July 17, 2013

Recruiting Tales: Hits and misses

In the seventh installment of HuskerOnline.com's "Recruiting Tale's" former Husker coach and longtime recruiting coordinator Jack Pierce discusses some of his memorable moments of recruiting some of Nebraska's greats like Neil Smith and Reggie Cooper. He also talks about some of the players that he turned down that turned out to be great like Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders and Oklahom quarterback Jamelle Holieway.

Recruiting the South

"I remember when I first started recruiting Neil Smith," Pierce recalled. "I showed him to Tom Osborne and he said, 'dad-gummit Jack, he's only 210-pounds. He's only this - he's only that.' I said to just wait until he met his mom. I would always find out where the parents worked and I would go see them at work. So I took Tom and we visited Neil Smith's mom at work, she was a cook. She was 6-foot-3 and 285-pounds. Tom said, 'Mrs. Smith I'm so glad to meet you. I couldn't be happier that your son wants to come to Nebraska'. I told coach, 'Hey I put this together, remember when you were worried about him only being 210-pound?'

"We weren't used to recruiting Louisiana or Mississippi or Alabama and we weren't good in Texas but we got there. We got there because we learned the way of the land. Tom was very accessible to let us do that. We had some great players from the South.

"One of the good ones we got from the South was Reggie Cooper from Slidell, Louisiana. I couldn't sign him in the school because I didn't have any school visits left. I would always rent Cadillac's when I was out on the road. There was a coach I knew from New Orleans that jokingly told me once, 'Jack you know you do it right. You show up to school and kids either think you're pushing dope or you're a major college football coach. In both cases they are going to come to your car.' So that was my modus operandi.

"So I signed Reggie Cooper on the hood of my Cadillac outside of the school. It was big news and the newspaper was there. The picture the next morning in the Times-Picayune, the New Orleans paper, is through the hood ornament of a Cadillac with Reggie signing to come to Nebraska. The paper said, 'What do you think Cooper got to go to Nebraska?'.

"They just wanted to paint the picture that we were doing something illegal but that wasn't the case. I was just needing to sign Cooper and I couldn't do it at the school since I had used all of my visits up.

The ones that got away

"I had a lot of freedom with evaluating players," Pierce said. "The coaching staff was so good. They were technicians with X's and O's and just great coaches that could develop players. It was my job to find them the great ones so they could make them even better and I knew if I could do that we'd be playing for titles every year.

"I turned down some great players though, some really great players. I turned Barry Sanders down, I flat turned him down. I just thought he was too small. We were in the Big 8, we were an I-formation team. I didn't think he could take the pounding. I was wrong. Now, when he went to Oklahoma State he gained 28-pounds from his senior year to a freshman. I'm not telling you who he did it but he did. But he was still 5-foot-7. Of course Frank [Solich] liked him because he was the same height. I was wrong on Sanders though.

"You know, that was about the time that we went from signing 37 players a year to 25 so we had to become very selective with what we were trying to do once that number crunch started. I drove from Wichita North to Wichita South a year later and here's Lawrence Pete. I told the staff this was the kid we had to have. I told them he was the savior of our 50-front at nose guard. Those were the types of things that the staff had to rely on.

"It was tough because there were those instances where there were glaring mistakes. The kid at Banning high school that went to Oklahoma was another one, Jamelle Holiway. I said he couldn't play for us. I went and watched at practice and he would cuss out his coaches. I didn't know how Tom would react to him turning around and cussing him out very well. It was going to work.

"The thing was that it was Vince Ferregamo's brother who was the head coach there. So we could have got him. So I went to practice one day and saw him do that which turned me off. The next day I'm at Long Beach Poly watching film with the coaches there. It was late at night and I'm looking at film of the Long Beach Poly kids and I say, 'Who the hell is the quarterback for the other team running up and down the field?'. They told me that it was the kid at Banning, Holieway. They told me he was a great player and I told them they I was just there the day before and I didn't think he could play for Nebraska. They convinced me that I should go back and take another look at him.

"I went back to Banning the following day and he had been in a fight that day at school and couldn't practice. I was talking to Ferragamo and he told me he was a great player but that he just wouldn't fit with us. He just wouldn't work out.

"Of course, he goes to Oklahoma and just wore us out. After we played against him there was a big picture of him hanging on my office door with a note that said, 'Holieway can't play for us?'. Obviously he was good enough to play for us but I still don't think he would have worked out for Nebraska to this day. Tom said, 'Well Jack, you know I've been able to coach all types of players maybe we should have taken a shot with him.' But I told him that the first time he would have turned around and dog cussed Osborne it would have been over. Tom probably could have handled him but I didn't want to be the guy to have put him in that position so I passed on him.

"I felt like that was my job. I tried to keep us out of harms way. For the most part I think I did a good job but there are always a few players that you wonder about. What would it have been like if we would have got them."

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