By Dave Glenn, ACC Sports Journal
February 14, 2005 Here's the scene: Picture two bitter rivals situated mere miles from each other. Mix in a pair of head coaches who are both fiery, ex-linebacker alums of their respective schools. Add a responsibility to try to protect the state's finest football prospects, both from programs outside the state and each other. Top it off with a high-profile de-commitment from one school to the other early in both coaches' tenures. Welcome to the N.C. State-UNC football rivalry between Chuck Amato and John Bunting.
When the Wolfpack and the Tar Heels announced their recruiting classes on national signing day, neither coach could resist the urge to share some comments about the other school, either indirectly or directly, veiled or straight to the point. The quotes were just further ammunition for NCSU fans (many hate Bunting) and UNC supporters (many hate Amato) on sports radio, internet message boards and around the water cooler.
Amato always has used the stage of signing day to both entertain and complain. One year, he serenaded reporters with Italian ballads in excitement over his class. Another time, he popped open a bottle of grape juice that looked like champagne. The next year, he roared into the media room on the back of a motorcycle.
This year, again, Amato didn't disappoint.
He took a shot at the growing perception accurate in one case, absurd in others that the Tar Heels pulled scholarship offers to numerous long-committed prospects in the weeks before signing day. Nothing in the rulebook prevents such a practice, in which coaches create room for highly regarded targets at the expense of others while trying to stay under NCAA scholarship limits (25 in one year, 85 overall), but most agree it's an undesirable act at best and an unethical one at worst.
N.C. State fans complained of a lack of media coverage about what many of them perceived as a high-number trend of pulled scholarships by Bunting, but as is often the case with message-board fanatics, those who whined the most were dealing mainly with inaccurate information and false assumptions. The Tar Heels had numerous de-commitments this year; that part was true. But subsequent interviews with the prospects, their coaches and their families established that in all but one case the change was initiated by the player, not by UNC, and that there was nothing unseemly about the breakups.
The one exception was Fork Union (VA) Military tailback Bryan Payton. The Carolina coaches accepted his commitment in December, after several backs higher on their recruiting board privately turned them down. Later, when prep All-American Montario Hardesty changed his mind and said he wanted to play for the Tar Heels after all, the coaches basically talked Payton out of signing with UNC. (He ended up with home-state Indiana.) Of course, the Heels later ended up with extra egg on their faces, after Hardesty changed his mind yet again and switched to Tennessee on signing day.
The News & Observer of Raleigh wrote about Payton's saga, complete with quotes from the player's obviously unhappy mother, and the article made the rounds in the N.C. State football offices. Amato couldn't resist bringing the topic up, indirectly, on signing day.
"We didn't even have to pull a commitment," Amato said. "In what we do, it's done in such a professional way that you keep track of all that. Because there are some people that will do that, and we ran into that quite a bit this year, all over. In fact, some of the kids that we actually recruited had things like that happen."
The Pack coach also referenced speculation that the Tar Heels have hammered their in-state targets with the idea that N.C. State would rather recruit skill-position athletes from Florida instead of focusing on North Carolina prospects. Without naming the Heels, Amato took exception to that opinion, noting that the unnamed rival is just as likely to go outside of the state in such circumstances.
"We recruited every blue-chip athlete in the state of North Carolina," Amato said. "We cannot take their arm and twist them and make them come to N.C. State. And there were some (opposing schools) that say, 'They're never going to get any skill people from the state of North Carolina,' and then they themselves go out of state, you see? They themselves go out of state."
Amato and his staff also have fought the perception in recent years that constant staff turnover is a sign of an unstable program. It's a safe bet that other schools use such tidbits on the recruiting trail in an attempt to sway recruits.
"What I'm getting at is, I think people are private people and they have a job," said Amato, when asked when he would fill his two vacant assistant positions. "I think there are ethics involved in athletics, and I think we ought to all remember that and realize that. We're dealing with 17- and 18-year-old kids that are very impressionable. And all of you people would love to get on that daggone internet and go, 'Coach so-and-so is leaving to go to this school.' And all of a sudden it becomes gospel. And kids say, 'Are you losing your coach?' 'No, why?' 'I read it on the internet.'"
Down the road, later in the afternoon, Bunting mentioned Amato by name when asked about highly regarded cornerback Jordan Hemby of Morganton (NC) Freedom. Hemby was the focus of a fierce battle down the stretch after he committed to the Tar Heels, with Florida and N.C. State also trying to get his signature on signing day.
"This past week, a Chuck Amato and an Urban Meyer (of Florida) are either in the school or the house, and we got him to come to Carolina," Bunting said. "That's exciting."
Perhaps still stinging from the loss of Hardesty, after the player's initial commitment to UNC, Bunting got very animated when talking about honesty in the recruiting process. He mentioned that the meaning of a commitment has changed in recent years, and not in a good way for the school.
"It means something different to every recruit," Bunting said. "There was one player that as of last night was committed to one school, told two of us that he was coming to us, then went to somebody else's school. Wow! All in a night's work. So you just don't know."
Bunting clearly was referring to tight end Jonathan Hannah of Hope Mills (NC) South View, a prime example of the fight that UNC and N.C. State have not only with each other for top North Carolinians, but also with invading programs. Seven of the state's consensus top-10 seniors signed with out-of-state teams this season, continuing a trend.
The son of a former Wolfpack football player, Hannah committed to Virginia Tech a couple of weeks prior to signing day, but he reportedly switched his commitment to UNC and N.C. State the night before, then ultimately inked with South Carolina.
Showing the intensity surrounding the recruitment of such players in the state, Amato also mentioned Hannah without using his name.
"It's amazing how close sometimes you come with a young man, and that's everybody," Amato said. "Every school happens the same way: 'Gee, I thought I was going to get him,' and 'I thought I was going to get him.' And there would have been some shockers if it would have happened in both directions, really."
Of course, the poster boy for the elevation of the personal rivalry between Amato and Bunting is A.J. Davis. Considered the No. 3 defensive back in the nation by Prep Star in 2002, Davis played for a strong local program at Northern Durham, which had become a productive talent pipeline for UNC. Long-time Carolina assistant Ken Browning, who has worked under three head coaches in Chapel Hill, previously served as the head coach at Northern Durham.
Davis initially committed to the Tar Heels, but he signed with N.C. State, drawing surprise and complaints from his high school coach and his own father, plus the ire of Bunting and many UNC fans. Adding fuel to the controversy, Amato told the media that he sang the ballad "Return To Me" to convince Davis to run with the Pack, then famously added that such developments in recruiting are only "life in the fast lane."
"We fight on and off the field, but getting Davis is not fighting," Amato said. "That's the way it is. Next year, they'll steal somebody from us. I'm sure they've got young men that they signed and when I say 'them,' I mean all the state schools, not just the University of North Carolina from other schools."
Amato noted that such tactics were what he cut his teeth on as an assistant at Florida State. He recruited the super-fertile South Florida region, where last-minute switches like Davis' are the norm, not the exception, and where accusations of shady maneuvers abound. Virginia and Virginia Tech, among others, recently cut back on their recruiting in the Sunshine State, at least in part because of a series of bizarre reversals and other unsettling disappointments with long-targeted prospects.
Other observers surmised that Davis' decision was simply more evidence that the Wolfpack was becoming a player for North Carolina's best prospects, after in-state domination by the Tar Heels that had lasted for years. During the 1990s, some of the Pack's best in-state performers grew up as UNC fans but never received a scholarship offer from the Heels. Amato made some of his biggest early splashes in Raleigh after arriving in 2000 by landing several North Carolina products who had been pursued heavily by both schools.
Bunting was so steamed about the Davis situation that he repeatedly spoke of it at booster gatherings, and when the details (see ACCSports.com archives) came out on and after signing day, long-time gurus confirmed that it was one of most bizarre recruiting sagas in memory. When a reporter once again brought up Davis at this year's signing day press conference, Amato showed that he had grown weary of the three-year-old complaints.
"There was such a big fuss made a couple of years ago, but it happens all the time," Amato said. "The fuss was made because we did it. If somebody else does it, there's never a fuss made. And yes, that does irk me. Why don't you talk about those people?"
After noting that he "feels sorry" for Hardesty because of the decision he made to sign with the Volunteers, Bunting was asked about his personal way of handling the recruitment of a prospect who has committed to another college.
"When a recruit tells me that he wants me to stop recruiting him, I stop," Bunting said. "But if they are committed to another school and still interested in us, then we will continue to recruit them."
Indeed, all coaches will recruit committed players in some situations. Just this year, in the ACC alone, Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, N.C. State and Virginia Tech all signed prospects who previously had pledged to other programs. In a few cases, the player re-opened the recruiting process because of a coaching change, but in most cases other circumstances were involved.
The question, then, is where exactly to draw the line. Long-time ACC assistants will tell you that every head coach is different in this regard, that everyone sets a different tone. Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech said he believes one part of the solution is that the coaches need to do a better job of governing themselves.
"Whether or not they change the rules (by adding an early signing period), the answer starts with us," Beamer said. "We all agree that there are some situations where it's OK to recruit a committed player. The problems come when we look at commitments as the beginning of the recruiting process rather than the end, like it's a sign that we're supposed to recruit someone even harder. We don't do that here, and we won't do that."
