Wes Pritchett, like so many Georgians before and after him, felt the Peach State pull as he considered where to begin his college football career.
Pritchett, an Atlanta native, returned from a visit to Notre Dame determined to join the Georgia Bulldogs.
“Georgia pulled my scholarship and I said, ‘To hell with you, I’m going to Notre Dame,’” the 1989 graduate said in a recent phone interview. “It ended up being the greatest decision of my life. But, as a 17 year old kid, for me it was very difficult to think about leaving the south when I had never been north of North Carolina.”
Pritchett’s initial reticence to break free of the comfortable moorings of southern living is a hurdle that still bedevils Notre Dame Fighting Irish recruiters today. Georgia and Louisiana are among the most fertile areas for elite talent. But in the past five years, Brian Kelly and have staff have almost always failed to coax those student-athletes north.
The Irish have extended scholarship offers to 77 Georgians since 2013; only three - punter Tyler Newsome, defensive end Isaac Rochell and quarterback Montgomery VanGorder - have accepted. (Sophomore Spencer Perry is from Newhan, Ga., although he was at Florida’s IMG Academy when offered.) Similarly, the Irish have offered 40 student-athletes from Louisiana. Only defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and wide receiver Michael Young have come.
In interviews with former players and recruiting experts, a prospect’s proximity to home was always mentioned as a contributing factor to Notre Dame’s lack of success in these two states. But there were several other variables also worth considering.
HOME SWEET HOME
In 2008, the Journal of Sports Economics published a study that suggested a recruit’s decision on where to attend college is “governed by a handful of primary factors” including “the opportunity for individual success and exposure, a team’s recent on-field success and the distance to the school from his hometown. The results also indicate that membership in one of the six Bowl Championship Series (BCS) conferences provide a significant recruiting advantage for these schools.”
The economists studied three recruiting classes - 2002 to 2004 - and were struck most by the consistency “in the average distance between a recruit’s hometown and his potential college destination (between 470 and 480 miles).”
It’s 734 miles from Athens, Ga. to South Bend, Ind. It’s another 235 miles to Baton Rouge, La.
“For elite level kids - kids at the level that Notre Dame wants to sign - you really kind of have to give them a reason to leave the south,” said Bud Elliott, the national recruiting analyst for SB Nation. “They really have to say, ‘OK, there’s something up there that I can’t get down here.”
Jeremy Attaway, the managing editor of SB Nation’s Georgia site, DawgSports, pointed out that if elite players are looking to play at powerhouse schools, there’s several nearby.
“Auburn has a strong alumni network in west Georgia (especially in the Columbus/LaGrange area, which has produced a lot of Auburn players,” wrote Attaway in an e-mail interview. “Florida State is 20 minutes from the state line, a 30 minute drive to traditional football stronghold Thomasville (home of QB Charlie Ward), a presence in southwest Georgia. Florida is only a short drive up I-75 from Valdosta. And you can almost hear the crowd at Clemson in northeast Georgia. So Notre Dame isn’t just competing against Georgia and, to a lesser extent, Georgia Tech, but large portions of the SEC and ACC.”
Attaway added: “High school players may not want to go to college down the street from mom and dad, but they want to be close enough for family to come for game day and near enough for a home-cooked meal every now and then.”
A LIFETIME OF WINNING
Elliott laughed when he thought about current recruits from Georgia and Louisiana.
“These kids were born in 2000. You want to feel old?” he asked. “In their lifetime, that they can really remember, has Notre Dame been a premier program?”
The Irish have won 129 games since 2000, which is fewer victories than all of these programs: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (131), Auburn Tigers (148), Clemson Tigers (154), Georgia (160), Alabama Crimson Tide (164) and LSU Tigers (166).
In their study, the economists weren’t surprised to find that “greater on-field success leads to a greater probability that a recruit will select a school. ... Teams with lower rankings (meaning a ranking closer to first place in the polls) are more likely to attract recruits. An increase of 10 positions in the final AP poll from the prior season reduces the probability of selection by more than 2 percent.”
