In a year in which the traditional powers dominated the top of the Class of 2011 rankings, it was an under-the-radar coach from a program trying to join the ranks of the elite who made the biggest impact on the recruiting trail.
There can be no ignoring what Sal Sunseri did at Alabama or Mike Bobo's work at Georgia or the class Ed Orgeron helped bring to USC. In fact, there are many others who helped bring in top classes to their respective programs across the country. That's why picking the recruiter of the year is like picking a favorite song. There are no wrong answers.
But rewind the recruiting game tape and sometimes you can see a little more. You can see Louisville's Clint Hurtt persuading players from South Florida to come to a program that has just one bowl appearance in the past four years and 15 bowl appearances total. You see him persuading players to ignore bigger programs with better tradition and more history to come to Louisville. You see him helping the Cardinals earn a spot in the Top 25 class rankings, the only Big East team to do so. That's why Hurtt was named ESPN.com's recruiter of the year.
"It's something I didn't expect, but it's a great honor and something I am very proud of," Hurtt said. "I think the biggest reason why I had success this season was that these families were very comfortable with me. It's about creating those relationships and building trust."
Hurtt was key in the Cardinals landing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (Miami/Northwestern), safety Gerod Holliman (Miami/Southridge), wide receiver Eli Rogers (Miami/Northwestern) and defensive end Bryant Dubose (Oakland Park, Fla./Northeast). Of the Cardinals' 20-player class, 16 are from out of state, including 12 from Florida, 10 of them from South Florida.
That's not surprising considering Hurtt's history in the area. Hurtt, originally from Rochester, N.Y., played for the Miami Hurricanes from 1997 to 2000. After an injury ended his career before the 2001 season, he became a volunteer assistant on the strength and conditioning staff. In 2003, he was named a graduate assistant and worked with the defensive line for two seasons. He spent a year coaching the defensive line at Florida International before returning to the Canes as a defensive line coach from 2006 to 2009. In Hurtt's final three seasons with Miami, he also served as its recruiting coordinator and helped the Canes land three straight top-10 classes, including the nation's No. 1 class in 2008. He knows the lay of the land in the three main counties -- Dade (Miami), Broward (Fort Lauderdale) and Palm Beach (West Palm Beach) -- that make up South Florida. He estimates that he has ties to 70 percent of the players down there in some way and has built up a big trust factor in the region.
"I met him many years ago, and I really liked how he handled himself," said Louisville coach Charlie Strong, who hired Hurtt in January 2010. "It's about building relationships. I saw what he had with those coaches and kids [in South Florida]. I knew if I had a chance to get him, then I had to get him. The kids trust him. He's a leader and a great recruiter. He's driven, one heck of a football coach and a really good person. He wants the best for his players and these recruits. I was excited to get him because he wants to be the best. Lots of staffs have good coaches or good recruiters. Clint Hurtt is both."
Hurtt went down to Hurricane country and landed potential difference-makers. Bridgewater, Rogers and Dubose were one-time commitments to Miami, and Holliman and Andrew Johnson (Miami/Southridge) were one-time commitments to Ole Miss. They all had opportunities to play at bigger, well-known programs. Instead, they choose Hurtt and Louisville. In a year in which many Big East programs struggled to sign elite recruits, Louisville did not. In fact, Bridgewater, Rogers and Holliman are ESPNU 150 members.
"When Coach Hurtt was at Miami, we established a great relationship right off the bat," Bridgewater said. "Then he went to Louisville, and we didn't talk much. They thought I was too big-time. Then he started coming after me again, and I know they are on the verge of something special there at Louisville. Sure, he's a big reason why I picked Louisville, but it's also a great opportunity for me. I want us, this class, to make a legacy there that everyone is proud of."
Bridgewater will be an obvious key for Louisville this season and in the future. The quarterback is a high school icon in Miami, and landing him likely will open up many more doors for Hurtt, Strong and Louisville for years to come.
"Teddy was huge for us, huge," Hurtt said. "He's a chief, and guys down there want to follow him. They want to play together and feel comfortable. Teddy knows that. The kids down there know that. It's a very similar situation to what we had in '08 at Miami. We had to get Jacory [Harris] and Marcus [Fortson]. We knew if we did that, it would give us a stranglehold in South Florida. Now, we want to do that again."
There isn't a secret formula for Hurtt's success in South Florida. He's successful because he works extremely hard and is smart. Hurtt has great people skills and is an effective communicator. Over many years, he has developed relationships and earned the trust of coaches, families and prospects. Those simple dynamics are what make a great recruiter.
"He and I built a real tight bond," Rogers said. "It's like father-son. We can talk about anything. I know he has my back, and that's what matters to me. He's a very straightforward guy and a see-for-yourself type of person. I trust him."
Hurtt was also responsible for Louisville signing wide receiver Charles Gaines (Miami/Central), offensive guard John Miller (Miami/Central), safety Jermaine Reve (Miami/Northwestern), offensive guard Mike Romano (Port St. Lucie, Fla./Treasure Coast), defensive back Terrell Floyd (Port St. Lucie, Fla./Treasure Coast) and defensive end Deiontrez Mount (Fort Walton Beach, Fla./Fort Walton Beach).
"There's no question that Coach Hurtt was a big part of my decision to go to Louisville," Holliman said. "We have a great relationship, and he's a great communicator. He explained everything to me very well, and we always talked. It was also big that Teddy, Eli and some of the other guys all went there. We grew up playing together and wanted to play ball together. Man, it all worked out, and I am very excited."
Remember, Louisville isn't exactly Miami. There's no South Beach or Coconut Grove to sell to these players. But Hurtt and the Cardinals staff know they have so much to offer.
"One of the biggest things is selling the city of Louisville and the program itself," Hurtt said. "It's the 16th-largest city in America, but it's a slower town than Miami. We have a lot going on here. We have a great head coach in Charlie Strong, and we all believe in what we are trying to accomplish at Louisville. We want to win the Big East and play in big bowl games. We want to win year in and year out. We want to win championships."
There's no question that Louisville was one of the biggest surprises in recruiting this season, and Hurtt was a big reason why.
"We succeeded in recruiting because of people like him," Strong said. "Recruiting is the bloodline of our program. We have to turn it around. Teddy and this class starts the whole ball rolling. We can't get complacent. Everyone will do a better job against us. We have made people take notice of Louisville."