That kind of resolve surely is tested whenever opposing coaches fail to follow the same guidelines. When asked one year if a commitment means anything in his eyes, Amato said, "Not to me." Perhaps they're just better at being politically correct, but no other coach in the ACC would offer the same answer to the same question, and Amato's approach to the matter clearly irks Beamer, Bunting and others in the conference.
During the weeks leading up to UNC-N.C. State games over the past three seasons, and whenever the rivalry comes up in interviews with the media, Amato and Bunting tend to choose their words carefully. Each coach has been known to take shots at his counterpart when speaking with boosters, but Amato has been unusually reserved with most of his public comments, and Bunting also has been far more diplomatic than not.
"Hey, he's serious about his job, and I'm serious about mine," Bunting said last year. "He's a tough football coach, and I admire him for that. And he's a good football coach, and I admire him for that. And I think we're doing a lot of the right things over here."
In the end, with two intense, energetic and proud alums such as Amato and Bunting representing their schools in the Triangle and working hard to elevate their programs in a rapidly improving ACC, neither is going to back down from a fight. Both repeatedly spoke on signing day of the way their respective schools are perceived as being "on the rise."
"The fact that two-thirds of our recruits have been through our camps and spent time with us on campus allows us to know their character," Bunting said. "That is important to me. This is a great football program and a great university. It's great getting their signatures on the bottom line and getting the faxes in here. I talked with every recruit with one exception, and they are all excited to be part of a program that is on the rise."
While echoing those sentiments about N.C. State, Amato couldn't resist one last reference to 2002 and the Davis drama, underscoring the rivalry one final time.
"Oh sure, there's no question," Amato said, when asked whether he is getting better feedback from recruiting targets. "Because the first time we went out, we were begging. And we still beg but we don't sing anymore."
Key Signee Kept Terps Guessing
COLLEGE PARK Maryland's coaches knew all along that they were in a fierce battle with Virginia Tech for the services of prep All-American defensive end Melvin Alaeze.
While more than 50 Division I-A schools offered scholarships to the 6-2, 280-pounder from Randallstown (MD) High, it became obvious early that it would be a two-horse race.
Maryland had several built-in advantages, beginning with the fact that Alaeze comes from a close-knit family that hoped he would attend school in College Park, which is located just 45 minutes from his home. Coach Ralph Friedgen and company gained further momentum in the fall, when Randallstown cornerback Jamari McCollough, Alaeze's best friend, committed to the Terrapins.
Meanwhile, Maryland recruiting coordinator James Franklin made a wise move by utilizing Christian Varner to help the Terps' pitch. Varner, another Randallstown product whom Alaeze looked up to, talked up the program and the school while pointing out how much he played as a true freshman.
Friedgen, Franklin and defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo all had built solid relationships with Alaeze, who attended Maryland's summer camp the past two years. It didn't hurt that the Terrapins were desperately in need of defensive ends and could offer immediate playing time, especially after All-ACC selection Shawne Merriman (a junior) declared for the NFL draft.
Yet on-field results balanced the scales somewhat in favor of Virginia Tech. Maryland suffered through a 5-6 season that snapped its streak of three straight bowl berths. The Hokies went 10-3 and played in the prestigious Sugar Bowl. More notable to many was the fact that Tech absolutely destroyed Maryland in 2004, with the ugly 55-6 margin coming in one of ESPN's nationally televised Thursday night games.
When Alaeze finally gave Maryland a commitment in mid-January, just prior to playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, some supporters of the program acted as if that always had been a foregone conclusion. However, those members of the coaching staff closest to the situation knew just how close the Terps came to losing the big-time prospect, even though he always had been a "heavy lean" in their favor.
"It got a little hairy there for a while," Friedgen admitted on national signing day, when discussing Alaeze's recruitment.
Indeed, after much family discussion, Dinma Alaeze called the Baltimore Sun newspaper and announced that his son had chosen Maryland. However, about an hour later, Dinma Alaeze called back to tell prep reporter Lem Satterfield that Melvin had changed his mind and now intended to sign with Virginia Tech.
The elder Alaeze said he was unhappy with the sudden change of heart and would attempt to persuade his son to stick with his original decision. Lo and behold, Randallstown assistant Evan Murray called the Sun the following morning (Jan. 15) and stated that Alaeze was indeed headed to Maryland.
The Sun ran a huge article, written by Satterfield, on Alaeze the following day. It included a posed photograph of the powerful lineman in a shirt and tie and his family in their native Nigerian dress. All of the various recruiting websites reported the big news, that the nation's No. 4 overall prospect had chosen the Terps.
