MIAMI -- To this day, many involved with the recruiting of Garden City (Kan.) Community College's Jeff Kelly call it one of the most compelling blue-chip battles in Big 12 history. Now 17 years later, Kelly is the defensive coordinator at Garden City and uses that experience to help him become a better recruiter.
In 1996, Kelly had just finished a record-breaking sophomore season at Garden City as a middle linebacker and was one of the nation’s most heavily courted players. He liked his visit to Oregon, but he fell in love with Kansas State on a trip to Manhattan, Kan. and committed. The Wildcats sold him on the idea that he was the missing piece in their emerging program, and nobody was recruiting him harder than then-K-State assistant Brent Venables.
On the way from his home in LaGrange, Texas back to Garden City after the semester break, he was persuaded to take an official visit to Oklahoma by then-coach John Blake. That’s when his life got turned upside down.
“I liked it and committed,” Kelly said. “He sold me with the Dallas Cowboys’ Super Bowl rings. (Blake had been on the Cowboys’ staff.)
“He sold my pops, too, because we were big Dallas Cowboy fans growing up in Texas. I honestly got caught up in the whole situation and made a decision I thought was best for me without really thinking about it.”
Through the prodding of OU coaches and the efforts of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M’s football staff, Kelly immediately enrolled in classes at NEO for the spring semester so he would be closer to the Sooners. He failed to let anybody else know of his decision. His parents, his coaches back at Garden City and the coaches at K-State had no clue where he was.
Venables, now the defensive coordinator at Clemson, and veteran Wildcat defensive line coach Mo Latimore eventually figured out what was happening and made a beeline to NEO, where they started searching apartment parking lots near campus for Kelly’s vehicle. They found it and the apartment he just moved into. The coaches knocked on the apartment door and introduced themselves to an unsuspecting roommate as coaches from Oklahoma. Moments later, Kelly appeared at the door, speechless.
Kelly recommitted to the Wildcats that night and went on to become an All-American at K-State. He helped the Wildcats advance to their first Big 12 title game in 1998, played in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars and now finds himself in the same situation as the college coaches that once recruited him.
“I understand where these kids come from,” Kelly said. “I understand why they commit and decommit. They go see places that they've never seen. You get caught up in the atmosphere and the life, and you don't get to thinking. You look at the fantasy part of it.
“I think my experiences as a recruit and how it all went down with me have made me a better recruiter. When I get these kids, it's just all about telling the truth and helping them with the right life decisions.”
Kelly is still close with Venables and considers him the best recruiter he’s ever seen. While Kelly was a graduate assistant at Oklahoma and Venables was on the coaching staff, they had a number of conversations about what makes a good recruiter, and Kelly soaked up every bit of advice offered.
"He taught me you have to learn your kids," Kelly said. "He always said 'Learn where they came from. Find out what kind of parents they have. Try to find out every bit of information you can about them, and that's how you'll know how to approach them.'
“He taught me to find where they're missing love, what kind of friendship you need to develop with them and how you need to talk to them. Is it aggressive talk? Is it a sit-back talk and let the kid talk? He helped me realize early on the relationship is the most important thing in recruiting.”