Per square mile, the I-10 corridor between Houston and New Orleans attracts more college head coaches from Power 5 schools, FBS mid-majors and various FCS programs than any other geographic area in the country.
Now, I don’t have any scientific data to support that claim, mind you, except what I’ve gleaned from the years of talking to head coaches about how talent-rich and fertile those 347 miles are for athletes in not only football — which grabs all the headlines in December and February — but for most any other sport universities that may offer a scholarship (minus lacrosse and hockey).
Just imagine the colorful crisscross of coach’s sports coats that venture in and out of the lowlands of Southeast Texas and South Louisiana every recruiting season. And that’s not to mention the occasional private plane bearing the emblems of Alabama, Clemson, Georgia or Michigan.
On any given recruiting trip, Nick Saban might bump into Ed Orgeron or Dabo Swinney. Florida’s Dan Mullen may cross paths with Texas coach Tom Herman or the Aggies’ Jimbo Fisher. The Big 10’s Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh were no doubt within 10 swamp miles of each other, but probably ordered their pilots or private chauffeurs to steer clear. If you haven’t heard, the Buckeyes and Wolverines have no love lost.
College recruiters, assistant coaches, highly paid coordinators and those multi-, multi-million dollar nationally known head coaches from nearly every major conference in the country, have made their annual treks navigating the back roads and highways along the southernmost I-10 stretch in search of football speed, brawn and grit, or that next .300 hitter or 98 mph fastball.
You can bet that even LSU’s legendary gymnastics coach D.D. Breaux can field her entire elite squad with home zip codes between Houston and New Orleans if she chooses to. Of course, she doesn’t have to, as she has a waiting list of top gymnasts from around the country who want to wear the purple and gold.
McNeese coach Lance Guidry has a treasure trove of recruiting stories from his years of working I-10. So do former Cowboys coaches Matt Viator (UL-Monroe), Bobby Keasler, Tommy Tate, Kirby Bruchhaus. They have all crossed paths with the Power 5 big boys; all the coaches from the Southland and Sun Belt conferences — most notably U.L.-Lafayette, along with Grambling, Southern and Louisiana Tech.
Remarkably, there is enough high school talent to go around.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts is from Houston. He was coached by his father at Channelview High School. Clemson running back Travis Etienne was a Jennings Bulldog just two years ago. Two of the NFL’s best receivers, Odell Beckhem, Jr., and Jarvis Landry, played at LSU; both are from New Orleans high schools.
The stories of Clemson’s plane landing in Jennings or a private jet from Tuscaloosa, Austin or Ann Arbor seen in New Orleans and Baton Rouge are not urban myths.
Recruiting is the life blood and foundation of every collegiate program, no matter the size or sport. And the universities, if they are able, pull out all the bells and whistles; dedicate countless hours and log thousands of miles and travel time courting and selling to these very young athletes.
The players are just one part of the puzzle. The recruiters, mostly position coaches at the beginning of the process, have to form strong bonds and relationships to the very influential high school coaches as well. And, of course, there are the moms and dads who can have the final say so of who goes where.
Guidry’s recruiting skills go way back to his early days as an assistant coach and coordinator at McNeese. He continued his pitch with stops at Miami of Ohio and Western Kentucky. He says the key to working the I-10 corridor is getting on a player early, gaining the trust of the high school coaches and never lying just to secure the final commitment.
“We depend on Interstate 10. We depend on Houston and New Orleans as our bloodline, and we can’t go wrong with those high school coaches in that area. We never lie to them (the players and coaches). Ever. At McNeese, we never lie to them. Because if they get here and something is not what you said, then you have unhappy kids.”
Guidry explained further that if a recruit becomes unhappy and disenchanted, he will transfer out, and that leaves the program with an even bigger problem and a future concern over depth and the number of position players on the roster.
In the recruiting vernacular, there are the “chasers,” who are the position assistant coaches. They scout and get leads on prep players and begin the initial contact with both the players and their high school coaches. That can be a long process, which in recent years has started as early as the junior high level if the athlete shows elite abilities.
Yes, there are examples where a junior high schooler was offered and promised a four-year scholarship by one of the large Power 5 FBS schools.
Once the “chaser” is done, the “closer,” usually the coordinator or head coach, will swoop in to seal the deal and get the player to commit. That commitment is verbal and not binding until the player signs the actual letter of intent with the school.
There was just such an oral commitment with 5 Star recruit Patrick Surtain, Jr., from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The highly rated cornerback and son of former NFL All Pro defensive back Patrick Surtain, appeared to be committed to LSU, but reversed course just before the February national signing date, and signed with Alabama.
