Urban Meyer on Ruthless Nature of CFB Recruiting
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the ever-changing landscape of major college athletics, no one is immune to the star-crossed nature of recruiting.
Not even Urban Meyer.
In a world where a handshake can often be accompanied by a stab in the back, and a ‘handler’ often has more pull with a player than his own high school coach, there are no promises. Just signatures.
Anything less means almost nothing, especially with so much is riding on the big business of college football. Meyer has been one of the few to rise from the ashes. While at Florida, the 48-year old Ohio boy was tormented by the vicious nature of college football recruiting.
He quickly burned out after six years in Gainesville, where he was part of a Southeastern Conference that is often short on honor and more than often high on deception when it comes to landing the top high school talent in the country.
There are no gentlemen agreements. No friends, either. Every postgame handshake comes with a grumble just loud enough to get the point across. It’s all on the table, but a lot of it takes place just underneath the surface.
“We got Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson, because a lot of crazy stuff was going on with Trey Johnson with people trying to pull him in certain directions,” Meyer said of the linebacker out of Georgia, a feeding ground for many elite SEC football programs.
“You're going to hear stories about it's a feeding frenzy out there. It is. And Trey Johnson, that was nonstop. A couple of SEC schools that were just ruthless. I wouldn't say ruthless, just did a good job going after them as hard as they could. We hung in there, got it done.”
Not before Johnson, a former Auburn pledge who verbally committed to Ohio State the Under Armour All-American game in January, took a secret visit to the University of Tennessee.
He apparently wanted to spend the weekend in Knoxville with the Volunteers linebackers coach and some other players he had gotten to know during the process, but stories like that can make a coach’s skin crawl.
Especially that late in the game, and they typically don’t end up well for the team trying desperately to hold on to a recruit who is looking around at other options just before National Signing Day.
“When some school comes after Trey Johnson full speed ahead, I might get worried, but you can't get upset,” Meyer said calmly.
“Because if it's a better situation for him than Ohio State, whose choice is it? The media? No, it's not your choice. It's not the coach's choice. It's the 18-year-old's choice and his family's to go to whatever school he wants.”
Johnson was also being recruited hard by Gus Malzahn and his new coaching staff at Auburn – where he was originally committed to play for Gene Chizik – along with Meyer’s former team the Florida Gators and a number of others. Georgia Tech even tried to make a run after hiring fellow Central Gwinnett product Ted Roof away from Penn State.
It created some nervous moments at the end for Meyer and his staff, who already lost a pair of verbally committed linebackers back in the spring, but Johnson ultimately did sign with the Buckeyes on Feb. 5.
“Our coaches did a really good job, especially in the Trey Johnson situation, hanging on with both hands and, once again, surrounding him,” Meyer said.
When Meyer called Johnson’s recruitment “ruthless” he wasn’t openly implying any of the other schools committed violations in recruiting the 4-star linebacker. He wasn’t even saying he was upset they were coming after a kid who had already committed to play for Ohio State.
“Let me make this real clear: Everybody does that,” Meyer said emphatically.
“And it's not wrong.”
Meyer had done the same thing to land kids like Taylor Decker, Kyle Dodson and Se’Von Pittman a year earlier, only he was chastised by some of his new Big Ten brethren who didn’t want that type of atmosphere to infiltrate their conference. Coincidently, one of them was Bret Bielema, who recently left Wisconsin for the head coaching job at Arkansas… an SEC school.
“At the end of the day the young person has the right to go to any school he likes,” Meyer said.
“If one school is better than the other, fits his personality. If something is going on illegally, that's a whole different animal.”
Meyer certainly didn’t shy away from recruiting Dontre Wilson, a 4-star playmaker out of Texas, after Chip Kelly bolted from Oregon for the NFL. Ohio State already had a relationship with Wilson, who originally picked the Ducks over the Buckeyes back in May.
Ohio State moved quickly to regain a foothold in Wilson’s recruitment, and he eventually did pick the Buckeyes over the Ducks and hometown Longhorns during a live announcement on the Monday before National Signing Day.
Even that wasn’t enough to help Meyer sleep, as he and his staff awaited final decisions from not only Wilson, but also Ezekiel Elliott, James Clark and 5-star safety Vonn Bell, another Georgia kid who was also looking at the two-time defending BCS National Champions.
“Vonn Bell was… I mean, that was a street fight,” Meyer said on signing day.
“I mean, up until two minutes (before his announcement) I was on the treadmill because I couldn't take it anymore. I'm sitting out there I wanted to get away from our coaches, and poor Everett Withers was driving me nuts. Had to get away from him.”
Early reports on singing day were that Bell was planning to sign with the Tennessee Volunteers, a team who cheered for growing up in Chattanooga. But Meyer never lost faith, even though they were supposed to know Bell’s final decision by 8 p.m. the previous evening.
In today’s recruiting, there’s no such thing as a good night’s sleep.
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