How much difference can one assistant coach make? Maybe we should ask California's rapidly unraveling recruiting class.
On Jan. 7, just a little over three weeks before they could make it official, three teenagers in San Antonio, Texas — five-star safety Shaq Thompson, five-star defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy and four-star wide receiver Jordan Payton — put on Cal hats at the Army All-America Game, ostensibly securing the Golden Bears' most touted recruiting class in ages. On the stage, McCarthy talked about taking Cal to the Rose Bowl. Thompson talked about following his cousin, Denver Broncos safety Syd'Quan Thompson, a Cal alum. Payton said Cal was "like a family" and touted the academic reputation in Berkeley as his top priority: "It's just the right school. … It's perfect."
This afternoon, Payton put on a Washington hat, bringing the Bears' final score to 0-and-3: Barely three weeks later, all three of Cal's commitment coups in San Antonio will wake up Wednesday morning and fax their letters of intent to conference rivals. McCarthy, Rivals' No. 4 defensive tackle and No. 21 player overall, is bound for UCLA; while Payton's defection comes hot on the heels of Thompson's announcement for Washington on Monday night. By Rivals' count, the most impressive class in the Pac-12 a week ago now ranks sixth, and may take another hit or two before the dust clears.
All for one reason and one reason only: Washington doubled Tosh Lupoi's salary to lure Cal's ace recruiter to Seattle. Within days, the Bears' top targets went from extolling the virtues of the most prestigious public university in America to backpedaling out of it as quickly as possible. For all three of them, going to Cal didn't mean actually mean "going to Cal" as much as it did "chilling with Coach Lupoi," to the extent that two of them have now followed him to U-Dub like some kind of brahsome pied piper and the third immediately rejected Berkeley for another state school in his backyard. Relationships mattered. And Washington bought itself the best relationships $350,000 a year could buy.
Which is fine: If you can't beat 'em, hire 'em. Now that the gambit has proven so wildly successful, though, the question is how to keep someone else from hiring 'em from you.