- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
Give credit where it's due: Assistant coaches are the lifeblood of a college football program's ability to recruit. They're the guys who often live in airports and rental cars -- especially in January.
As valuable as ace recruiters are on staff, the head coach still has a role in the recruiting process, and sometimes a large one. He might serve as the closer, nailing down a commitment. Or he might enter along the way to steer an on-the-fence prospect.
Which head coaches are the biggest difference-makers on the recruiting trail? Who would you send to a home or high school if you, as a fan, were given a choice? And, if you're a peer, who would you least want to run into on the road?
One thing I thought about when working on this assignment was that head coaches' personalities, and the tones of their programs, are displayed in how they recruit. Coaches can be comparably effective recruiters despite strikingly varied makeups. Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin, for example, might be targeting the same kid even though they're very different guys who run very different programs.
Here's a look at the 10 college head coaches who are the most effective recruiters.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama Crimson Tide
Where to begin this discussion was obvious, even without other coaches weighing in. I recall a conversation I had this past fall with an SEC assistant. He said the recruiting rivalries in the conference are generally overrated; it's really more fraternal than anything. The only time the winds change, he said, is when Saban gets involved.
"You notice a difference," said the assistant. "It's really the only time [in the SEC]." The more involved he is with recruiting a kid, the more tension and aggressiveness increases from everyone else.
Why is Saban such an effective recruiter? Besides the doggedness, he does not hesitate to show off Bama's recent trends of (1) winning championships and (2) sending players to the NFL. When I was in Tuscaloosa in November, one staffer joked (sort of) that Saban prefers his players watch only two channels: The Weather Channel and the NFL Network.
Saban talks a lot, to everyone, about "the process" of building and sustaining a program through recruiting, development and execution. It might be coachspeak, but he drills it into his current and future players' brains -- and he has the results to back it up.
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State Buckeyes
I think the profile that Wright Thompson wrote this past summer in ESPN the Magazine's preview issue was really telling in the way that Meyer approaches the game and his job, including recruiting. Try as he might to govern it, Meyer seems to know only one speed and one way to approach things. That's why he quickly built winners at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and now Ohio State. "He's obsessed," said a coach who used to compete against Meyer in the SEC. "And that's why he wins."
If you're ticking off other coaches, like OSU ticked off Bret Bielema a year ago, you might be doing more correctly than incorrectly. (And Meyer had just started at OSU at the time.) More recently, he and his staff drew ire for going after Oregon commits when the Ducks lost Chip Kelly to the NFL. All's fair, right?
Does every program keep tabs on committed prospects who once showed interest or continue to show interest in their programs? Sure. But Meyer has never tap-danced in those instances. And that attitude has led to him landing a number of future stars.
I put Briles and Sumlin together because Sumlin followed Briles at Houston and then was on his heels in moving to a BCS-level program.
They certainly do things somewhat differently, but they're running two of the more exciting offenses in the country, which has proved extremely appealing to high school players. What quarterback, running back or receiver wouldn't want to be in their systems? It's video-game stuff, what they're doing. In one season, Johnny Manziel became a full-fledged star. Robert Griffin III put Baylor football back on the map. And it isn't just the quarterbacks; the programs are littered with NFL talent. Heck, the Bears currently have two centers in the league and Ivory Wade, Class of 2013, could be a third.
Briles is as close as college football has to coach Eric Taylor from "Friday Night Lights," going from Texas high schools to the Big 12.
Sumlin was the next big thing in coaching and now it's coming to fruition, with top talent at A&M in addition to resources and the best recruiting base in the country. He's as likable and down to earth of a high-level coach as there is, and that translates extremely well to living rooms and high schools.
Briles has long demonstrated that he's no one-hit wonder, and Sumlin is off to a brilliant start -- both on the field and in recruiting. The Aggies are currently No. 6 in our RecruitingNation class rankings.
5. Dabo Swinney, Clemson Tigers
Swinney was held over from Tommy Bowden's staff and he has done a nice job of continuing to recruit Georgia and Florida well for the Tigers, just as Bowden did. From C.J. Spiller to Sammy Watkins, Clemson has never had a shortage of Florida-bred playmakers.
Swinney leans on Clemson's history and beautiful scenery in upstate South Carolina. And he also leans on his faith as something to connect with recruits and their families. He isn't just talking the talk, either. He reached out a couple of years ago to a friend of mine who was suffering from cancer, even though he lived a few hours away from campus. Swinney had heard he was a Tigers fan and made an effort to comfort him in a time of need. Swinney has humility; he never forgets that he worked in corporate real estate before Bowden hired him.
It also was intriguing to see receivers coach Jeff Scott tweet out a picture of receiver Nuk Hopkins being baptized after practice last fall. While some media members scrutinized mixing religion and football, it plays well in a lot of homes -- especially in the South. Not saying that's why the staff wears its faith on its sleeve, but there aren't many out there doing it more than Clemson. Even one assistant in the South acknowledged that the Tigers' coaches, Swinney included, were "quick to go to the Bible card."
6. James Franklin, Vanderbilt Commodores
I got a kick Sunday night out of a tweet from Franklin: " … love recruiting & getting better but I must admit I am ready for signing day to get here." (He was in Macon, Ga.) I hear you, James. That's honesty worth appreciating. And it's good to know Franklin isn't a cyborg. He often appears tireless in selling and building his program -- and the program he's selling and building is, after all, Vanderbilt.
