By John Antonik for WVUsports.com
February 02, 2012 10:25 PM
Early in his coaching career at West Virginia University, in either 1981 or 1982, Don Nehlen was down in Florida speaking at a football clinic when he was approached by WVU alumnus Rick Perry, who was then coaching at Stanahan High School in Fort Lauderdale.
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Perry pulled Nehlen off to the side to tell him Florida had a ton of good football players and Florida, Florida State and Miami couldn’t get them all. Perry advised Nehlen that all he had to do was focus on some of the top schools in Dade and Broward County, develop a presence there, and eventually it would pay off. Nehlen was willing to give it a shot.
“We didn’t go to Tampa or Gainesville, Jacksonville or the west coast,” Nehlen recalled. “We just stayed right there (in south Florida) in the spring and the fall and slowly but surely we started to get players.”
Nehlen already knew Florida was putting out a lot of great players who were willing to leave the state because he coached one of them at Michigan in Riviera Beach’s Anthony Carter. What concerned Nehlen was would those kids come to West Virginia? WVU was not exactly a household name in the early 1980s.
Actually, the Mountaineers had made an effort to recruit Florida players in the late 1970s under Frank Cignetti when Cignetti went down to Florida to land Sedrick King out of Boynton Beach and Joe Jones out of Miami in 1978. But that was more a dalliance than a committed strategy.
Five years later in 1983, Nehlen made up his mind to send young assistant coach Doc Holliday down to Florida on a full-time basis to see what he could come up with. As it turned out, Holliday didn’t get a single player that first year.
“We had kids visit but we couldn’t get anybody to sign,” said Nehlen.
A year later in 1984, Perry helped break the ice by sending the Mountaineers his top running back, Undra Johnson, who wound up becoming a significant contributor on the undefeated team in 1988.
Also members of that '84 signing class were defensive back Andrew Jones from Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale, wide receiver Calvin Phillips from Lake Worth High in Boynton Beach (Sedrick King’s high school), linebacker Robert Pickett from Northwestern High in Miami, and wide receiver Robert White from Fort Pierce. Pickett and Phillips also became key contributors on the ’88 Fiesta Bowl team.
That first year, Holliday landed five Florida players – the same number of prospects West Virginia plucked out of nearby Ohio and one less than it got out of Pennsylvania. From that moment on, Nehlen made Florida recruiting a program priority that continued with Rich Rodriguez, Bill Stewart and now Dana Holgorsen.
This year, including late signee Eric Kinsey, the Mountaineers landed 11 prospects from all parts of the Sunshine State. According to the Orlando Sentinel’s compilation of Florida signees, no out-of-state school got more Florida prospects than West Virginia.
Louisville, with former Florida assistant coach Charlie Strong, landed nine, and Marshall, with Holliday, got eight Florida players, the same number as Cincinnati.
Holgorsen made it a point to have the state covered with Robert Gillespie already a fixture down there and Shannon Dawson picking up other areas when Bill Kirelawich and Dave Lockwood left for Arizona.
“West Virginia always has done well in Florida, and by us being able to make it a priority and get some guys down there, and working it pretty hard, we were able to be down there a good bit of time,” said Holgorsen.
It wasn’t just numbers West Virginia got, either. Four of the 11 were ranked among the top 100 players in the state, including 25th-rated Karl Joseph from Orlando. West Virginia’s other top-rated prospects were Devonte Mathis (Miramar), Travares Copeland (Treasure Coast) and KJ Dillon (Apopka). Plus, the other seven all had an impressive list of offers as well.
Gillespie says West Virginia’s long-time Florida ties were really helpful.
“This place has always had a good presence down there and I knew that going into it,” Gillespie said. “It definitely helped, and the relationships you build with those coaches and the fact that this place has had some success with those players - and the current players now who are the face of our program - that’s definitely a big bonus to be able to show a prospect a kid who is where they are from who is successful. Putting all of that together has helped make those kids want to come here.”
Additionally, what made it all work so well was the plan Holgorsen assembled to have all of the key areas covered, even when he was down a couple of coaches at a key time in the recruiting calendar.
“We strategically tried to put enough guys in areas where we could do a thorough job building relationships with high school coaches and making the kids feel comfortable,” said Gillespie. “I think we were in schools enough this year that we became a part of those high school programs. I think that is a big part of it. The kids have to feel comfortable and know that you care enough about them by coming around. The rest takes care of itself.”
It certainly did.