Visiting hours: When a well-known college football coach drops by a suburban school to see a recruit, it’s a big event
Trevor Keegan was a big attraction for some of the biggest names in college football coaching to make their way to Crystal Lake South.
CL South coach Rob Fontana entertained a steady stream of coaches who wanted to talk about and see Keegan when he was one of the country’s top offensive line and overall prospects in the graduating class of 2019.
Sometimes Fontana knew in advance when coaches were visiting. Other times, as he laughed about in one famous instance, he didn’t.
“It was a crazy process because Trevor was the No. 1 recruit in Illinois,” Fontana said. “One day I walked into my office and (Georgia coach) Kirby Smart was sitting in my chair with his shoes kicked up on the desk. I had no idea he was here.”
Smart’s move and various pitches weren’t enough to sway Keegan away from Michigan, where he helped lead the program to the national championship three weeks ago. But this year’s recruiting period showcased some of the lengths college coaches are willing to go to in order to make a splash with high-profile football recruits.
University of Miami coach Mario Cristobal touched off a bit of an internet and media firestorm about 2½ weeks ago when he touched down on a helicopter on Fenwick’s snow-covered soccer field to see star junior defensive lineman Nate Marshall. It took place early in the second of three NCAA contact periods during the 2023-24 school year where coaches are allowed to make in-person visits and evaluations on the turf of high school recruits.
“Nobody has choppered in on our field yet,” joked St. Charles North coach Rob Pomazak. “I’d be interested to see what we would do with that. Obviously it’s a great opportunity and you want to make that student-athlete feel good about what’s happening.”
That is the ultimate goal for high school and college coaches during the contact period that started Jan. 12 and just ended Saturday, the first one in early December or the longest one in the spring from April 15-May 25. Because getting a player to find the right fit and sign a Division I letter of intent, whether it’s during the early period just before Christmas or on Wednesday’s traditional signing day, is more challenging than ever with big player turnover through the transfer portal and potential big bucks involved through Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals.
It can all get even more challenging when a high-profile coach who is a familiar face comes calling on the school. St. Viator coach Dave Archibald said he doesn’t get star-struck or caught up in the hype of a big-name college coach visiting, but he also understands it does have an impact in the building.
And St. Viator has been there in recent years with then-Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly coming to see current Bears tight end Cole Kmet or long-time Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz visiting his future defensive lineman Jeremiah Pittman.
“It creates excitement when you have a head coach who visits,” Archibald said. “It’s good for the energy of the building and the program. What it comes down to for my role is obviously facilitating the best situation for the school to get to know our athletes and for the athletes to get to know the school.
“There is that excitement of seeing someone you watch on TV and on the sidelines.”
The big visits
The same week Cristobal flew into Fenwick, Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman was making his way through Elmhurst to visit with a pair of verbally committed Class of 2025 players, York offensive lineman Joe Reiff and IC Catholic Prep linebacker Dominik Hulak. As expected those visits got some traction on social media as well.
“It promotes their program and we want to promote ours,” Archibald said. “When a coach visits or someone makes an offer that’s good news to be shared. There are definitely positives you can garner from social media.”
Joe Sanchez, who just completed his 23rd year as Barrington’s head coach, has had his share of high-profile recruits during his tenure that include offensive linemen Dan Doering (Iowa), Dan Voltz (Wisconsin) and Dan Stevenson (Notre Dame) and defensive lineman Lukas Van Ness (Iowa), who just finished his rookie season with the Packers.
So Sanchez has hosted some big names from the past such as Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez, Michigan’s Lloyd Carr and Notre Dame’s Tyrone Willingham. He said Ferentz would have stopped in during this period but didn’t need to because Devan Van Ness had already enrolled early at Iowa.
“It’s wild. When coaches come in it’s great for the kids, the program and the high school community, because everybody kind of sees it,” Sanchez said. “When people see them there’s just a buzz in the air, even when it’s not a head coach and it’s assistants coming in.
“Coaches are walking through the hall and they’ve got their garb on. You see people turn around and look and they’re wondering who they’re here for. It creates a buzz and it’s something to talk about.”
