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In sports, one thing you can’t dwell on is the “what if’s.”

What if  the Portland Trailblazers drafted Michael Jordan instead of the dreaded Sam Bowie? What if Barry Sanders had the same offensive line as Emmett Smith? What if, what if, WHAT IF. It’s pointless. What’s done is done.

Those who adapt to short memory “goldfish mentality” as it’s coined usually succeed in sports because let’s face it, either you can learn from a mistake or revel in misery from it forever. The latter of the two usually don’t last long, and in the world of college recruiting this couldn’t be any more true.

College coaches sift through hours and hours of film looking for nuances and precise evaluations in future recruits. They neglect their friends and some times family to gain the upper edge. Then there’s the visits; Every other week you have to go listen to some schmuck high school head coach ogle over his overhyped star player. You then listen to every damned football “expert” rank kids they’ve hardly even seen play. You have to tweet positive quotes and crap. The goddam job is hard. You can spend so much time and effort on a kid that you think is the next Jerry Rice only to become fried rice once he suits up on Saturday. As a former college coach myself, I can write a novel on just this one aspect of the job alone.

The Culprit

Enter Romeo Bandison, aka the guy who killed the University of Colorado football program. Now before you burn me at the stake, hear me out. He missed out on successfully recruiting a goddam 2-star recruit. I know what you’re thinking, no big deal right? Wrong. How the hell can’t Colorado, a Big XII Conference team not land a 2-star recruit? That caliber player should be a lay-up, right? The Big XII is responsible for breeding legendary players like Vince Young, Adrian Peterson and Dez friggin’ Bryant! 2-star recruits don’t tell this conference no.

This happened at CU in 2006. If memory serves me correctly in the 10 seasons since then, this school has been the doormat of the Big XII and now Pac 12 conferences with no foreseeable major breakthrough. That plus not landing 2-star recruits you bring in is a damned problem. Right? You should be telling these type of kids “thanks, but no thanks,” right?

Still not a big deal, well what if I told you that recruit was named Justin James Watt.

The Context

Yes, that JJ Watt. The Buffaloes missed out on the Houston Texan’s star defensive end. Again, it’s common knowledge Colorado has been on a downward spiral that would make Lindsey Lohan’s acting career look like short slope. I mean seriously, that program is pretty bad. Imagine the impact that this one recruit would have done for that program! Some of you may say it’s not a big deal, and question why was being recruited anyway. To be fair, there are a plethora hidden gems that pan out far better than their rank depicts. Latest example being recent Ohio State quarterback, Kenny Guiton that led the Buckeyes to an undefeated season in 2013 when starter Braxton Miller got injured in the second game. Guiton too was a 2-star recruit that was slated to sign at my alma mater, Prairie View A&M University (NCAA FCS affiliate) only to be snatched at the 11th hour out of pure desperation by OSU as Terrell Pryor elected to go to the NFL. The idea isn’t that farfetched. Even in this case, Guiton leapt at the chance to be a Buckeye, why the hell didn’t Watt do the same for Colorado?

Woo-sah Cliff, woo-sah.

 

watths
18 year old 2-Star recruit, Justin James Watt

 

The Business

But seriously, this happens all the time. No matter how big the program, it’s always going to be the one that got away. Key is as a recruiter, you learn quickly what motivates a kid and basically, well… exploit the hell out of it. Let’s not play coy here, this is how you land kids. You shake hands, kiss babies, stroke egos, flirt with moms (word to Kilff Kingsbury)… Whatever. When it comes to big-stakes football, you had better make a place like Las Cruces, New Mexico seem like Miami Beach to an 18-year old prep-star on a college visit. That may be your only real crack at him. The NCAA is a multi-billion dollar business, so you don’t mess around, you seal the deal by any means. Some take this premise further than others.

Unfortunately, neglect in this department was Bandison’s mistake.

As the defensive line coach you are the guy that actually has time to go out and lure in talent. Coordinators and head coaches are up to their ears in planning, so the position coaches are the guerilla soldiers of the program. I’ll keep the innocent parties innocent and omit some of my methods, but I knew how to find out what it took to get recruits to commit. But in this instance, Watt was Bandison’s ticket. Imagine if HE has the guy that landed a lightly recruited 2-star phenom that would only go on to absolutely take the Big XII and NFL by storm. Landing a bigger job in a better conference would be a problem he’d never have.

