OXFORD • College football fans love to love their own.
They embrace their stars. They cheer their touchdowns, mourn their injuries and lament their goodbyes.
Who knew that such powerful emotional relationships could begin from an observant young wanderer just trying to break into the business at any big school?
Or for that matter any professional team.
That hidden gem won’t first appear on the Ole Miss radar because an energetic assistant coach who charms football moms saw him first.
There’s a good chance that prospect was first seen by a behind-the-scenes recruiting assistant. Maybe he has emotional ties with Ole Miss, but probably not.
“My father is a college football coach, I’ve moved nine times. This is who I am, football,” said Clay Karcher, who oversees what at Ole Miss is called the “Shark Tank.”
It’s a group of 11 workers whose job is to know more about the recruiting territory than the assistant coach who is assigned to the territory. Or at least know it first.
Karcher has lived in Pittsburgh, Germany, Lynchburg, Virginia, Atlanta, Toledo, Ypsilanti, Michigan, Decatur, Mississippi and Tuscaloosa.
Right now, his job is to attract the best possible prospects to Ole Miss.
“The most simple way to put this is we’re in charge of anything and everything that goes on in recruiting,” said Tyler Siskey, whose title is assistant AD for player personnel.
Siskey’s office is on the second floor of the Manning Center. His 11 assistants are nearby, usually huddled around desktop computers on a conference table.
Each assistant coach has one of those assistants assigned to him personally. It’s the recruiting assistant’s job to scour the territory that has been assigned to the football coach … Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, wherever.
Through social media, word of mouth or other channels, the recruiting assistant must present names and video to the assistant football coach.
“Derrick Nix’s shark tank guy … he has to know his Mississippi area, his Alabama area better than coach Nix. That’s all he does all day long is scan those schools and look for players. Players, players, players, players,” Siskey said.
First evaluations are based on physical attributes only – size and speed – and they vary by position.
After those evaluations recruits who will be targeted will be assigned a ranking based on talent.
After that a secondary evaluation addresses intangible criteria.
Recruiting is done inside-out as these administrative personnel cannot leave the campus.
Coaches beat the bushes, but Siskey and his assistants beat the Manning Center carpets.
It seems odd for what coaches often say is a relationship-based business.
That doesn’t necessarily change when it comes to the administrative side, though for Siskey, building relationships is less about eyeballs and more about fingertips and ears.
Relaxed NCAA rules make it possible for coaches to text prospects more often.
“I can text them and say, ‘Hey give me a call when you get a chance,’ and they’ll call you. Eyeball to eyeball is when they come on campus.”
Relationship-building for Siskey is helped by his earlier career stops as an on-field coach.
That also helps him when the coaching staff is influx.
The NCAA allows 10 coaches to be off-campus recruiters, and administrative coaches can go on the road when the staff is at less than 10 members.
As important as the prospects themselves are, so are the relationships with high school coaches.
On-campus recruiters won’t typically have a great deal of contact with them, but what they do – or fail to do – for high school coaches could be vital in developing relationships with them.
And by extension with their players.
A breakdown in communication could be a huge setback and could end up hurting high school players as they try to determine their proper course for the future.
“When I give my honest opinion I’d like to hear at some point whether you think he can play for you or can’t,” said Tupelo High School coach Trent Hammond, giving a broad example and citing no individual college program. “Then I can say you’re not an SEC player, but maybe you’re a Sun Belt player or an FCS player.”
The Shark Tank has 11 members, because it’s a number that Siskey likes and has settled on. There are no NCAA limits to how many people can be in such a position.
In the layered, multi-year process that recruiting has become, Siskey will in the early days of August practice, will make judgments on players he believes could leave after their junior seasons. Then he’ll begin to formulate what he thinks will be “need” positions for the 2022 class.
Ole Miss currently lists one commitment from a high school junior for the 2021 class.
Most schools tread lightly in accepting commitments two years out and more because of how much high school players continue to develop during that time.
“It never ends,” Siskey said. “I remember not offering guys until December after their senior years were over with. That’s how things have changed so fast. VHS tapes, I remember that.
“The goal is that when signing day comes for that year you want to have the best possible players that you can get. It’s not rocket science. At the end of the day we have a bunch of children and families on us, we get paid to win games. It’s not a secret. We know it.”