By Joseph Person
Columbia (S.C.) State
February 20, 2007
COLUMBIA Steve Spurrier always got a chuckle out of the critics who said the Ol' Ball Coach couldn't recruit while he was at Florida.
Spurrier said some of those same critics also claimed that the only reason he won in Gainesville was the Gators' superior talent level.
But with his third recruiting class at South Carolina, Spurrier silenced the alleged experts (read: Lee Corso) who believed that the future Hall of Fame coach would have a hard time attracting top-drawer talent to Columbia.
With first-year recruiting coordinator David Reaves leading the way, Spurrier and his staff brought in a 31-player class that ranked as the best in school history and in the top 10 nationally. In so doing, the former Duke coach served notice to ACC recruiters in South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia that they'd better protect their borders.
Amid coaching changes at UNC and N.C. State, Spurrier was able to pull eight players out of North Carolina, the Gamecocks' biggest haul from their neighboring state since Joe Morrison signed five North Carolinians in 1986.
Without mentioning Spurrier by name, new UNC coach Butch Davis and new N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien both insisted on signing day that they will improve their in-state efforts in the future, with the benefit of full recruiting cycles rather than the dreaded complications of postseason coaching changes.
"(UNC's 2007 class, with 10 in-state signees) is not reflective for how we'd like each class to go," Davis said. "We want to make North Carolina a major emphasis in recruiting."
"We only had three weeks (to recruit for the Wolfpack)," O'Brien said. "A lot of the top players in the state had already been committed somewhere else or had ideas where or what they were doing and didn't include North Carolina State in their plans."
South Carolina plucked many of those top players out of the Tar Heel State in the Class of 2007, including Garner receiver Chris Culliver (who drew interest from Clemson, Florida State, N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest), Durham tight end Wes Saunders (UNC, Wake, FSU, Clemson), Charlotte receiver Jason Barnes (UNC) and Laurinburg defensive lineman Travian Robertson (Clemson, UNC, NCSU, Virginia Tech). In most cases, the players had scholarship offers from each of the ACC schools listed by their names.
Acknowledging that North Carolina is a basketball-first state, Spurrier tried to sell Culliver and Co. on the idea of playing in sold-out SEC stadiums (Vanderbilt notwithstanding) in front of some of the country's most rabid fans.
Spurrier said his recruiters also benefited from having three years to cultivate relationships with high school coaches in ACC country.
"This is our third class here, and most of our coaches have been here (for that time) and have built a base area," Spurrier said. "Our coaches have been out to the same high schools around South Carolina, Florida and a new state. North Carolina came in this year, and Georgia also."
Tapping into his contacts built during a wildly successful 12-year stint in Gainesville, Spurrier signed 13 recruits from the talent-rich state of Florida. The Gamecocks had a total of 12 Floridians in Spurrier's first two South Carolina recruiting classes.
Among the Gamecocks' 13 signees from Florida were 10 ranked among the state's top 100 prospects by Rivals.com. Not surprisingly, South Carolina beat ACC schools for the services of Tampa quarterback Stephen Garcia (Boston College), Jacksonville defensive back Jamire Williams (Georgia Tech, N.C. State), Hollywood defensive back Akeem Auguste (Virginia, Wake Forest) and Fort Myers tight end Mat Williams (Duke, Wake Forest).
After hitting the Atlanta area hard during Spurrier's first two years at South Carolina, the Gamecocks landed just two Atlanta area natives among their three Georgia signees: defensive tackle Olufemi "Ladi" Ajiboye, by way of Hargrave Military Academy, and defensive back Addison Williams, who was recruited by the hometown Yellow Jackets.
Ajiboye actually signed with Virginia Tech last year and re-committed to the Hokies after failing to qualify academically, before changing his mind in favor of the Gamecocks and then signing with USC on Feb. 7. Interestingly, he had committed to play for Spurrier as a high school senior, before changing his mind and signing in 2006 to play for the Hokies.
It was obvious that Spurrier noticed the dropoff in Atlanta players from past years. Shortly after announcing Shane Beamer (yes, Frank's son) as his new outside linebackers coach, Spurrier said Beamer would help recruit Atlanta, an area he knows well from his season as a Georgia Tech graduate assistant and the years he recruited the city for Mississippi State.
South Carolina signed seven in-state players, several of whom were heavily recruited: Cheraw defensive end Cliff Matthews (Clemson, FSU, UNC, Virginia Tech), Anderson tailback Brian Maddox (Clemson, Maryland, FSU, Georgia Tech, UNC, Virginia Tech) and Columbia offensive lineman Quintin Richardson (Clemson, Maryland, UNC, NCSU).
