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Tuesday, Jan. 17. It's 8:12 a.m. in Austin, Texas. Gray. Cold. But Bobby Jack Wright, 38, an assistant football coach at the University of Texas and recruiter extraordinaire, has sunshine in his heart. He's pumped up and wound tight: "Whooee! It's time to haul ass and go get us some college football players." Wright must try to land, above all others, Robert Strait of Cuero, a 6'1", 220-pound running back with brilliant inside speed. "There is not a better football player coming out of Texas," says Wright. "I have to get him."
And with that, he whips a Lincoln Town Car onto I-35, flips on his Escort radar detector, pushes the speedometer needle to 85 mph and punches the buttons on the radio until he finds Tammy Wynette still standing by her man. Then he is on his portable phone, calling R.A. Johnson, the football coach at Sam Houston High in San Antonio. The Longhorns like a running back there named Rongea Hill. "I just wanted to holler at ya," says Wright to Johnson. They chitchat, and soon Wright says, "R.A., did you hear the regents voted to lower the academic requirements for the players—but raise them for the coaches?" They laugh. Wright hangs up. He will visit Hill later in the day.
"Hey, look at us," chortles Wright. "We're listenin' to Patsy Cline a-singin', lookin' at this beautiful country goin' by us, and we're on our way to get us some college football players. Things don't get any better than this. Whooee!"
No question, this is a happy man. And no wonder. In three previous years at Texas, he has gone after 11 hotshot high school players and has signed 10. Bobby Jack Wright has the touch. He had better: Strait is a tough customer with wandering eyes that sometimes seem to drift toward Baylor and Miami.
Why is Wright so good? "I just love recruiting to death," he says. "The players lie to you. They tell you they're comin'. Then they don't. They give you their commitment and then break it. It's great. The key is to be somebody the players can trust."
Says Texas coach David McWilliams, "Bobby Jack has a good line of bull."
At the request of the radar detector, Wright slows.
And so it goes in college football recruiting—the most important part of the game. Which is why Wright, who coaches the Longhorns' defensive secondary, says, "If they can't play, I can't coach." From Nov. 1 to Feb. 8, adult football coaches hit the road to beg, plead and cajole high school teenagers to, pretty please, come to our school. It's crucial. It's frantic. And it culminates when the players sign letters of intent accepting scholarship offers. This year Wright had five players in his South Central Texas recruiting area who interested the Long-horns—to varying degrees.
One of the for-sures is Bubba Smith, a linebacker for Clark High who, Wright says, is "just a good ath-o-lete." As Wright slows for the De Zavala Road exit, where construction work is underway, he says, "Man, I could be on that backhoe or diggin' a ditch like that guy over yonder. I did a little labor when I was a kid, and I didn't like it."
At Clark High, Big Mike Robbins, the coach, is waiting.