Winning nine games last season was quite a feat, but Franklin's enthusiasm is a big part of what he's doing in Music City. After all, he is recruiting the city of Nashville -- competing against two pro teams and country music -- in addition to high school players.
He's doing well with those high school players, too. Vandy currently has the No. 21 recruiting class, according to RecruitingNation. That's just behind Oklahoma and just ahead of Oregon, Nebraska, Miami and Penn State. So, yeah, that's pretty strong for any team -- let alone the Commodores.
Going 15-11 at Vandy in your first two seasons? That says two things: (1) What Franklin's doing is working; and (2) he won't likely be there much longer. Wherever he goes, that sort of outward enthusiasm will also go. It will be interesting to see him with a wealth of resources, but he's truly at his best where he has to push the product.
7. Will Muschamp, Florida Gators
I recall running into Muschamp on the recruiting trail about a decade ago, when I was a young reporter and Muschamp was a young coordinator under Saban at LSU. He was refreshingly honest and just seemed like the kind of guy with whom you'd want to grab a beer. That translates well in recruiting, particularly with high school coaches. Muschamp is still relatively new to being a head coach, but that doesn't mean he isn't familiar with how to recruit. After all, his last three stops as a coordinator were LSU, Auburn and Texas.
Recruiting Florida doesn't seem as if it would be that difficult, does it? It's home to some of the best skill players in the country, something the Gators were devoid of when Muschamp took over at UF. But, no, it isn't that easy. Because every other program, including Miami and FSU, knows what the Sunshine State is packing.
How does Muschamp currently have the top-rated class? Like some of these coaches, and unlike some of the others, he's young enough to put forth the energy in recruiting. The place where I saw Muschamp in 2004? It was Hartwell, Ga., which isn't exactly the easiest place to get to from Baton Rouge, La.
On a smaller scale, I've heard how hard coach Willie Taggart has gotten after it since he took over at South Florida. At some point, it's about the hours put in. That's a page straight out of Meyer's recruiting playbook.
8. Lane Kiffin, USC Trojans
There's no skirting the fact Kiffin is squarely on the hot seat entering 2013. But it must be acknowledged that his recruiting was strong as a head coach at Tennessee and it's been relatively strong at USC, even with the NCAA sanctions he walked into after taking his "dream job." The Trojans, despite a couple of recent flip-flops, are still currently ranked eighth by RecruitingNation.
Kiffin turns some people off with his confidence, which some consider bordering on arrogant, but it's seen as a plus by some in the recruiting world. Players want to play for a coach who is outwardly confident. That certainly worked during Pete Carroll's time in L.A. and Kiffin has made no secret about wanting to replicate the program's recent success.
Now, how much time does he have left to accomplish that set of goals?
9. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Kelly is pure polish, illustrative perhaps of his brief run at politics before settling on a career as a football coach. Kelly cut his teeth at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati before landing at Notre Dame, which is to say he had some time to ready himself for the particular demands of that highly visible job. (Not that anything could have prepared him for something like the Manti Te'o saga.)
But Kelly sure does not seem to represent the sometimes phony side of politics. Kelly has the ability to personally connect with recruits and their families and coaches. All of a sudden, high-end prospects -- those who can get in, anyway -- are again interested in Notre Dame.
To get the surge, Kelly partly used a message that sometimes pops up in recruiting: "Come help us win again." And it's working, as evidenced by more than just the BCS title game appearance. The Irish currently have the third-ranked recruiting class, behind only Florida and Alabama.
10. David Shaw, Stanford Cardinal
Shaw is the perfect fit for an academically oriented school like Stanford. He comes off, even in informal interviews, as sharp, measured and poised. That no doubt appeals to families who have Stanford on their short lists. It's like having a professor drop by for a recruiting visit.
I feel like I write a lot about programs being handicapped by academic restrictions, but Shaw insists on using "book smarts" as an asset. That's how the Cardinal landed, for instance, Barry J. Sanders. He opted for Stanford over Oklahoma State, his dad's alma mater and his in-state school, because he met Condoleezza Rice during a visit to The Farm. Where else are you going to get that?
The idea of offering more than football is something Shaw typically hammers home with recruits. Even if the program is not nailing down a top-five class -- it's currently No. 38 -- the message of academics is a strong one.
And so is continuity. Losing Andrew Luck had many believing the Cardinal would lose a step, but instead they won a Rose Bowl for the first time since 1971. Shaw can encourage recruits to help sustain what Jim Harbaugh started and he has continued.
Brady Hoke, Michigan Wolverines -- I felt obligated to include Hoke for landing stud running back prospect Derrick Green, who is from Virginia. That shows the staff's ability to navigate the country and mine elite talent.
Mark Richt, Georgia Bulldogs -- Richt is the older, less excitable version of Swinney. Faith and family have always been central to Richt's message. He and his staff have done a great job of finding in-state talent and keeping them at home.
Steve Sarkisian, Washington Huskies -- Notably, Sarkisian has done an excellent job of hiring ace recruiters -- and it's already showing in the level of talent acquired at Washington. He's a personable guy who is doing unique things in practice that make the game feel like, you know, a game.