Recruiting's importance keeps growing

While the rest of the college football world was kicking off its season this weekend, Mario Cristobal's Saturday consisted of one cross-country flight to California from Miami, two junior college games and a lot of driving. The 38-year-old head coach of Florida International had shifted his program's daily itinerary around just so he could try to wedge in as much recruiting as possible while also getting his team prepared for its season opener at mighty Alabama.

He switched the Panthers' practices to 5:30 a.m. Thursday and Friday so his staff could have the remainder of the day to canvas as many high schools, and so Cristobal could jet west to scout JC talent. "The red-eye [flight] leaves too early Saturday night, so I have to fly out Sunday very early at 6 a.m. just so I can make our staff meeting on Sunday at 2 p.m.," he said.

These are the kinds of things you need to do if you're going to overhaul a program that went 0-12 the year before you arrived and was hampered by scholarship restrictions.

Cristobal, a former standout offensive lineman at Miami, was hired after the 2006 season thanks in large part to his reputation as a dogged -- and persuasive -- recruiter. He had previously served as recruiting coordinator for both Miami and Rutgers. As Greg Schiano's right-hand man and ace scout, he helped lift the knights out of an abyss earlier this decade.

Schiano had co-opted an ideology from former Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger, who had defined his South Florida recruiting turf as "The State of Miami" and promptly took a program in danger of being dropped and built a national title team in five years. Schiano called his turf "The State of Rutgers," which included New Jersey, the New York City area and South Florida.

"We had coaching clinics down here [in Florida]," said Cristobal. "We had travelling camps in the state of Florida. We made sure that a lot of people came up and visited us in the summer or worked our camps. It was a real good model."

Good enough that a program that had gone 3-24 in Big East play and 12-34 overall in Schiano's first four seasons has gone bowling every year since. Cristobal sees the improvement at FIU: The Panthers have gone from 1-11 to 5-7. "Like Rutgers déjà vu," said Cristobal.

Many coaches contacted for this story estimate their programs devote around 10 percent of their daily efforts in-season toward recruiting.

"We probably only invested about half this much time in it two or three years ago," said one SEC assistant. "But you can't be like that anymore. There's too many other people hustling, grinding, so if you don't put more focus on recruiting, you're going to be left behind. You see the programs that are on the way up which are the ones who really attack recruiting all year round. It wasn't like that before."

Says a Big 12 assistant, "Coaching is a copy-cat business, and when you see and hear about how other guys are watching all of this film and writing all of those personal recruiting notes, you have to keep up because if you don't, the kids you're chasing will know."

For as much attention as the wooing and chasing part of the recruiting business gets -- and it gets a ton these days -- coaches say it's more vital than ever to spend as much time as possible in the evaluation process because of the increasing number of distractions both inside and outside of their programs.

"It's not only the talent part of it but now the 'intangibles' are becoming tangibles," said Cristobal, a guy who had been considering a career as a Secret Service agent before going into coaching. "Work ethic and character are now rated as part of 'talent' in the way we approach it. And I think it's paid dividends, especially when you're trying to build a program because if you don't have those guys with the builder type, no-excuse mentalities, you're going to struggle."

Cristobal said he thinks he and his staff dedicate as much as 20 percent of their time in-season geared to recruiting.

"Every day there's some time dedicated to recruiting," he said. "Our guys get in to work out at 5 a.m. and then we're watching recruiting film or writing recruiting letters. We're going full throttle recruiting by 6 till about 7:15. And then typically you take your lunch break to call high schools, tracking down the tapes that you don't have yet and to make sure you're keeping up with the kids in the next year's class. And if it's already Sept. 1, you're finishing the day by calling kids every night. It never stops. It really doesn't.

"College football really is changing. Just think about the divot or the hole that you put in your roster if you have one bad recruiting year. All of a sudden your second-team tackle who was supposed to be a stud and this 'can't miss' guy, only he didn't work out and your starting tackle gets hurt, now you might have to play someone who is not capable and it's all because of your recruiting miss. I think the pressure and the accountability that comes with recruiting will continue to get higher and higher."

There is another side of the recruiting game that has become very relevant in today's world of college football: The perception that if you're bringing in good recruiting classes, your staff might get more leeway in the eyes of its administration. Tyrone Willingham was fired after three seasons at Notre Dame with a record of 21-15. The man who has followed him, Charlie Weis, was 22-15 after three years and coming off the worst season in the school's proud history. The perception at Notre Dame, though, was that Weis had been saddled with Willingham's suspect recruiting efforts, whereas the former New England Patriots assistant had been reeling in top-10 recruiting classes.

While recruiting rankings are subjective, it certainly hasn't hurt Weis.

Rick Neuheisel, UCLA's second-year coach, went 4-8 in his debut season leading his alma mater, but because his staff landed a host of highly regarded recruits -- and beat archrival USC to a bunch of them -- optimism is surging around Westwood.

Perhaps an even stronger pull in the perceived recruiting power of a school is that if other blue-chippers see that some upstart program is starting to snag prized prospects, it tends to create an avalanche effect. Most kids want to be part of a big turnaround.

For these reasons, some schools now give their coaches bonuses based on their recruiting rankings. And because of that it's no surprise that some coaches privately lobby some online recruiting services who generate the star-system, defining how each recruit is graded.

Cristobal's first huge recruit actually hadn't been touted as an "all-world" prospect, but ball-hawking CB Anthony Gaitor, a guy who helped powerhouse Miami Northwestern High to a state title by picking off seven passes, was the kind of scrappy prospect the coach coveted. "He really blew us away. He was the pied piper," Cristobal said.

Gaitor, who went on to win first-team All-Sun Belt cornerback honors in 2008, helped FIU land his god-brother, T.Y. Hilton, one of the most dynamic players in the entire 2008 recruiting class. Hilton, a 5-foot-11, 175-pounder with scholarship offers from SEC and Big East programs, made good on a promise that he'd score a touchdown the first time he touched the ball in college (against Kansas) and became the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year while also making the Freshman All-American team. Gaitor and Hilton are joined this year by the school's first-ever four-star recruits: linebacker Larvez "Pooh Bear" Mars and tight end Dudley LaPorte.

"The best part of the blueprint is that we don't have to put kids on a plane and fly 2,000 miles away in the freezing cold weather," said Cristobal. "Instead they can just get in their car. And when they see a T.Y. Hilton say no to the Floridas, Miamis and West Virginias to come here and help build this and then become a Freshman All-American, they realize this thing is for real. They can be the guys who set their own footprints, not follow in someone else's."

Still, don't look for any shocking upset when the Panthers visit the Crimson Tide on Saturday, or the following week, when Cristobal's team visits his old pal Schiano up at Rutgers. But their chances are at least a little better now, and figure to be even better a year from now.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. You can read his daily updates on his college football blog, or check out his latest book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting."