The last line of defense

Recruiters know that a prospect's mom often has the most influence

Updated: January 3, 2013, 6:54 PM ET
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN RecruitingNation

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- We all saw it.

If not the live telecast last year during the Under Armour All-America Game, then surely the replay online as video went viral of Landon Collins' mother, April Justin, openly upset with his decision to attend Alabama over her preference, LSU.

It was uncomfortable. It was alarming. And it was real.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Miller Safrit/ESPN.comNo. 1 ESPN 150 prospect Robert Nkemdiche leans heavily on his mom's advice on recruiting.

They say blood is thicker than water, an adage that often holds true in recruiting. But when two schools get between a player and his mother, the results can turn ugly, as Collins, the nation's No. 1 safety prospect in the Class of 2012, and Justin so clearly displayed.

"I was shocked to see that on television," said tight end O.J. Howard, a future Crimson Tide teammate of Collins and the No. 42 prospect in the ESPN 150 who's set to play in the UA Game at 5 p.m. ET Friday on ESPN. "But I guess they're happy now."

More than any figure in the lives of top recruits, mothers loom large. To avoid replays of the Collins saga -- be it on the sideline of an all-star game, in the living room or on campus during a visit -- recruiters value relationships with mom and work overtime to sell her on their school.

"There's something to that, yes," said UA Game White Team coach Steve Mariucci, an assistant at USC and Louisville, among other stops, before he coached Cal and the NFL's 49ers and Lions. "You always try to find out who's the decision-maker in that family.

"Sometimes it's both parents. Sometimes, it's Uncle Jim. And most times it's mom. She has a strong vote. So if you help her with the dishes after you eat, that goes a long way."

Moms sit front and center again in the recruiting tales of some of the top players this year -- none more notable than defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the season-long No. 1 overall prospect out of Loganville (Ga.) Grayson.

His mother, Beverly Nkemdiche, works as a state legislator in her native Nigeria. She visits Robert a few times a year, and they communicate regularly. Her input in his college decision is vital, he said.

"She gave birth to me, and she's done everything I ever wanted for me my whole life," Robert Nkemdiche said. "I really want to watch out for her and make her happy."

It gets tricky, though, for college coaches to win over Beverly, who can't travel with Robert regularly on recruiting visits. Her distant location limits recruiters' ability to speak with her, and face-to-face meetings are rare.

No college coach is known -- yet -- to have hopped a plane to Africa. Robert's father, Sunday Nkemdiche, lives in the Atlanta area.

The process has been difficult for Nkemdiche's family, said Mickey Conn, his coach at Grayson.

"I'm not sure any of us have understood how to deal with everything," Conn said. "It's been to new everyone to have him receive so much attention. But really, she's like all moms. He's the No. 1 player to her no matter what.

"Robert's is no unique situation. She wants what's best for him and tries to direct that to him."

For now, with just more than a month until signing day, indicators point him toward Ole Miss, where Nkemdiche's brother Denzel recently completed his redshirt freshman season as a linebacker.

Robert also likes LSU. He talked this week of visiting both schools in January in addition to Alabama and Florida.

No doubt, Beverly likes Ole Miss.

"She loves her babies," Conn said, "and she wants them to be together."

Robert initially committed to Clemson in June. He decommitted in November, two months after Beverly told ESPN The Magazine that she was unhappy with the school.

Her influence is clear, though Robert said the decision is his.

"We've had our arguments about schools," he said, "but it's not like we're dysfunctional. It's a big deal, and she wants what's best for me."

Robert plans to wait on his announcement until February. What won't happen, he said, is a moment like Collins' commitment.

"I didn't like that," Robert said. "It was kind of embarrassing for both of them."

Many decisions, of course, involve less stress and public tugging.

Milton (Ga.) High School defensive end Carl Lawson, second only to Nkemdiche in the ESPN 150, committed early to Auburn. He's re-evaluating options in the wake of the Tigers' coaching change, but his parents have never left his side, Lawson said.

They made unofficial visits with him to Auburn, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and Ole Miss.

"They did have a lot of input," said Lawson, who lives with his father and talks often with his mother about recruiting. "You're their child. They've been watching you grow for years. I can tell it's an emotional time for them. I can tell it's difficult. But the decisions that we make are mutual across the board."

Alabama quarterback recruit Cooper Bateman of Salt Lake City Cottonwood visited Tuscaloosa last spring with his mother, Lisa.

"There was a special connection there," the quarterback said, "and I know she felt it, too."

Coach Nick Saban did nothing to woo his mom, Bateman said. He played it straight. No red carpet. Then again, Saban may not roll out the red carpet for his own mother. Or Mother Teresa.

At Michigan, the coaches paid special care to Jennifer Morris as they recruited her son, Shane, long committed to the Wolverines as a quarterback out of Warren (Mich.) De La Salle Collegiate.

"She was the first person they talked to," Shane Morris said. "Surprisingly, I think that's the thing a lot of coaches neglect. It should be the complete opposite.

"As you grow up, you realize your mom knows everything. She knows what's best for you, too. And most of the time, she's right. So you've got to follow that."

The dynamic plays differently in each recruiting scenario. For Honolulu Punahou School linebacker Isaac Savaiinaea, No. 140 in the ESPN 150, it's complicated.

[+] EnlargeShane Morris
Miller Safrit/ESPNMichigan commit Shane Morris believes more coaches should reach out to a recruit's mother first.

He backed out of an early commitment to Stanford, realizing he acted prematurely. Now, he's down to UCLA and Texas A&M. His mother, Syvette Johnston, visited UCLA with him, but not A&M.

Guess which school she prefers?

"I especially liked the coaches at UCLA," she said.

On Savaiinaea's visit for the Nov. 3 Arizona game, UCLA coaches paired Johnston with the mother of defensive back Randall Goforth. They tailgated together and talked.

"It was just a feeling of reassurance," Johnston said. "Coaches can tell you what you want to hear, but it was nice to hear it from another mom."

Johnston said she was surprised that Savaiinaea liked his visit to A&M in September. She regrets missing the trip but has established a nice relationship, she said, with A&M assistant coach Brian Polian, who recruited Manti Te'o from Punahou to Notre Dame.

"I'd say she's the facilitator of everything," Savaiinaea said. "She makes sure I've got my head on straight. We argue about it, but she knows it's my decision and she supports me."

Despite the occasional fireworks and the rare awkward moment on TV, so often, in the end, it boils down to a simple truth: Mother knows best.