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Early Offers, Hard Work, New Coaches Led To Carolina Surprise

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
February 24, 2003 CHAPEL HILL — There aren't many examples, in the last few decades of ACC football, of a team bringing in a consensus top-15 recruiting class on the heels of a bottom-three conference finish on the field. For obvious reasons, it just doesn't happen very often. Virginia did it with the top-ranked (consensus top-10) class in school history in February 2002, after going 5-7 the previous fall, and everyone knows how well that impressive talent infusion worked out for the Cavaliers last season. The only other extreme example in the past decade was Georgia Tech in 1995, when recently elevated (late in the 1994 season) coach George O'Leary somehow landed a top-25 group (including future all-stars in quarterback Joe Hamilton, return ace Charlie Rogers, defensive end Jesse Tarplin and punter Rodney Williams) in the aftermath of Bill Lewis' 1-10 disaster. By 1998, the Yellow Jackets were 10-2 and rated in the top 10 nationally.

There are no guarantees that the future holds similarly great things for North Carolina, but third-year coach John Bunting and his rebuilt staff deserve an enormous amount of credit for reeling in a top-15 class this year after suffering through an ugly 3-9 campaign in 2002. That the Heels pulled off such a rare feat under such trying circumstances was impressive. How they did it was even more remarkable.

“The day after national signing day (last year), we all looked at one another and said, ‘We weren't good enough,'” Bunting said. “So we re-evaluated everything we did. Each staff member was required to present me with a full report with how he thought recruiting went, how could we work ways to improve it.”

Bunting emphasized on signing day that UNC's existing recruiting plan wasn't thrown out entirely — he remains adamant that his 2002 signing class, generally rated outside the top 40 nationally, will prove to be a very good one — but he readily admitted that many changes were made. Some were obvious to the naked eye. Others were not.

Perhaps the most visible alterations were on Bunting's staff, and all of them reflected the coach's increased emphasis on the importance of recruiting. Last year, UNC had only two assistants who are generally regarded as outstanding recruiters, tight ends coach Ken Browning and receivers coach Gunter Brewer. (See last edition.) This year, the Heels had four for the entire recruiting cycle — Browning, Brewer, secondary coach Jim Fleming and offensive line coach Hal Hunter — and a fifth, defensive tackles coach Brad Lawing, for the home stretch. Browning, Fleming and Hunter, in particular, were instrumental this year.

Fleming and Lawing replaced former UNC assistants Jon Tenuta and Rod Broadway, respectively, and the departure of the latter two coaches tells you everything you need to know about Bunting's renewed emphasis on recruiting. Both were pure Bunting hires, rather than holdovers from the Carl Torbush staff, so many observers were surprised at their relatively quick exits.

Tenuta, an outstanding defensive coordinator (he directed the Heels' ACC-leading defense in 2001) by all accounts, reportedly was encouraged to look for another job (he's now at Georgia Tech) last spring after he repeatedly showed a distaste for recruiting. According to sources, he disliked the plentiful phone calls, occasionally alienated high-profile defensive prospects on their official visits and even expressed disrespect for any college football environment that didn't fit his definition of “big-time.” He recently interviewed for a job at Nebraska and repeatedly seeks NFL positions but remains at Tech Ö for now, at least.

The dismissal of Broadway a year later was an even bigger surprise to outsiders. He was a UNC alum who left an excellent job at powerhouse Florida to become a charter member of Bunting's coaching lineup in 2001. He also was one of only three African-American assistants on staff. But Broadway alienated at least one (Isaac Montgomery, who transferred) of his players, failed to develop several others and wasn't known as a particularly hard-working recruiter. Most importantly, perhaps, he was asleep at the switch as two jaw-dropping prospects in his eastern North Carolina recruiting territory — Wilmington safety Willie Davis (Virginia) and Richlands defensive end Mario Williams (NCSU) — made very early commitments to other ACC schools over the past two years.

With the additions of Fleming and Lawing, UNC has at least five recruiters who have proven connections and/or success in at least part of their assigned territories — Browning (in-state, Tidewater Virginia), Brewer (in-state, Georgia, Florida), Fleming (New Jersey, jucos), Hunter (in-state, Florida) and Lawing (in-state, Florida). Even defensive ends coach James Webster, not previously known as a standout recruiter, went into Tennessee this year and signed two prep All-Americans who had scholarship offers from the Volunteers.

“I've learned some things about coaches,” Bunting said. “Every job is different, and our jobs here are very special. All of us have to be good recruiters, we have to be teachers, we have to be hard workers and we have to want to be here and have an investment in the long haul. We have to understand and respect all of the great things this great university stands for, and we have to do a good job of selling those things. We're doing that now.”

A less obvious factor in Carolina's 2002-03 success involved the positive participation of current UNC players. While the coaches and their support staff do 99 percent of the recruiting from the time a prospect is identified through the time he arrives on his official (school-sponsored) visit, many players take on extremely important roles during those 48 action-packed hours on campus. Every recruit has at least one player-host, and the pair inevitably spend a significant amount of their time together — usually on the social scene, late at night — away from the eyes and ears of the coaches.

