Recruiting never has been, nor ever will be, an exact science. But we can give you the inside scoop on what lured a talented group of football recruits to Nebraska in 2009.
The envelope, please . . .
The No. 1 reason that so many highly targeted recruits chose Nebraska is . . .
. . . the coaching staff!
Yes, Bo Pelini and his staff are so honest and down-to-earth that almost every recruit mentions how much Nebraska feels like family and how much Lincoln feels like home.
Apparently, the primary reasons for that are Pelini’s candor and humility and the way those same qualities are ingrained in all of his assistants – Ron Brown, Barney Cotton, Mike Ekeler, Ted Gilmore, John Papuchis, Carl Pelini, Marvin Sanders and Shawn Watson.
Shared values are equally and deeply rooted in Jeff Jamrog, the assistant athletic director who works closely with Gilmore, the Huskers’ recruiting coordinator, and in James Dobson, the head strength coach whose conditioning program ranks No. 4 on the N-sider’s list of the “Top 10 Reasons Recruits Chose Nebraska in 2009”.
Here’s how our system worked. This year’s recruits received a list of 10 alphabetized reasons to become a Husker. Each recruit was then asked to rank what single factor influenced him most in his decision to sign a letter of intent, with 1 being the most influential factor and 10 representing the least influential factor.
Based on that system, the consensus of the recruits willing to share their individual priorities is:
2) Game-day atmosphere (fan loyalty/quality of people)
3) Tradition/culture (bowl history, major award winners, success in the NFL)
4) Strength and conditioning program
5) Academic support/life skills program
6) Athletic Director
7) Major degree offering/campus atmosphere
8) Facilities (including locker room, weight room, etc.)
9) Players (past, present and future)
10) Nutrition/medical services
“The coaches are No. 1 on my list because of the relationships I’m going to be making with them over the next four or five years,” said Jeremiah Sirles, a 6-6, 280-pound offensive lineman from Bear Creek High School in Lakewood, Colo.
“I have the coaches No. 1 because I felt they really wanted me to come to Nebraska,” said Brent Qvale (pronounced Kwal-lee), a 6-7, 335-pound offensive lineman from Williston, N.D.
“The coaches are my No. 1 because I felt totally comfortable around the whole staff – they make me feel right at home,” said J.T. Kerr, a 6-4, 230-pound tight end from San Diego, Calif.
Game-Day Atmosphere No. 2, Tradition No. 3
Nebraska’s coaches got more than those three first-place votes, but only a razor-thin margin separated the coaches from game-day atmosphere/fan loyalty, which finished a close runner-up in our post-national letter-of-intent signing survey.
Tradition/culture was a clear-cut No. 3 choice, but only three points separated factors 4 through 6 – strength/conditioning, academics/life skills, and the athletic director. Factors 7 and 8 – facilities and degree offering – were decidedly down the line, and factors 9 and 10 – players and nutrition/medical services – consistently ranked at or near the bottom of the survey.
Although Nebraska’s tight-knit coaching staff was the No. 1 consensus reason for signing a national letter of intent with Nebraska, the consensus No. 2 reason – game-day atmosphere/fan loyalty – was rated no lower than fourth except on one survey.
Rex Burkhead, a 5-10, 210-pound running back from Plano, Tex., and C.J. Zimmerer, a 6-0, 213-pound fullback from Omaha Gross, were among those listing game-day atmosphere as the No. 1 reason for signing with Nebraska.
“It sends shivers down your spine when you’re down on that field,” Zimmerer said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like suited up.”
The Offensive Player of the Year in the Dallas Morning News, Burkhead liked almost everything about Nebraska, but atmosphere and people were the most instrumental factors in his final decision. They were the difference between Nebraska and the dozens of other scholarship offers he received from BCS schools.
“When I finished researching the opportunities that were ahead of me, I was then faced with a very important decision to make – where would I spend the next four years of my life?” Burkhead said. “I was looking for a positive atmosphere, people who cared for one another, and a place where I could feel at home.”
