Will recruits stay true blue to UCLA?
Aundre Dean, Katy High running back and UCLA recruit, has a lot on his mind these days.
It is a hectic week in Texas for many cities and small towns from the Rio Grande to Red River. The football playoffs start tonight and Katy is the second-ranked team in Class 5A, which in Texas terms means the Tigers are only slightly less important to locals as remembering the Alamo.
Still, Dean can’t help doing a little California dreaming. He was one of 23 players who have committed to play at UCLA in 2008. He made his decision in April, though, back when the Bruins still had a Texas-sized hope for their 2007 season.
But a disappointing season has put UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell’s job in jeopardy and caused some concern among the team’s latest group of recruits. Dean says he is still committed to UCLA, but the volatile situation has him taking precautions. He arranged extra recruiting trips to Louisiana State and Kansas State.
“If everything stays the same, if [Dorrell] stays, then good,” Dean said.
“I’ve got to have a backup plan,” Dean said.
Given this uncertainty, Dorrell gathered as many recruits and their families as possible at UCLA on Monday.
Dorrell and his staff have a murky future as a season of promise has turned into another IOU to UCLA fans. The Bruins have a 5-5 record after losing four of their last five games, and have tumbled out of the Pacific 10 Conference title race.
But the losing does not concern recruits nearly as much as Dorrell’s shaky future. This is a delicate dance for a coach on the brink. The Bruins are expected to have a top-flight recruiting class next fall, provided everything goes as planned.
That was a topic of discussion Monday, as a source familiar with the program said, “It had to be addressed and it was.”
Asked how he handles recruiting in these uncertain times, Dorrell said, “You have to go business as usual. I’m going to continue to work hard on the field, off the field, recruiting, and all the stuff that’s my obligation to do. I’m sure they hear the information that [the media] has presented out there. I’ve got to continue to do my job.”
Recruits, though, are wondering if the job will still be his next season. Milton Knox, a running back at Lake Balboa Birmingham, will make recruiting visits to Florida and Colorado, and Florida coaches are already expected to offer him a scholarship.
“I am not de-committing [to UCLA],” Knox said. “I’m thinking about Plan A, where nothing goes wrong and [Dorrell’s] the coach there. If not, then I have to meet the new coach that comes in. If we’re in agreement, we’re cool.”
That underscores a reality that debunks the theory that changing coaches will automatically break up a recruiting class.
“You shouldn’t underestimate these kids,” said Allen Wallace, publisher of SuperPrep Magazine. “They have made a decision on what school to go to based on a lot of reasons. They may not be pushed away because a school loses a coach.
“In a class of 25 kids, you might lose that one guy, but the majority of these kids are smart enough to know that most things are transitory. Just because a guy is leaving doesn’t mean everything he said about the school isn’t true.”
Rahim Moore, a defensive back from Los Angeles Dorsey, said the diversity of UCLA appealed to him, as did the academic possibilities.
“I like the atmosphere,” Moore said. “I love all the trees and grassy areas, it’s beautiful. People come out of there with a good degree, where you’re guaranteed to make $80,000 to $100,000 in that first job.”
Still, Moore has gone on additional recruiting trips to Georgia and Arizona State.
“I’m still down with UCLA, no matter what,” Moore said. “I’m not going to leave. I stuck by them, but it’s always good to have a backup plan.”
Moore continues to get calls from other schools trying to entice him away. Until a player signs, he is fair game and poaching is common practice.
Some players who committed to UCLA said that coaches from other schools have used Dorrell’s status as leverage. “I wanted to be different,” Knox said. “I didn’t want to go to a school that stockpiles players. I want to stay true to my commitment.”
Yet, “you always got to have a Plan B,” Knox said.
Dorrell and his staff decided two weeks ago to meet with recruits and arranged Monday’s meeting to try to quiet concerns. Dorrell, recruits said, made an impressive speech and families had a chance to express their worries, which focused on the coaching staff’s future, according to a UCLA source at the meeting.
“Coach Dorrell is real genuine, he’s cool,” Moore said. “This was one of the biggest decisions in my life and I had to make sure it is one of the great ones.”
Said Wallace: “Recruiting is all about relationships. It sounds trite, and it’s overused, but this is about men working incredibly hard to get to know kids quickly.”
Those relationships, many in the Los Angeles area forged by assistant coaches DeWayne Walker and Eric Scott, create a safety net during a difficult season. The efforts of Walker and Scott, coupled with a 13-9 victory over USC in 2006, opened doors in the Los Angeles area that had been closed to UCLA in the past.
During a seven-day period in March, the Bruins picked up oral commitments from 10 local players. “As long as Coach Walker stays there and Coach Scott stays there, I’m still there,” Moore said.
But the focus shifted from selling the program to maintaining the class, a chore that does not seem to have been affected by the Bruins’ record.
“I really can care less about a national championship [this season],” Moore said. “In 10 years, our class will be the ones that came in and gave UCLA a whole new vibe.”
But when it comes to a possible coaching change, recruits have a little less zeal.
“I’m not basing where I go to school just because of football and the one season they have had,” Dean said. “I loved the coaching staff. That’s the one reason I decided to go so far away to school. My parents forced me to take a recruiting visit there and the coaches made me feel at home. That was definitely a factor.”
And if that becomes an ex-coach factor?
Said Dean: “It will change things.”