FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- When Chris Hauser walked into the Arkansas football offices for the first time last December, he expected an army of recruiting staffers to meet him and new Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema at the door waiting for marching orders. But what Hauser, Arkansas' newly hired director of recruiting, found was a skeleton crew left behind after the departure of Bobby Petrino and lame-duck period of interim coach John L. Smith.
It is similar to the situations Maurice Harris and Matt Dudek inherited when they arrived at their new jobs at Ole Miss and Arizona, respectively, after the 2011 season. Harris, Ole Miss' tight end coach and recruiting coordinator for offense, said only one recruiting staffer was keeping up with daily duties during the transition from Houston Nutt to Hugh Freeze. Dudek, Rich Rodriguez's director of on-campus recruiting and player personnel, hoped to have a team of around 15 to 20 interns help him hit the ground running when he arrived in Tucson. Instead, he found one administrative assistant.
There is already one high-profile coaching position open at USC and there are plenty of other programs poised to make a change at the top. But while the coaches hired for those vacancies come with a clean slate, they often inherit an empty house.
Thanks to college football's silly season of hires and fires, the things taken for granted on the recruiting trail -- like weekly phone communication, in-home visits, personalized daily mailings and social media marketing -- fall by the wayside. Left in the wake are recruiting classes in shambles and coaches hired with the expectation to produce results on the trail immediately. But that's easier said than done.
"I don't care where you go, the first year is definitely a learning curve and a process," said Hauser, who previously worked in coaching and administrative positions at Wisconsin, Toledo and Ohio State. "The unsettledness of the whole situation makes it an enormous challenge right away."
The simplest things, like having a place to sleep at night, are difficult when coaches arrive at a new job. Most live in extended-stay hotels or temporary campus housing because there isn't time to house-hunt, and they wouldn't know where to look in the first place. Even getting to work every morning is a chore. "Here I am trying to get to work in a town that I had never been in before, and I'm also telling coaches that have never been in Tucson, or in Phoenix, or in LA where to go," said Dudek, who came to Arizona after stops at Pittsburgh and Rutgers. "You don't even know where X High School was in Phoenix. You have to go search it out. It's a very hectic time right out the gate."
With most hires taking place in early December, coaches are not only recruiting against competition that has a two-year head start, they're also recruiting against a calendar.
If a staff is lucky, it will have around 60 days to assemble a class, but they also have to navigate around a dead period when no face-to-face recruiting is allowed. To complicate things even more, the NCAA recently revised the recruiting calendar to extend the dead period from Dec. 16 through Jan. 15, leaving only five official visit weekends before signing day on Feb. 5.
"I don't even remember Christmas or New Year's Day that first year I was hired," said Mark Mangino, the former head coach at Kansas and current assistant head coach at Youngstown State. "I would say from the day you're hired at least through the signing date, it's a blur. You have to manage so many things. Multitasking is an understatement.
"You're trying to find out what things can be helped to enhance the football area for prospects when they come in. You're trying to make sure their travel arrangements are perfect, that the recruiting weekends are organized and you're able to put your best foot forward. There are a lot of challenges involved in the first couple of months of taking over a new program, and you have to do it all in fast forward because of the calendar."
Another roadblock to a successful class is how to handle players that committed to the previous coaching staff but might not fit into the new coach's plans.
In many cases during the coaching search process, the school's athletic department will reach out to committed prospects and let them know it will honor the scholarship offer from the previous coach. It's done to help the new staff have some recruits when they arrive but also help the school look like it's loyal to the kids that believed in the program early on. Some will stick and others will look around, but it's the ones who stick that create a potential public-relations nightmare for the new staff.
"I think it would not be fair to tell a young man 'We'll honor your commitment' when you have no intentions of ever using him," Mangino said. "I called a couple of young men and their families and explained it to them. 'Why would you want to come here when I'm telling you that you really don't fit our system? That wouldn't make sense. It's not fair to you, and it's not fair to us.' It's a problem, but it's better to make a difficult decision right off the bat then let it be a four-, five-year problem."
Harris agreed. "I think in recruiting honesty is the best policy, even when you're dealing with what might be the most difficult situation you'll face when you have a new job," Harris said. "You have to be straightforward with them. I think with us telling a kid that we can't take him, they would respect that more in the long run than us just not taking his phone calls or not going by to see him."
Recruiters have been compared to salesmen because they have to sell prospects to come to their schools, but most assistants arrive at new jobs unaware of what to promote, causing even more complications in an already difficult environment. Sure, they can sell a prospect on the vision of the program and playing time, but how does a coach learn about the business school that a prospect is extremely interested in? Does he know the must-see places when giving a campus tour, or what the school's biggest game-day traditions are?
"That's why you have to talk to as many people as you can talk to," Dudek said. "Sean Miller and the basketball team was a great resource. We asked them 'What are you guys selling?' We talked to a lot of people on campus and talked to our academic folks. We reached out to a lot of people in the community. We had a lot of events with donors and asked them a lot of questions. 'What are the restaurants you like to eat at?' The little simple things like that are helpful in figuring out what to sell."
Technology also plays a role in the learning process. Harris said Ole Miss coaches used "cheat sheets" created for their iPads that included the school's APR, graduation rate, detailed information about all the majors, pictures of the facilities and facts about the city of Oxford. Hauser said he's probably read every page on Arkansas.edu and ArkansasRazorbacks.com at least 20 times since he's arrived.
No matter the challenges of piecing together a first class after a coaching change, everyone is acutely aware there is a win-now mentality in college football. The instant success on the field and on the recruiting trail of programs like Auburn, Arizona, Arizona State and Ole Miss has created tremendous expectations for new hires. But almost every coach will agree, you shouldn't judge a staff's recruiting abilities on its first class.
"Really, if you're going to judge a recruiting class by a coach, it's the third class," Dudek said. "You have the short class your first year. Then you have another class where everybody else has a head start on you with, but the third class is when you really have a chance to recruit a kid for two years. That's when you're caught up with everybody else. Everybody is on the same page. The third class is the one you'll probably say, 'They're doing a great job' or 'Boy, they're doing a terrible job.' "