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April 4, 2012
Football programs thrilled by Final Four runs
The celebration undoubtedly was more raucous elsewhere around campus, but Kentucky's national championship in men's basketball produced plenty of smiles in the school's football office.
Of course, Joker Phillips' staff liked what it meant for the school.
But they also had to wonder how it might help their own program.
"As a football program, we'll use our basketball program to get into doors," Kentucky football recruiting coordinator Chuck Smith said last week. "It's exposure. When we go into a school in another state and have the UK emblem on our shirt, even the teachers and the other students and non-football players will say, 'I know Kentucky basketball.' "
There isn't much historical evidence to suggest a long NCAA tournament run in men's basketball causes any type of bump in that school's football recruiting, but football coaches from schools that made the Final Four still want to capitalize on the publicity generated over the past few weeks.
After Kansas rallied to beat Ohio State 64-62 in an NCAA semifinal Saturday night, Kansas coach Charlie Weis and his assistants sent Facebook messages to potential recruiting targets asking them if they had seen the game. NCAA rules prevent coaches from posting on a recruit's wall, but they're allowed to send messages to targets listed among their friends.
Often, recruits are bombarded by so many Facebook messages from coaches that they fail to respond. Not this time. Weis said his staff received a deluge of responses after that semifinal game.
Weis, a former Notre Dame coach in his first year at Kansas, has gone from one of the nation's most storied football programs to a school far better known for basketball. Rather than feeling overshadowed or threatened by the school's basketball success, Weis has embraced the Final Four run as a positive step that could help his own rebuilding efforts.
He even flew to New Orleans on Monday to attend the championship game before heading back to Kansas the next morning to lead a staff meeting and practice session later that day.
"I couldn't be any happier about the success of our basketball team," Weis said. "What happens a lot of times [elsewhere] is there's an inner competition, where you feel like a second-class citizen. I don't feel that way at all. We're 2-10. When we start winning a whole bunch of games, they'll be acting that way about us. Right now, we're not. It is what it is."
Kansas' momentum already had carried over to the football program in at least one respect.
On the same day the basketball team advanced to the NCAA championship game, Shawnee Mission (Kan.) Bishop Miege dual-threat quarterback Montell Cozart committed to the Jayhawks. The three-star prospect said he was impressed by the intensity of Kansas' fan base while attending home basketball games against Oklahoma State and Missouri.
"Just getting there and seeing the environment and the fan base and their passion for the school, it took me by surprise," Cozart said. "When I went up there for the [Missouri] game, that really showed me. It's the noise and just how active everyone is up there. It's something I really liked. Everyone was very supportive. That's something you look for when you look at a school."
Cozart's comments dispute the notion that football recruits might shy away from a school better known for its basketball program. Coaches at Kentucky and Kansas have turned that theory on its head by trying to capitalize on the basketball success.
Kentucky and Kansas both like to have football recruits visit campus the weekend of home basketball games. Smith noted that Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari has allowed football recruits to enter the locker room before home basketball games.
"They get those phones out and take pictures, get videos," Smith said. "It's just a great atmosphere. It makes for a great Kentucky visit experience. When you go down to the locker room before the game, that's always exciting for them. It's been good for us. It's definitely been good for us."
Weis said he often tells his recruits before they step into Allen Fieldhouse for the first time that they don't understand what they're about to experience. They generally respond with a skeptical glance that fades away as soon as the game starts and the crowd erupts.
"It shows the football players that the fans will be there for you," Weis said. "All you've got to do is give them a reason to root for you."
That evidence shows basketball success certainly can't hurt a school's football recruiting, but it also probably doesn't help that much.
A look at all the Final Four participants since 2008 doesn't show evidence of a football recruiting surge by those schools the following year. We went back to 2008 because the 2007 NCAA championship game featured Florida and Ohio State, a pair of football heavyweights that clearly wouldn't need the publicity provided by a Final Four basketball run.
The only school that received a significant upgrade in its football recruiting rank was North Carolina, which reached the NCAA semifinals in 2008 and won the national title in 2009.
North Carolina's football recruiting class ranked 32nd nationally in 2008, a couple of months before that semifinal run. The Tar Heels soared to ninth in 2009. But if basketball success had anything to do with that improvement, the natural assumption is that North Carolina would have fared even better the next year in the wake of its 2009 national title. The Tar Heels instead slipped to 29th.
Kentucky's lone 2013 commitment thus far has come from Manchester (Ky.) Clay County defensive tackle Jacob Hyde, a life-long Wildcats fan. Hyde committed the weekend of Kentucky's home basketball game with Georgia and also attended a Kentucky-Ole Miss contest. But he perhaps was even more impressed by the environment surrounding the Kentucky football team's 10-7 victory over Tennessee last fall, which ended the Wildcats' 26-game losing streak in that rivalry.
"It was history, that game right there," Hyde said.
If any football recruit were to pick a school in part because of its basketball success, Basehor (Kan.) Linwood tight end Ben Johnson would seem like the obvious candidate. The three-star football recruit is a multi-sport athlete whose high school basketball team won a Class 4A state title last month.
Yet Johnson said Kansas' basketball success played no part in his choice to commit to the Jayhawks.
"For me, that had nothing to do with it," Johnson said. "I've always known they were a great basketball team and had a great basketball program, but that didn't influence my football decision one bit."
And even though Cozart was undoubtedly impressed by the Allen Fieldhouse atmosphere at the two Kansas basketball game he attended, he said that played only a small part in his decision. Cozart cited his rapport with the coaching staff as a bigger reason. Cozart's former high school coach is Tim Grunhard, the offensive line coach on Weis' staff.
Cozart committed to Kansas only after visiting campus again last weekend and witnessing a Kansas spring football practice session.
"You could see the enthusiasm and energy from everyone out there practicing," Cozart said. "That's something I really liked. They want to get KU back on the map."
Weis' arrival at Kansas could provide the ultimate test case for whether a Final Four run can boost a team's football recruiting fortunes. Keep in mind that Weis signed the nation's second-ranked class at Notre Dame in 2008 when the Irish were coming off a 3-9 season.
Rarely does a school primarily known for its basketball program have this type of recruiter in charge of its football team. Nobody expects Weis to sign the same types of classes at Kansas that he managed to land at Notre Dame. But he probably is uniquely qualified to figure out how to make the most of the publicity boost that comes from a Final Four run.
"Any positive thing you can generate, it's always a good thing," Weis said. "In this case, it's a slam-dunk positive, especially with this team - this overachieving group that really epitomizes what a team is."
Weis would love to put together a football team with similar characteristics. He hopes that group's success helps him along in that quest.