While this prospect-player connection has been a huge factor in the recruiting success of N.C. State, Virginia and others in recent years, there have been a few reports of catastrophes at UNC, Florida State and elsewhere. Sometimes all it takes is one player bad-mouthing one coach, or complaining about playing time or weight-room responsibilities, for a prospect to go home with a negative impression (accurate or not) of the program.

In particular, rising senior safety Dexter Reid earned rave reviews from prospects and coaches alike for his extra efforts on recruiting weekends. Here's a guy who was arguably good enough to consider early NFL entry this spring (he's staying), who has had his share of run-ins with the coaching staff, and who will be long gone by the time most of UNC's 2003 signees are playing their best football. Nevertheless, he was a behind-the-scenes superstar — directing late-night social activities, making recruits feel comfortable and talking up the future of the program.

“You could tell (Reid's) like the main man down there,” linebacker signee Kory Gedin said. Gedin's host was tailback Rikki Cook, but they spent a lot of time with Reid. “It was important to me to hear so many good things from a guy who's been there for so long. Those guys know better than anyone else what it's really like. I already liked everything about (UNC), but hearing it from them helped seal the deal.”

Gedin, a consensus All-American linebacker from D.C., also represented perhaps the most important tactical change in Bunting's plan from the 2001-02 recruiting cycle to 2002-03. The Tar Heels did a much better job of handling their top out-of-state priorities the same way they've traditionally handled their prominent in-state targets: identifying them very early, offering scholarships very early, scheduling visits as soon as possible and maxing out the letters and phone calls along the way. In the end, this approach — it often builds loyalty that's invaluable come February — proved vitally important on numerous prospects.

Bunting has such a deep and obvious love for UNC that he may not have fully appreciated one of the harsh realities of the recruiting trail: The overwhelming majority of prep All-Americans, especially those in other states, have preconceived notions of Carolina football that look nothing like Bunting's. Maybe they like the school's colors. Perhaps they admire the basketball team. Maybe they even remember Lawrence Taylor, or the shocking upset of Florida State, or the Peach Bowl win over Auburn. But, at the beginning, they're not exactly tripping over each other to sign with UNC.

Why does that matter? Consider this very reliable recruiting rule of thumb, which applies to most out-of-state players and anyone else who didn't grow up dreaming of playing for your school: If a target is down to just a few choices, and you are lower in the current college football pecking order than your competition, you're extremely unlikely to win out on signing day unless you've somehow built up some incredibly strong loyalty and/or personal connection along the way.

All things being equal, there is absolutely no way Florida linebacker Larry Edwards picks UNC over scholarship offers from childhood favorite Florida and recruiting superpower LSU. There is no way juco All-American cornerback Lionell Green chooses the Tar Heels over Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, home-state Texas Tech and dozens of other offers. There is no way a pair of prep All-Americans from Tennessee, receiver Adarius Bowman and linebacker Fred Sparkman, opt for Carolina over the Vols. In every case, the Tar Heels made a very early scholarship offer, as they did with Gedin, New Jersey quarterback Nick Cangelosi, Virginia tight end Jon Hamlett, Florida quarterback Roger Heinz, New Jersey linebacker Joe Kedra, Georgia defensive tackle Scott Lenahan and all of their in-state signees.

Or take the case of Florida defensive tackle Donnell Livingston. He wasn't a prep All-American, but he was an honorable mention all-state pick in the Sunshine State's largest classification, and he's a good athlete who easily will develop into a legitimate 300-pounder. In the end, he selected UNC over Florida State, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska and NCSU. It was in the beginning, however, that Carolina left a lasting impression.

On the first day it was permissible under NCAA rules, Livingston's first official scholarship offer arrived in the mail — from UNC. At the time, he listed two early leaders: childhood favorite Miami Ö and UNC. He later accepted an invitation to the Tar Heels' 2002 summer camp, got to know the coaches a little better and fell in love with Chapel Hill during his stay. As the recruiting process unfolded, the mighty Hurricanes dropped out but numerous other major programs came forward. His romance with Carolina hit a bump when his position coach (Broadway) was fired, but his primary recruiter (Hunter) never changed and Lawing — who had recruited Livingston while an assistant at Michigan State — helped seal the deal on an in-home visit.

“It was everything,” Livingston said. “(UNC) definitely recruited me the hardest, and I felt like I could trust them. They came down to my games. They talked with my mom on the phone. They talked about school, too, and not everybody did that. They made it clear that they really wanted me, and that never changed. Everybody came on strong at the end, but (UNC was) with me from the start.

“I had a better relationship with Coach Bunting than any other head coach. We could talk about anything. He's just a great guy, real easy to talk to, and he knows what it takes to get to the NFL. I also felt more comfortable around the coaches and players than I did anywhere else. I just fit in well. I loved Chapel Hill, I think I can play early there, and it's a great school. It was just the perfect combination for me.”

The early bird also gobbled up Sparkman, an excellent student who eliminated home-state Tennessee at the beginning of the recruiting process. Among his five finalists — Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, South Carolina and UNC — only the Gamecocks and Tar Heels extended early scholarship offers. (The others offered later.) He also accepted an invitation to Carolina's 2002 summer camp and enjoyed his exposure to the coaches and Chapel Hill. Another factor: He said he supplemented the academic information provided by all of his recruiters with some research of his own, which ultimately helped him narrow the field to Michigan and UNC.

