Home / sport / ‘It was heartbreaking:’ Coaches relive the best recruits who got away

‘It was heartbreaking:’ Coaches relive the best recruits who got away

Coaches always say they remember the losses more than the wins, and that applies to recruiting as well. Even the nation's best recruiters get their hearts broken from time to time. Some — like J.J. Watt and Le'Veon Bell — were unheralded recruits who went on to stardom. Others — like Jameis Winston and Tim Tebow — were no-doubt program changers. The one thing they all have in common is that they've kept coaches up at night thinking what might have been.

Here are nine of the best stories about recruits who got away:

Butch Jones: J.J. Watt at Central Michigan
"The best recruit who got away is a little bit different in terms of our first signing class at Central Michigan University. We actually had two of the best pro football players right now currently in J.J. Watt and Antonio Brown. They were in our first signing class and then J.J. transferred to the University of Wisconsin. That's probably the best recruit we had, then got away. I knew he was very driven. I knew that he would be very successful."

Dabo Swinney: Tim Tebow at Clemson
"I had just gotten to Clemson, and there was a kid named Lawrence Timmons, who turned out to be a really good player. He was down in Florence, South Carolina, and I got in it late with him, but he was a guy that I would have loved to have had at Clemson. The other one I would say is Tim Tebow. That was because I had to call Tim and tell him we could no longer recruit him because we had gotten a big commitment from a junior and I wasn't the head coach at the time. We told that junior we wouldn't sign a quarterback in that class ahead of him. That was probably the one that maybe still sticks with me a little bit because I really loved Tim and his family, and his family and I had a great relationship and I really felt like we had a good shot to get him at Clemson."

Urban Meyer: C.J. Spiller at Florida
"He was one hour from Gainesville, and I thought we had him. Obviously, I love that kid and we're still close to this day. But he selected Clemson over Florida. Devastating. I'm one of those guys I want to know why. What did we do wrong? Was there something behind the scenes you know what happened? C.J. is such a good guy and would have been a great teammate. If he would've been on that Tebow team, that was still one of the great teams in college football history, but that would have been over the top."

Before Jameis Winston slipped on his Florida State hat, the Stanford staff thought it had a shot at landing the future Heisman winner. AP Photo/The Birmingham News, Linda Stelter

Derek Mason: Jameis Winston at Stanford
"Dealing with Jameis was interesting. He was actually being recruited by Lance Anderson, who handled that area. Lance is now the defensive coordinator at Stanford. Between David Shaw, Lance and myself, I had a chance to go to Hueytown and watch him during spring ball. Jameis is a talented athlete now, no doubt, but just to meet him, dynamic personality, made everybody around him just smile. So in that process of recruiting him, we felt like we had a strong chance. We felt like he was going to come our way. We had a couple other student-athletes that were in that class, Andrus Peat, who would up going I think the sixth pick in the draft, Barry Sanders Jr., and him. Those were the big three in that class. Jameis was just fun. He was interesting. He was a football junkie, great football mind. In that process, it came down to Stanford and Florida State. He chose to go to Florida State for all of the right reasons, but that was probably the best recruit that I've ever lost."

Jim McElwain: Shalon Baker at Eastern Washington
"The first thing is, you never worry about the ones you don't get. You coach the ones you get because they're yours, and you love them, you teach them, you coach 'em. But I would go back to Shalon Baker the Touchdown Maker that I lost to the University of Montana when I was coaching at Eastern Washington. Got two speeding tickets going up and down I-5 trying to get him to change his mind. Got zapped by those airplane guys, going up and coming back. But he's a guy that had a great career at Montana, but a guy I really wish we could've gotten at Eastern."

Bret Bielema: Larry Fitzgerald at Iowa
"I was a young coach, I was an assistant coach who was actually the lead recruiter on Larry and really it got down to just us and Pitt. I remember Cris Carter broke an NFL receiving record on Monday Night Football in the Metrodome in Minneapolis, and Larry was a ballboy and I actually got a credential from the Minnesota Vikings just to stand next to him the whole game. It was probably illegal back then, but I did it."

Dave Clawson: Le'Veon Bell at Bowling Green
"When I was at Bowling Green, we lost a running back very late in the process to Michigan State. You might have heard of him. His name is Le'Veon Bell. Le'Veon committed to us, and that next week there had been an issue at Michigan State. There had been a fight and a couple of football players looked like they might get suspended or thrown off the team, so they had some scholarships open up, so they took Le'Veon Bell from us. We had been recruiting him longer and harder than anybody else. He wasn't this big-time high school prospect. It was a battle that was mostly a MAC battle. He was the running back we wanted. We were on him and talked every week and had him up for the official visit, and he finally committed. We're celebrating. He committed to us on a Sunday, and that Monday or Tuesday, Michigan State offered him. It was heartbreaking."

Larry Fedora: Branndon Stewart at Baylor
"I remember one that broke my heart, a kid named Branndon Stewart. He was from Stephenville High School playing for Art Briles. I was an assistant at Baylor and I worked harder on that young man than anybody. Every single day a handwritten note. When I would go to Stephenville, I would go to the local coffee shop and get there at 5 in the morning and sit there and listen to the people talk because they all talk about football in those small Texas towns. I put my heart and soul into that one, and he ended up going elsewhere."

Pat Fitzgerald: Andrew Luck at Northwestern
"I think back, I'd have to say Andrew Luck. You know, he was a young man that when you watched him in high school, he was the full package, he could do it all at Stratford High. … He just looked so ready-made. From a football family, he was a young man who just made great decisions with the ball. Then you dug into who he was as a person, and to find out just how special he was and continues to be is what made him what you thought could be a game changer as far as quarterback for your program."

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