The buddy system helps in recruiting
Steve Sarkisian clutched his cellphone and let it blare.
It didn’t ring. It didn’t chime.
For effect, the Washington Huskies’ new football coach then held the phone up to James Boyd, star quarterback and defensive end of the Los Angeles Jordan High Bulldogs.
Boyd smiled, having received the intended message.
Dogs should stay together.
Only weeks earlier, Sarkisian and Huskies defensive coordinator Nick Holt had been part of a USC coaching staff counting on a commitment from Boyd to come and play defense for the Trojans. Having since been hired by Washington, they were now trying to entice Boyd to switch allegiances.
And so, huddled over a corner table at the Watts Coffee House one morning last week, the Huskies’ coaches met with Boyd in the presence of his high school coach, two teammates and a reporter.
Holt sat at the head of the table with junior receiver Deshawn Beck to his left, then Boyd, Sarkisian, Jordan Coach Elijah Asante opposite Holt, and, circling back around, the reporter and senior receiver Delvon Purvis -- who, by the time Boyd officially signs an NCAA letter of intent one week from today, might become the most influential person at the meeting.
Purvis is a mid-range recruit -- three stars out of a possible five by most experts -- a player thought to have plenty of potential who is not high enough on any major college’s wish list to have yet attracted a scholarship offer.
He’s tight with Boyd, though, and Washington has invited both of them on a recruiting trip to Seattle this weekend.
“I just want to get him to a Division I school,” Boyd would later say of his teammate.
Washington might be willing. By offering Purvis a scholarship and Boyd the chance to play quarterback, the Huskies have hopes of stealing the highly coveted Boyd away from USC.
College coaches cannot comment on recruits until they sign letters of intent, but Asante called Purvis “an integral person in this process.”
“It’s really like a Rubik’s cube with a lot of pieces and everyone’s scrambling at the last second,” the high school coach said. “One move affects five other moves.”
Similar maneuvers are playing out across the country as coaches make a final push to secure commitments and sway loyalties in the run-up to national signing day Feb. 4. For example, UCLA has received commitments from a pair of mid-level recruits from Honolulu Punahou High, the home of All-American linebacker Manti Te’o, the nation’s top uncommitted prospect.
“You’ll see it a couple of times every year,” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting expert for CBS College Sports Television. “BCS-type schools will try to bring in a buddy or a teammate to land a great player. And a lot of times it does work.”
It’s a calculated risk. Sometimes schools get stuck with the lesser player if the star decides to go elsewhere.
Scholarship offers can be rescinded until the paperwork is officially signed, but “that’s a real bad PR move,” Lemming said. “Most of the time they’re going to have to bite the bullet and take the other player anyway.”
Oral commitments such as the one Boyd has made to USC are not binding, and Washington’s coaches aren’t the only ones out there seeking to flip recruits. Just last week, Harbor City Narbonne receiver Byron Moore Jr. decommitted from USC -- this after he had switched to the Trojans after first saying he would attend UCLA. And Carson tight end Morrell Presley enrolled at UCLA after first committing to USC.
“Bobby Bowden is doing it. Joe Paterno is doing it. Pete Carroll is doing it,” Asante said. “It’s on. Game on right now.”
Asante also has a stake in the game. Equipped with a law degree from USC and bigger aspirations than coaching on the high school level, Asante made several not-so-subtle references about being added to the Washington staff as a quarterbacks coach. Evidence of similar quid pro quo arrangements can be found throughout big-time college athletics, with coaches, friends and relatives of star recruits often finding employment connected with the university.
Holt played along, quizzing the coach about some of the formations that helped make Jordan’s passing offense the most prolific in California last season. Asante meticulously spelled out plays dubbed “Fried Chicken,” “Fried Meatloaf” and “Al-Qaeda” -- a triple pass that got its name, the coach explained, because it “terrorizes defenses.”
Pressed about his involvement later, Asante said he’s primarily serving a larger purpose: getting as many players as possible to major colleges and out of the inner city. The importance of this endeavor recently became clear to the coach when he took Purvis to the sand dunes at Manhattan Beach.
It was the first time the teenager had seen the ocean.
“When he saw the water, he said, ‘Is that the water? Is that the beach?’ ” Asante said. “And this is at 17 years old. It really blew my mind.”
The Washington coaches converged for their recruiting visit at a hair salon owned by Asante at the corner of Wilmington Avenue and 107th Street in South L.A.
By the time Sarkisian pulled up in a Cadillac Escalade, Purvis had already planted himself in a swivel chair and was watching his own highlight DVD set to rap music. Soon Holt, Boyd and Beck arrived and everyone viewed Purvis’ highlights on a flat-screen television perched high on a wall.
The group reconvened a few minutes later at the coffee house, sitting at a table surrounded by pictures of black luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Even though NCAA rules forbid college coaches from contact with underclassmen, Asante had asked Beck, his budding star, to tag along in preparation for the deluge of recruiting visits that will ensue next season.
Between bites of waffles, scrambled eggs and bacon, Sarkisian spoke excitedly about Boyd’s official visit Friday to Seattle, telling the recruit he would be put up on the 36th floor of a swank downtown hotel, in a room with panoramic views.
Boyd wanted to know how far downtown was from the airport, having recently endured a 90-minute commute from Portland, Ore., to Corvallis during a recruiting trip to Oregon State. Sarkisian assured him it was only 10 minutes.
The players and coaches quickly moved on to a second course, baskets of fried chicken and french fries accompanied by pitchers of pink lemonade. Holt asked Boyd about his stats and the player answered, only to be corrected by Asante, who noted that the City Section player of the year had passed for 44 touchdowns with only 17 interceptions.
“Those are better than Barkley’s stats,” Holt said, eliciting laughter from everyone at the table with his reference to USC-bound quarterback Matt Barkley of Santa Ana Mater Dei High.
As the banter between the coaches and players began to wane, Asante’s salesmanship veered into overdrive. The coach pitched a pair of linemen at nearby Compton Centennial and another player at L.A. Verbum Dei that he felt the Washington coaches should take a look at.
Asante handed Sarkisian his cellphone and told him to leave a message for Centennial Coach Eric Scott.
“Hey, E. Scott, this is Sark,” Sarkisian said. “I want to come see your guys.”
Before they left, Holt and Sarkisian hashed out their schedules for the rest of the day and made plans to attend Jordan’s basketball game later in the afternoon to catch up with Boyd and Purvis, who are members of the team.
There were handshakes and smiles all around as the meal -- paid for by Asante -- ended. The Washington coaches had won over at least one of the players -- Purvis.
“They are cool guys who I would love to play for,” he said.
As for Boyd, the Huskies are still fighting an uphill battle.
A few days after Boyd met with the Washington coaches, USC sent a Lincoln Town Car to pick him up for his official visit. The Trojans put Boyd up at the downtown L.A. Marriott and so impressed him that he proclaimed them the runaway leader for his services.
“Right now it’s Southern Cal,” said Boyd, adding that he would announce his college decision Sunday afternoon after returning from Seattle. “Washington has to come up with a miracle.”
Might that miracle be spelled P-U-R-V-I-S?
Purvis said he wouldn’t mind being a bargaining chip as long as he got a scholarship.
“It wouldn’t matter to me,” he said. “I’d be cool with it.”