And the high school coaches learn that every college coach is different in how they want the high school visit to play out. Naperville North coach Sean Drendel said in the last couple of years he’s had Ferentz, Illinois’ Bret Bielema, ex-Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck and Purdue coach Ryan Walters in the building.
Luke Williams, a senior who starred for the Huskies, is going to play in the secondary for Walters at Purdue. Aidan Gray, a three-year starting quarterback who graduated in 2023, is a freshman at Northwestern.
“We’ve had big guys come through our building and it all depends on who they are and what they’re trying to do,” Drendel said of the attention the college coach wants. “Some schools want their logo to be seen and want to let everyone know they’re at Naperville North recruiting so-and-so. Ferentz has been in the building a few times and he wants to come in and make sure that the kid knows it, but he doesn’t need it to be a spectacle.”
Tyler Nubin was one of the country’s top recruits when he led St. Charles North to a Class 7A runner-up finish in 2018. That brought in coaches such as Fleck, who played at Kaneland High School and Northern Illinois, and then-Michigan State boss Mark Dantonio. Pomazak said he lets his athletic director know if a head coach is coming in on a recruiting visit.
“With head coaches, when you have fair warning you’re going to roll out the red carpet,” Pomazak said. “We haven’t had anybody where we had to shut down part of the school like (Alabama’s) Nick Saban. Hopefully we do someday. As a head coach you want to sit down and talk with the guy for a little bit and ask some questions about their journey and philosophy as head coaches.
“It certainly is a big deal if people know who the coach is. It’s not so much the kids but the faculty who are tied to that university. When you get one of those head coaches walk in, they’re certainly a little star-struck and they want to meet that person.”
Fontana said 105 schools made visits during the three contact periods for Keegan. Penn State made the most trips to Crystal Lake South with eight, and head coach James Franklin also made a home visit.
One of the unique challenges for Fontana is being a life-long Michigan fan since his family is from the Upper Peninsula’s Iron Mountain, where Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo grew up. Fontana said he moved some of the Michigan items hanging in his office so coaches didn’t think he was playing favorites.
Fontana’s wife, Jorie, was also Crystal Lake South’s volleyball coach and would bring their three kids to practice. The day Smart visited, their youngest daughter, Liliana, came in wearing a Michigan shirt.
“Kirby got a laugh out of that,” Fontana said. “These coaches are so personable in talking with players. They would mess around with my son (Robbie). They’re just average Joes and that’s what they’re trying to portray since this is what they do over and over again.”
Challenges of a different era
The current climate that has Hersey seniors Will Nolan and Carson Grove headed to Iowa and Northwestern, respectively, and junior tight end Logan Farrell committed to North Carolina and Mack Brown is vastly different from Nelson’s playing days at his alma mater.
Nelson was a bit of a late bloomer as a star quarterback and defensive back when he led Hersey to the playoffs in 2004. He thought he was ahead of the curve by sending schools his clips on DVDs before deciding to play at Illinois State.
“I made the mistake because DVDs had become popular,” joked Nelson, who played 24 NFL games with Cincinnati and Philadelphia, “and some coaches would say, ‘We don’t have DVD players, we have VHS (tape) players.’”
Now it’s players posting and sending video via X (Twitter), Instagram or Hudl. The days of big-time recruits pictured with boxes filled with letters, media guides and other printed materials from coaches and schools are gone as most of the correspondence is done electronically.
“Right now things are happening sometimes at light speed,” Archibald said.
The advent of the earlier December signing period in 2017 has accelerated the process for recruits. The emphasis the past few weeks for Archibald has been the evaluation of St. Viator juniors such as Cooper Kmet, Dayvion Ellis and Ben Konopka and players who are in the Class of 2026.
Nelson said new Michigan State coach Jonathan Smith, who was hired from Oregon State, visited last week as he tries to make inroads in the Chicago area. Bowling Green came through to see junior quarterback Colton Gumino throw and gave him a scholarship offer.
Nelson said he got a text the night before about Gumino’s visit. His challenges are finding places to talk to coaches, because he doesn’t have an office since he doesn’t teach at Hersey, running his own training business, and having four young daughters.
