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Ncsu Thrived On Hard Work, Relationships

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

By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
February 24, 2003 RALEIGH — Ed Heppe always had assumed that his son, Kalani, would attend Virginia. After all, it was 50 miles from the family house, and Kalani, a star offensive lineman, had developed an excellent relationship with UVa coach Al Groh and then-offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. But when Kalani Heppe traveled to Raleigh to visit the N.C. State campus during last year's spring game, everything changed. And it changed very quickly.

“Kalani walked into the football offices and just knew that N.C. State was where he wanted to go,” Ed Heppe said. “One-and-a-half years of advanced flirting with Virginia, and he never got that same feeling he got in 10 minutes from N.C. State.”

Twenty-seven other recruits got that same feeling about N.C. State this year, for a variety of reasons. In the end, those reasons added up to give the Wolfpack the best class in the ACC and arguably the best in school history.

“Without a doubt, it's the best recruiting class we've had since I've been here, and we've had a couple of good ones,” NCSU coach Chuck Amato said on signing day. “I'll guarantee it's probably the best one that's been had at this university, period.”

Amato, coming off his third season as the head coach at his alma mater after 18 years as an assistant at Florida State, knows the recruiting trail as well as anyone in college football. He understands the importance of a well-connected, hard-working, personable staff, so he went out and built one. He appreciates the necessity of a positive family atmosphere within the program, and the impact it can have on potential recruits, so he does everything he can to cultivate one. And Amato knows sales. He definitely knows sales.

“We give them every reason we can think of to want to come to (N.C. State),” Amato said. “That's part of the job. We have a lot of good things going on here, and we want everybody to know about it. (Prospects) all have different ideas, they're all looking for something different. We show everything we have to offer. Whatever they like, they like.”

Amato, a charismatic guy who's often willing to say whatever's on his mind, relates well to most recruits and their parents. (“Some of the players called him Chuck when they were talking to him,” one signee said. “I thought that was pretty cool.”) He also has incredibly strong, decades-long relationships with dozens of high school coaches in Florida and a bunch of others in the junior college ranks. Since his arrival in Raleigh, he's worked hard to build a network in North Carolina as well.

As Amato assembled his staff at NCSU, he looked for those same qualities — some personality, along with a tireless work ethic and/or strong connections — in potential assistants. The result? One of his first hires in 2000 was Doc Holliday (45), who successfully recruited talent-rich Florida (often head-to-head against Amato) for 18 years while an assistant at West Virginia. Three others on staff are young, personable guys who relate well to 18-year-olds and have a reputation for working incredibly long hours: recruiting coordinator Curt Cignetti (41), defensive backs coach Chris Demarest (37) and linebackers coach Manny Diaz (28). Demarest and Diaz previously worked with Amato at Florida State.

In various pre- and post-signing day interviews, numerous NCSU signees specified their relationships with one or more Wolfpack assistants as a significant factor in their decisions. Holliday, in particular, gets as many positive mentions from recruits as any coach in the entire ACC.

Like Amato, his assistants are very good salesmen. They sell Philip Rivers, their Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. They sell the Pack's exciting style of play — the wild formations and creative trick plays on offense, the multiple blitzes and relentless aggression on defense. They sell the team's school-record 11-win season, which was capped off with consecutive victories over Florida State and Notre Dame. They sell the new and improving facilities at Carter-Finley Stadium. Recruits gobble it all up and, again like Amato, often talk of even bigger things.

When Amato was hired at N.C. State, he boldly proclaimed that his goal was a national championship. Those comments generally were dismissed at the time as coach-speak, things every new coach says at his first press conference. Three years later, though, Amato's comments generate as many confident nods as they do doubtful smirks.

Miami linebacker Stephen Tulloch, another 2003 signee, said the belief that the Wolfpack would win a national championship was paramount in his decision to sign with NCSU. Defensive end Mario Williams, an in-state All-American from Richlands High, told the audience of Fox Sports Net's “Countdown To Signing Day” TV show that he was going to win a national championship at N.C. State.

Amato and his staff understand that there is no single way to recruit a prospect. Like water poured into a vase, the Wolfpack's sales pitch takes the shape of the container being recruited. Whether it is selling a family-type atmosphere, early playing time, the academic strengths of the university, the Pack's wide-open style of play or the dream of a national championship, Amato's staff continues to strike a chord in the hearts of the nation's elite prospects.

Over two years ago, N.C. State first got a glimpse of quarterback Marcus Stone's abilities while recruiting wide receiver Fred Lee at Bishop McDevitt High School in Pennsylvania. (Lee ended up at Virginia Tech.) Wolfpack coaches later elevated Stone to the top of their Class of 2003 recruiting board and pictured him as a potential successor to Rivers. As is often the case with top prospects, the Pack had plenty of competition. Michigan and Tennessee were among the other schools that made Stone an early priority.

