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Recruiting's a lowdown, dirty game

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Wednesday is National Signing Day. As the day approaches, I am reminded of how vicious recruiting can get in these final days before an athlete has to decide where he wants to go to school. I often am asked if I miss coaching and would ever like to get back into the game. And to be quite honest with you, it's getting harder and harder to find reasons why I'm not back in already.

Regardless, there is one aspect of the job that never gets old and quite often gets out of hand – and that is recruiting. Invariably it seems that every year in the final days before signing day, after all the nice things have been said, it quite often comes down to negative recruiting.

You know what I'm talking about. After a year of courting a high school recruit, a coach has said about every nice thing he can say about his school, and with a week or so left there's nothing left to do but rip the opposition. "You don't want to go to State, the girls are ugly. You don't want to go to Tech, the guys are all in jail. You don't want to go to the University, they don't drive nice enough cars." You know the drift.

So for the first time in print, here's a true story of one of the best (or should I say worst) examples of negative recruiting I ever experienced.

It was 1994, after my second year at Auburn. We had just completed a two-year run, going 20-1-1. Although we were finishing up probation from the prior coaching staff and had not been able to go to a bowl or compete for the national championship, the fact that we started my tenure at Auburn with 20 straight victories was getting us into the homes of some of the best players in the country.

It was the last week of recruiting, and the No. 1 defensive player in the state of Florida was named Martavius Houston. He was a defensive back from Boyd Anderson High School in Fort Lauderdale, and he had the choice of going to any school in the country. However, by this final week he had narrowed his decision down to two schools. He was either going to go to Auburn and play for me or he was going to go to Florida State and play for my ol' man, Bobby Bowden (I'm sure you've heard of him).

Per NCAA rules, the head coach is allowed only one official home visit. I strategically looked at the calendar for the best chance for me to go into his home and hopefully close the deal. I decided to have my home visit from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday night. He had a basketball game Friday night, which would keep him busy, and he had no more official school visits left for the final weekend. I made up my mind that Thursday night was do-or-die time with this recruit.

I booked the flight to Fort Lauderdale and rented a nice Lincoln Town Car in order to impress him when I drove up. As I met him and his mother on the front porch, I immediately hugged his mom and told her how much I loved her and turned to Martavius and said, "Son, you're going to win a Heisman Trophy at Auburn University."

I followed them into the house and proceeded to sing his praises – nonstop – for an hour and a half. I said, "Son, you are the No. 1 recruit on my list, the best player I've ever seen, I'm going to make you my star, I'm going to make you my captain, and you're going to win two Heisman trophies at Auburn. Only Archie Griffin at Ohio State has ever done that." The more I talked, the bigger his eyes got, and the more he started leaning off the front of that chair. As most coaches will tell you, when you get a "leaner" you need to seal the deal right then and there. I wanted to stick my cell phone in his face and say, "you call that Bobby Bowden right now and tell him you don't want to go to FSU, that you want to be an Auburn Tiger."

However, high school coaches do a great job of prepping these young men by telling them not to get pressured into making a decision in front of the head coach but instead to wait until they can be alone with their family and loved ones so they can make a rational decision. So although he didn't verbally commit right there, I believed I had done the best selling job ever – I knew I had him.

As we walked back out onto the front porch, before I said goodbye, I turned to his mom one last time, hugged her neck and reminded her how much I loved her. Then, with all the sincerity I could muster, I looked that young man directly in the eyes and said, "I have never told anybody this before, but you're gonna win three Heisman trophies at Auburn. You'd win four, but you're gonna be in the NFL by then."

As I turned to leave, a long black, stretch limousine pulled up in front of the house. A little, short driver with one of those driver's caps and half-jackets on got out, walked all the way around the back of the limousine and opened the back door next to the curb.

Out stepped my ol' man.

He had scheduled his official visit for 7:30 p.m. on the same night.

As he waddled up that sidewalk wearing that silly-looking safari hat and those red/yellow/green sunglasses that he always wears, my eyes got as big as saucers and my jaw dropped.

My ol' man stepped up on the porch, said hello to that mama, shook Martavius' hand, turned to me, patted me on the head (in front of both of them) and said, "Terry, when you get home, your mama wants you to call her."

That's all he said!

You talk about dirty recruiting – it doesn't get any dirtier. Nobody has ever been "who's your daddy-ed" worse than that.

I mean, who do you want to play for – BOBBY – or terry?

I'm sure every coach out there has his war stories to tell. I just thought you'd like to hear mine.

Incidentally, Martavius Houston had a great career at Auburn University.