Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Recruitment of Herschel Walker

With National Signing Day upon us, I thought it appropriate to take a look back at the most important recruit in the history of Georgia football: Herschel Walker. Recruiting in those days was not the same business as it is today. There was no Scout.com, recruiting updates in the paper, “Countdown to Signing Day” television shows, or eight hours of ESPNU coverage with Tommy Tuberville. If you wanted to know who the top prospects were, you paid for a newsletter that listed names and stats and that was it. However, the recruitment of Herschel Walker was a story that did create quite a stir in the media. As Henry Leifermann of the New York Times would later describe it:

In the spring of 1980, Herschel Walker was a black teenager in the mid-Georgia town of Wrightsville (population 2,350). Walker was not just the star of the Johnson Count High School football team. He was the most sought after player in the country.
College recruiters flew into Wrightsville by helicopter, some staying months, wooing Walker. One, from the University of Georgia, lived in a house lent to him by a wealthy white alumnus of Georgia, and it was Georgia, to the regret of hundreds of other colleges, that Herschel Walker chose to attend.

While the Bulldawg nation hoped that the pheonom from Johnson County would sign with the home-state team, his signing was never a foregone conclusion. Clemson and Southern California were also pushing very hard to sign Walker. Unlike the players today, who announce their choices on national television sometimes months (now even years) before National Signing Day, Walker remained uncommitted until Easter. As Easter approached, Coach Dooley had planned to take a trip with his wife to Boston. On the Thursday before, however he decided he could not leave the state until Herschel Signed. Needless to say, Barbara Dooley was furious.

Barbara went on to Boston, while coach stayed in Athens. On Easter Sunday morning, assistant Steve Greer came and told Vince that Herschel was ready to sign. The story goes that Herschel ended up picking Georgia on a coin flip (where is that lucky coin now?!?) They went to Wrightsville but had to wait outside of the Walkers’ house while Herschel inked his commitment letter because they had already used the allotted amount of NCAA visits.

Just a few months later, Herschel Walker would carry Georgia to the 1980 National Championship. He is the most important commitment that Georgia has ever received and the madness around him sparked a change in national coverage of the recruitment of high school athletes. As Mark Bradley wrote in the AJC,

Even after Herschel, it didn’t happen overnight. First came specialized publications, then a groundbreaking recruiting talk show on Nashville’s WLAC, and then, ultimately and inevitably, the Internet. Supply keeps rising to meet demand, and today there are fans of all schools who seem to care more about winning — or, to be precise, about being perceived as having won — on a Wednesday in February than on any autumn Saturday.
Maybe this strange business would have gotten huge anyway, but every person I’ve ever asked, and I’ve asked several, has invoked one word to pinpoint that moment when recruiting struck the communal chord that resounds today — Herschel. He signed. He played. He changed the football world.

Happy Signing Day to the Bulldog Nation!



Bernie said...

Great post Streit. #34 certainly did change things. Just glad Coach Dooley didn't lose his family for the greatest signature in Dawg history.

I found this link a few weeks ago from way back in '82 and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's more about Herschel's decision process in turning pro, but mentions the recruitment of the phenom as well as his uniqueness. It was almost as good a read as Herschel's book.


Bernie said...

In case that link didn't come through, just google "john underwood, si vault, herschel walker". It's the second link down.

Sports Dawg said...

I remember hearing back then that if Mike Cavan had stayed in Wrightsville any longer he would have had to start paying taxes! Great post, and I agree that we all began looking at NSD differently after Herschel. The same type of thing went down from a defensive standpoint when we lost Takeo Spikes to Auburn. He didn't flip a coin, but it was a late decision nevertheless. 80 miles from Athens and we lost him. Oh well...