The 2008 season has been a huge disappointment to Wisconsin players, fans and recruits. Picked to finish second in the Big Ten Conference and contend for the Rose Bowl, UW should be going west. But instead of seeing roses, UW will likely see dessert in Tempe, Arizona, for the Insight Bowl. While some view the failures as a deterrent, in the eyes of the already committed, the failed expectations are just some minor bumps in the road.
"My decision wasn't based on what the team's record was or how they are doing now," said running back Montee Ball, who broke the Missouri career rushing record this year. "Teams go up and down throughout the season but I talk to Coach Doeren every Sunday and we have a great relationship. I'm 100 percent committed to this team."
"Wisconsin could go 0-12 and I wouldn't change my mind," added offensive lineman Zac Matthias, who committed to the Badgers in June. "I have a lot of confidence in the program and the coaches."
Ball and Matthias fall in a line with the other high school prospects from across the Midwest that believe in the program, which bring a sense of satisfaction and relief to a Badger coaching staff that has plenty of issues on their plate to deal with as it is.
"The kids have been solid," said linebacker coach and recruiting coordinator Randall McCray. "You try to recruit the kids for the right reasons and get in school for the right reasons. If we feel we have recruited the right type of kids, it doesn't really matter a lot of the time. You can still be solid in your recruiting and keep those kids."
Getting to call every verbal commit and players they are actively recruiting once a week per NCAA rules, the Badger coaches utilize that to the fullest. Since the season started, UW has gotten the verbal commitment of four recruits, including the 16th-ranked strong linebacker in the nation in A.J. Fenton. Still, UW keeps reassuring its recruits and potential commits while other schools try to kick the dog when its down.
"There is still the boogieman out there trying to get you," McCray said about negative recruiting. "We just coach the kids on what is going to happen, schools are going to beat us down and beat us down and if they're not taking about their institution, something is up. They are obviously not secure about themselves. We call and talk about our school. If they call you, they need to talk about their school and if you picked our school for a reason, let them know."
Whether those 16 keep their ears plugged between now and February remains to be seen. But whether the Badgers are playing for a national title or are getting blown out week after week, the message, or sell, of the coaches remains the same – that Wisconsin has top facilities, a compact campus that offers a variety of degrees and has solid support surrounding the program.
"You always sell your positives and good, bad or indifferent, the positives of this institution are what sell this institution," McCray said. "They picked this school because it's a place they can play and get a great education. Those positives will never change and you just reiterate those things to the kid over and over."
Not only does Wisconsin's coaches like McCray do their recruiting over the phone during the season, they manage to do it without saying a word. Heading out to football games earlier in the season on Football Fridays, coaches aren't allowed to talk to players or parents until December, but that doesn't stop a determined coach.
"If we're going to see kids that are already committed to us, we want to make sure they know that we are there to see them," McCray said. "You were your biggest Wisconsin sweatshirt and wave a big flag so they go, ‘Hey, there's coach.' You can call the high school coach ahead of time and let them know you are coming."
Even so, the efforts of the staff in some people's eyes don't seem to be enough. Of the 16 players who have verbally committed to UW, none are five-star recruits and only one (Waupun's Jordan Kohout) is a four-star recruit. In the past two months, the Badgers have finished in the top five for six four-star players and did not get a commitment from any of them.
The Badgers had two prime-time night games in early October, hosting Ohio State and Penn State on back-to-back weekends and brought in a slew of highly-regarded recruits. Being outscored 68-20 in two losses, UW only managed to get the verbal of one player (Conor O'Neill).
Having decent size, speed and toughness while being coachable and having football instincts are all traits those five-star players have in common, which doesn't make them hidden gems by any means. Getting recruiting offers from around the country, schools like Wisconsin not only have to compete with national powers, but the home state schools.
With Wisconsin high school football lacking the talent of Florida, Ohio and even Michigan (producing an average of only 15 division one recruits compared to 287 in Texas, 135 in Ohio and 80 in Michigan), the Badger State rarely produces five-star talent. Ask McCray though and he's quick to boast that the last two five-star recruits that came from the state of Wisconsin (John Clay and Josh Oglesby) are now wearing Cardinal and White.
"In this state, we feel we have put a border around the state going back to what Coach Alvarez did and get those kids and that's what we're doing," McCray said. "When you are going far away to get those four-star, five-star kids, you got to be smart about the kids you are recruiting. If you pick the right recruit to recruit that's a four or five star, he'll be interested in your institution. Then it's up to the Good Lord wants them to go to your school or not."
Getting those four- and five-star kids doesn't guarantee success. This year's Tennessee team had 17 four- and five-star players from its 2005 recruiting class. The Volunteers are 3-7 overall. In retrospect, Wisconsin's record-setting 12-win team in 2006 only had one four-star and four three-star players and was ranked 53rd in the country.
"I think people get caught up in the stars too much," McCray said. "That 2006 team, that class was ranked in the 50s with those seniors. Stars don't anything the first time you walk on that field as a freshman. Them stars are going to get here square in the face like the rest of them."
With the Badgers starting to turn their season around, are one-win away from being bowl eligible and the border-rival Gophers coming to town, this weekend will be the last big game-day recruit weekend for the coaching staff. With the Badgers still having work to do to finish their recruiting class, the nerves won't subside until February's signing day.
"You get nervous in recruiting anyway, whoever you recruit, because you put in all this work to come to your school," McCray said. "That's pressure, win, lose or draw. Every Saturday the nerves are still there because not only do you have to produce on the field, but off the field in recruiting."