Before a game at Clemson a few years back, a recruit from Florida played catch and chatted with Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney for a bit. After Swinney left, the recruit's high school coach asked him what he thought of Swinney, who has turned Clemson into a perennial power since he took the job in 2008.
"Which one's Dabo Swinney?" said the kid.
"The guy you just talked to for 10 minutes," said the coach.
Robert Weiner, head coach at Tampa's Plant High School, and the guy who was left shaking his head at the above exchange, tells that story to show that even with all the big names to have joined the Florida college football coaching ranks since November, you just don’t know what is going through kids' heads.
Do high school kids pay attention to college coaching? The college football world has been aflutter recently as Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin became the head coach at Florida Atlantic, Butch Davis took the Florida International top spot and Charlie Strong, fired at Texas in early December, took the reins at South Florida.
But does the glamor of three of the sport's best-known coaching names matter to the prep players they need on their teams to succeed? Weiner, who turned down a South Florida assistant gig in 2013, isn't sure how the trio of men who have led Miami and North Carolina (Davis), Tennessee, Oakland Raiders of the NFL, and USC (Kiffin), and Louisville and Texas (Strong) will compete in a state with flagships like Miami, Florida State and Florida.
He thinks it's possible more of Florida's talent will stay in state, but says the key will be how the first recruits are treated at FAU, FIU and USF. Weiner knows that kids share their good or bad experiences at a program with their alma maters, and thinks this is an underrated aspect of recruiting, a sort of Yelp effect.
"Eventually the proof is in the quality of what’s being done at those places not only in terms of wins and losses," says Weiner.
Weiner recalls Strong's recruiting work when he was an assistant at Florida from 2003-2009, and how it paid off with plenty of Florida high school players helping him win at Louisville.
Weiner thinks if any of the three flashy hires has an early edge it's Strong; just-departed Willie Taggart had the Bulls on the rise with 18 wins in the past two seasons, and kids might choose USF as much for its winning as for Strong.
Bill Wiles has been a Florida high school football coach for more than 30 years, and believes the arrival of Davis, Strong and Kiffin won't shake up the recruiting battles. Wiles, head coach at Trenton High, simply believes kids don't pay much attention to who's who in college football.
"When I come into work this morning, they were talking about on the radio, and they're all saying, 'Oh boy watch out now, good luck getting kids out of Florida now'" says Wiles. "C'mon now, kids are still going to Michigan, still going to Ohio State, it ain't changing."
Wiles says it's the name on the buildings and not on the office door that draws kids. The big three in Florida—Miami, Florida State and Florida—are only posting decent records, he says, so the battle for the three new coaches is not for Florida talent, it's against powerful outside universities like Alabama and Ohio State.
"Those kids that are going to Michigan and going to Ohio State are not going to go to FAU or FIU because they're FAU and FIU," Wiles says. "Ohio state plays on TV every Saturday and Ohio State's been in the final four. FAU, they're gonna try to win eight games. The best job out of the bunch is the South Florida job, but it's still South Florida. They’re not in the SEC, they’re not in the Big Ten, they’re not in the ACC. If Clemson offers a kid, the kid's gone."
Yusuf Shakir, head coach at Tallahassee Lincoln since 2009, also thinks that of the three new hires, Strong has an edge in that USF is isolated: UCF is a couple hours away, while FAU and FIU are clustered near Miami. Shakir also thinks the key to any success in the state is keeping the largest kids from leaving.
"The biggest thing for all three is who's going to corner the market on the offensive and defensive linemen in the state of Florida, to keep those big bodies that can move home because there's enough skills in Florida to go around," says Shakir.
Shakir, who has had kids play for each of the three, says what kids care about most is improvement.
"The most important thing is development, how to improve and get better and which coach is going to help them get that in all facets, education-wise, socially, and also on the field," he says. "Which program is going to help develop them? That's the main thing kids look for."
While Strong may have an edge in recent program success and regional isolation, Kiffin has the most to overcome: while at Tennessee in 2009, he offended the Pahokee community with condescending and disparaging remarks while recruiting a defensive back. The Pahokee head coach and other Palm Beach County coaches say that incident doesn’t matter now and they're excited for not only Kiffin's hire but also Davis's and Strong's.
Shelton Crews, a former head football coach and now executive director of the Florida Athletic Coaches Association, says the tussle will be among the staffs that Kiffin, Davis and Strong put together. Crews thinks the three schools can't skimp on assistants after bringing on headliners to lead the programs.
"We'll find out who the best recruiting staff is real quick," says Crews, who was 55-21 at Tallahassee's Godby High from 2004 to 2009. "I think more kids are going to stay in state now because there's some solid coaches everywhere. From a coach's standpoint we’ve got seven quality guys in the seven largest schools in the state. I'll put our seven up against anybody's."
Above: Lane Kiffin photo and video courtesy WPEC
Middle: Butch Davis at his hiring announcement (Photo courtesy FIU Athletics)