Pitt operating like a well-oiled machine

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Pitt secondary coach Jeff Hafley, like many a young football coach trying to make his mark, has been known to sleep in his office from time to time to maximize the hours he devotes to his job.

Wednesday, just before 10 a.m. on National Signing Day, he escaped to his office for a cat nap. It was the first time in at least a week that he could really relax.

That was because the letter of intent from defensive end T.J. Clemmings -- of Paterson Catholic in New Jersey and the last of the four players from whom Hafley had received a verbal commitment to play football at Pitt -- had rolled off the fax machine minutes before. That meant Hafley's work was finished, at least for a day or so.

"You feel like a kid on Christmas morning, waking up early, wanting to be here near the fax machine and anxiously awaiting those letters," Hafley said. "I haven't slept in like a week. It is part of the pressure of this job, but I love it. You have all these guys who you've invested a year, sometimes two, in talking to and recruiting and getting to know and they tell you they are coming, but you never really know until that letter comes in."

Hafley and the rest of Pitt's staff -- just like the coaching staffs at most every college in the country -- spent a lot of the morning hanging around the fax machine, waiting to get letters of intent from high school athletes.

It is part of an annual ritual for college coaches, a day that is part celebration for a job well done and part relief, because the players who said they were coming actually are.

Wednesday, however, was rather uneventful for the Panthers as signing days go because the staff had secured so many commitments so early and few recruits even hinted that they might be wavering.

In fact, Clemmings was the only one about whom there was even a little bit of a question, and that had a lot more to do with the competition -- he is the top-rated player in New Jersey by a number of scouting services and he several offers.

That's why the loudest cheer -- or, more accurately, sigh of relief -- came when his letter finally came through the fax machine at the South Side football offices at 9:50 a.m.

Until that moment, Hafley paced, nervously checked his phone and his text messages and returned to the fax machine to see if it was plugged in and turned on. That's the nature of the job when your livelihood is dependent on the decisions of 18-year-olds.

"Man, at one point I wanted to make sure there was paper in that thing," joked Hafley, who has been a big part of helping Pitt establish itself in New Jersey. "The worst thing that can happen is, you have to tell your boss that one of your guys isn't coming. But the great thing about working with coach [Dave] Wannstedt is, he's been through it for so long that he understands -- sometimes stuff happens with these kids."

Earlier in the day, the coaches tried to guess who would be the first recruit to send his letter after the signing period opened at 7 a.m.

Would anyone break junior quarterback Pat Bostick's record? His letter arrived at about "7 a.m. and two seconds" on his signing day, according to unofficial records. At 7:02 a.m., the first letter -- from Brandon Sacco, a lineman from Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey -- came rolling off the fax machine.

Surprisingly, there were few snags -- a snowstorm closed two of the schools attended by three recruits and they weren't able to fax their letters until early afternoon -- but that has a lot to do with the fact that Pitt's program has stabilized under Wannstedt and its days of having to scramble for players are long gone.

The coaches told many stories about good surprises on signing day -- players who signed with Pitt who were supposed to sign elsewhere -- as well as bad. Some of the old guard talked about the gloominess of signing day a few years back when five commitments, all of them top players, backed out and signed elsewhere.

Then there were the strange stories, like the one about defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who told the coaches he was walking to the fax machine to send the letter and apparently kept walking, right out the doors of his school.

"I had just got a commitment from him the night before," Wannstedt said while sitting in his office taking in the events of the day. "And so we were feeling good. Then he just froze up and disappeared. Nobody could find him all day long, it took us until like 3 or 4 p.m. until we located him and he said he just didn't know what to do. It was like he went into hiding. We ultimately got him, but that made for some very nervous moments.

"If you look at where we are now, we've already begun on next year's class because those days of having six scholarships to fill the day before are over. I think our program is on the rise and we're to the point where we know what we are looking for and we secure the players we need early enough that signing days will hopefully be uneventful, other than the usual -- a kid forgets to sign something or whatever -- from now on."

Wannstedt has been a master at reeling in late commitments in recent years. Some of the best players he has signed are ones he got to commit in the week leading up to signing day after winning long, drawn-out recruiting wars.

And that part of it, the act of closing the deal, is his speciality. That's one of the reasons he's known as one of the top recruiters in the country. It is also the part he enjoys the most. So next year, he might opt to add a little drama to signing day.

"I really wish we had one left because, I'll be honest, I missed that part of the game," Wannstedt said, smiling. "Next year, maybe I'll hold one or two back for the late January push so that I can get back into the game a little bit more. I'm probably one of the few coaches who gets in every single commitment's home and I call them all the night before signing day, but there is something about being able to close the deal on a guy who has a lot of other coaches calling him that makes recruiting a little bit more special to me."

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720. First Published February 4, 2010 5:00 AM


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