Sorry Texas, but I choose Texas A&M
HOUSTON -- Kirk Eaton paced the hallway, back and forth, excited and nervous.
"This is gonna be bad," he said with a grin.
The Houston Cypress Falls High School head coach had just ushered Texas coach Charlie Strong out the door at 10 a.m. Thursday after a 90-minute meeting. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin was on his way.
Eaton had to sneak Sumlin directly into his office or else risk a near-shutdown of the school. The head coach wasn't visiting to pose for photos and sign autographs with a mob of students. He was at Cy Falls to seal the deal.
For Sumlin, and every other college recruiter across the country, it's closing time. The dead period is long gone. It's time for the mad dash to finish off the Class of 2014 ahead of national signing day on Feb. 4.
Inside the office sat Otaro Alaka, an ESPN 300 linebacker who spent the past week debating whether he belongs at Texas or Texas A&M.
The four-star linebacker was a must-get for both coaching staffs and his recruitment was one of the first true head-to-head battles between Strong and Sumlin. It would prove to be an exhausting day for Alaka, but one that ultimately led him to his final decision.
The day began with a visit from Strong and new Texas linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary. The Longhorns are one of 19 programs with new head coaches. Strong announced his completed staff on Jan. 15 and hit the road the very next day, crisscrossing the state and making vital first impressions.
Welcome to January recruiting, a frenzy full of high stakes, handshakes and rental car bills.
Strong's predecessor, Mack Brown, was beloved at this high school. He signed Cy Falls receiver Jacorey Warrick a year ago and had recruited here for years. He was a true celebrity when he stopped by.
That's not how Strong operates. At least not on this day. He brought his own authentic, personable touch when he took a seat in Eaton's office.
After pleasantries were exchanged, Eaton said Strong began with a question: Was Eaton an offensive or defensive coach? Defense, he said. Strong liked that answer.
So the new Longhorns coach extended an offer: Tell me what you need help with. What gave his Eagles trouble this season? The answer: Eaton hated defending the Diamond formation.
So Strong grabbed a marker and went to the whiteboard, delivering an impromptu seminar of X's and O's. Eaton had never seen that before. He'd later say it was one of the coolest visits he'd ever hosted.
For Alaka, every meeting with the new Texas staff was critical. He'd been committed to Texas for nine months but had almost no relationship with these new coaches.
"I'm definitely listening more carefully to his words and really studying him," Alaka said after his meeting with Strong.
Strong talked up his history as a defensive wizard and his plans to tailor a scheme to Texas' talent. He raised the possibility of operating out of a base 3-4 with Alaka disrupting off the edge. He had to convince the linebacker he'd still be comfortable in Austin despite the change in coaching staffs.
As Strong and Jean-Mary departed, Alaka said he felt good about the meeting. He even mentioned he might visit Texas over the weekend to meet the rest of the staff. And then, less than 30 minutes later, A&M was in the building.
Linebackers coach Mark Hagen showed up early. He greeted Alaka and teased him about his red-and-mint Nike KD 6 shoes. Alaka fessed up: He'd dropped $130 to get them. Hagen burst out laughing.
Soon after, Sumlin strolled in wearing a black A&M polo, blazer and slacks, accompanied by lead recruiter Jeff Banks. They stepped into Eaton's office and closed the door.
Cy Falls principal Becky Denton opened it a few minutes later. The die-hard Aggie couldn't miss this. After 10 minutes of stories and laughter, she thanked the coaches for visiting and cheerfully reminded Alaka he'd have to deal with her if he chose the Longhorns.
"Hey, you do know I sign the diplomas ..." Denton said. She was mostly joking.
Alaka didn't mind the pressure, but he definitely wasn't doing this for the attention. In fact, he was determined to make up his mind over the weekend because he refused to let the process drag out to signing day. He'd handled this as best he could.
"I think I'm really close," he said Thursday. "These visits should probably do it."
Alaka, like so many recruits who are struggling to decide this month, had been put in an uncomfortable position by the coaching change. He was in Austin on his official visit the day Brown told the team he was stepping down. He couldn't believe it.
Alaka loved Texas, but he knew he had to reconsider Texas A&M.
"None of this would've happened if the Coach Brown thing doesn't happen," Eaton said. "But that's big-time college football."
He'd taken his official visit to College Station less than a week before Sumlin showed up at Cy Falls. There wasn't much more that needed to be said at this point.
NCAA rules prohibit reporters from sitting in on these visits, but afterward Alaka and Eaton agreed Sumlin was the same as always: calm and cool. Alaka trusted him and his staff.
The A&M coaches knew their advantage. They'd bonded with Alaka for more than a year. Their competitor hadn't. There wasn't much need for last-ditch pleas or pressure. They liked their chances.
Shortly after 11:30, the Aggies coaches headed off to their next high school. Alaka emerged from the office with a smile and shrug. "Good visit," he said.
"They were just telling me to calm down, don't get stressed out," Alaka said. "Make the decision for you and not everybody else. Don't listen to people. Know that it's you that's going to be on campus."
Alaka was just glad he'd missed out on an Econ test. His school day was almost over. And then the recruiting would resume. Texas A&M and Texas were both coming over for in-home visits that night.
Going into the day, he said, his mother preferred Texas. His father was open to either school. A day later, Alaka would say both visits went well. The Texas coaches finally met his parents. The A&M trio didn't stray from its message. By the end of the night, Alaka said, his parents liked both programs.
It was a close call. After much prayer and discussion with his family, Alaka knew for sure on Saturday. He delivered the news to Eaton around 6 p.m. Sunday.
"He said, 'Coach, I'm going with my gut,'" Eaton said. The "#YESSIR!" from Sumlin's Twitter account came 50 minutes later.
I'd like to thank Coach Strong and UT for the offer but Ive decided to decommit from the university of Texas and commit to Texas A&M! #gigem— Otaro Alaka™ (@OtaroAlaka) January 27, 2014
"My comfort level with A&M was just much, much higher than it was with UT," Alaka said Sunday night, once the decision had been made.
Three days earlier, as the coveted linebacker left school, he had a feeling this is how it would turn out.
An hour after Alaka went home Thursday, Eaton's office was occupied again. Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett and defensive line coach Chris Achuff stopped by to see Du'Vonta Lampkin, a 2015 defensive tackle already committed to Oklahoma. And then Lamar head coach Ray Woodard arrived.
The three coaches were already done with their 2014 classes. It was on to the next one. The frenzy never really ends.
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