“Like anything else you have coaches who are great communicators and coaches who aren’t,” Nelson said. “I have four kids so if they say I’m 20 minutes out and I’ll be at Hersey High School, I can’t do it.”
Drendel also is not a teacher at Naperville North so he’ll try to schedule visits before or after school. One school wanted to see junior quarterback Jacob Bell throw, and with the weather and available gym space the only time they could do it was at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday.
“You’re trying to juggle kids and trying to keep them in class and you don’t want to upset teachers at school by taking kids out of class,” Drendel said. “You have kids who are playing multiple sports so it’s a little bit of a juggling act.
“You try to fit guys in that little window and it’s always interesting. You try to be accommodating to schools and know their time is important, but you have to let them know our time is important, too.”
Working or teaching in the building doesn’t necessarily make the process easier. Fontana said it’s not like Texas where the high school head coach doesn’t have to worry about teaching.
Fontana said he had a lot of help from the school’s staff during Keegan’s recruitment and has some flexibility with six periods as a physical education teacher. Sanchez teaches five social studies classes at Barrington.
“So if they want to come in here they have to understand my time is limited,” Sanchez said. “I can’t do the ‘pop in on me’ because I’m going to be in class, so here’s my schedule, and that’s what makes it hard, too. It takes constant coordination.”
The transfer portal and NIL have been game-changers. Pomazak said the pomp and circumstance displayed by Cristobal is also a way of showing the program has plenty of resources at its disposal.
The proliferation of transfers has made a significant impact on positions and opportunities available for high school players. It also puts an emphasis on relationship-building even if there isn’t a fit between the school and player right now.
“A coach could end up at another school in two to three years so try to put the players in front of as many people who come in,” Nelson said.
“Coaches now are building relationships with kids above and below their level for recruiting them out of the transfer portal if things don’t work out (at other schools),” Drendel said.
The ‘last bastion’ has some fun and games
Joe Sanchez saw a different side of recruiting with his daughter Ellie, a freshman soccer player at North Dakota State. In most sports a lot of the recruiting of high school athletes is done through the club, travel or AAU circuits.
“I’m hearing from some (football) coaches, they’re starting to circumvent the high school coach, but we haven’t seen much of that here,” Sanchez said.
“It’s one of the things that’s the last bastion of high school recruiting,” Pomazak said. “It’s really the only sport that still does this, where you get them on your turf and get them in your place to talk to your kids.”
Not only from current big-name head coaches but also coordinators and position coaches who are trying to get there like Kalen DeBoer, who just left Washington to replace Saban at Alabama, and Sherrone Moore, who just took over at Michigan with Jim Harbaugh leaving for the Los Angeles Chargers. Pomazak recalled visiting with DeBoer, who had stints at Southern Illinois, Eastern Michigan and Indiana, and Moore, who coached tight ends at Central Michigan and Louisville, as they were working their way up the coaching ranks.
Harbaugh did a home visit with Keegan but did not stop in at the high school. Fontana and his predecessor as CL South head coach, Chuck Ahsmann, did get a chance to talk to Harbaugh at a Michigan coaches clinic after Keegan’s freshman year.
“I told him I’ve got a MaxPreps All-American lineman in our building,” Fontana said. “He chuckled and said, ‘Make sure you send his film.’ And down the road there’s where Trevor ends up.”
A road which included a visit to Crystal Lake South to see Keegan by Sonny Cumbie, who was the offensive coordinator at TCU and is now the head coach at Louisiana Tech. Fontana recalled watching Cumbie when he was a star quarterback at Texas Tech in the early 2000s. Cumbie also knew there was a friendship between Keegan and Cary-Grove’s Quinn Priester, who was planning to pitch at TCU until he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a first-round draft pick.
Cumbie’s pitch to Keegan was unique.
“He came early in the day because he didn’t have anywhere else to go and he played every different random game with our kids,” Fontana said. “He stayed six or seven hours and he was like a big kid, racing kids in drills, working in the weight room and doing ladders. He was probably my favorite coach who came in.”
And it’s all part of the business for football coaches trying to make their school the favorite to land high school football recruits.