Down to the Wire

It struck me as I pulled out my tape recorder just how many times I had done this story – a couple weeks before the national letter of intent date for football, sitting down in the Puskar Center to discuss with West Virginia's recruiting coordinator to discuss how the talent search is going for the Mountaineers.

It struck home when Donnie Young stuck his head in the door, because for so many years he had been on the other side of the desk, answering my questions as best he could while not crossing any lines that the NCAA doesn't want crossed. Donnie still works in the same building, but now down the hall for the Mountaineer Athletic Club.

Across the desk from me this time was Herb Hand, just as he had been for the past three years, answering the same questions. Herb is a little more talkative than Donnie, but coaches are coaches – they must take classes in saying little while saying a lot.

Coach Hand is a good guy, outgoing, friendly, but NCAA rules prohibit him from giving out details, and common sense causes him to be a little evasive when it comes to specifics:

How many verbals do you have right now? "Oh, between 14 and 17." (Can't let the opposition see all the hand, lest they try to steal one, or realize that you're trying to steal one of theirs.)

How many do you expect to sign? "Oh, 17, 18, 19, maybe a couple more. (Between last minute gains and last second defections, academic casualties and potential grayshirts, the final number is still relatively fluid, despite the fact that just days remained before the Feb. 4 signing date when Herb and I sat down for the following interview.)

I'm used to the dance, having heard the same music for 15, 16, 17 years now. (In the spirit of the moment, I don't want to be too specific). You look for nuggets amidst the verbiage, but the verbiage itself can be important. While I may have heard the speech about "the coaches' evaluation" being more important than any "recruiting service ranking" dozens of times, it's still part of a good story that our readers want to see.

Coach Hand and I will sit down again, a couple hours after the fax machine has stopped spitting out the binding letters of intent. At that point, Herb will be able to talk in specific terms. A short while later, head coach Rich Rodriguez will stand at the podium in the team room and offer his insight into the Class of 2004. At that point, one dance is over, but just like every good junior high, there's always another dance coming up. And so the thoughts will start to turn to the Class of 2005. Herb and I will sit down in July and October and again in January, talking in generalities about that group, repeating the cycle year after year until you can't remember if it was James Spears or James Earl Jones who signed to play football at WVU, only to wind up on the Temple basketball team.

So, enough of the interlude; it's time to dance.

Blue & Gold News – It's amazing how quickly the time has gone, but signing date is just around the corner. Are you happy or sad that it's almost over?

Herb Hand – "It's amazing how quickly it's gone for you. It's different when you're in my shoes. "Things are going well. We're closing in on some things, and we're just about done. We have our focus on a few more need positions, and hopefully we'll finish up strong."

B&GN – You talk about need positions. What are some of those you still need to address?

Hand – "We probably still need to get another wide receiver or two, another linebacker. At this point, we've also gotten down to the ‘best player available' situation as well. Our needs at this point are probably still wide receiver and linebacker. I think we've done a good job of addressing our needs up front on both offense and defense.

We feel real comfortable with that. We're pretty solid in most places, though we would still like another player or two at a couple spots."

B&GN– You got a lot of commitments fairly early. How do you deal with those kids through the fall and winter? Obviously you don't just take them for granted.

Hand – "You have to keep recruiting them. You don't want anyone else to sneak in the backdoor on you.

"What we try to do with those guys who commit early on is get them to feel a sense of ownership in our program. We want them to feel as much a part of our program as we can. We like to have a couple of those guys around during each of our recruiting weekend, so they can help us with the guys who still undecided. That not only helps us with the undecided recruit, but it also gives the player who has committed a sense of ownership. Now he's a recruiter, and we tell him he can help develop his own class. It helps keeps those players involved, and it also helps get those guys to know each other better. A lot of players who have already committed will have met each other, be it through visits (unofficial and official) or whatever, and they'll stay in contact. It all helps, because you never want to get complacent with a guy. You just have to keep recruiting them. The key is balancing that with recruiting the players who still haven't decided.

"We spread the commits out and bring them in on their official visits throughout the recruiting weekend, so we usually have a couple here each weekend. We point them out right from the beginning and tell the others, ‘Hey, this guy has made his decision.' Sometimes, you never know who is going to become buddies over the course of a weekend, and they decided they would like to play ball with him. Those are some things we try to develop, and it keeps the players who have already committed a sense of ownership."

B&GN – With the success you had during the regular season, winning seven straight, did any of that impact recruiting? Did you get some new kids who were interested, or did that success have more of an impact on the current high school juniors?

Hand – "It's not so much that you're going to get somebody new, as much as it helps with some of the guys you're already recruiting who are undecided. It shows them the direction of the program and the excitement around it. The national TV broadcast games with Virginia Tech, Pitt and even Miami got us more attention than anything else we've done. I was in California the day after the Tech game, and the people out there were all talking about what an unbelievable game it was. They were excited about it, because everybody watched it. The same was true for the Pitt game and the Miami game. Those three games did more for this recruiting class than all the other things we do like writing letters and making phone calls and all that stuff. All that is important, and you have to do it, but when they see you play on national TV and see you play well, that's what sticks in their minds, not only the minds of players, but the minds of coaches as well. We just got back from the (American Football) Coaches' (Association) Convention in Orlando, and the positive comments were unbelievable. It was kind of a pick-me-up, because we were kind of moping around after being kicked in bowl. But despite the bowl, we still got so many positive comments. That helped our spirits."

This is the first part of an article that appeared in last week's edition of the Blue & Gold News. Part two of the article will appear on this site tomorrow for our premium subscribers. For more great indepth coverage of the Mountaineers, subscribe to our print edition or to our online premium service. It's an unbeatable combination!

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