The controversy surrounding Bobby Bowden’s ouster at Florida State was still swirling as Jimbo Fisher watched the fax machine spit out the names of eight ESPN150 recruits during his first signing day in 2010. In all, he landed two five-star recruits and 11 four-star players for what was the sixth-ranked class in the nation.
It was a stellar haul for the first-year head coach, and it certainly helped to quiet some of those initial critics, but the real rewards wouldn’t be seen for four years.
In 2013, a hefty chunk of Fisher’s first class had moved on -- some, like Bjoern Werner, to the NFL, and others, like five-star signee Jeff Luc, through attrition. But those who remained -- Lamarcus Joyner, Telvin Smith, Terrence Brooks, Kenny Shaw and Cam Erving among them -- proved to be the foundation for a national championship.
That’s a lofty goal for any first-year coach to pitch to his recruits, but it also serves as a reminder of what that first class can accomplish. For the four new coaches in the ACC this season -- Miami’s Mark Richt, Virginia’s Bronco Mendenhall, Syracuse’s Dino Babers and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente -- that’s exactly the pitch they’ve been making, because their first signing class is critical, both in terms of adding the talent necessary to win down the road, but setting the culture of the program for years to come.
Fisher had plenty of advantages in his first year. He’d already been on Florida State’s staff as offensive coordinator, and he had the luxury of recruiting players to join a sleeping giant. Even during the lean years, Bowden had pulled in highly ranked classes.
This year’s new coaches won’t have it quite so easy, but there’s still precedent for big turnaround beginning with that first signing class.
The climb to respectability was a long one for David Cutcliffe at Duke, but in his first class he landed some of the key building blocks with QB Sean Renfree, receiver Donovan Varner and a little-regarded tight end named Kenny Anunike, who switched to defensive end and became a star. Nine years later, Duke has four straight bowl appearances and a division title under its belt, and Cutcliffe is on the verge of landing the Blue Devils' best signing class in history.
Similarly, North Carolina’s rise to the top of the Coastal in 2015 began with Larry Fedora’s first class in 2012. Fedora landed just one ESPN300 signee, but he still managed to find players who would set the stage for the future with Caleb Peterson, Shakeel Rashad and Quinshad Davis, among others.
In both cases, those players provided a much-needed influx of talent on the field, but also served as the team's leaders off it.
So for Fuente and Richt, who are expected to make quick improvements in their new stomping grounds, the importance of finding instant stars in Wednesday’s signing class is crucial. But for Babers and Mendenhall, the stakes are just as high.
It’s been a whirlwind for all four coaches, who’ve been on the job for less than two months, but have hit the recruiting trail hard to keep the school’s previous commitments and land a few more big names. It’s a nearly impossible task, but the fruits of their labors will be felt for years to come.