Want planes? Train in automobiles

MIAMI -- Oscar Rodriguez saw the tweet and just shook his head.

Driving north on Interstate 95 in a white, grime-covered van with a broken air conditioner and a special odor that comes only from leftover fast-food wrappers, Rodriguez saw Utah State coach Matt Wells' post about hitting the recruiting trail that included a picture of a private jet.

"Utah State has a private jet?" Rodriguez, the recruiting coordinator for Garden City (Kan.) Community College, asked to nobody in particular. "Wouldn't it be nice to recruit in that bad boy?"

For most major college coaches, private or commercial flights are the only way to go on the recruiting trail. It's nothing for a coach to get on a private jet, skip from town to town and be in his own bed that night.

Comfort and efficiency are the expectation when you have a recruiting budget that's six or seven figures. But for the rest of the college football world -- the FCS, Division II, Division III, NAIA and junior college programs -- the bulk of recruiting is done in December and January through lengthy road trips. A handful of lower-level programs are lucky enough to afford commercial flights and rental cars on those trips, but a vast majority of coaches use their own cars or school-owned vehicles like what Rodriguez and Garden City C.C. defensive coordinator Jeff Kelly have been traveling in for the past two weeks.

"Of course, we all want to get on chartered planes and do that whole deal," Rodriguez said. "But you have to do what you have to do to take your program to the next level."

For Rodriguez and Kelly, it meant getting in the van 45 minutes after losing 47-21 to Tyler Junior College in the Football Capital of Kansas Bowl and embarking on a 34-hour, 1,500-mile trip that would take them from Pittsburg, Kan., to Miami with a budget of only $2,500.

Along the way, they ate dinner with coaching friends at the University of Arkansas, and one of the Razorbacks coaches shared a story about how he recruited at a smaller college with a school vehicle that had a broken steering wheel. There was a pit stop at a gas station in Conway, Ark., where Kelly passed along his business card to a man who said his cousin on the team at Navy was looking for a place to transfer. The coaches paused to sleep for four hours at the Ramada Inn in West Memphis, Ark., where the front desk clerk bragged about the great breakfast buffet. The coaches woke to find cold cereal and soggy scrambled eggs in a slow cooker.

Fifteen-minute breaks for lunch at Popeye's in Montgomery, Ala., and dinner at Wendy's in Gainesville, Fla., and a number of stops at gas stations for coffee and energy drinks provided the fuel for the coaches to drive more than 1,000 miles in one day. By the time they arrived at the hotel in Miami -- a place booked through a budget-friendly online booking service -- it was 4 a.m. and they planned to visit their first high school less than four hours later.

"Every coach has been in this type of situation before, except for the coaches born on third base," said Texas-San Antonio defensive line coach Eric Roark. "It's a rite of passage for coaches to find ways to stretch your recruiting budget by sleeping in church parking lots or driving across the country. I remember when I was at Middle Tennessee State, I would go out on the road and share rooms and a car with Mark Snyder when he was at Youngstown State. We would see the Division I coaches fly in, get their rental cars and then stay over at the nice Marriott. We would stay at the cheap motel, the place where you drive right up to the room.

"It's the good recruiters that find a way to thrive in these types of situations."

Rodriguez and Kelly have.

They hit five high schools in the first day, including visits to recruiting powerhouses Booker T. Washington, Central and Northwestern. The second day featured more of the same with visits to Carol City, Monsignor Pace and a number of Fort Lauderdale schools. Up and down I-95 they went, and by the end of the first week, Rodriguez and Kelly had racked up five commitments.

Coaches from Garden City and other schools in the Kansas Jayhawk Community Colleges Conference have to be selective with their out-of-state recruits because they're limited to only 20 on their roster, but that doesn't stop them from going after the best of the best and they sell many of the same things major programs do when talking with prospects.

"We are Division I coaches on the road," Rodriguez said. "Our conference is the SEC of junior college football. When you line up on Saturdays in that conference, you're going to see BCS players all over the field. So we have to target the best kids and recruit with many of the same pitches they do."

The biggest things Garden City sells are the program's tradition and ability to send kids on to the next level. Instead of talking about how many players have gone on to the NFL, the coaches talk about guys like Tyreek Hill, the No. 4 player in the ESPN JC 50, who's going to Oklahoma State. They also mention their 2012 quarterback every chance they get.

"You ever hear of Nick Marshall?" Kelly asked Carol City cornerback Matthew Whyte.

"Oh, yeah, he's the quarterback at Auburn," Whyte said. "He's good."

"He was at our place last year, and now he's playing for a national championship," Kelly said as Whyte's eyes grew bigger and bigger. "That could be you, too."

They also aren't shy about selling their staff's coaching pedigree, highlighted by head coach Matt Miller's experience as an assistant for 10 years at Kansas State and his NFL connections thanks to his father's work in the front offices of the Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers. Kelly, a former Garden City player himself who went on to become an All-American linebacker for K-State and an NFL player with the Atlanta Falcons, is also a big draw.

"At the end of the day, we're doing the same things the big guys are," Rodriguez said. "We're developing young men just like they do. We're building relationships just like they do. We're trying to help these kids get a degree and change their lives just like the big guys do."

There is one difference, though.

Convincing a prospect to come to a junior college is one of the most difficult jobs coaches face on the recruiting trail. It's hard because recruits envision themselves playing on national TV or running out of a tunnel in front of 100,000 screaming fans. But suddenly they have to come to grips with the fact those dreams have to be delayed because they may not qualify academically.

Rodriguez and Kelly talked to a number of players over the past two weeks who were still struggling with that realization. Some bought in quickly and understood the opportunity the coaches from Garden City presented them. Others listened attentively but made it clear juco would be a last resort. Others won't even talk to the coaches.

"At junior college, you have to convince a kid to do something he doesn't really want to do," Kelly said. "He's usually down because he didn't make grades. People are probably in his ear, calling him a failure and are really down on him. Now he has to choose a different route. We have to do things a lot of coaches don't have to do because we're their backup plan.

"We have to sell the kid on the dream. It doesn't die just because you don't qualify coming out of high school. We have to show them there's a way to still achieve everything he's ever dreamed of, but you're going to have to do it a different way."

Rodriguez and Kelly say they're not jealous of their colleagues in Division I. Sure, it would be nice to not have to drive a school van across the country to recruit, and who wouldn't turn down an opportunity to fly around in a private jet? But they both know if they recruit well for Garden City then other opportunities could present themselves.

"There's going to be a day where maybe I'm supposed to be on a private plane," Rodriguez said. "If you're in this business for all the wrong reasons, you won't last. You'll think it's work. But recruiting isn't work for most coaches at smaller schools. If you do your job, and work your job that you have, there's a good possibility you'll probably be a guy on a plane one day."