<
>

Orgeron: 'I know if we get Joe, we'll get investigated'

In his latest book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," Bruce Feldman chronicled the year-long recruiting process at Ole Miss that culminated with last February's National Letter-of-Intent Day. The following is an excerpt from the book.


Sunday, February 4: 68 Hours Until Signing Day
The contact period was over. The Internet was buzzing. And so were the traditional media.

The most intriguing buzz came in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, which reported that Joe McKnight had spent the weekend in Tuscaloosa visiting Alabama and Nick Saban.

Frank Wilson, who had come into the Ole Miss office with two of his young children, showed no ill effects from the previous day's soap opera in Okolona. Then football operations man Kent McLeod informed the Rebels' running backs coach of the McKnight rumor. Wilson's face scrunched up a bit, but he promptly dismissed it: "I talked to Joe last night; he was with Colby (Arceneaux). We're fine. I don't know where people come up with this stuff."

But the Rebels' recruiting ranking was just about to take a big hit. D-Line coach Ryan Nielsen reported to Orgeron that Jerrell Powe was still waiting for BYU to send out his exams for the courses he'd been taking and that he wouldn't be at the academic benchmarks Ole Miss had set for him to reach by February 1. That meant Orgeron couldn't sign him. He knew Powe was no sure thing to get admitted even if he were able to sign him, but now the odds had just become even longer.

The disappointing Powe news seemed to have faded a few hours later as Orgeron settled in on his couch with his wife and kids to watch the Super Bowl. Or maybe watching a football game simply took his mind away from work.

Monday, February 5: 48 Hours
Two hours before the Rebels' 8 a.m. staff meeting, Orgeron was in the war room screening junior tape. A few of his staffers sat around the table.

All anybody wanted to talk about was Joe McKnight: "What's the latest? Have you heard anything? Do you think that … ? I wonder if … ? Could he possibly … ?"

Orgeron said he was feeling confident. Bryan and Colby Arceneaux had been with McKnight for much of the weekend in Louisiana, and they'd told him that McKnight was definitely coming to Ole Miss. Orgeron trusted his childhood buddy Bryan Arceneaux.

Orgeron then broached something that many inside the IPF had also been thinking about.

"I know if we get Joe, we'll get investigated," Orgeron said matter-of-factly, referring to his coaching brethren's instinct to suspect an upstart program that lands an all-world recruit of having done something shady. "Hey, we didn't do nothing wrong. But I still know it's comin'."

Then he gave the staff a little pep talk: "I couldn't be more pleased at how things are goin', but we've got to close the deal. We've got that championship blue marlin on the line, but he ain't in the boat yet. We finish. They say it's the dead period, and I know coaches can't be out there, but somebody's workin'. So we ain't taking nothin' for granted."

Orgeron turned to Dave Corrao: "Find out what's going on with Tony Fein. Michigan State is gonna call him. I guaran-damn-tee it. Call his parents."

Then Orgeron turned to Nielsen: "You need to stay on Lawon Scott like white on rice. Wake Forest has come after him. You know they're into negative recruiting, telling him that 'Ole Miss has signed five defensive tackles and how we cuss out our players. Talk to his mama."

As his assistants pecked away at their BlackBerrys, Orgeron reminded them of the lesson of Jevan Snead. "Just remember this on Wednesday: Take the high road. Don't burn no bridges with these kids."

And one more thing: "Don't forget nobody. John Brown and Rolando Melancon goin' off to JC don't mean we forget about 'em until next spring. We need to track these guys and call them once a week."

Oh, and in case you don't already know this: "We gotta build a net!"

Monday, February 5: 40 Hours
Wilson's cell buzzed. It was LaMarcus Williams, the defensive tackle from Louisiana who had de-committed from Alabama so he could come to Ole Miss. Wilson told Orgeron how upbeat the 285-pounder sounded. But when Orgeron got on the phone, he got a bad feeling after he asked Williams, "LaMarcus, you are coming to be an Ole Miss Rebel, right?"

Williams: "Coach, I'm just having me a good time."

Listening in, Wilson thought -- hoped -- that Williams just didn't quite understand what Orgeron had asked. Orgeron handed him back the phone; he knew better.

Meanwhile, the soap opera in Okolona continued to unfold. According to Robert Elliott's high school coach, the star tailback hadn't come to school on Monday, and no one knew where he was. Hugh Freeze estimated that he'd made 800 phone calls trying to reach Elliott since Saturday. He even asked if the superintendent of the school would go check up on him.

