Recruiting the recruiters
Trey Williams, the nation's No. 5-rated running back out of Dekaney High School in Houston, played the recruiting game on his terms. He researched his favorites. He developed relationships. He met other prospects.
And he settled on Texas A&M last April, more than nine months before signing day, so he could focus on his quest to win a 5A state title.
Williams won that championship in December, rushing for 197 yards and three touchdowns at Cowboys Stadium -- two weeks after A&M turned his world upside down by firing coach Mike Sherman.
Running backs coach Randy Jordan, with whom Williams had bonded, landed at North Carolina. Williams knew none of the new A&M coaches.
"It was stressful," Williams said. "I wondered, 'What's going on? How am I going to adjust?'"
More than ever, today's top recruits face Williams' dilemma. It happens as a result of head-coaching changes but also because of widespread movement among assistant coaches. Fueled by unprecedented salaries dangled to entice often otherwise lateral moves, drama and intrigue filled the final month before signing day this year.
It's a new game that has turned as essential and more cutthroat for head coaches than recruiting even the prospects: Recruiting the recruiter.
No NCAA rules apply. Big money flies. But whom does it benefit, other than the assistants, of course, who cash in at levels once reserved for only the top head coaches?
"It's probably more difficult to recruit coaches -- and coaches' wives -- than it is five-star players because of the competition out there," said new Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, who moved from Houston in December. "Financially, there are a number of [assistants] who are getting paid more than I got paid when I started as the head coach at Houston.
"That's where it is right now, particularly in the SEC, our league."
It's not just the SEC, though.
At Washington this offseason, coach Steve Sarkisian hired five new assistants, including defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox from Tennessee and offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau from Cal. Wilcox is set to earn $850,000 in 2014, a $150,000 increase over his 2011 salary.
Sarkisian's hire that drew the most attention was Cal defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi. Lupoi, regarded among the top recruiters nationally, will receive $350,000 for the same spot at UW in 2012 as part of a three-year deal, plus a $100,000 one-time payment and $100,000 if he stays three years.
The changes paid off for the Huskies, who signed the No. 23 class nationally, headlined by safety Shaq Thompson of Sacramento, Calif., a former Cal commit ranked 16th in the ESPNU 150. Washington also got a late pledge from cornerback Brandon Beaver of Compton, Calif., considered a Cal lean before Lupoi's departure.
Sarkisian said Wednesday at his news conference to unveil the signees that he prioritized the hiring of excellent recruiters.
"We want to pound our chest on how much football we know," Sarkisian said, "but if the players can't execute it, then that part is a bit irrelevant. You have to have the players in place to do it. So we went out and tried to identify some guys that, I think, were not just good football coaches, but were good recruiters. I think in the end, it did have a direct impact on what we were doing."
And the coaching changes hurt the Bears, a Pac-12 North rival of Washington, perhaps even more notably. In addition to Thompson, Cal lost commits Ellis McCarthy, a defensive tackle from Monrovia, Calif., and receiver Jordan Payton of Oaks Christian High School in Westlake Village, Calif., to UCLA.
The Bears also failed to close on top target Arik Armstead, the defensive end from Elk Grove, Calif., ranked 24th in the ESPNU 150. Armstead signed with Oregon.
With Wilcox, linebackers coach Peter Sirmon also left Tennessee for Washington. The ramifications in Knoxville? Dalton Santos, the No. 1-rated inside linebacker out of Van, Texas, defected last week from the Volunteers to Texas.
"Look at some of the new staffs around the country," Sarkisian said. "When you can pitch something that might be a little bit new I think that can perk interest. There is an energy level that gets revived."
Other coaches are more wary of the transient nature of assistants.
Take Paul Rhoads of Iowa State, who lost secondary coach Bob Elliott to Notre Dame in late January.
"They gave him a huge pay raise," Rhoads said. "I couldn't match that pay raise, nor was I going to try to match that pay raise, because I can go out and get another coach who can accomplish the three things I'm looking for with equal ability."
In a coach, Rhoads said he wants a great teacher of the game, someone to care about the well-being of his players and an excellent recruiter, preferably in a specific area of need for the Cyclones.
This week, Rhoads announced the hire of receivers coach Todd Sturdy, the former offensive coordinator at Washington State. Sturdy has experience recruiting in California.
"But that's not why I hired him," Rhoads said. "He got the job because he matched all three of those things, plus he's a native Iowan who shares my vision that you can win at Iowa State."
Programs of a higher profile than Iowa State, according to Rhoads, are more likely to target an assistant whose recruiting skill outweighs his ability to coach.
"Kids will quickly recognize if a guy can't coach," Rhoads said. "If a guy can't coach, you've got problems at a position group. And then you've got a hole in your roster. And then you've got problems on the field.
"I'm not willing to hire a guy who's just a recruiter."
Same goes for Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. He lost six assistants this year. Three went to Pittsburgh for raises of $150,000 or more, Bielema said, including Paul Chryst, the Panthers' new head coach who formerly worked as Bielema's offensive coordinator.
In Bielema's six years, 22 assistant coaches have departed Wisconsin.
"Assistants should want to be coordinators," Bielema said. "Coordinators should want to be head coaches. If I ever have a guy in that position, I'll personally make the call for him."
But he won't rush into replacing a coach just to help with recruiting. Bielema said he interviewed 13 candidates over more than a month to replace offensive line coach Bob Bostad, settling recently on Mike Markuson of Mississippi.
"There is an urgency at this time of year," Bielema said, "but I don't want a bad coach on my staff.
"When I was young in this business, I was frustrated with being known as a great recruiting coach. I wanted to be known as a great football coach. But you can be more valuable to a program at a certain stage in your career by the players that you bring in. They're the lifeblood of what we are. Don't think I ever lose sight of that."
The Badgers signed 12 players Wednesday and announced seven walk-ons with the class.
Back in Texas, Sumlin signed 19 at A&M in a class that ranked 15th nationally, including Williams, the Houston running back initially upset with the coaching changes in College Station.
He was at peace. Williams met with Sumlin and running backs coach Clarence McKinney shortly after they arrived.
"I just looked into their eyes," Williams said, "I was like, 'Whoa, these guys are for real.'"
That's all it takes, sometimes -- one meeting to change everything. More evidence that, with the right recruiters, the rest -- especially at this time of year -- falls nicely into place.
Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman
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