 

“His resume was impressive and he was a perfect fit for what we were looking for.  He was a phenomenal athlete.  When you watched his film he made play after play all over the field.  He was very productive, he had good grades, and he had strong weight room numbers.” -Romeo Bandison

 

Besides being a hoss on the field, Watt’s equally impressive trait was and still is his immeasurable humility and positivity. Everyone freaking loves JJ Watt whether it’s teammates, coaches, ladies, your grandma; whoever! Let’s not even start on the man-crush thing Texan fans exhibit for Watt. If you aren’t one of the 2.5 million residents in Houston, you need to understand how much the guy is loved in this city, and it’s almost scary. JJ deservedly so can do no wrong. Houston is a huge metropolitan city, so Boulder would have probably elected him into office by his sophomore season. They would at least let him play for the Denver Nuggets in off-season or something. Hey, former wideout Jeremy Bloom was a professional X-Games snowboarder while playing football for CU, I’m just saying.

 

“He was respected by his peers, was a grounded and well rounded individual, and he treated people in his school with respect. His teachers loved him.” -Romeo Bandison

 

The rest of Bandison’s report on Watt reads like the resume of Jesus Christ himself. His understanding of the nuances in football and his ability to quickly implement them into his on-field play was one of his biggest sells to overshadow his “2-star” prospect ranking. This bode well to sell the head coach to take a flyer on a lower ranked kid with a tremendous upside. So the question still begs, WHY THE HELL DID THEY NOT SIGN WATT?

The Modus Operandi

 

The answer is simple yet complicated. Quite the oxymoron, I know. In short; CU just didn’t appeal to Watt.

Now I’ve personally been to CU’s campus before as an assistant basketball coach and let me say that is a beautiful campus. The culture is rich, the immaculate hill-top views were downright majestic, and campus life was top-notch. Boulder’s night life was very reminiscent to UT’s infamous Austin nightlife, and that’s no small compliment. UT athletes never want to leave the city after eligibility expires, and we’re talking when they’re making millions in the pros. But in Boulder, every night there’s fun to be had either bar hopping or socially drinking. Then there’s the Broncos and Nuggets just up the way in Denver to add to the local sports excitement.

To the average 18-year old prospect, that is more than enough of a sell to land a signed letter of intent, but problem is Watt wasn’t the average kid. JJ is that guy you hope your daughter will marry. JJ is that gym rat and shows up to workouts early and leaves late. JJ Watt ain’t no Johnny Manziel. Bandison sold CU to Watt with a Manziel pitch. No bueno.

Bandison openly admitted that he accentuated the wrong experience to Watt who isn’t the outgoing party-type. Family and recreation is big for Watt, and the way CU was sold to him simply didn’t fit what he was looking for in a college home. It’s not crazy to assert that if Bandison simply used his ex-NFL ties to show JJ he’d challenge him daily to get to that pro level, he may have landed the perennial NFL star. What’s the old adage; Keep it simple stupid. Watt is a simple guy and simple approach would have landed him. He ended up choosing Central Michigan for crying out loud. Colorado was outdone by Central Michigan, and it gets no simpler than that. As we all know he later transferred to Wisconsin.

 

JJ Watt as a Wisconsin Badger
JJ Watt as a Wisconsin Badger

 

“I failed to align the value of CU Boulder with what JJ and his parents (the champion and decision maker all in one) valued.  Among the many great things CU offered… ultimately I focused too much on how great CU Boulder was and not what was important to him and how I could help him achieve his goals.” – Romeo Bandison

The Harsh Reality

All that’s left is “what if” when thinking about JJ Watt as a Colorado Buffalo. My hyperbolic thesis may seem as if I’m vilifying Bandison, and I assure you it’s all in jest. There’s no guarantees in coaching. As previously stated, finding the true motivation to get a kid to sign is a true mystery and that is best honed through trial and error coupled with dumb luck at times. In this particular case, one slight oversight may have cost CU a dramatic upswing in college football and that’s just too bad for coach Bandison and Buffalo faithful. You could have had JJ freaking Watt.

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