Yet you can bet that the entire Maryland staff was holding its breath until Alaeze's signed national letter of intent rolled over the fax machine in the Gossett Team House on the afternoon of Feb. 2.
"Alaeze is really the guy who makes or breaks this recruiting class for Maryland," said Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "If you're Miami or Florida State and you miss out on one player, there are going to be other guys to fill his spot. But for a program like Maryland, one that's not quite at that level yet, to lose one of the best players in the country to Virginia Tech would have been a disaster."
That was especially true with Alaeze, considering that Maryland already had lost two other highly rated defenders from its own backyard in recent years. Victor Abiamiri (Notre Dame) and Derrick Harvey (Florida), who both were tabbed the nation's No. 1 defensive end by some services, went elsewhere in successive seasons.
"There's no question," Franklin said, "that Melvin was our No. 1 priority among defensive players."
Maryland decided it had to land Alaeze after watching him throw several highly touted offensive linemen around like rag dolls in a summer camp session. In fact, Alaeze absolutely embarrassed Pennsylvania tackle Dave McClain, who already had committed to the Terps at the time.
"Melvin challenged every offensive lineman in camp and manhandled them all," Sollazzo said. "He's very, very explosive, and his natural strength and speed are impressive. He is by far the best defensive end we've signed since Ralph took over."
McClain need not feel bad for his humbling performance, because Alaeze most recently did something similar to Virginia signee Eugene Monroe. Considered the country's top tackle prospect by many analysts, Monroe couldn't handle Alaeze during the East team's practices prior to the All-American Bowl.
"Monroe came out publicly and said Melvin was the only defensive lineman he had problems blocking," Franklin said. "I think that right there tells you that Melvin has the ability to be an immediate-impact type of player, a real difference-maker."
Maryland fully expects Alaeze to challenge for a starting spot at strong-side defensive end as a true freshman. The Terps lost 2004 starter Kevin Eli to graduation, and they'll enter spring practice with unheralded sophomore Omar Savage battling redshirt freshman Mack Frost for the top spot on the depth chart.
"With our defensive end depth the way it is, Melvin will probably have to play right away," Sollazzo said. "Melvin is still very raw technique-wise, but his physical ability alone should enable him to compete at this level relatively quickly."
ACC Holds Three 2006 Pledges
Even before the ink was dry from national signing day for members of the Class of 2005, more than 30 high school juniors already had announced their college choices, including at least three prospects who plan to join ACC programs.
Jupiter (FL) High PK Matt Bosher, rated by Scout.com the No. 1 kicker in the nation (all classes), committed to childhood favorite Miami on Jan. 31. As a junior, he connected on nine of 11 field goal attempts, with a long of 48 yards, and booted 42 of 59 kickoffs into the end zone. In practice, he has converted field goals from 65 yards out. Also a punter, he averaged more than 42 yards at a combine event held at the Orange Bowl in January. His teammate at Jupiter, senior defensive end Courtney Harris, signed with UM on Feb. 2.
A first-team all-area selection in 2004, Bosher (6-0, 175) received a written scholarship offer from the Hurricanes in late January. He's being called by some the best kicker to come out of South Florida since former West Palm Beach (FL) Cardinal Newman PK John Carney, who played at Notre Dame in the mid-1980s and has gone on to a 17-year NFL career. Bosher's personal coach, Mike McCabe of One On One Kicking, also tutors Miami punter Brian Monroe. Bosher has a 3.3 GPA but has not yet taken the ACT or SAT.
Previously, Forestville (MD) High OL Antonio Logan-El (6-4, 305) chose Maryland, and Raleigh (NC) Wakefield OL/DT Gavin Smith (6-4, 275) picked N.C. State. Both prospects committed in the summer of 2004, prior to the start of their junior seasons.
Looking ahead, among the most prominent members of the Class of 2006 from the ACC area are Stone Mountain (GA) Stephenson LB Marcus Ball, Hemingway (SC) Carvers Bay DE Clifton Geathers, Virginia Beach (VA) Landstown WR Percy Harvin, Oviedo (FL) High DT Corey Hobbs, Jacksonville (FL) Sandalwood WR/DB Jamar Hornsby, Durham (NC) Southern OL Carl Johnson, Tallahassee (FL) Godby DB D'Andre McDaniel, Lake Butler (FL) Union County RB/DB C.J. Spiller, Tampa (FL) Hillsborough DT Leslie Stirrups, St. Augustine (FL) Nease QB Tim Tebow, Indian Head (MD) Lackey OL J.B. Walton, Folkston (GA) Charlton County WR Justin Williams and Ft. Lauderdale (FL) St. Thomas Aquinas OL Sam Young.