Last spring, realizing the importance of the prospect and the reality of the difficult challenge to land him, Amato made one of his classic moves. The coach personally made a trip to Harrisburg to introduce himself to Stone's coach, Bishop McDevitt coach Jeff Weachter, who said it was the first time in his career that a head coach traveled that far to meet him in person so early in a prospect's recruiting process. At the time, Stone was still a high school junior.

Months earlier, on Sept. 1, 2001, Stone had received a Federal Express package from the Wolfpack with an official scholarship offer inside. Under NCAA rules, it was the first day coaches were allowed to make such an offer. All of the early attention ultimately paid off, as Stone gave Amato a commitment before his senior season.

“They were the first to offer (Stone) a scholarship,” Weachter said. “I knew Curt Cignetti, their recruiting coordinator, and he started calling me every two weeks. Marcus went down to N.C. State's (2002) spring game and liked it there. Curt told me Marcus was No. 1 on their quarterbacks board.”

Being the first in line paid off several times for the Wolfpack. Early commitments from Heppe, Stone, Williams, offensive lineman Yomi Ojo, linebacker Ernest Jones and athlete Chris Hawkins gave N.C. State a solid foundation and tangible evidence that its strategy was working. Jones and Hawkins, both regarded among the top dozen prospects in North Carolina by various services, were teammates at Southern Vance in nearby Henderson.

For Hawkins, a versatile skill player with the ability to be productive at several positions, the opportunity to be a part of a wide-open offense was as exciting as the early attention. Even the commitment from Stone, a prep All-American, never gave him a moment's pause. The Wolfpack coaches assured Hawkins that not only would he be given the opportunity to compete for playing time as a quarterback, but that they had a plan to use him in much the same way they used Olin Hannum. Listed as a quarterback on the roster, Hannum also was a wide receiver, trick-play artist and special-teams ace from Amato's first two squads in Raleigh.

“They want him to line up at quarterback nine or 10 times a game, at wide receiver for seven or eight plays and maybe even at tailback,” Southern Vance coach Mark Perry said. “They can do a lot of things with him, and he's excited about that.”

Giving N.C. State an even bigger advantage was the relationship Amato's staff developed with Hawkins and his mother, Veronica. Recruiting the family can be as important as making a positive impression on the player. For Veronica and Chris Hawkins, the effort made their decision much easier.

“There was a definite feeling that they were a part of your family, and you were joining their family,” Veronica Hawkins said. “They made you feel right at home immediately. There were no attitudes or egos. We met with them and, immediately, there was a good connection. They felt like people we've known all of our lives.”

While a creative style of play captured the eyes of some recruits, others found their NCSU connections in different places. For Ojo, a massive blocker from the same Southeast Raleigh program that produced Wolfpack defensive tackle Leroy Harris, academics and the proximity to campus were the staff's top selling points.

“State is the perfect fit for Yomi,” Southeast Raleigh coach Chad O'Shea said. “He likes being close to home. He is interested in engineering and robotics. We are a math-science magnet school, and he is on First Team, which designed, built and implemented a robot. They compete in robotics. Academics were a big part of his decision.”

Veronica Hawkins said the emphasis placed on academics by the N.C. State coaches eased her mind. While her son's athletic abilities set him apart in the eyes of prospective colleges, academics were going to be the long-term future.

“It was always stressed that Chris was going to be a student first and then an athlete,” she said. “They told us how you could talk with the advisors, academic support teams and tutors. Anything a student would need, it would be there for you. If a student didn't take advantage, that was his fault.”

That proximity factor helped attract Hawkins' teammate, Ernest Jones, as well. A fan of UCLA growing up, Jones realized it would be difficult for his family to see many of his games if he chose the Bruins or another distant program.

“N.C. State is about 47 miles away,” Perry said. “His mother can see him play all of his home games, and he can check on her and make sure she's all right.”

As with Hawkins, the family atmosphere and the apparent chemistry between the N.C. State players played an important role with Jones. Perry said Jones was pleased with the progress the Wolfpack program was making on the field, but he was most impressed by the relationships the players had with the coaches and with their fellow teammates.

A similar pitch landed the Pack rangy in-state defensive end Chad Green, from Northern Nash High School.

“I just think (Green) liked Coach Amato,” Northern Nash coach Jim Brett said. “He's recruiting speed, and Chad is fast. Also, we're only an hour away from State, so his parents can get there and see him play. He didn't want to be too far from home.”

The N.C. State coaches and players weren't the only ones helping with recruiting. Families traveling with the players often were hosted by the wives of the Wolfpack coaches, in order to answer questions and to make them feel more at home.

