Eight months in a cloud of dust and paperwork lead to GSU's very first football players|
Georgia Online News Service
Bill Curry pulled his right elbow slightly off the table, holding up a sheet of paper with 26 individual lines of print — each one containing the name of a teenage boy. He was beaming.
"This is like childbirth," the Georgia State University football coach said with a chuckle. "It feels that way to us."
Like his coaching brethren, Curry waited eagerly on a cold morning in early February for the athletics department fax machine to spew forth signed confirmations from young men across Georgia and beyond. Most who had given him verbal assurances were as good as their word. After nearly eight breakneck months of phone calls, hand-written notes, visits to schools, homes and games and long car rides in pursuit of players, Curry could exhale.
For the first time in a dozen years, the former Georgia Tech star and coach and Super Bowl-winning offensive lineman felt the frenzy of conducting a recruiting effort. And he was doing it for an institution that has been one of the final college football holdouts in the state of Georgia.
The 26 players making up Georgia State's first football signing class aren't the "blue chip," "five-star" and "NFL-potential" names that are breathlessly uttered by so-called recruiting experts who've created lucrative gigs assessing the athletic potential of somebody else's children.
Georgia State's signees come mostly from Georgia, and the metro Atlanta in particular, as well as South Carolina, Florida and Texas. While Recruitosphere was hyperactively tracking major programs such as Georgia and Georgia Tech in racehorse-like fashion, Georgia State coaches offered prep stars the novelty of helping start something new.
"We exceeded our expectations," said Georgia State recruiting coordinator George Pugh, who played for the legendary Bear Bryant at Alabama and was involved in the creation of the football program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1995. "With the reception we got from people around the state, you would have thought we'd been around for 20 years."
Pugh and some of the signees point to the presence and persona of Curry, still a well-known football figure in his native state more than 20 years after last coaching here.
"It gave us instant credibility," said Pugh, who also coached at Meadowcreek High School in Gwinnett County. "When we started going out on the road, we sold [high school recruits] on three things: Bill Curry, Georgia State and Atlanta."
One player to draw the attention of recruiting geeks was Henry County High School quarterback Drew Little, who ended his career with 9,003 passing yards, 15 yards short of the state record. The general verdict: big, but not very mobile, a good arm but with a style of play not ideally suited to the "spread" offenses now in vogue at high-profile programs. He discovered first-hand the recruiting capriciousness that occurs at the top levels of the game.
Last fall Little received a scholarship offer from Boston College, where Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was a star. But soon after Little's trip, the school quickly got a pledge from another quarterback in the Boston area. Kentucky and South Carolina also expressed some interest in Little, but he thought his best bet was to stay close to home. When he and the other Panthers first take the field in 2010, they will play their home games at the Georgia Dome.
"I'm thankful for the opportunity," said Little, who's 6-foot-5, 240 pounds. "They told me that they wanted me and they could use me. I trust Coach Curry to get the job done. I looked at all the options and thought that Georgia State was as good as anything."
All signees will take a redshirt season as they develop physically and get acclimated to college life. That wasn't an easy sell for Georgia State, but very few players see much playing time as true freshmen in the Southeastern Conference, for example. As the growing pains continue, Curry basked in a satisfying start.
"Today is a landmark day," said Curry, who also has been Georgia State's interim athletics director since the December dismissal of Mary McElroy. "For us to be able to present to you a class of this quality is something that we really feel good about."
His remarks aren't much different from what other coaches say on National Signing Day, when high school players make official their college -- or college football -- choices.
It's a mid-winter ritual played out all across the country. Aging, or at least middle-aged, men try to outhustle and outwit one another in the most unsavory component of a livelihood that feeds a year-round fan and media obsession bordering on the unhealthy.
In the Deep South the mania over recruiting is a particularly acute affliction. It used to be said in Texas that there were only two seasons: football and spring football. Now, recruiting rounds out what Curry calls the "four seasons" of college football. To that he also added the "execution" season, which is what transpires in brutal fashion -- usually during the Christmas holidays -- when coaches don't win enough games. Quite often their fate is sealed on a recruiting trail that includes parents, coaches and assorted and occasionally dubious intermediaries.
Curry felt the pain of such a demise in 1996 after seven non-winning seasons at Kentucky. He sought refuge at the noted basketball school after three largely successful years at Alabama that were marked by an unforgivable flaw -- his Crimson Tide teams couldn't beat archrival Auburn.
Curry, whose overall coaching record of 83-105-4 includes a 31-43-4 mark at Georgia Tech in the 1980s, later enjoyed a career in the ESPN television booth, where he was unafraid to offer sharp observations about a sport he loves but believes has become overly besotted with how boys are sought by adults.
"It's absurd, it's absurd," he said of the media swirl around recruiting. "We've become obsessed with celebrity. We watch stuff like we've lost our minds. We watch the decisions of 17-year-olds as if they were a national event."
Curry's former employer -- which also is chronicling his Georgia State endeavors -- has turned such events into regular fare. In January, Derrick Favors of South Atlanta High School, rated the top high school basketball prospect in the country, announced on an ESPN outlet that he would sign with Georgia Tech. He made his declaration from the ESPN Zone sports bar and restaurant in Atlanta, then was showered with accolades as he attended the Georgia Tech-Duke game, also shown on ESPN, a few hours later.
Justin Orr got no such treatment when he picked where he would play college football. The linebacker from Camden County High School missed all but three games of his senior season, including his team's state Class 5A championship, because of a knee injury. Two colleges were heavily pursuing Orr. The University of Memphis was interested before his injury, but backed off. Georgia State didn't waver.
"When I got hurt, they were the only people who stuck by me," said Orr, whose home in Kingsland is far closer to Jacksonville than the 340-mile one-way trek to Atlanta. "Coach Curry called me and said, 'I know talent when I see it and you've got it.' Atlanta's a long way from where I'm from, but life is full of risks."
Football is no less of a gambit for Georgia State, which is eyeing the sport as a means of helping bring a sense of community to a longstanding commuter-oriented student body and alumni base. Now with an enrollment of 28,000, the downtown Atlanta campus features new dormitories for around 3,000, a figure that's expected to more than double in the next few years. In order to fund football, students are being charged $85 per semester for a total of $5.5 million a year.
"In our culture, whether it's good or bad, if you have a football team in the South, you get noticed," Curry said. "If football helps draw attention to what really matters [at a university], then we've accomplished the mission."