“The only real programs that are pulling elite kids out of the south right now for the most part are Ohio State and, to a certain extent, Michigan,” said Elliott. “I really don’t think this is a necessarily a Notre Dame problem as much as it is northern schools always kind of struggle to get kids to come north.”
Or as Pritchett, who played four years at inside linebacker, said: “People down here don’t really care about Notre Dame.”
Attaway noted the recruiting success of Ohio State, which has won 181 games since 2000.
The Buckeyes have “killed it in Georgia, recruiting players like Vonn Bell, Raekwon McMillan and Cameron Heyward and getting a verbal commit from 2018 five-star QB Emory Jones. [But] I think you hit the nail on the head regarding Georgia. If the Bulldogs can’t make it to the next level, that’s more likely to benefit [South Carolina’s] Will Muschamp, [Clemson’s] Dabo Swinney and [Alabama’s] Nick Saban more than Brian Kelly.”
THE TIES THAT BIND
Benny Guilbeaux, who grew up in Opelousas - 60 miles west of Baton Rouge, has a long lists of reasons why the Irish are struggling to pull recruits from Louisiana.
“When I was there, they had guys on the staff with ties through Louisiana and they had real good relationships with a number of high school coaches,” said Guilbeaux, who played strong safety for the Irish from 1995 to 1998. “You have to be on these kids from almost the time they’re in junior high. If not, you’re going to lose them.”
Attaway noted that the Alabama Crimson Tide “leaned heavily on the Peach State in recent years” because they had Kirby Smart as their defensive coordinator. Smart grew up in Georgia. His dad was a longtime high school coach there. And Smart worked at UGA before he joined Saban in Tuscaloosa. Now he’s back at Georgia as head coach.
“It’s no surprise that in his first full class in Athens, Smart stayed largely in Georgia and cleaned up,” Attaway wrote.
Elliott says most Louisiana recruits “kind of feel like they’re like on a mission from God to go to LSU.”
“Nobody pulls kids out of Louisiana that LSU wants, with the exception of Nick Saban,” he said. “And he coached at LSU for over half a decade and won a national title. So it’s really not like — hey, Notre Dame struggles to pull elite kids out of Louisiana. It’s everybody not named Nick Sabana struggles to pull elite kids out of Louisiana.”
Guilbeaux said his generation viewed LSU more as a basketball school. The Tigers, after all, didn’t win a single SEC football championship between 1988 and 2001. His friends went to schools like Southern University and Florida State.
Devery Henderson, who was also from Opelousas, changed all that when he committed to the Tigers in 2000. A Saban-led LSU was on the rise. Dave Roberts, who coached at Northeast Louisiana before joining Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame staff, had moved on in the transition to Bob Davie. And guys after Guilbeaux and Jamie Spencer (a fullback from Monroe, La.) were no longer looking at Notre Dame because they had a “big time program that was close to home.”
While economists found no correlation between a school’s graduation rate on a recruit’s decision to attend, Attaway said high school students in Georgia understand there are “serious advantages” to enrolling at the state’s flagship university.
“By becoming a star in Athens, players can secure connections which pay dividends over the course of a lifetime,” the managing editor wrote. “I know former UGA football players who have found success in law, medicine, insurance, education and a host of other fields in no small part because of the doors opened by being a star at the state’s premier football program.”
“You get a lot of pressure in Georgia if you’re a big player in Georgia to go to Georgia,” added Pritchett. “You go to any touchdown club. You go to any banquet. You’re going anywhere, you’ve got alumni in your ear because these people are crazy. They live, breathe, eat, sleep Georgia football.”
Notre Dame cannot move its campus south. It will, at least not for the foreseeable future, sport warm weather for at least 10 months every year. It used to be the only football program to have all of its games broadcast on television. Now it competes every Saturday with the SEC Network and CBS Sports’ SEC coverage.
So what will help, besides winning on the field?
“Whatever is on the cutting edge as far as facilities, they need to have that,” said Guilbeaux. The Guglielmino Athletics Complex, opened in 2005, is reportedly going to undergo an expansion to keep pace in the arms race among Football Bowl Subdivision Schools.
The safety-turned-school-teacher also believes uniforms have an impact.
“If the players had anything to say about it, Notre Dame would have been wearing the check (Nike) since ‘97,” he said. “Under Armour has made strides. But what Michigan did by being sponsored by [Michael] Jordan — that got them probably an extra five to eight recruits every year easily.”
Elliott believes the Irish will benefit if the NCAA’s Division I council approves, in April, an early signing period in mid-December.
“If you can get kids to take their official visits in the spring or even the summer when the weather is nice up there, I think that could help Notre Dame,” he said.
Elliott noted that the Stanford Cardinal are more aggressively recruiting Georgia. The early signing period, he said, could benefit Notre Dame in that head-to-head battle for elite athletic talent with outstanding classroom grades.
“Stanford oftentimes doesn’t get back to kids on their actual admissions until far later in the process than Notre Dame does,” he said. “If I’m Johnny Prospect and I’m sitting here waiting to sign, and Notre Dame’s given me the green light and Stanford hasn’t, I may not feel like waiting.”
GA & LA athletes offered ND scholarships, 2013-2017
|Class of||Player||Position||Home State||Committed to||247 Composite|
|Class of||Player||Position||Home State||Committed to||247 Composite|
|2017||Jaiden Cole||ATH||LA||Louisiana Tech||3|
|2017||Jamyest Williams||CB||GA||South Carolina||4|
|2017||LeAnthony Williams Jr.||CB||GA||Clemson||4|
|2017||Troy Simon||CB||GA||Wake Forest||3|
|2017||William Poole III||CB||GA||Georgia||4|
|2017||Leonard Warner||ILB||GA||Florida State||4|
|2017||Malik Robinson||ILB||GA||North Carolina||3|
|2017||Keldrick Carper||S||LA||Texas A&M||3|
|2017||Richard LeCounte III||S||GA||Georgia||5|
|2017||M.J. Webb||SDE||GA||South Carolina||4|
|2017||Cortez Alston||WDE||GA||Georgia Tech||3|
|2017||Michael Allen||WDE||GA||Wake Forest||3|
|2017||Michael Young||WR||LA||Notre Dame||3|
|2016||Antwuan Jackson Jr.||DT||GA||Auburn||4|
|2016||Jawon Pass||QB (DUAL)||GA||Louisville||4|
|2016||Charles Wiley||WDE||GA||Ole Miss||4|
|2016||Tomon Fox||WDE||GA||North Carolina||3|
|2015||T.D. Moton||DT||LA||Texas A&M||3|
|2015||Marshall Wallace||OLB||LA||Arizona State||3|
|2015||Jerry Tillery||OT||LA||Notre Dame||4|
|2015||Eric Swinney||RB||GA||Ole Miss||4|
|2015||Kendall Bussey||RB||LA||Texas A&M||3|
|2015||Hunter Dale||S||LA||Washington State||3|
|2014||Raekwon McMillian||ILB||GA||Ohio State||5|
|2014||Tyler Newsome||P||GA||Notre Dame||3|
|2014||Montgomery VanGorder||QB (DUAL)||GA||Notre Dame||NA|
|2014||Nick Glass||S||GA||Didn't sign||3|
|2014||Speedy Noil||WR||LA||Texas A&M||5|
|2014||Terry Googer||WR||GA||South Carolina||3|
|2013||Trey Johnson||ILB||GA||Ohio State||4|
|2013||Johnny McCrary||QB (DUAL)||GA||Vanderbilt||3|
|2013||Vonn Bell||S||GA||Ohio State||5|
|2013||Isaac Rochell||SDE||GA||Notre Dame||4|