“We never felt like we were losing Kalani,” Ed Heppe said. “We felt like we were gaining a bigger family. The wives were all very involved in what their husbands do, and you never got the sense that someone like Peggy Amato was Chuck Amato's wife. She was just a friendly lady from North Carolina that would be looking out for your son. That feeling the players all got, that feeling that they belonged and that they were right at home, was a big reason State had such a great class.”

Terps: (Most) Relationships Better

COLLEGE PARK — A big part of rebuilding a losing program involves breaking down barriers and changing perceptions. That process has been gradual for Maryland football, especially when it comes to local recruiting.

For years, most of the top prospects in the Maryland-D.C-Northern Virginia region wouldn't give the Terrapins the time of day. It was understandable, considering the state of the program from the late 1980s through the turn of the century. In many respects, it was more difficult for Maryland to recruit locally than far away, because area coaches had a front-row seat as the Terps stumbled and bumbled their way to losing season after losing season.

Think about it: If you were head coach at a nearby high school and had a once-in-a-lifetime prospect come through your program, would you encourage him to play collegiately for a school that didn't appear likely to have much success during his career? That basically was the attitude of local coaches, who routinely steered Division I-A recruits toward more established programs (at the time) such as Penn State, Notre Dame and North Carolina.

When Mark Duffner arrived in College Park in 1992, he took note of Maryland's dismal record on the local recruiting scene and didn't even bother beating his head against the wall. After arriving from Holy Cross, he and his staff focused their efforts on New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — states in which they had more familiarity and better contacts.

Ron Vanderlinden replaced Duffner in 1997 and was determined to reclaim the regional recruiting turf. At his opening press conference, Vandy announced that his staff would vigorously pursue the top prospects in the Maryland-D.C.-Northern Virginia area because that was the proper way to rebuild a program.

“I think the first thing you have to do to be successful at any school is to control the immediate area,” Vanderlinden said. “We need to dominate Maryland, Northern Virginia and D.C. We need to get into Philly. We need to throw a net over everything within a two-hour drive.”

Vanderlinden's philosophy wasn't just lip service. He and recruiting coordinator Mike Locksley worked incredibly hard to rebuild broken relationships with local high school coaches, holding clinics and visiting schools at a record rate. It was a grass-roots effort that ultimately paid dividends.

There was some initial frustration, as the Terps missed on numerous key targets early in Vandy's tenure. Cato June (Michigan), Julian Peterson (Michigan State), John Day-Owens (Notre Dame), Blake Henry (Northwestern/Wake Forest), Zach Hilton (UNC), Drew Wimsatt (Northwestern/NCSU), Gerald Dixon (Alabama), Darnell Dockett (Florida State), Bryant Johnson (Penn State), Derek Wake (Penn State) and Zack Mills (Penn State) were among the many notable Maryland and D.C. products who turned a deaf ear to the home team's pitch from 1997-99.

Yet the relationships the Terps built via the staff's increased presence around the region, and the increased emphasis on getting promising area prospects to attend Maryland's summer camp as freshmen and sophomores, began to bear fruit. The program gradually suffered fewer and fewer in-state losses, while landing more and more prep All-Americans from the immediate area. Vandy's pledge to make local recruiting a priority, coupled with a determined effort to accomplish that objective, is still paying off today — long after the coach's departure, which followed the 2000 season.

With Ralph Friedgen embracing and furthering Vandy's home-turf philosophy, the Terrapins recently landed what was arguably the greatest local haul in program history. In-state linebacker Wesley Jefferson — one of the ACC's top 2003 signees at any position — and D.C. receiver Vernon Davis were the most decorated prep All-Americans in the group. Other local signees who received some national recognition were quarterback Ryan Mitch of in-state powerhouse DeMatha, explosive Baltimore receiver Keon Lattimore and D.C. lineman Conrad Bolston.

It was easily the deepest, most talented class to come out of the region in more than a decade, and the Terps secured five of their top seven targets. Their only misses, the Baltimore Gilman duo of end Victor Abiamiri and receiver Ambrose Wooden, came after since-dismissed Maryland assistant Rod Sharpless got caught offering illegal cash inducements to Abiamiri. The younger brother of two Maryland players, Abiamiri later said he planned to sign with the Terps, before the controversy forced coaches to withdraw their scholarship offer in an attempt to pacify the NCAA.

Of course, the program's sudden and dramatic success under Friedgen has played a major role in changing attitudes toward the program and thus improving recruiting, but the groundwork laid by Vanderlinden should not be overlooked.

An interesting subplot to the Terps' revitalized efforts on the local recruiting trail involves the courtship of the state's two most powerful teams, DeMatha and Gilman. As perennial powerhouses with the ability to recruit players far and wide, those two private schools long have been the dominant programs in the D.C. and Baltimore metro areas.

