Final drive for football recruits
The black car idled outside Crenshaw High, waiting to whisk Brian Price to USC.
Price, a highly regarded defensive lineman, had committed to UCLA months before and had told USC coaches he was not interested in an official visit to their campus.
USC scheduled one anyway -- and sent the conspicuous vehicle to deliver Price to Heritage Hall last month.
Price did not get into the chauffeur-driven automobile -- a Lincoln Town Car, according to USC; a limousine, according to Price’s father and other witnesses -- but its arrival at Crenshaw was emblematic of the never-quit recruiting mentality that helped fuel USC’s return to prominence and, according to some experts, has lately infused UCLA as well.
“Both schools are clearly among the programs that are trying to take away committed players from other schools -- and they are very capable of doing it,” said Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for Scout.com and publisher of SuperPrep magazine. “A lot of schools don’t pay any attention whatsoever if a kid commits because that’s when the recruiting really begins.
“It’s a no-holds-barred free-for-all and you just better hope you’re left standing because until those kids are signed, they could wind up anywhere.”
After USC had shut out UCLA at the Coliseum in the Trojans’ final regular-season game of the 2001 season, USC Coach Pete Carroll and his assistants had the streets of Southern California virtually to themselves.
As they mined the Southland for talent, Trojans coaches rarely crossed paths with their Bruins counterparts. South Los Angeles, in particular, was devoid of recruiters wearing UCLA’s blue and gold.
But UCLA has made inroads. And spurred by the Bruins’ upset of the Trojans last December, the weeks leading up to today’s national signing day were rife with examples of a rivalry that has once again heated up.
Besides battling for Price, USC and UCLA vied for Verbum Dei High defensive end Akeem Ayers, who has committed to UCLA, and Long Beach Poly defensive back Donovan Warren, who last week reportedly de-committed from USC and committed to Michigan. Anaheim Servite linebacker Chris Galippo, who committed to USC more than a year ago, said UCLA had remained in constant contact.
USC began today with 16 commitments, UCLA 11.
Carroll declined to comment about recruiting against UCLA but acknowledged that the Trojans continued to pursue top prospects, locally and nationally, regardless of whether they had committed to other schools.
“It depends on the situation and the guy: How much work has been done, how well we know him, what the circumstances were of the commitment,” Carroll said. “There is no set pattern to it at all.”
Through an athletic department spokesman, UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said that neither he nor his assistants would comment for this story because they did not want opposing coaches to know their philosophy.
Last week, UCLA received a commitment from Verbum Dei defensive end Justin Edison, who had originally committed to Oregon State. Loyola High defensive back Chris Conte committed to UCLA after previously having committed to California. In both cases, the Bruins turned up the recruiting pressure after the prospect had committed.
Greg Biggins, director of recruiting for StudentSportsFootball.com, said the recruiting approaches at UCLA and USC were direct reflections of Dorrell’s and Carroll’s personalities.
“When a kid says no to UCLA, they will still recruit him, but not with anywhere near the passion of USC,” Biggins said. "[UCLA] will politely make a phone call once in a while. SC is just a different breed.”
Though USC is on track to land one of the nation’s top recruiting classes for the fifth consecutive year, the Trojans are not immune to losing players who had given commitments. James Wilson, a lineman from Florida, committed to USC last August. But last month, Wilson changed his mind and said he would sign with Florida.
Camarillo High quarterback Samson Szakacsy, who committed to USC last May, said this week that he would sign with Arizona State.
“We know exactly how it works,” said Steve Sarkisian, USC’s quarterbacks coach. “We know the toughest two weeks are the last two weeks.”
It was just more than two weeks ago that USC made its play for the 6-foot-3, 270-pound Price, setting off a flurry of rumors on the recruiting grapevine.
NCAA rules forbid the use of limousines or helicopters to transport recruits during official paid visits, but luxury sedans, such as Town Cars, can be permissible, according to NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson.
Price said he had told Trojans assistant coach Ken Norton Jr. on Jan. 18 that he would not make an official visit to USC. Price said he was in his fourth-period class at Crenshaw the next day when he was informed, “there’s a limo waiting outside for you to come to USC.”
Price’s father, Frank, who works as a softball coach at Crenshaw, said he then called Norton to tell him his son would not be getting into the limousine.
Asked if he knew the difference between a Town Car and a stretch limousine, Frank Price said, “That limo was long. That was no Town Car.”
NCAA rules prohibit coaches from speaking about recruits until they have signed letters of intent, so Carroll declined to comment specifically about Price. He said, however, that office staff made transportation arrangements for recruits and that he did not know the name of the car service that USC used.
Speaking generally, Carroll said, “We would anticipate that when you send a car to pick someone up, they will be picked up in a Town Car. That’s standard operating procedure. That’s what we expect.”
A USC athletic department spokesman said the school’s compliance office had requested a receipt from the car service and that the receipt showed a sedan had been ordered and was sent to Crenshaw.
The spokesman said compliance officials were satisfied that no violation had occurred and were no longer investigating the matter.
He declined to provide The Times with the name of the car service.
USC planned to unveil its recruiting class on the Internet this afternoon, offering fans biographies and highlight videos of every signee.
Trojans coaches said they would keep pushing until the signed letters were received. UCLA coaches will probably do the same.
“It’s like marriage,” Todd McNair, USC running backs coach, said. “Until they walk down that aisle and say, ‘I do,’ you stay after it.”
Times staff writer Lonnie White contributed to this report.