer to Arizona State at the last minute because he showed Jake too much film of WSU’s great drop-back passers and not enough of guys rolling out or doing quarterback draws. On the other hand, Mark Rypien — one of the most widely recruited prep QBs in state history — became a Cougar because he wanted to be the next Jack Thompson. And it was no secret to high school QB Ryan Leaf that a guy named Drew Bledsoe had just been taken No. 1 overall in the NFL draft. Jason Gesser was drawn to WSU by three things: the offense, the coaching staff and the then-brand-new weight room. Alex Brink had verbally committed to Boise State, but an all-out blitz by our entire staff — led by former WSU QB Timm Rosenbach — convinced him to rethink his decision. He would go on to break virtually every WSU passing record and beat the Huskies three times.

Probably the very best job of recruiting a QB to Pullman was Mike Price’s wooing of Bledsoe, whose father, Mack, had played for the Huskies. The full tale of that marketing effort can be found here. And while some of those selling tactics aren’t possible today, the key to it all is as relevant today as ever: recruiting to each kid uniquely given his situation.

One of my all-time favorite stories involving a WSU QB surrounds the Throwin' Samoan, who looked for all the world like he was headed to Oregon in the early 70s. In those days, coaches could pick up letters of intent at a prospect’s home. When Oregon head coach Don Read rang the Thompsons' doorbell to collect Jack’s signed LOI, he was greeted by none other than WSU’s Jim Sweeney, one of the greatest personalities in the history of West Coast football. Jim had closed the deal bright and early and had Jack’s signed LOI in his back pocket.


SCOTT LUNDE

The importance of walk ons:
Many fans, I think, don’t realize how important walk ons are to a successful program. For one, they make practices easier to conduct. But more than that, when given the opportunity, many of these kids can blossom into very good football players. That's why good recruiters don't just look for scholarship guys when they're on the trail but also kids who might develop as a walk on. During my time at WSU, for example, center Mike Shelford was a walk on who became a starter and had an outstanding senior season helping the Cougs defeat No. 5 Texas in the Holiday Bowl. Linebacker Mawuli Davis and receiver Scott Lunde are other great examples from that era. At ASU we had a walk on player named Adam Archuleta, who would end up being the Pac-10 defensive player of the year. In 2013, three-fifths of WSU's starting offensive line was composed of one-time walk ons in Elliott Bosch, Gunnar Eklund and Joe Dahl. Eklund and Dahl will both have been three-year starters when their college careers conclude a year from now.

A FINAL THOUGHT: The one factual statement that can be said about recruiting is that it is an inexact science and the life blood to every successful program. The recruiting landscape is always changing. Social media, coaching changes, facility improvements, NCAA rules/sanctions, scholarship limitations, changes in offensive and defensive philosophies, earlier and earlier verbal commitments and booster involvement are issues that can positively and negatively influence recruiting. What can never change is a staff’s year-round commitment to the effort, the emphasis on evaluating and projecting, and — as Devard Darling and Michael Bumpus illustrate — the willingness to be flexible. It’ll give a guy gray hair, but it’s also one of the most rewarding aspects of being a coach.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Robin Pflugrad has spent 29 years as a college football coach, and as head man at Montana was a finalist for the 2011 Eddie Robinson Award as the nation's top FCS coach. From 2001-05 he was an assistant at Washington State, where he served as tight ends coach, recruiting coordinator and assistant head coach. He was an assistant at Arizona State prior to coming to WSU and at Oregon after leaving WSU. He is a graduate of, and former assistant coach at, Portland State. Former WSU head coach and longtime d-coordinator Bill Doba referred to Pflugrad as “The Bulldog” while at WSU, owing to Pflugrad’s attention to detail and passion for recruiting. He and his wife Marlene reside in Phoenix, where he is a football consultant for a number of college programs and an analyst for Channel 3 KTVX (CBS). His daughter Amanda works in the New York Jets’ online media department while son Aaron is an offensive graduate assistant at ASU.


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