DeMatha, under the direction of long-time head coach Bill McGregor, did nothing to help Maryland during the dark days of Joe Krivak (1987-91) and Duffner. Year after year, the Hyattsville-based school produced national prospects who didn't give the Terps — located 15 minutes down the street — much of a look. DeMatha has long taken pride in sending its players to top-caliber programs, and Maryland simply did not make the cut.

Vanderlinden was determined to change that attitude, and there were many pow-wows and sit-downs as Vandy and Locksley worked overtime to earn the trust of McGregor and his staff. The Terps finally broke through in 1998, when they signed defensive back Tony Okanlawon. Other prominent prospects, such as defensive back Dennard Wilson and now Mitch, have since followed.

Friedgen, a long-time friend of veteran DeMatha assistant Buck Offutt, has helped further foster a solid relationship between the schools. Maryland may not get every DeMatha big-timer, but at least the staff finally is confident it will get a fair and equal shot.

Gilman has been a tougher nut to crack, and frankly it wasn't one Maryland worried too much about until recently. While the Baltimore prep school has fielded a strong football program for years, it wasn't until Biff Poggi became head coach that the Greyhounds began recruiting throughout the metro area and subsequently producing major Division I-A prospects in larger quantities.

Gilman turned out a pair of prep All-Americans last season, and neither Malcolm Ruff (Duke) nor Stan White (Ohio State) even considered Maryland. The feeling may have been mutual, as the Terps didn't aggressively pursue either player, but it certainly was a missed opportunity to build another important local relationship.

There are numerous dynamics behind the often-icy relations between Gilman and Maryland, and they're only likely to get worse with the Abiamiri controversy. Part of the challenge rests right at the top. Poggi, the head coach, is a Duke graduate and a major contributor to the Durham school's football program.

Gilman defensive coordinator Stan White Sr., a former Ohio State and Baltimore Colts great, has never had many nice things to say about Maryland. (His son, mentioned above, signed with Ohio State in 2002.) A talk-show host for WBAL radio in Baltimore, White regularly criticizes the Terps, which he did with particular venom a few months ago.

Talking on the air, White basically said Maryland wasn't a real football school because it played in a weak conference and rarely drew more than about 35,000 fans. He compared that to his beloved Ohio State, which competes in the Big Ten and plays before crowds in excess of 100,000. Further, White said the Terps' 2002 success was tainted, because the ACC was down and the other wins came against non-conference patsies.

Although White's comments that night were rooted in fact, many Maryland fans were outraged. They flooded WBAL management with phone calls, letters and e-mails, complaining about his apparent dislike for the state university. Some fans, obviously unimpressed by the concept of editorial independence, asked the question: How could the flagship station for Maryland athletics allow one of its hosts to bad-mouth the program?

White's comments ultimately helped bring the Maryland-Gilman situation to a head. Friedgen and Poggi realized things were beginning to go too far, and that the rift between the two schools was becoming public knowledge.

Poggi reportedly called Friedgen to make it clear that White's thoughts did not represent those of the Gilman staff, and that olive branch opened the door to further dialogue. Friedgen set up a meeting with Poggi, and the coaches reportedly hashed out a lot of issues during a long power lunch at a Baltimore area restaurant.

According to sources, Poggi wanted to make clear to Friedgen where the Gilman staff stood when it came to the recruitment of its student-athletes. Gilman has a long tradition of sending graduates to Ivy League schools and other top-notch academic institutions, and that same philosophy applied to its football players. Poggi and staff have long preached the importance of getting a good education, telling players that a prestigious degree would still be worth something long after the cheering stops. The implication, of course, was that Gilman coaches don't necessarily view Maryland in the same light.

Friedgen listened and responded. According to various publications, several of Maryland's academic programs rank among the top 25 nationally. More importantly, the coach emphasized to Poggi that Maryland is not a football factory, that the staff places a high priority on education and pushes its players to excel in the classroom and progress toward degrees. The coach insisted that the Terps do things the right way.

Weeks after the coaches' lunch, which at least temporarily left both sides feeling better about the situation, the Sharpless-Abiamiri news broke. According to sources, one or more individuals associated with Gilman were responsible for the leaks that led to the initial media reports (on ESPN.com and in the Baltimore Sun) on the situation.

The end result of the situation was a badly burned bridge between Gilman and Maryland. Fortunately for the Terps, they've built enough good relationships with others in the region that one black eye probably won't outweigh the positive developments of recent years Ö and especially those of signing day in February.

Dave Glenn, the editor and football recruiting analyst for the ACC Area Sports Journal, has been covering football recruiting and the ACC since 1987.

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