The proverbial fence around Louisiana
By CARL DUBOIS
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Austin Murphy of Sports Illustrated, in his BCS national championship game story, was the latest to tell the story about Nick Saban’s arrival at Alabama in January 2007.
Saban and Mal Moore, athletic director for the Crimson Tide, got out of the school’s jet at the airport in Tuscaloosa, and Saban considered the scope of Moore’s efforts to pry him from the NFL. Saban, Moore recalled, took stock of the moment and said Moore apparently thought Saban was a hell of a coach.
After the A.D. replied in the affirmative, Saban had an important point to make to his new boss.
“Well,” he said, “there’s something you need to understand. I’m not worth a damn without players.”
There’s your money quote from Saban about the importance of recruiting in college football. Almost without question, the next statement out of his mouth in any serious conversation about recruiting would be about the value of signing as many of the best in-state players as possible, year after year.
In building LSU back to national powerhouse status after eight losing seasons in an 11-year span, Saban made it a priority to own Louisiana in recruiting and thwart the efforts of outsiders looking to pluck some of the best players from the talent-rich state.
Saban’s successor at LSU, Les Miles, enters his sixth February in Baton Rouge with an appreciation for the importance of protecting the Tigers’ backyard.
“When you talk about recruiting, and you’re at LSU, you have to take care of your state first,” said Charles Baglio, a football coach at Independence High School for 34 years before becoming the LSU football program’s director of external relations in 2002.
“That’s what Coach Miles tries to do every year. That’s his big theme when we start recruiting: We have to get the best players in the state. You hear about putting a fence around Louisiana, and if you don’t do that, you’re not going to be successful.”
When high school seniors began changing their commitments from LSU to other schools after the 2009 season, a saving grace for Miles and the Tigers was this: those players were from outside Louisiana. The core group of in-state commitments to LSU stayed firm heading into the final days of recruiting season.
There will always be The One That Got Away. Major Applewhite. Travis Minor. Warrick Dunn. Kordell Stewart. Ed Reed. Peyton Manning. All those - and others - left Louisiana to play college football elsewhere in the 1990s.
LSU’s goal is to sign as many of the top players in the state, especially the difference makers, and limit the damage outside recruiters can do to its efforts. Saban’s first big coup came in 2001, when he signed a class that included highly recruited stars Michael Clayton and Marcus Spears from Baton Rouge.
There were a lot of busts in that class, but LSU got what it needed from Louisiana, a dynamic that played out again a few years later under Saban and benefited Miles.
“All you have to do is look back on the two teams that won national championships,” Baglio said, referring to the 2003 and 2007 rosters. “Those two teams were made up mostly of Louisiana kids. It cannot be overstated, the importance of making sure that you evaluate the kids in Louisiana first and then worry about your needs after that.”
One state coach who agrees is Dennis Lorio of Thibodaux, where Trovon Reed played his way into being one of the most coveted players in the South this recruiting season.
“I think it’s huge to get your top players in the state,” Lorio said, “because they know the most about your program, normally, because they’ve been around your program - with camps and other things like that. They’ve grown up around your program, hearing about your program.”
The same isn’t true of players from distant area codes.
“The trend I’m seeing now,” Lorio said, “is the guys that commit early, the guys that commit from far away, they’re tending to change their mind as signing date approaches and lean toward that home-state school or that school that’s closer to home. That school all of a sudden looks better than it did earlier.”
It’s interesting to see the recruiting drama play out through the eyes of Lorio. A Baton Rouge native, he has three degrees from LSU. He played baseball there and was a graduate assistant coach with the Tigers for three years. He has an LSU e-mail address.
He coached for years without having a player recruited by SEC schools, and now he’s watching the first of three make a decision. Thibodaux lineman Greg Robinson, projected as one of the top players in the state for 2011, will be next. There is another top prospect in the fold for 2012.
“Greg has said early on that he’s 99 percent sure that LSU is the place where he wants to go,” Lorio said, “but his dad advised him to maybe make a couple of other visits to have something to compare LSU to.”
LSU has commitments for 2011 from more than half of the state’s top 12 prospects, but Lorio said he’s not sure early commitments are a good thing.
“I’m talking about the junior-year commitments, because that’s a long time for the kids to get hit on by a lot of other people,” he said.
Reed is a good example.
“When the recruiting started with Trovon, I knew the problem from Day One,” Lorio said. “Trovon is a wonderful young man. He loves people. He’s humble. He likes everybody, and as it got on, he said, ‘Coach, this recruiting is hard.’ He wants to please everybody, and you can’t do it. You’ve got to pick one, and the other ones are going to have to find somebody else.”
Reed picked Auburn months ago. He can make it official on signing day.
Lorio was a graduate assistant at LSU during lean years, and he said keeping top Louisiana players from going far from home for college can depend upon how successful the Tigers are at any given time.
“If your program is competitive with the Florida States and the others, the ones who were at the top back then, then the distance makes a difference,” he said. “No one knows who the top five are going to be five years from now, because it’s a changing thing, but at the current moment, if you choose one of the top five and it’s in your state, it’s good. If the top five are all out of the state and there’s nothing to compare, then you may look more elsewhere, and the distance from home might not matter as much.
“Right now LSU is up there, and here’s a simple question: What do other schools have that LSU doesn’t have? Nothing. LSU has facilities, success, stadium, crowds, national championships, and you name it. If the state school is a legitimate option, the distance matters. Most kids want their parents and people they know to see them play. Now, that doesn’t mean that some won’t go somewhere else. It’s the kid’s choice. It’s him.”
Which brings us back to Reed, who in the past few months seemed on the verge of hopping the proverbial fence around the state.
“He’s really torn right now,” Lorio said late last week, a surprising comment given the consensus of reports suggesting Reed’s signing with Auburn on Wednesday was a fait accompli.
Is that true, or will signing day be an all-day wait-and-see to know for sure? Is Reed this year’s drama?
Long ago, Lorio asked Reed how he wanted to handle it. One alternative was to commit early and be a leader for that school in their recruiting. Another alternative was to pick up a hat at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
“He said, ‘Well, I think I want to pick up a hat,’ so at least I knew what he was thinking at that point,” Lorio said. “But in the interim, we found out that his mom was ill and had a short time to live, and before she passed away in March, Trovon promised her that he would commit on her birthday, Nov. 13. That’s the day the U.S. Army All-American Bowl came and made the official invitation to the game. It was a big deal, and at the same time, he made that commitment (to Auburn).”
Will it hold up? Most published reports say yes.
“We’ll see,” Lorio said.
The 2011 class promises to be superior to the 2010 group and rival the one that featured Clayton, Spears and others. It will be an important year for the fence around the state, despite the knowledge that there will always be players who want to go elsewhere.
“I look at Tracy Porter, who LSU missed on, and he’s playing in the Super Bowl,” Baglio said. “He’s right across the river from us at Port Allen, and we missed on him. You miss on some. It happens everywhere. It happens in every state.
“You’ve just got to do a thorough evaluation of every player that’s in the state. If you do that year in and year out, you’re not going to have a problem with recruiting.”
In building and maintaining the fence around Louisiana, one of the most important concerns is establishing and nurturing good relationships with the state’s high school coaches. Call that phase the installation of the fence posts.
As a former high school coach in Louisiana, Baglio can vouch for how essential that is for LSU.
“That’s where it starts,” he said.
Carl Dubois has covered LSU athletics since 1999. Reach him at email@example.com.