RAMblings 2.6.09 - Recruiting Success Multi-Faceted

by Lee Pace


            The Rat, the Zoom Zoom and the Porthole are no longer around, serving their trademark dishes to generations of hungry Carolina students, parents and alumni. It can take a couple of light changes to get through the intersection of Franklin and Columbia streets at 5 o’clock. And there are a lot of buildings on what used to be woods or green grass.

            Nonetheless, Chapel Hill and the Carolina campus have maintained their ambiance, texture and aesthetic appeal over time.

            That’s one reason Butch Davis and his coaching staff were able to sign a football recruiting class this week that is ranked fifth in the country by Scout.com, eighth by Rivals.com and 11th by ESPN.

            “Kids get here and their parents get here and they fall in love with the concept of Chapel Hill,” Davis says. “In some respects it’s like a throwback. It’s still a small, intimate university. They go and visit some BCS schools with 40 to 45 thousand undergrads and get lost. The atmosphere here appeals to kids and parents and they enjoy the campus environment.”

            Adds tight ends coach Steve Hagen: “Carolina has a great product. It has a private school atmosphere even though it’s a state-run university. That’s very unique. In the eyes of who we are recruiting, it’s a different product to them. We tell them over the phone, but after they get here, seeing is believing.”

            Davis and his staff went head-to-head with many of the top programs in the nation. They signed 15 in-state prospects and collected eight of the top 10 prospects within the state’s borders.

            The elements to the successful class are many.

            The Tar Heels showed tangible improvement from Davis’s first season to his second, going from 4-8 to 8-5 with a bowl victory.

            They played before sell-out crowds in Kenan Stadium and enjoyed vibrant game-day atmospheres.

            The players themselves were good salesmen of the athletic, educational and social experiences when hosting recruits on campus, and the football staff drew extensively on faculty and staff for their time spent with recruits on visits.

            The Carolina brand is an excellent one nationwide, and guidance counselors at high schools near and far recognize the value of a Carolina degree and communicate that with prospects at their school.

            The staff has had two full years to develop relationships with high school coaches, to learn the state in terms of upcoming talent and to host players on junior days, unofficial visits and summer camps.

            And Davis himself provides outstanding direction and leadership in the process. He knows that recruiting is a 24-hour, 365-day process. He hired a staff of assistants who are not only good coaches but good recruiters as well. And Davis himself connects well with players and their parents.

            Everett Withers joined the staff last spring as defensive coordinator and, among the stops on his coaching resume are three years spent on Mack Brown’s staff at the University of Texas. So he has seen one of the true masters of recruiting close at hand and had high standards when he joined Davis’s staff.

            After one year working with Davis, he’s able to heap some high praise on the head coach.

“I don’t know if I have been in a head coach’s office with a prospect and his parents and seen anyone as good as coach Davis,” Withers says. “He is very, very easy for them to talk to—whether it’s mom, dad or the kid. I’ve been in home visits with a lot of coaches, and he’s as good or better as any of them. He has a knack.”

Davis and Withers both have NFL backgrounds, Davis as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys and then head coach in Cleveland and Withers most recently for six years with the Tennessee Titans.

“You can see coach Davis’s NFL background as it relates to recruiting,” Withers says. “He has the perspective of an NFL GM/head coach. He’s very detailed oriented about the kids and does an outstanding job projecting how they fit into your program—offense, defense and kicking game. NFL head coaches have got to be great managing players and their numbers because they have so fewer players for special teams and practice.”

The Tar Heels’ recruiting operation reflects the same tenets of Davis’s make-up that make him a good head coach. He has a precise and bold vision for the program that he communicates well. He exudes confidence and has immense physical presence. And every fact, every minute, every priority is intricately weaved into its proper place.

“One of coach Davis’s strengths is managing the entire operation,” Hagen says. “He is organized and has total control of all the logistics. You can have nine coaches going in nine different directions, all of them feeding him information and trying to schedule visits and phone calls. It can get very complicated. But he is cool and decisive and always in charge.”

And as the Tar Heels continue to build the program, their results in recruiting should only get better in coming years.

            “Recruiting is the lifeblood of a program,” Hagen says. “If you don’t recruit well, you won’t be good on the field on Saturday. We have a great foundation established. The time will come soon we’re going to have to turn down some very good football players who want to come here. We’ll end up playing against them. You have to hope and pray that the guy we made the decision to go on is better than the guy we turned away. You don’t ever know until a year or two down the road.”