Before he left the college ranks to coach in the NFL with the Jets and Saints, Doug Marrone was regarded by his peers as one of the top recruiters in the country. The former Syracuse O-lineman, who'd spent seven seasons in the South at Georgia Tech, Georgia and Tennessee, proved to be a relentless force, able to connect with high school coaches and players. Since returning to college as Syracuse's head coach in 2009, Marrone has learned that recruiting has changed.
Actually, it's changed a lot if you're a college head coach. That's because a few years ago, after word spread that some head coaches had violated the "bump" rule, the NCAA resolved to keep head coaches off the road for the spring evaluation period. (The bump rule allowed college coaches to say hi, but meant they could not have a talk or anything more than just a greeting with a prospect during the spring evaluation period. Yes, interpretations could be tricky.)
So while their assistants are dutifully crisscrossing their region or, in some cases, the country, the head man often is back at home golfing with boosters or speaking at some fundraiser. Or if you're really big time, you're able to parlay your high-profile status into a NFL draft analyst gig to help maximize exposure, just to reinforce the message to any prospects who might be tuning in. (See: Brian Kelly or Butch Davis for recent examples.)
Most, but not all, head coaches I know want to be back out on the road for the spring. On Friday, I chatted with Marrone about some of the specifics on what he feels he misses out on in addition to just being able to eyeball prospects at some workout or jamboree.
"When I get to go on the road in December, it's targeted," Marrone said. "You're seeing very specific kids."
That means Marrone isn't unearthing prospects at that point in the process. He's sifting through what his staff has already weeded down. In some cases, the Cuse head coach is trying to close. What he doesn't have the chance to really do is probe and cast a net. That often comes from the relationship building he'd do with local high school coaches at this time of year, during which Marrone would drop in all along his path while he was out on the road day after day.
Marrone recalled a typical day ending up at some high school coach's back porch, where they'd grill up some chicken and he'd give a pseudo-impromptu clinic to that coach and his buddies on goal-line offense. Such networking is vital for recruiters.
"I'd go into a school because it was just on my way," Marrone said. "One day, I go into this tiny 1-A school and end up talking to their football coach, who seems surprised that I've even stopped there. 'We've never even had any players here at this school,' he tells me.
"I said, 'Well, maybe one day you will.' Four years down the road, that coach calls to tell me he's moved onto to a major high school that always has Division 1 players. He goes, 'Coach, anything you ever need, call me.'"
These days, Marrone says he's been going to a lot of alumni functions, doing exit interviews with departing SU players and attending fundraisers. As for keeping tabs on his program's recruiting, he has his assistants calling in twice a day from the road through an administrator, and if something is urgent they call him. "I don't know if frustrated is the right word, but as an assistant coach recruiting is one of the things I loved to do most, because you're out there selling yourself and selling your program," he said.
"I miss it."