Surtain, who had been recruited by LSU secondary coach Corey Raymond since the ninth grade, told SEC Country he was very emotional and cried about having to say no to LSU after years of being committed to the Tigers. In the end, Surtain, Jr., says, he wanted to play for a championship program, and Alabama has the titles.
That’s the recruiting wars. And believe me, it’s a war out on the recruiting trails. All that time and work for naught. Sometimes, a coach’s future and employment depends on his ability to sell and sway 18-year-olds, who at times are immature, egotistical and irresponsible.
But there are two sides to every story.
Recruiters and coaches can also be egotistical, irresponsible and downright dishonest. At times, they may offer the moon, and in the end, deliver empty promises.
LSU head coach Ed Orgeron is a legendary recruiter and “closer” going back to his early days at the University of Miami, Syracuse, Southern Cal, Tennessee and Ole Miss. Orgeron was good enough to sign 5 Star recruit Michael Oher to Ole Miss, as depicted in the popular movie The Blind Side.
His acting skills in the movie were far better than those of Nick Saban, who made a cameo appearance. But since then, Saban has bettered him where it counts — and that’s on the real recruiting front.
In the end, you’re not going to sign every top-flight recruit high on your board. But teams have to secure enough talent in high-profile positions with glaring needs.
Saban and the Crimson Tide got a few headline recruits going back to the new early signing period back in December and again in February. But it was Kirby Smart and Georgia who signed the top recruiting class of the year, according to the various recruiting guru services that measure these things.
LSU, despite some misses, still came in with the 13th highest-ranked class. How the final ratings are tabulated is anyone’s guess, and you won’t really know whether they’re accurate for at least two years, when the talent finally gets on the field or court.
I honestly can’t think of one of McNeese’s all-time great Hall of Fame caliber players who didn’t come from the I-10 south land between the Houston area stretching to New Orleans. Kerry Joseph, Buford Jordan, Zack Bronson, Leonard Smith, Brian Smith, Kavita Pittman, Stephen Starring, Toddrick Pendland, Tony Citizen, Vick King, Derrick Fourroux, B.J. Sams, Charlie Aryo, Wayne Cordova, R.C. Slocum and Don Breaux. The list can go on and on.
They all come from Southeast Texas to Baton Rouge/New Orleans and Cajun towns in between.
It’s fertile ground for football, basketball and baseball talent that’s targeted by coaches and schools from around the country.
For McNeese to succeed and contend for championships, it must protect its backyard from poachers. And you have to have coaches who know the lay of the land and how to work it.
“I kind of felt as a recruiter, I had things lined up beforehand. I’ve been around all types of people my whole life, whether they were rich or poor. Whether they were white or whether they were black. Cajun or Texan — whatever. So, I have a broad spectrum of people I have been around. Athletes, non-athletes. Different types of athletes. I’ve seen recruiting from every angle, as a high school coach, college assistant coach, coordinator and head coach,” Guidry said.
The Cowboys’ head coach, who’s returning for his third season after a well-documented flirtation and discussion with Florida State, says he “has a feel for people and what they want to hear and what they are looking for.
“When I get into a home, I feel I can relate to just about anybody. I do enjoy recruiting. I enjoy closing. What I enjoy most about recruiting is the evaluation: evaluating [a kid] and projecting him about how he will play and relate to our defense or offense.”
The work of recruiting has changed over just the last 10 years with the internet, recruiting sites and services, social media, bloggers, Instagram and just the bigness of college football in general.
Guidry admitted the players have changed along with it. Instant gratification, media attention, visions of grandeur, among other things, are factors now.
The need for speed means the powers from the North and Midwest, like Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, Pitt and Notre Dame, now readily recruit the South from Texas and Louisiana to Florida.
Players along Interstate 10 now get attention, letters, emails and offers from Pac 12 out west, Big 10 up north and the ACC to the east. The increased recruiting competition and the ease of internet communications has made it tougher on McNeese, so the Cowboys have also ventured out of their normal boundaries.
Out of their 18 signees in February, 10 players are from Houston, Southwest Texas and South Louisiana. But six recruits hail from north Texas (Arlington, Sachse) or west Texas, with one player coming in from Sebastian, Fla., on the east coast of the state.
The Cowboys have had to expand their reach and brand. But the swamps and rice fields along I-10 have been the harvest ground of McNeese recruiting for decades, and that won’t change, no matter how many sightings there are of Saban, Meyer, Herman, Harbaugh, Swinney or Fisher.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 nightly, Monday through Sunday evenings, at 9 pm; broadcast on Suddenlink channel 4.