Feb. 4, 2014
Shug Jordan was an assistant coach at Auburn in 1932 when he recruited a player who would become one of the greats in southern football history. Who did he beat to get Walter Gilbert, a Hall of Fame center who is still Auburn’s only three-time All-American? Well, nobody.
Recruiting wasn’t about technology in those days. It was rare to even get film. If you were an assistant coach, you got in the car and hit the road for days at a time. Jordan and fellow assistant coach Porter Grant, who later became a brigadier general, got Gilbert almost by accident while on a recruiting trip through Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi.
“In those days, it was just plain good luck if a boy was even offered a scholarship,” Jordan said in Clyde Bolton's War Eagle: The Story of Auburn Football. “We only had newspaper clippings and word of mouth to go by. It was just plain luck if the boys turned out to be good students and good football players.”
Jordan had seen Gilbert play for Darlington Prep of Rome, Ga., against LaGrange and had been impressed. He and Grant went to see Gilbert at his home in Fairfield. They asked him where he planned on going to college. Much to their surprise, though they had not previously met him or talked to him, he told them he had made up his mind to go to Auburn.
“Without even asking him to come to Auburn, we got a great one,” Jordan said.
That was then. Oh, how times have changed.
Players travel the country making unofficial visits to campuses even before they are high school seniors. They are weighed, measured, timed and inspected at camps and combines. They make commitment announcements on national television.
Many of the players who will make their choices official Wednesday on National Signing Day are celebrities in every sense of the word. An entire industry has grown up around college football recruiting. Web sites, television shows, magazines, radio talk shows have all become part of the process.
Joe Whitt, now an assistant athletics director and fundraising, spent 25 seasons as an Auburn assistant coach. He became renowned as one of the game’s top recruiters. He says the process changed more than the players changed.
"When you put a kid announcing on television, a kid getting calls from all these recruiting analysts and newspapers, when they are getting invited to all these all-star games, sometimes if affects everybody around them more than it does them.,” Whitt said.
"Some kids, recruiting changes. Some kids, it has no impact on. They are still the same pleasant, well-mannered kind of guy. It's always been that way"
Chuck Furlow, a high school coach and athletic administrator in Alabama for more than 35 years, saw it change before his eyes.
“The sensationalism, to us old school people, is hard to swallow,” Furlow, who retired in 2009 as the athletic director for Auburn City Schools, told me a couple of years ago. “I attribute a lot of that to ESPN and all the media outlets that kind of sensationalize the whole deal. I can’t imagine in those days any athlete taking it to the extreme they do now.”
Today, college coaches deal with a plethora of challenges. From Facebook to Twitter to text messages, rules and roles can be confusing.
Phillip Lolley, a former Auburn cornerbacks coach and now director of external football operations, has seen it from both sides. He was a championship high school coach before moving to Auburn.
“It’s a lot different,” Lolley said. “Back then, I didn’t even own a cell phone. Computers were becoming a pretty big thing, but nothing like now. You got letters from the universities. They came by and did their evaluations. You gave them game film.
“I probably did my kids some injustice. I would show my guys against the three or four toughest teams we played. Then I found out I should have given them those 300-, 400-yard rushing games against nobodies. What you get now is those highlight tapes.”
But in his days of recruiting for Auburn, those weren’t enough for Lolley.
“I’m still kind of old school,” Lolley said. “I still like to watch game film. I want to see how he plays when you’re behind. I want to see if he’s a winner. I want to see if he’ll run the ball down when you are behind a touchdown or two.”
In the 1980s, interest in recruiting had started to grow. But it still had no national platform, and rules were relatively simple. In his first season at Gardendale, Furlow coached defensive line prospect Willie Wyatt. Alabama assistant Jimmy Fuller was a frequent visitor.
“Willie was a heavyweight wrestler,” Furlow said. “Coach Fuller would come down every day and wrestle him. We didn’t have anybody big enough. It wasn’t cutthroat then like it is now.”
Wednesday, ESPN will have 11 hours of signing day coverage. Some prospects will commit on national television. Dozens will do interviews.
Yes, times have changed.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: