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Monday, August 8, 2011
They have 'it'

By Mitch Sherman
ESPN Recruiting

He's had almost six years to reflect, so it's all clear now. But even on Nov. 26, 2005, Urban Meyer knew something big had just happened at Florida.

Ten games into his tenure in Gainesville, Meyer felt his first season slipping after a loss at South Carolina. The Gators dropped to 7-3 after a third defeat in six weeks. Chemistry was bad, the coach said, so he made a few personnel changes. Two weeks of good practice followed.

As Meyer remembers that regular-season finale, every key player on the Gators' recruiting board jammed into their locker room for the FSU game, including quarterback Tim Tebow and receiver Percy Harvin.

"And at the end of the night," Meyer said, "they all wanted to come to Florida."

Florida won 34-7. Something more significant, though, went down within the walls of The Swamp: A giant was reborn. Florida morphed into an "it" program in recruiting. Just like that.

Tebow and Harvin committed within three weeks. ESPN ranked the Gators' 2006 class No. 1 nationally. Three of the next four years, Florida finished 13-1. It won a pair of BCS titles.

"Lightning in a bottle," Meyer said. "College football is all recruiting. That was the impetus to the following four years. It's the turning point in an era of Florida football."

The transformation can happen overnight, or it can take the more traditional, gradual route -- built on the wings of a championship run or over multiple seasons.

Regardless, it's the spot so many college football programs covet. The "it" programs get their choice of premier prospects, often fighting other hot schools for the nation's top recruits.

The "it" status has existed for decades. Used to be, the hot programs would come and go. But in today's recruiting culture, with prospects more connected than ever through social networking, in-season travel and busy offseason camp and combine schedules, the recruiting powers appear more entrenched than ever.

"There's always been a peer group influence and a herd mentality," said Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne, who won 255 games over 25 years of coaching at the school from 1973 to 1997. "I would say the thing that has changed is the social networking."

Osborne said Nebraska, even during its 60-3 stretch 15 years ago, made most of its recruiting decisions in December, give or take a few weeks.

"The whole thing has accelerated," he said. "Some of these decisions schools make -- I won't say they're risky -- but they're a bit on the premature side."

The result: Classes stocked with commitments before the pledges have played a down as seniors. The top four teams in the 2012 team rankings, usual suspects Texas, Florida State, Florida and Alabama, have already gathered 66 commitments. Scottsdale (Ariz.) Chaparral Texas quarterback commit Connor Brewer, rated the No. 3 player at his position nationally, accepted the Longhorns' offer five days after UT signed its 2011 class in February.

Brewer said he didn't fall for the "it" school label, but he picked Texas for many of the reasons that give UT such a classification.

"The facilities, Mack Brown, the whole atmosphere, everything there intrigued me," Brewer said. "I couldn't think of a place I'd rather be."

He helped steer others toward Texas and rubbed elbows in July at The Opening in Oregon with Aleto (Texas) High School's Johnathan Gray, the nation's No. 2 RB and No. 8 overall prospect, and Austin (Texas) Stephen F. Austin's Cayleb Jones, the nation's No. 2 receiver. Both are committed to Texas.

"It was awesome being around those guys so early," Brewer said. "They're big-time players. We built a great relationship. I can't wait to be their teammates."

Brewer said he's talked with all but one or two of the Longhorns' 18 pledges.

This is not how recruiting worked 10 years ago.

"Years ago, they showed up as a freshmen, and that was the first they'd met," Meyer said. "Nowadays, especially at a place like Florida, they're all playing together in all-star games. And because of Facebook and television, they all know about each other."

So in recruiting, at least, the strong get stronger. Counting the in-progress 2012 rankings, seven programs -- Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Florida, Texas, USC and LSU -- occupy 18 of 20 top-five spots in the ESPN team rankings since 2009.

The other two spots? Michigan and Oklahoma, not exactly your mid-major overachieving types.

Of course, players pick schools for a multitude of reasons -- among them facilities, the chance to play early, weather, academics, coaches, proximity to home, co-eds, the opportunity to win and make it to the NFL.

The disappearing communication gap plays only a partial role in the rise to prominence of a recruiting giant.

"I often felt that some kids made decisions based on very superficial factors," Osborne said. "Somebody had a party. They went to the beach. They went skiing. It probably had very little to do with what they would be doing in four years as a student-athlete."

At Nebraska, Osborne said, his staff encouraged prospects to bring their parents on recruiting trips.

"Once they went home, you knew some of the superficial stuff would get dismantled," the former coach said. "We wanted to make an impression that would last."

At the recent Big Ten media days, several college veterans said they recognized the risky lure of hot programs more now than as high school seniors.

"I can't really speak from experience," said Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins, lightly recruited out of Holland, Mich., "but there's no doubt it would be tempting to go play at USC or Florida or Texas. Everybody has their factors, but you have to look at the big picture."

Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David arrived in Lincoln after a stint at Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College after graduating from Miami Northwestern in 2008 with eight Miami signees.

"I wanted to go there as well," David said.

They haven't made quite the same impact as Florida's 2006 group. The Hurricanes won 16 games over the past two years and coach Randy Shannon lost his job.

"You've got to be there for four years," Robinson said. "My high school coach and mom told me, 'You're signing your life away, so you can't just go to whatever school is hyped.'

"A lot of kids did that, and some of them regret it."

Coaches regularly turn seemingly minor victories in recruiting into major success on the field. But those who benefit from the "it" program mentality, like Meyer in winning 65 games over six years at Florida, aren't about to apologize.

It's part of college football, according to Meyer.

"Every situation in recruiting is unique," he said, "but one thing you can't deny is that kids continue to make decisions they believe will help them be a part of something great."

Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mshermanespn@gmail.com.

Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter @mitchsherman