Varsity Xtra: Recruiting Different as Night and Day
The recruiting of gifted high school football players has changed drastically over the years
January 28, 2011 5:00 AM
Ben Howard/Post-Gazette photo illustration
Dan Marino signs his letter of intent to Pitt in 1979.
By Mike White Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Dan Marino was a senior at Central Catholic High School, colleges wanted him so badly they used help from outside the school to recruit the standout quarterback. UCLA even used The Fonz.
When Marino made an official visit to UCLA in 1979, he was picked up at the airport by a couple of female representatives of UCLA and taken to the set of Happy Days, a popular television comedy that featured the character Fonzie played by Henry Winkler.
A-a-a-a-y! Marino even had lunch with The Fonz.
There was nothing illegal about UCLA's tactics with Winkler, who was a big TV star at the time. That was recruiting then.
This is recruiting now: In the fall, the Iowa basketball team got in hot water with the NCAA because two recruits, while attending an Iowa football game, met actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore in a suite at the game. Such a meeting is against NCAA rules.
For certain, much has changed in football recruiting the past three decades because of countless NCAA rules. There are rules on everything from contact periods to phone calls to text messages. Recruiting today is nothing like it was 30 years ago or more. What college coaches could do then, they can't do now.
And the stories from those old recruiting days are memorable, like how Johnny Majors gave scholarships to 73 players in his first recruiting class at Pitt in 1973. Like how one Pitt assistant used to drive a recruit home after high school basketball practice. Like how The Fonz recruited Marino.
"I remember when he came home from that trip to UCLA, he told me that story," said Rich Erdelyi, Marino's coach at Central Catholic. "He just laughed and said, 'Who gets to have lunch with The Fonz?'"
Marino was one of the most highly recruited players from the WPIAL and there are many stories from his recruitment. He had scholarship offers from schools across the country and visited Pitt, Michigan State, UCLA, Arizona State and Clemson.
Back then, there were no limits on how many times a college assistant coach could visit a recruit at his high school. These days, a college coach can visit a recruit only once a week, and only over a three-week period in December and a three-week period in January.
"Clemson had an assistant coach, Tom Moore, who came to every one of our Thursday practices, and then would show up at the school Friday morning and say hello again," Erdelyi said. "He was at our school so much, I started to wonder how he could still coach at Clemson."
Erdelyi, an assistant coach at Carnegie Mellon, also was a social studies teacher at Central Catholic when Marino was a senior. Marino's senior class also had three other Division I recruits -- tight end Lou Lamanna went with Marino to Pitt, linebacker Greg Lauble went to Michigan State and defensive end Greg Zappala went to Miami.
"There were so many coaches coming to our school all the time, they became part of the fabric of our school," Erdelyi said. "I had to miss so much time teaching, just to talk with all the college coaches. That year, I swear [Pitt assistant coach] Foge Fazio was in my class more than I was."
Back then, Fazio was an assistant under Pitt's Jackie Sherrill and recruited Western Pennsylvania.
"Everybody loved Foge," Lamanna said. "I don't quite remember how this happened or how we got there, but I know one time when we were being recruited, Danny and I ended up at the Pitt Field House, playing two-on-two basketball against Foge and [Pitt assistant] Joe Pendry."
That likely would be illegal now.
"I also remember that Danny and I played CYO basketball, and Foge came to one of our CYO games," Lamanna said.
Greg Gattuso was a standout player at Seton-LaSalle who was recruited by many major colleges. He ended up going to Penn State, but Pitt wanted him badly. Also in Gattuso's senior class at Seton-LaSalle were Jim Sweeney and Glenn Streno. Sweeney ended up at Pitt and Streno at Tennessee.
"I had gym class at the end of the day and I was a basketball player, too," Gattuso said. "I remember Foge would always come to our gym class and mess around with everyone. Then he'd shoot baskets with me and sometimes take me home."
Gattuso also tells a story of a visit he took to Florida State with Streno.
"I remember we went to some booster's home for some big seafood thing, which I know you couldn't do these days," Gattuso said.
Penn Hills lineman Bill Fralic was another highly recruited player from the WPIAL. He eventually chose Pitt, but also visited Notre Dame, UCLA, Miami and Ohio State. Fralic, a 1981 Penn Hills graduate, also was a wrestler, and there were so many coaches coming to Penn Hills that Fralic used to hide in the wrestling room to get away from them.
"Tommy Flynn played at Penn Hills, was a year ahead of me and was already at Pitt," Fralic said. "I remember one day he and Dan Marino came to the school and actually came into lunch to talk to me. I remember them just saying, 'You should stay at Pitt.' I would suspect something like that wouldn't be allowed in this day.
"I tried to avoid most of the attention and the calls from coaches at home. My parents had to deal with the brunt of that."
Majors, who also coached at Iowa State and Tennessee, remembers how much time he and his staff spent recruiting Tony Dorsett, a 1973 Hopewell graduate. Sherrill was an assistant coach under Majors.
"There were unlimited visits by a coach to a school," Majors said. "I know Jackie and I got to know the people at Hopewell so well that the principal asked us if we could address the student body because we got so close to everybody."
Majors tells stories of the days when college coaches were allowed to take high school players to dinner as often as they wanted.
"Sometimes, you took their parents, and even their grandparents," Majors said.
When Majors first came to Pitt, there were no limitations on how many recruits a college could sign in a year. That's why Majors signed 73 in his first class at Pitt. The next year, the NCAA put a limit on scholarships. These days, a college can sign only 25 in a year.
"Things were bad at Pitt when I came. They were only giving out 25 scholarships a year," Majors said. "They agreed to give me 50 scholarships a year for four years. I remember in that first year we already had 40 recruits and I went to [athletic director] Cas Myslinski and said, 'Cas, we still have a lot of people left to sign.' We were recruiting everywhere. He took me to the chancellor [Wesley Posvar] of the school, and I asked if we could have more than 50. Dr. Posvar gave us the go ahead. So I said, 'Let's just sign everyone who can breathe or walk.' "
Dorsett was a part of the 1973 class. Pitt won a national championship in the 1976 season.
"I have no idea, but Jackie Sherrill might have been to Tony's school or house 30 times," Majors said. "Recruiting today is nothing like it was years ago."