Nebraska was that place, and much of it stems from “my first taste of the University of Nebraska and its football program at the 2008 Spring Game,” Burkhead said. “Meeting a variety of people, I realized the unique qualities that I came across. You could see the dedication, love and passion in the faces of the coaches, players, faculty and fans.”
That Spring Game alone answered the question Burkhead would ask himself throughout the recruiting process. Finally, he decided, “these were the type of people I wanted to be associated with every day.”
He Still Can’t Believe 80,000-plus for a Spring Practice
Yes, a sold-out spring scrimmage in Lincoln swept one of the most prominent members of Nebraska’s 2009 recruiting class off his feet. “The atmosphere was amazing,” Burkhead said. “Fans were shouting, ‘Come to Nebraska!’ I was in awe of the fan support for a spring practice.
“I’ve been to several college games, and Nebraska has – by far – the best fans,” Burkhead added, pointing out that Husker loyalty has continued through his prep basketball season with fans who show up for his prep games with their Big Red gear on.
“Husker fans are amazing,” Burkhead said. “Even our local pizza establishment is run by Nebraska fans, and the excitement is spreading. I’m really looking forward to being a part of Husker Nation for the next four to five years of my life. During those years, I hope to develop new relationships with the kind of people I love to be around – people who love and appreciate the game as much as I do.”
Despite finishing fifth in the overall top 10, a couple of recruits, including Parade All-America linebacker Chris Williams from Abilene, Texas, rated academics/life skills at the top of their football recruiting survey.
Cole Pensick, a 6-2, 260-pound lineman from Lincoln, Neb., Northeast High School, couldn’t resist putting Nebraska’s tradition/culture at the top of his list. Tradition, after all, has been the most influential factor for Cole Pensick becoming a Husker since his grade-school days.
“Tradition at Nebraska tops all other programs,” Pensick said. “Nebraska loves to win, and that’s what I want to do – win and have some fun.”
To Pensick, tradition is “having Tom Osborne coming back to be athletic director. Who else can say something like that?”
That’s why Pensick put Osborne No. 3 on his overall list, while others had Osborne as high as No. 2.
“Tradition is huge at Nebraska, with the whole state backing us up,” Pensick said. “To me, there is no better feeling than saying that I bleed Husker red.”
Pensick’s Dad, Dan, Played with Barney Cotton
He bleeds red largely because his dad, Dan, started in a Nebraska defensive line with the likes of Kerry Weinmaster, Rod Horn and two of Nebraska’s most physical defensive ends ever – George Andrews and Derrie Nelson.
An offensive lineman on those same late-1970 Husker teams was Barney Cotton, now Nebraska’s offensive line coach
“I am honored to play for great men and great coaches like Bo Pelini and Barney Cotton,” said Sirles, the recruit from Denver. “I loved Nebraska’s game-day atmosphere. It was amazing, but I put the coaches at No. 1 on my list because they’re so down-to-earth and so truthful. I can see them becoming parent figures in my life over the next four or five years.”
Qvale, a 4.0 student who chose Nebraska over Wisconsin and Iowa, said he was most impressed when Cotton flew to one of his track meets in North Dakota just to say hello. “Coach Cotton made three trips to see me during the fall and winter,” Qvale said. “He made sure I knew how much I was wanted at the University of Nebraska, and I definitely felt wanted there.”
Kerr, a tight end who selected Nebraska over Arizona and hometown San Diego State, said the coaches were his most important factor because they helped simplify his decision.
“I loved how much Nebraska’s coaches made me feel like part of the family,” Kerr said. “I didn’t feel like that at any other school I visited. I was very impressed with Coach (Shawn) Watson’s offense and his previous success with tight ends. And Coach Brown, the one who actually recruited me, is one of the nicest people I have ever met. I love the guy, and I can’t wait to spend the next four years working with him.”