Before National Signing Day was a huge national football event — which it was, before the early college signing period made it less huge again — there was a transitional period as it went from largely regional interest to a phenomenon. There were certainly national publications and analysts like Tom Lemming and Joe Terranova who tried to span all of America. But the heated interest and the occasional frenzy was usually contained geographically. There was Texas recruiting, and Deep South recruiting, and Midwest recruiting.
Again, there was the phenom who attracted national attention now and again. Marcus Dupree from Philadelphia, Miss., has a book written about him and was known to fans in Philadelphia, Pa., not just in SEC Country. On the other hand, when is the last time you heard someone fretting over “who won the in-state battle between Alabama and Auburn?” (That question was a burning topic in the good old days of the Tuscaloosa News 800-number recruiting hotline, a million-dollar idea that I managed to parlay into approximately one lunch from a grateful caller.)
By the late 1990s, the explosion was coming. Social media was starting to have an impact. Dedicated recruiting sites turned fan interest into an industry. Some schools were more sophisticated about embracing the coming wave, some less so.
In the middle of it all were the recruits, like big-time quarterback recruit Tyler Watts.
“I wasn’t the No. 1 quarterback in the nation,” Watts said on Monday in a telephone interview. “That was Ronald Curry, who went to North Carolina and ended up playing basketball, too. Then there was Carson Palmer (who signed with USC.) I was somewhere after those guys.”
That doesn’t mean Watts, who played at Pelham High School, wasn’t a top recruit. He had his pick of a scholarship at any SEC school. Times were different, though, as Watts discussed.
“First of all, you didn’t get recognized as early,” Watts said. “I started getting letters in my sophomore year but they were mostly questionnaires. They wanted you to give them the information, not the other way around.
“That has totally changed because of the recruiting services and the camps. I went to a couple of camps while I was at Pelham but I thought they were mostly a way for coaches to make money.
“I went to Alabama’s camp as a sophomore. Tee Martin (a Mobile native who became Peyton Manning’s successor at Tennessee) was a senior so the staff was drooling over him and basically ignored the rest of us.”
Watts, a lifelong Alabama fan, wanted to commit to the Crimson Tide as a junior but waited as there was a coaching transition from Gene Stallings to Mike DuBose. Much of his contact was with the assistant in charge of recruiting Shelby County, a young coach named Dabo Swinney.
“Dabo was great,” Watts said. “But to be honest, I didn’t think Alabama worked very hard in recruiting back then. They just seemed to rely on their reputation. It was very different than the work Coach (Nick) Saban puts into it today.”
“I was young and naive and didn’t know the difference but it really bothered my parents that Tennessee was doing a much better job of recruiting than Alabama.
“Coach (David) Cutcliffe was coaching quarterbacks there and really wanted me. They did an incredible job. They had me up there as a junior and had Peyton (Manning) come over and visit with me before a game. They put the full-court press on me — but I just couldn’t pull the trigger.”
Watts committed to Alabama — “I think there was one TV camera there, and the local newspaper, so that’s changed” — and had a career of highs (including an SEC Championship in 1999) and lows that included a coaching change.
“It was the best for me, maybe not at the time but definitely in the long run,” said Watts, who now resides in Birmingham and has a role in UA’s radio football broadcasts. “My dream was always to play for Alabama and I did. If I hadn’t, I would always have wondered about it.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.