In 1999, after having been spurned by a junior college transfer, Pittsburgh offered its last scholarship of that year's allotment of 24 to a high school senior from Miami named Antonio Bryant, who'd had only one other offer, from Louisville. That would be the same Antonio Bryant who as a Panthers sophomore last season won the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to the nation's best wideout.
As inexact science goes, if you liked the Voter News Service, you'll love recruiting. Any coach with 50 cents to buy USA Today can pick out the high school All-Americas. Determining who gets a school's last scholarship is a truer test of a coach's ability to find talent. "If you truly believe in someone's ability, you stand on the table for him," says former Pitt assistant coach Brian Williams, who kept pushing Bryant on his skeptical colleagues. "No question, Antonio had tons of ability. There might have been a question about his speed, but he had so many unique qualities. He attacked the ball in the air. He could get his hips low [to get into position to catch underthrown passes]." In two seasons Bryant has caught 119 passes for 2,146 yards and 17 touchdowns.
A year ago Cal gave wideout Chase Lyman of St Francis High in Los Altos Hills, Calif., its last full ride in part to prevent him from walking on at archrival Stanford. Lyman caught 19 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman. "That last scholarship comes down to a gut feeling," says Notre Dame coach Bob Davie, who would rather award it to a walk-on he's familiar with than to a recruit he isn't sure about.
Adds University of Buffalo coach Jim Hofher, "You go with character, personality, a guy you just flat-out want to have around and want to be around."
It takes a mentally tough recruit to ignore the fact that his coach preferred all the other signees to him. "You try to tell them that once you sign, it doesn't matter if you were a high school All-America," says Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum. "It's what you do in college that matters."
Bryant is proof of that. When he arrived at Pitt, he was put on the scout team. But toward the end of preseason camp he began to get enough reps with the offense to show what he could do, and by the third game he was starting. Bryant refused to allow the coaches to use the tendency of a freshman to make mistakes as an excuse for not playing him. "I used to say to Coach [ Walt Harris], 'Don't tell me it's a freshman thing,' " Bryant says. "I don't want it to be a freshman thing." Last season, despite being a marked man, he led the nation in receiving yards per game (130.2).
Even though he grew up a Florida State fan, Bryant has no hard feelings toward the Seminoles—or toward the other in-state powers, Florida and Miami—for not recruiting him. "A lot of guys out there can play? Bryant says.
He should know.