Final reflections on '05 Cougar recruting trail

CLOSE TO FOUR months ago I turned a passion, writing about Cougar football, into a life-changing obsession: Covering the WSU recruiting trail. More than 100 articles -- and hundreds and hundreds of phone calls later -- I can say it's been a thrill ride times 10. When Robin Pflugrad says he lives, eats and breathes recruiting, I now have a rough idea what he's talking about. It gets in your blood.

So before we get too far into the 2006 campaign (yes, recruiting is a year-round pursuit that as Mike Price and others used to say, is a lot like shaving: If you don't do it everyday you'll end up looking like a bum), a few reflections from the 2005 wars.

General observations:
1) There were (thankfully) a few exceptions, but if a prospect or their high school coach said they would send you a photo, there's a better chance of spotting a smile on Ty Willingham's face than of actually receiving said photo.

2) If your gut gives you even the slightest inkling that a kid's words don't match what's in his heart, rest assured the lad is probably going to change his leader/lean/verbal at least two more times.

3) It was a refrain heard long, loud and often -- the words "family" and "academics" when a prospect described WSU. For those who are regular followers of recruiting, that will come as no surprise because the recruits talk about it every year. But if you wondered just how big a selling point that is, consider that WSU only brought in 34 kids on official visits this year and 20 (yes, twenty!) of them signed with the Cougars. That is a nothing short of stunning.

Most memorable encounters:
There were a number of items we kept "off the record," mostly at the student-athlete's request, but sometimes at our own discretion. To wit, one kid who signed elsewhere told us in great detail how his high school teammates were "terrible players" and that without him out on the field, the defense would have been nothing but a big ol' piece of Swiss cheese. Another who signed elsewhere talked about his would-be position coach, "a phony", he called him. He ended up verballing to that coach six weeks later.

Also signing elsewhere, there was another prospect who answered his phone smack in the middle of an in-home visit. Two questions in, I asked if he had had any in-homes recently. He replied he was having one right now. In the following stunned silence on my end, I heard a coach, presumably talking to the kid's parents, whose voice sounded awfully familiar. Aghast, I immediately said I'd call back. But the recruit insisted he could talk, heck, he was just kickin' it, what else did we want to know? We begged off and made plans to call back later that evening.

Coaches' comments:
Aside from their lack of interest in sending photos, I found talking with high school coaches to be one of the great unexpected perks of this work.

As a group, they're refreshingly honest, generous and more than willing to share their vast knowledge of the game along with their players' strengths and weaknesses. To, regrettably, name but a few from this past recruiting season, I'd love to park myself for hours in front of the likes of Marijon Ancich (St. Paul High, Dwight Tardy), Ralph Caldwell (Dorsey High, Courtney Williams), Dick Zatkovich (Lincoln High, Michael Willis), Mickey Moss (South Garland High, James Bradley), Brian Basteyns, (Serra High, Fevaea'i Ahmu), Ed Croson (Birmingham High, Benny Ward), Tom O'Kelly (Northwood High, Cory Evans) and just soak up the knowledge like a sponge.

Speaking of coaches, I can't tell you how many times one of them or their players mentioned, unsolicited, how impressed they were with Washington State's staff. Without fail, the experience, knowledge and "down to earth" demeanor of the Cougar coaches was cited. Leon Burtnett, George Yarno, Kelly Skipper, Mike Walker, Mike Levenseller, Timm Rosenbach and Ken Greene were hits everywhere they went, from Washington to California to Texas and beyond. And at least a handful of Cougar commits mentioned defensive coordinator Robb Akey's unmatched leaping ability when news of a verbal was delivered in person.

Coach Bill Doba's name came up at virtually every turn from recruits and parents alike. One parent relayed, after recently talking with the Washington State head man, that should their son choose to attend WSU, just knowing that a man like Doba was going to take care of their son offered them great peace of mind. The player verbally committed to WSU shortly thereafter, and signed with the Cougs this past Wednesday.

Recruiting coordinator, assistant head coach and tight ends coach Robin Pflugrad

I'd be remiss not to take some time to talk about recruiting coordinator Robin Pflugrad. In following the trails, I saw evidence of a master.

From a recruit's enthusiastic re-telling of an official trip or in-home visit, to a simple phone conversation the prospect had with one of the Cougar coaches that left them inspired, Pflugrad's professional magic was evident. The man is organized, thorough and strategic. He'd also the first one to give you an 'Ah, shucks' about it, telling you it's a team effort right down the line, from the dedicated recruiting staff to the graduate assistants to his fellow coaches at Washington State.

The Protocol:
In a balancing act that was different for every prospect, I took pains not to call a prospect too often, yet also wanted to be able to "get the story." I think we did it well, regularly breaking the news on the newest members of the Cougar family on our front page while remaining respectful of their time and what they had on their plate.

Many times, a prospect wasn't at home when I called so I'd leave a message and mention that time of day or night was no matter -- feel free to call back any time. Many players took me up on it but one stands out, with him ringing me up at 12:45am. We ended up talking about his recruitment for about 30 minutes.

The Obsession:
I found myself thinking about recruiting coverage at all hours of the day and night. This is what I'm talking about when I say it gets in your blood. Between bites of a ham sandwich you'll remember that you forgot to update a kid's height on his player page. There was the time I awoke at 2 a.m. because somewhere in the primordial abyss of my mind a key question arose that simply must be answered in an interview scheduled for the morning with a prep coach.

One rainy Saturday afternoon at a Home Depot, like a thunderbolt from above, the perfect lead came to mind on a recruit I thought might verbally commit to WSU that weekend. Dodging sheets of rain and cursing the absence of my mobile phone that was sitting next to the computer at home, I raced outside in search of a pay phone, leaving a minutes-long message on the answering machine lest I forget a single word.

We had a running joke at CF.C, trying to come up with enough adjectives -- accurate ones -- to describe prospects. Just when we thought we might be getting too cliché with some of our descriptive phrases, we noticed on LOI Day that the local television networks were not only using phrases like "wrecking ball", "lightning bolt", "speed merchant", and more, for several Cougar signees, they were presenting them in the same context with the same wording used in our stories.

Shockingly, the term "steakeater", which has graced these pages for over seven years describing WSU offensive linemen continues to be used almost exclusively by CF.C. To our knowledge, no other media outlet in the nation has yet grasped the genius of that moniker first coined by our Executive Editor. It's quite vexing.

Talking up a storm:
Interviews with 18-year-olds can be most interesting. The majority tend to be understated, answering most questions in five seconds or less. In fact, I dare say Jonathan Stewart could answer most open ended questions in one word or less. Two guys who broke the mold were defensive tackle Fevaea'i Ahmu and cornerback Shelton Danzy.

Loquacious and generous with their time, I'd rank 'em up there with Jim Walden and Mike Price for easiest person to interview. Ahmu is as upbeat as he is talented. He would regularly provide the answers -- and in great detail -- before I had even asked the question. Danzy has an amazing recall and an eye for detail to go along with a razor-sharp wit. Danzy, in his unofficial capacity as recruiting class ambassador, also provided invaluable assistance sending over photos of his fellow future Cougars.

The most pressing first question I ever asked a prospect was directed at Ahmu: How do you pronounce your first name? For the record, it's Fahy-VIGH-ee-AH-ee, with each syllable pronounce distinctly, lingering a beat longer on the first two. I think we had a three month head start on everyone with that bit of knowledge. For those less adventurous, he also goes by the nickname of "Ah-EE".

There also were a number of recruits I talked with who pulled at the ol' heartstrings. Whether it was a school they waited in vain to receive an offer from or the disappointment at not receiving the score they needed on the SAT, you could feel the angst in their voices. For most, thankfully, everything worked out fine in the end.

SO THERE YOU have it. As we shove off into the 2006 class and with spring ball now knocking on the door, it seems fitting to offer up the battle cry that has echoed off these virtual walls since the first days of back in 1998: ONWARD CRIMSON SOLDIERS!!!

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