6 pm note: Wordpress acting stupid, I have no idea why this post isn't working, and am about at my wits end here. Try again, I think it is now.
With the bye week, I'd like to take this opportunity to go over a few things that I may have ignored or glossed over during the past month.
One big storyline coming out of the Maryland win was, of course, Joe Lefeged's triumphant return as the conquering native son. Which raises an interesting point - Lefeged grew up a Terp fan in the shadow of College Park. Scores of ACC, Big East, and Big Ten schools were after him. Joe has lived up to expectations from the moment he stepped foot on campus, so talent clearly wasn't an issue. In that case, why didn't Maryland offer him a football scholarship coming out of high school? Clearly, there must have been some underlying cause.
Ralph Friedgen and staff apparently preferred an unheralded safety from Newark with no other offers. Ok, you have to trust your eyes when it comes to scouting. Rutgers certainly hasn't offered every big name to come out of New Jersey over the past few years, for varying reasons. Even if those players bust, sometimes they create a pipeline that will hurt a program later on down the road. But when you don't go after these prospects, and they end up living to the hype and then some, there will inevitably be second guessing over passing up on the local product.
Moving along, this theme is kinda the undercurrent in Aditi's story on Tim Brown and Antonio Lowery last week. Having followed RU sports on the web for the past few years, I still remember the sentiment from late 2005 when the staff were going after those two players: how, how, how was the former Miami HC Larry Coker letting them through his grasp? I can recall watching their highlight tapes, and being utterly dumb-founded. There was no doubt whatsoever that each was good enough to play for the Hurricanes, or any other team, for that matter.
If I was in charge of the Miami football program, I wouldn't bother recruiting on a national level. Hell, I wouldn't cross the I-4 corridor with Tampa, Orlando, and Daytona Beach. Growing up in the Miami area is no picnic. Those kids have a certain toughness to them. It's not the Northeast, blue collar, lunchpail, I'll-punch-you-in-the-teeth brand of toughness. In a Pahokee (in the Everglades region, H/T to mgoblog), or certain parts of Dade County, football literally is your only shot to escape from a life of anguish. I'd assume that many of you are familiar with the Sean Taylor or Bryan Pata stories.
That's why, no matter how off-putting the whole "U" imagery can get at times, with their fatigues and Dennis Erickson-era cheating, I can't honestly bring myself to root against the University of Miami football team. In fact, when it comes to the media storylines surrounding, say, the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, or the Catholics vs. Convicts game, the coverage surrounding both was in retrospect thickly drenched in racism. These kids grew up with nothing. More of them will go to the NFL than from Northeastern Missouri State's roster, but most of them won't. Soon enough, they'll be going back to nothing. Why not let them have some fun in their otherwise brief, miserable existance? It's the same reason I'm indifferent towards any consternation related to recruits dramatically gesturing towards team caps before announcing their verbal commitments.
No region produces college football talent on the level of South Florida, and those kids by and large grow up worshiping Canes football. Butch Davis, the architect of their late nineties rebirth, understood this. Despite originally hailing from Arkansas, Davis had hooked up with Jimmy Johnson and co. early on, stemming from their connections to the Frank Broyle coaching tree in Fayetteville. He'd followed Johnson and staff from Oklahoma State, to Miami in its heyday, and the NFL's early 90s Dallas Cowboys (arguably, the spiritual successor to those Miami squads both on and off the field).
Unfortunately for the Miami program, Davis's successor, Larry Coker, did not understand this crucial point which had served his predecessors so well. Coker was from Texas, and had tunnel vision for branching out into the Lone Star state and nationwide. ACC and SEC also-rans resented Greg Schiano's camps in Florida to the point were they'd lobby for the so-called "Schiano rule", but Coker's designs on Texas were crucial for garnering support for the legislation nationwide.
As such, in trying to take the program national, Brown and Lowery slipped through Coker's grasp. He was eying every Rivals.com ***** player, and managed to let the local building blocks critical to the success of nearly every program slip through his grasp in the process. Coker neglected relationships with key South Florida programs, to say nothing of all of the other ways in which Coker corroded the once-prpud Miami program. At the same time, Greg Schiano and staff cultivated strong ties in the wake of that neglect, to the great benefit of Scarlet Knights football.
Unfortunately (for Rutgers), the new Miami HC Randy Shannon seems to get it. He's a local, who played for The U back in the Jimmy Johnson glory days. In fact, one of his first orders of business after taking over the HC reins was to offer a scholarship to Rutgers safety commit Joseph "JoJo" Nicolas. Nicolas ended up a backup on the deep Miami depth chart, and that seemed to be clear at the time, but the lure of staying home was just too much to overcome. It can always be hard to beat the hometown favorite; that's why Coach Schiano used a lot of brick and wall analogies earlier in his tenure.
That was a rough loss though. The Miami HC search was in complete disarray. Candidate after candidate, including Schiano, flat out turned them down. Nicolas was a verbal commitment for Rutgers, but time would always be the critical factor in his decision. The longer the process dragged out, the better our fans felt. Scramling for alternatives as their listed whittled down, Miami finally turned to Shannon, Coker's defensive coordinator. That move proved to be the decisive moment, as Shannon was determined to reestablish their local recruiting base. And, as a local, he knew that job #1 was re-establishing Howard Schnellenberger's famous "State of Miami".
Two years ago, I experienced a fit of Deja Vu akin to what had happened in 2005 upo learning of Brown and Antonio Lowery. There was this linebacker prospect out of Miami Northwestern named Sean Spence, and the reaction and enthusiasm towards him on Scarlet Nation represented nearly universal acclaim. Maybe Shannon was just another Larry Coker. No competent head coach could ever watch Spence's highlight film, and resist the urge to offer him on the spot. He looked that unstoppable; the best linebacker prospect I'd seen in about five years of following this stuff.
Thoughts abound: were Shannon and his assistants on drugs? What possible reason was there not to offer Spence? Could this lunacy somehow persist to signing day, giving Rutgers a glimmer of an outside chance? Alas, it was not meant to be. The Hurricane staff finally got their act together after seeing Spence in person at their summer camp, pulled the trigger on an offer in early August, and Spence wasted no time at all in committing to Miami, as NW prospects are apt to do. We would not be bringing in Antonio Lowery 2.0, complete with cybernetic armor upgrades and laser vision. Spence turned out to truly be that good, vindicating his early New Jersey admirers with an out of this world freshman season. Any remaining questions don't concern his supposed lack of size, but whether he'll stay for all four years on campus, or depart early to the NFL.
The leak has been plugged, at least momentarily. Now, the Rutgers football staff is still trying to re-establish their former foothold in South Florida which had served the program so well earlier in the decade. Part of the decline stemmed from several staff changes, and doing better on the home front, but there was a dropoff. Antwan Lowery last year was (literally) a big get, but it took hiring assistant Brian Jenkins on staff to start generating some buzz again in the region.
Rutgers will continue to get good football players from South Florida, but barring family connections, may not land players on the level of a Lowery or a Brown any time in the near future. Not before they can consistently finish in the top 25 every year. Enjoy the two of them while they still have eligibility left, and little brother Antwan for the next few seasons. And, if your travails ever bring you near Coker's new stomping grounds in San Antonio, you know who to thank for those two. Think he has any good TSU pointers?