“UNC is one of the best academic schools in the nation,” Sparkman said. “That's the main reason I picked them.”

Edwards was the best example of all. He didn't make any All-America lists, but UNC coaches had him rated higher on their recruiting board than the three prep All-American linebackers they signed. A first-team all-state selection in Class 5A, Florida's second-largest classification, Edwards got his first offer from the Tar Heels. He later received an offer from Iowa as a tailback and also visited national heavyweights Florida, LSU and Nebraska. The Gators, his long-time favorite, finally came through with their offer in late January, but by then his heart was somewhere else.

“North Carolina showed me a lot of love,” Edwards said. “Coach Bunting made me feel like his No. 1 priority, and I like the idea of being coached by a guy who has been successful in the NFL. It will be an honor to play for him. I liked the other coaches and the players, too, and everybody seemed very tight-knit. They recruited me harder and longer than anyone else, and they made me feel at home. It's also just a great school and a great college town. The academic situation was very important to me.”

Along with the earlier timetable, the most significant change in UNC's recruiting plan was a basic technological advance that made the whole scheme simpler to implement in a successful manner. Basically, the coaches streamlined the way they gathered, recorded and shared details about individual prospects. Every time a coach spoke with a recruit or another family member, he entered updates — family information, athletic developments, favorite classes, musical tastes, girlfriend's name, whatever — into the recruit's evolving computer file. The next time someone called the same player, he had a wide range of fresh information available to work into the conversation.

“It took that full year for me to appreciate just how time-consuming, just how important every single detail is in terms of having the best opportunity to recruit the best players,” Bunting said. “We as a staff were not as thorough as we are right now in terms of evaluation and, more importantly, getting us all on the same page in the appropriate time frame. We're much more organized this time.”

While he had plenty of help, Bunting clearly spearheaded UNC's renewed emphasis on recruiting. He made it crystal-clear with his hiring and firing decisions, but he also took the lead himself.

Last summer, while vacationing with his family in Maine for a few weeks, Bunting took the time to write about 70 letters to prospects. Earlier, he led clinics for prep coaches in several cities around North Carolina. Between 2002 signing day and the opening of preseason camp, he made sure every high school coach in the state received a visit from at least one representative of the staff. Last fall, he wanted to make as many recruiting calls as he possibly could on his own, a development several signees mentioned with surprise in subsequent interviews. (Most prospects hear much more often from assistants.) He even surprised one incoming prospect by picking him up at the airport himself, a task traditionally reserved for someone about a dozen notches down the totem pole.

One prominent in-state player UNC didn't sign, defensive back Carlos Washington of prep powerhouse Shelby Crest, suffered two broken legs in a car accident and missed his senior season. Although no longer a candidate for scholarship offers, Washington continued to receive mail from all of the Division I-A programs in the state as well as a few others. He also received a few phone calls, wishing him well in his recovery.

“John Bunting called twice,” Crest coach Roy Kirby said. “I was very impressed by that, because I know how crazy things can get for the coaches at these schools. I know Carlos really appreciated it, too.”

Dozens of other factors impacted the Tar Heels' 2003 class in positive ways. In-state wide receiver Mike Mason, a charismatic prep All-American from Rocky Mount, committed to UNC very early, then served as a world-class recruiter the rest of the way. Heinz, the Florida quarterback known for his leadership skills, already was committed when he decided to offer a passionate pro-Carolina sales pitch to the uncommitted prospects who were in Chapel Hill on the same weekend as his official visit. Cangelosi, another very early decision-maker, helped recruit Kedra, his high school teammate. Unlike in recent years, a “placed” prospect — in this case New Jersey defensive end and 2002 signee Melik Brown, at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia — never even glanced at other schools. The arrival of another military school signee, defensive back Kareen Taylor of Fork Union, suggested that a recently fragile relationship at that school may be mended.

On official visits, unlike last year, every single prospect met every single assistant coach. Recruits spent less time in the polished, marble-floored Carolina Inn and more time in off-campus hot spots such as Spanky's and Bailey's. Lunch often took place at the Bunting household. Sometimes, every coach and their wives were on hand for dinner. Everyone still had plenty of time devoted to the academic side of things, but this year those information sessions and accompanying meals often included personal appearances from prominent faculty members. In the case of Holley, who hopes to also play basketball at UNC, a surprise visit from Dean Smith certainly had an impact.

Yes, it all came together quite well for the Tar Heels in 2003. So well, in fact, that one had to wonder whether or not Livingston was serious when he uttered one of his published comments about the many things that attracted him to UNC.

“Yeah, that's true,” Livingston said with a laugh. “Coach Bunting and I both like ice cream and peanut butter. I thought I was the only one. How many coaches can you talk about food with?”

Ice cream and peanut butter probably weren't mentioned a year ago, when the disappointed UNC coaches discussed ways to improve their recruiting plan. As for those changes that were discussed and implemented, they seemed to work quite well.