Inside the windowless war room at the Rutgers football facility, the names of 18 high school players are neatly written in blue marker on a supersized dry-erase board. It is early morning on Feb. 1, and for the coaches in Piscataway, N.J., and college football towns everywhere, national signing day marks the end of the Great Chase. After months (in some cases, years) of breathless recruiting, the coaches are left with nothing to do but wait for the sound that signals success: the whir of the fax machine. At 7 a.m. the coaching staff begins hovering near the copy room, awaiting the first letter of intent from one of the names on the board.
Rule No. 1 in the world of recruiting: There is no such thing as a done deal until the signed letter of intent arrives. Leading up to signing day, there are around-the-clock calls and texts, broken promises and more flip-flopping than in a presidential primary. For every coaching staff in America, these are among the most wrenching of days. But the week has been particularly dramatic in Piscataway. On Jan. 26, six days before signing day, coach Greg Schiano announced that, after 11 seasons with the Scarlet Knights, he was accepting an offer to take over the NFL's Buccaneers. Seldom before had the coach of a BCS program left his team with signing day so near. Schiano's abrupt exit, the pundits insisted, would lead to the unraveling of a much-heralded recruiting class.
Here's a look at six frantic days in Piscataway.
SIX DAYS TO SIGNING DAY
There's an old saying among college coaches: If you're being pulled from the road during a recruiting trip, either your wife's going into labor or there's been a coaching change. So when the Knights' assistants see their phones blink on the morning of Jan. 26 with orders to return to campus immediately, they figure that Schiano is gone. Five of them have made the one-hour drive to Ramsey, N.J., to see two stars from powerhouse Don Bosco Prep, defensive end Darius Hamilton and wide receiver Leonte Carroo. (The latter was already a Rutgers commit.) But soon the assistants are piling back into their cars, and on the ride back to Piscataway radio reports confirm their suspicions. Before athletic director Tim Pernetti appears at a 4:30 p.m. press conference to announce the departure of Schiano and the promotion of offensive line assistant Kyle Flood as interim coach, the Internet has already blown up with doomsday talk. Schiano's exit "will absolutely destroy recruiting this close to signing day," proclaims one national recruiting analyst.
A feeding frenzy on the Knights' commits begins. Offensive tackle Chris Muller of Boyertown, Pa., first hears of Schiano's departure from a UConn coach. In the next few hours Muller hears from 10 schools—"some, like Clemson, are completely out of the blue," he says—that are trying to get him to flip.
That night Muller meets with other Rutgers commits at a local pizza joint. They talk about visiting other campuses. They talk about possible replacements for Schiano. (Temple's Steve Addazio and Florida International's Mario Cristobal are rumored to be candidates.) They talk about whether, in the end, a recruit is choosing a coach or a program. Then Muller speaks with Pernetti over the phone. "I'm still in," Muller assures the AD. "But I'm not going to lie: Guys are nervous. We want to know who the new coach is."
FIVE DAYS TO SIGNING DAY
Pernetti has an idea: He wants to join the football staff temporarily as an assistant so he's eligible to call and meet with recruits. It's not an original move, but it is rare. He takes an online test to become an NCAA-approved recruiter, and within hours the 41-year-old former TV executive is working three cellphones to stay in touch with recruits as he crisscrosses the state for face-to-face visits.
There are two potential program-changing players that the Knights have eyed for years: Hamilton, a five-star defensive end ranked by Rivals.com as the nation's 11th-best recruit, and Devin Fuller of Old Tappan (N.J.) High, a dazzling dual-threat quarterback. For Pernetti's first in-home visit, he accompanies Flood to see Fuller, and the meeting does not go well. There's nothing worse than a coaching change shortly before signing day, because the trust that's been built over time between the staff and the player is gone. Schiano had guaranteed Fuller that he'd be a quarterback at Rutgers. Now there are no guarantees. "The bottom line is that I can't sit down and talk to the head coach about what position I'm going to play," Fuller says that day. "I just don't see a plan for me anymore."