The Texas Longhorns signed the Lone Star State's top recruiting class with a strategy that involved head coach Charlie Strong telling prospects, "Do not commit to me. I don't want you to commit."
Baylor signed its best class in school history, ranked in the top 20 nationally. TCU found itself in the top 25 and Houston, without the backing of a Power 5 conference, finished 30th, ahead of seven Big 12 schools and 36 total Power 5 programs.
How times have changed.
In the past decade, the Texas recruiting landscape is more diversified, and maybe, harder than ever to secure prospects from the state.
The Longhorns, who under Mack Brown dominated in-state recruiting, now must fight tooth and nail with the likes of Baylor, TCU, Texas A&M and even Houston -- not to mention an increasing number of SEC programs dipping their hands into the Texas talent pool -- for top prospects.
So, how did it get here?
Texas came back to the pack
At this time 10 years ago, the Longhorns were enjoying the spoils of a national championship following its memorable 41-38 Rose Bowl win over USC. Their stranglehold on state recruiting was clear: The Longhorns turned in the nation's No. 3 class on signing day in February 2006. The next highest team in the state? Texas A&M at No. 22.
The Longhorns reached a place of dominance in recruiting that few do. Brown and his staff cultivated strong relationships with Texas high school coaches and the combination of the Longhorns' brand, resources and on-field success were seemingly unstoppable.
"I sat in recruiting meetings that you weren't afraid to recruit against anybody, but if that kid had an offer from Texas ... it was pretty much a 100 percent chance that they were going to go to Texas," said Kansas receivers coach Jason Phillips, who coached at Houston, Baylor and SMU from 2001-2014.
Houston coach Tom Herman, who recruited the state of Texas at every stop in his coaching career dating back to 1998, said that when a prospect had a Texas offer it was usually "over."
"One hundred percent," Herman said. "It was done. There were no visits. It was 'Yes.' There was no, 'Hey, it's between Texas, this school and that school.' No, it was Texas."
Oscar Giles, the Longhorns' defensive ends coach from 2005-13, said it was quite a place to be.
"We just had to pick the right ones," said Giles, now Houston's defensive line coach. "If you said the word 'off-' before you even got to the '-er' they were like 'Yes.' It was not even a question ... It was pretty awesome to be in that position."
The Longhorns began a trend of early recruiting, securing verbal commitments from the next year's prospects in the days or weeks following signing day of the previous cycle. They plucked prospects off the board with speed and efficiency, leaving the rest of the state with the scraps.
Texas had a few high-profile battles with rival Oklahoma, most notably for Adrian Peterson, and occasional fights with out-of-state powers, but mostly continued its dominance through the end of the decade, turning in classes that ranked third (2007), 10th (2008), third (2009), second (2010) and fifth (2011) in the ESPN Class Rankings. The closest any other in-state program came to the Longhorns was in 2007, when Texas A&M was 16th, a full 13 spots behind them.
Over time, the Longhorns' on-field success waned. After their loss to Alabama in the 2009 BCS National Championship Game, they went 5-7 in 2010. Not coincidentally, that coincided with the beginning of the Longhorns' struggles to find a quarterback able to match the seven-year run of success they had with Vince Young and Colt McCoy. Suddenly there was a weakness. After nine consecutive seasons of 10-plus wins, the Longhorns haven't reached that mark in the past six, a stretch that includes the coaching change that ushered out Brown and brought in Strong.
Since then, the Longhorns' stranglehold on the state's top prospects loosened and their frustrated in-state rival made a move that had a jarring, lasting impact.
Texas A&M to the SEC
Nothing shook up the state's recruiting landscape quite like Texas A&M's "100-year decision."
In 2012, the Aggies joined the SEC, and though many were skeptical of the Aggies' potential fate there, they capitalized on the move in recruiting.
Kevin Sumlin took over the program in December 2011 and successfully sought to change the football program's image. His effort to make A&M football "cool," combined the SEC's allure helped the Aggies raise their recruiting profile.
Johnny Manziel's emergence made it an easier sell. The Aggies' landmark win over Alabama on Nov. 10, 2012, and Manziel's Heisman Trophy gave the Aggies the fuel needed to push to the top of the state's recruiting ranks. The Aggies finished eighth nationally in ESPN.com's 2013 recruiting rankings, while Texas finished 16th. It was the first time any recruiting service ranked an A&M class above Texas' since 2005.