Bridgett Elliott wasn't taking Freeze's calls either.

"She promised me, 'Coach, I'll never not answer your call,' " Freeze told Orgeron, who sounded amused by the farce of it all. "And that was yesterday. Right now, I'm just trying to open the lines of communication."

"Open the lines of communication?" Orgeron said, starting to laugh. "It sounds like we got us a hostage situation or something."

A few feet away, Rippon was on his cell with Justin Sanders' father: "Yeah, Tim, we all really liked that chicken fight."

Taking that and running with it, Orgeron yelled out, "If we can get our defense to play as fast as them roosters, we're gonna be okay!"

Freeze's phone buzzed. It wasn't Robert Elliott calling back. It was Cedric Miller, Roderick Davis' coach.

Freeze listened for a minute and then turned to Orgeron: "Coach Ced says he's guarding all the back doors, Coach."

Monday, February 5: 36 Hours
Much of the suspense in the war room centered on players Freeze was recruiting. In addition to his highest-profile target, Roderick Davis, Freeze was on the hook for Robert Elliott, Jerry Franklin, and Jonathan Frink, an Oxford High linebacker with great grades who the Rebels figured would have committed to them by now but hadn't. Like Elliott, Frink wasn't returning calls.

Freeze called Bradley Sowell, another Ole Miss commit who had befriended Frink during the year. "Come on, Bradley, Frink's making the decision tonight," Freeze said. "You gotta get in his ear. Get him on the phone, whatever. Just talk to him."

Ten minutes later, Freeze was giving Roderick Davis pointers on how to handle his Signing Day press conference.

"Don't forget good ol' Coach Freeze, your new position coach, when you talk to those newspapers," Freeze told him. "You do want to see that ball thrown to you, dontcha, Big Rod?"

In hopes of reaching Frink, Freeze asked Tony Hughes to dispatch his son Jamison, one of Frink's best friends, to talk to his pal. Twenty minutes later, the younger Hughes called his dad back from outside Frink's home.

Hughes: "Jamison just told me that the Frinks won't let him come through the front door tonight."

Orgeron: "How about the window?"

Tuesday, February 6: 14 Hours
Orgeron's suspicion that Ole Miss needn't worry about oversigning had, unfortunately, come true.

A handful of "maybe" guys announced that they'd committed elsewhere. Rashad Mason was signing with North Carolina. Maurice Harris was signing with Florida State. Kevin Bryant, a 380-pound lineman from South Florida whom the Rebels had wanted to sign and place in a junior college, was signing with North Carolina.

Things were looking increasingly bleak for Frink, Franklin, and Elliott, too.

Orgeron warned the staff that there also might be some night-before-Signing-Day defections. On the white board, he scrawled four names under a "Make Sure" list: Rishaw Johnson, Lionel Breaux, LaMarcus Williams, and Roderick Davis.

Suddenly, the general feeling in the war room was that the Rebels might end up one player under the 25 max, so Orgeron asked the staff to ID other prospects who might still be available.

Freeze sent one of the grad assistants out to fetch the tape of a 280-pound offensive lineman who'd committed to Mississippi State, a kid the Rebels hadn't been too impressed by the first time they saw him on film.

Orgeron: "Would he come?"

Freeze: "I know if we'd asked a week ago he would have."

Didn't matter. When Orgeron watched the tape again, he became annoyed: "We don't want this. Forget him."

Next Wilson offered up a 6'5", 240-pound defensive end from Louisiana who'd already committed to Oklahoma. He was a prospect the Rebels had been on the fence about some months ago and had never really pushed to recruit.

"He came here for our basketball camp," Wilson said. "And my mom is married to his dad's first cousin."

Then somebody remembered why they'd been on the fence about him: not bad, but not somebody worth chasing. Then or now.

Tuesday, February 6: 12 Hours
"Wooooo! Wooooo! Wooooo!"

Just back from his kids' basketball game, Orgeron burst back into the war room, stalked around the big table, and rolled his shoulders to loosen up, as if it were game day: "We got us a case of Red Bull and some pork rinds, and we are competin' tonight!"

But soon, more bad news: Orgeron's queasy feeling about LaMarcus Williams turned out to be well-founded -- Williams was signing with Mississippi State. He was following Charlie Harbison, the assistant coach who'd once recruited him for Alabama and had just taken a job with the Bulldogs. The assurances Wilson had been getting from Williams' high school coach had proved worthless.