The Gamecocks missed out on two of the state's top prospects when Fort Dorchester defensive end Carlos Dunlap chose Florida and Richland Northeast cornerback Gary Gray de-committed from the Gamecocks and went to Notre Dame. The loss of Gray was particularly painful, because the local prospect had promised to try to recruit other players to South Carolina.
It proved to be a temporary setback. Shortly after Gray's reversal, Richardson committed to the Gamecocks. Commitments from Maddox and Matthews followed.
"(Gray) was at that time the top corner in the state of South Carolina, and he gave us a lot of good publicity right off the bat," Reaves said. "We were able to get our name out there quickly, and then some guys started committing to us. Now we're filled with some defensive backs that can really play."
Spurrier said the Gamecocks' recruiting gained momentum following their 31-28 win at Clemson. It was South Carolina's first victory over Clemson in five years.
"Since that game, good things have happened to us," Spurrier said. "I hope we can look back and say that was the breakthrough game that changed Carolina football, maybe forever."
Spurrier cited three other reasons for the recruiting success: the atmosphere at Williams-Brice Stadium during nationally televised games (all losses) against Auburn, Tennessee and Arkansas; the strong turnout by South Carolina fans for the Gamecocks' victory against Houston at the Liberty Bowl; and the ability to show prospects drawings of the athletic department's $195 million facilities plan, which calls for the expansion of Williams-Brice and a new academic enrichment center.
"The biggest reason we were able to put this together was because of the crowd noise, what our fans do, at the home football games," Spurrier said. "Even though we lost to Tennessee, Auburn (and) Arkansas at home here, I think the atmosphere that was shown on television was as good as about anywhere in the nation in big-time college football.
"I think recruits were out there and able to say, I can play as big a time as there is right now at South Carolina, and maybe that team needs a few more ball players to get over the hump to where they can win the SEC.'"
The strengths of South Carolina's class are the incoming receivers, defensive backs and defensive linemen. Sidney Rice's early exit for the NFL will give several of the first-year receivers a chance to play immediately.
"They knew we lost Sidney. Kenny McKinley's about the only other player that's caught a lot of passes," Spurrier said. "So the receivers all felt like that was an opportunity to play in the SEC."
Barnes (6-3, 203) and Joseph Hills (6-4, 194) are built much like Rice (6-4, 202), who made a living on goal-line fade routes in Spurrier's offense.
Culliver, whose position coach at Garner is in the running for a job as a graduate assistant at South Carolina, said the Gamecocks were one of the few teams to recruit him as a receiver. The 6-1, 194-pounder played mostly running back and caught only two passes as a senior, and most colleges projected him as a defensive back.
"Chris Culliver's a very fast player," Spurrier said. "He's going to need some training. He's not played a whole lot of wide receiver."
Culliver, who reportedly has been timed at 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash, also will get a chance to help the Gamecocks' return teams, which have struggled under Spurrier.
Looking ahead, there are no signs that the Gamecocks will go away when it comes to recruiting. The 28-year-old Reaves interviewed for a position with his brother-in-law, new Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, before receiving a promotion (to full-time quarterbacks coach) and a raise to remain in Columbia.
Meanwhile, former Duke assistant Fred Chatham landed all seven of the players he recruited, including six from North Carolina.
"Freddy Chatham got everybody he went after. I don't think he missed on anybody," Spurrier said. "He's been recruiting for Duke, so he's in heaven here."
Former UNC assistant Brad Lawing recruited North Carolina with Chatham. But Lawing was restricted from leaving campus in December and January, the penalty for calling Robertson's father last summer during a dead period.
Like Reaves, the 29-year-old Beamer will bring a lot of youthful energy to the Gamecocks' recruiting efforts. Beamer, Mississippi State's recruiting coordinator for part of his three-year tenure in Starkville, had a great line when asked about recruiting against his father.
"That's part of it. I've got some skeletons in the closet I can probably pull out if I have to and do whatever I need to," Beamer said. "When they were in the Big East, they didn't recruit in this region quite as much. But now that they're in the ACC, they get down into Georgia and South Carolina and North Carolina quite a bit. I know South Carolina's competing against them, and I don't expect that to change now that I'm here."
As for Spurrier, who will turn 62 in April, the avid golfer still enjoys getting out on the links when the weather is nice and his schedule allows it.
But he insists that his reputation as an indifferent recruiter at Florida was overblown. A few more recruiting seasons like this one, and his critics might finally believe him.
"It is sort of neat to see our name in there with Texas and Southern Cal and Florida and Notre Dame," Spurrier said. "A friend of mine said, I didn't think I'd ever see South Carolina's name with that group when it came to recruiting.' But that's where we are."
If it continues, that can't be good news for the ACC.