"I think the SEC was a huge part of it, I really do," said Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who was A&M's offensive coordinator in 2012. "That offered a new lure in the state that hadn't ever been there. Those kids saw Alabama win a national championship, saw Tim Tebow playing at Florida and said, 'Hey we can go play on that stage with that caliber athlete,' and that was a unique opportunity."
It didn't just benefit the Aggies, it made the state more SEC-friendly.
From 2006-2012, SEC schools signed only 8.84 percent of the Texas recruits ranked in the ESPN 150. Since 2013, the first full recruiting cycle that Texas A&M was part of the conference, that number skyrocketed to 32.93 percent of the ESPN 300. If you exclude Texas A&M, the other 13 SEC schools have still landed nearly 15 percent of the ESPN 300 prospects from Texas, a significantly higher rate than the conference signed before the Aggies joined the league.
"I think with the addition of A&M to the SEC it gives people a better 'in' and playing the kickoff classic games in the Metroplex and Houston is an asset for out-of-state schools recruiting the state," Baylor coach Art Briles said. "Anybody who is in the football business knows that it kind of opened some doors for some other SEC institutions to get into the state and feel like they have a part of our territory."
Said Herman: "It brought in people like Ole Miss. LSU was already recruiting here. But you see people like Mississippi State -- Mississippi State, what are you doing here in Houston? -- and Auburn. All of those things are much different than they were 10 years ago."
Ole Miss' presence is evident. On signing day, it landed five Texans, including the state's top recruit, ESPN 300 offensive tackle and No. 2 overall player in the nation Gregory Little. All five were four-star recruits, two were ESPN 300 prospects. The Rebels' top recruit in the 2015 class, ESPN 300 receiver DaMarkus Lodge, is a product of Cedar Hill High. From 2013-2016, the Rebels have landed 11 Texans. In the four cycles preceding that stretch, they signed five: three in the 2009 class, two Blinn College prospects 2010 and 2011 and zero in the 2012 class.
"The SEC recruits the state of Texas harder than they did before because they have A&M in the conference," Cedar Hill coach Joey McGuire said.
The rise of TCU and Baylor
TCU's entrance to the Big 12 didn't start off as well as A&M's debut in the SEC. Instead, the Horned Frogs took their lumps early but have jumped to the Big 12's upper-tier in the past two seasons.
After being left out of the original Big 12 following the Southwest Conference's post-1995 season breakup, TCU did well for itself, compiling seven conference titles while navigating the WAC, Conference USA and Mountain West and winning the 2011 Rose Bowl over Wisconsin before landing in the Big 12 in 2012.
More importantly, Gary Patterson, the Horned Frogs head coach since 2000, gave them more coaching stability than any other in-state school since the turn of the millennium. The ability to sell the Big 12 gave them a boost.
"TCU moving into a Power 5 conference helped them jump into that party with their location, their facilities, Coach Patterson's track record, their record of winning a ton of games previously," Kingsbury said.
"I think the SEC was a huge part of it, I really do. That offered a new lure in the state that hadn't ever been there."
Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury
In the past four years, the Horned Frogs have gradually risen in the recruiting ranks. They finished 49th in the 2013 cycle, 43rd in 2014, 37th in 2015 and 23rd in 2016.
"The Dallas kids have an option of TCU playing in the Big 12," Phillips said. "They were already doing a good job anyway, because they were winning games. Now they're winning games and moving to a Power 5 conference. ... It definitely had an impact."
Down Interstate 35, Baylor was climbing up the ranks in a very different way.
Few power-conference programs were as in dire straits as Baylor was 10 years ago. Attendance was poor, wins were scarce and the Bears had an outdated home stadium.
Then Briles arrived.
After bringing Houston's program back from the ashes, Briles was determined to do the same for Baylor's, then a Big 12 bottom-feeder. Prior to his arrival, the Bears were mired in a streak of 12 consecutive sub-.500 seasons and had 11 total conference wins in that span. "Facilities, production on the field and fan base," Briles admits, were all challenges to overcome in recruiting when competing against other in-state schools.
But his first signing class in 2008 included a Central Texas quarterback, Robert Griffin III, and a pair of receivers from East Texas (Kendall Wright) and the Metroplex (Terrance Williams) who would help pave the way for the success the Bears now enjoy. Following Baylor's landmark 2011 campaign, when Griffin led the Bears to a 10-3 mark and won the Heisman Trophy, the Bears were suddenly a household name.