Wilson had an idea. He popped in a tape of Jonathan "Tank" English, a 5'11", 325-pound nose tackle who happened to be teammates with Joe McKnight and Colby Arceneaux. Wilson liked English but could never get Orgeron to pull the trigger. English really wanted to come to Ole Miss. He'd e-mailed Wilson to try to make his case, and he'd given him an updated highlight DVD when they met a few weeks later.

In late January, English had committed to Arizona State, where, ironically enough, former Ole Miss assistant coach Matt Lubick was the new recruiting coordinator.

Wilson put in the tape. This time around, English's quick feet and effort caught Orgeron's eye. He liked what he saw.

"Let's call J.T.," Orgeron told Wilson, referring to J.T. Curtis, English's high school coach.

"Man, Matt Lubick is gonna be so pissed," Orgeron said as Wilson dialed the number. "But all is fair in love and recruiting."

"I love Big Tank," piped up Brad Villavaso, a former Louisiana high school coach who was one of the Rebels' new graduate assistants. "I coached him in camp. Man, he played hard."

Wilson couldn't reach Curtis or English. He left messages for both.

"We ain't going to bed 'til we get him," Orgeron pronounced.

Tuesday, February 6: 8 Hours 51 minutes
Orgeron threw up a Hail Mary and called all-everything defensive tackle D'Angelo McCray, who had been committed to Illinois for almost two months.

"Come on, D'Angelo," Orgeron told him. "You knew we weren't gonna quit."

McCray told Orgeron that he was set but that he appreciated the call.

Tuesday, February 6: 8 Hours 42 Minutes
Word came in that a fight had broken out at McKnight's younger brother's basketball game -- and that nobody could find Joe.

Colby Arceneaux, who had permission from his dad to stay out late and was expected to be with Joe McKnight, couldn't find his friend. Bryan Arceneaux, Colby's dad, told Orgeron that nobody knew where Joe had gone. The curious thing was that McKnight didn't have a car, and he wasn't answering his cell.

Fourteen minutes later, Wilson got his callback from English. The young nose tackle was excited, but also confused: Why now? Why not before, when I hadn't already committed to Arizona State?

Orgeron was having second thoughts too. He wondered how J.T. Curtis would view the last-minute offer to one of his players. Would it somehow anger the longtime high school coach and turn him -- and perhaps McKnight -- off of Ole Miss? Was it worth the risk?

Wilson passed his cell to Orgeron.

"Tank, you think we're too late, or do we have a shot to get you?" Orgeron asked English, who replied that yes, he was interested.

"Well then," said Orgeron, "we're gonna talk to Coach J.T. Curtis and do this thing right."

Wilson got Tank English's mother on the phone. She was upset. Very upset: "Jonathan prayed on it, prayed that Ole Miss would give him a scholarship, and you didn't, you overlooked him. Coach Dennis Erickson, he came in, and he said Jonathan reminds him of Warren Sapp."

Wilson backpedaled, trying to explain that the Rebels had not misled English and that his prayer had come true: He'd gotten his offer from Ole Miss. He'd gotten it late, maybe, but he'd gotten it.

Uh-uh. Tank English's mother said that she would not let her son de-commit from Arizona State.

Tuesday, February 6: 8 Hours 1 Minute
Freeze finally, finally got through to a member of the Elliott family. Robert's 11-year-old brother, Devin, answered the phone.

"Devin, my man, you are my hero," Freeze said. "Can you please do me a huge favor and go beg your mom to get on the phone with me for two minutes?"

Bridgett Elliott got on the phone to say that she had nothing to say.

No Robert Elliott -- Where is he? What's he gonna do? -- but at least this exhausting, frustrating, energy-sucking, roller coaster of a day was almost over.

Ninety minutes later -- six hours and 18 minutes before the official start of Signing Day -- after enough waiting by their cell phones, the staff had emptied out of the war room.

Wednesday, February 7: 1 Hour 10 Minutes
Twenty minutes before Orgeron pulled into the parking lot next to the IPF, he had given Pete Carroll a little wake-up call. Orgeron knew his old boss would be sleeping in the office; that was a National Signing Day eve tradition at USC. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, the Trojans coach told Orgeron what the big Cajun had feared he was going hear: Carroll said he believed McKnight was going to be a USC Trojan.

"Guess we'll find out soon enough," Orgeron said. "G'night, Pedro."

"Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting" is published by ESPN Books. This excerpt is run with permission of the publisher.