"I mean winning the Heisman, there's one of those in the nation and that guy was at Baylor," Briles said. "So it just propelled our recruiting to a whole new level because of our brand. Everything is about your brand. Our brand is young and it's hot and it's active, and that's what kids like."
Plans to erect McLane Stadium, the $250 million gem that replaced Floyd Casey Stadium, followed and the stadium opened in 2014. Empty seats became a thing of the past and the Bears averaged 10 wins a season over the past five seasons and won consecutive Big 12 championships in 2013 and 2014.
Those three things that were challenges in recruiting when Briles arrived?
"Now, all of those are check, check, check," Briles said.
Recruits noticed. The Bears were 28th in the 2013 recruiting rankings, 22nd in 2014, 32nd in 2015 and in this cycle, at No. 17 overall, turned in their highest-ranked class. It included eight ESPN 300 commits, and the Bears won head-to-head battles with the likes of Texas, Texas A&M and several SEC bluebloods for prospects such as Devin Duvernay and Patrick Hudson.
The top four Texans in the 2016 class signed with schools in four different conferences: Little signed with Ole Miss (SEC), five-star defensive tackle Ed Oliver is going to Houston (American Athletic Conference), ESPN 300 linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch signed with Texas (Big 12) and Flower Mound Marcus tight end Kaden Smith is going to Stanford (Pac-12). Baylor, Ole Miss and Texas each signed two of the state's top-10 prospects; the SEC was the landing spot for four of the top 10 and none of those are going to Texas A&M.
One interesting byproduct of this new era of Texas recruiting is who it might be pushing out: Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
The Sooners signed only three Texans in its 2016 class, far fewer than Bob Stoops is accustomed to landing. According to research by The Oklahoman, the Sooners have signed no fewer than six Texas prospects in a class in the past 10 years. They signed 10 or more Texans six times and averaged 10 signees per class in that span.
The Cowboys have been even more aggressive in the state, signing an average of 15 Texans per recruiting class since 2006. Their 2016 class has only six Texas signees, the fewest in the Mike Gundy era.
Those two programs, which are each a reasonable driving distance from the fertile Dallas-Fort Worth area, are likely being impacted by the rise of Baylor, which is a 90-minute drive from the area, and TCU, which is in the heart of it.
"You can take a map of the state of Texas and you can put a dot for the schools that recruit at our level in the state of Texas -- where they have players they signed today, and we've already done it -- and you'll see that the average drive distance to [some of the Texas schools] is probably one-fourth of the average drive distance to get to Oklahoma State," Gundy said at his signing day news conference. "There's some truth to the fact that it is more difficult for a variety of reasons, but that's not going to change our approach."
There is plenty of talent to go around -- 359 Texans signed with FBS schools in the 2016 class, 165 of those went to Power 5 conferences -- but the competition remains intense. Kansas coach David Beaty noted that prior to 2015, Houston (Herman), Kansas, SMU (Chad Morris) and Tulsa (Philip Montgomery) all hired coaches with deep Lone Star State recruiting ties in an effort to leverage that talent to long-term success.
Each of those programs also made sure to hire former Texas high school coaches to their staffs -- a common practice in Texas -- to strengthen their chances of winning recruiting battles.
"I think the reason there is parity is you have guys that are now flooding the college market that have instant relationships," Beaty said.
As for the Longhorns, things are looking up. Strong hit a home run on Feb. 3. It was a 180 from the old method for the Longhorns, but evident of what is part of the state's new recruiting reality.
"I said, 'Listen, do not commit to me. I don't want you to commit,'" Strong said on signing day. "I was reading something just the other day that said 380-something players decommitted [in the 2016 cycle]. Usually, when you make a commitment, then [other schools] know who to attack. With the season we had, I didn't want people to come and attack us."
The strategy was calculated, but it worked. A decade ago, Brown's strategy worked well too.
"[Brown] did a great job of doing it the way he did," Strong said. "You look at it now and it's just so different now when you walk in and approach them. ... When they make a commitment, it's almost like 'Let's slow down here.'"
The Longhorns pulled off that class after a 5-7 season, but the current landscape suggests that winning still matters. Baylor, Houston and TCU illustrate that. "At the end of the day, that's what it's all about," Briles said. "That's kind of the American way."
D.J. Mann, the offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator at Crosby High School, just east of Houston, has seen dozens of his players sign with colleges over the past decade and encountered countless college coaches in that time. The days of showing up and just landing a prospect based on reputation are long gone, he noted.
"You have to work now, brother," Mann said. "You can't win kids anymore with just the logo."