Oct. 3, 2013
By: Todd Burlage
Four years after the fact, Kerry Cooks still can't help but laugh about recruiting in the state of Texas.
Cooks, now the Notre Dame co-defensive coordinator and the Irish assistant responsible for Texas recruiting, grew up in the Lone Star State and was a standout player at Nimitz High School in Irving, so he knows all about the pride and passion for football and the common goal shared by every player in the state.
"I know how kids feel about their Texas program," Cooks says. "They grow up dreaming of a scholarship from the Longhorns. It's a real honor."
That unconditional loyalty and love for the home-state football program was the root of much frustration when Cooks rolled into town wearing a cardinal red Wisconsin "W" on his shirt.
"That W means something in Big 10 country," Cooks says. "But when you got down south and you really started competing with some of those SEC and Big 12 schools, kids being able to really recognize and appreciate that W icon, it just wasn't there."
For background, Cooks spent his four years (2006-2009) recruiting and coaching at Wisconsin under former Badgers boss Bret Bielema. Wisconsin compiled a 38-14 record during Cooks' stint in Madison, including a 12-1 season in 2006.
"We were winning about 10 games a year, going to bowl games every year, competing for Big 10 titles, and none of it mattered," Cooks recalls. "I could tell you story after story of people asking, `Where's Wisconsin at?' or `Where is Madison?' or `What conference are you guys in?' all while we were going to Jan. 1st bowl games. It was tough to handle sometimes."
Cooks says the recruiting reception changed immediately after he traded his "W" for an "ND" monogram on his shirt when he was hired as part of Brian Kelly's first staff in 2010. Instead of being shunned and put off by high school coaches, parents and top Texas football talent, Cooks now had a fighting chance when he was recruiting for the Fighting Irish.
And considering Notre Dame went only 32-31 in the five seasons from 2007 through 2011, Cooks said he immediately found out just how powerful the Irish brand remained through thick and thin in the national scope, even in Texas.
"People still take phone calls from Notre Dame no matter what. Parents and kids still have open hearts and open ears," Cooks says. "I'm not saying that you're going to get all the kids that you recruit, but one thing that being at Notre Dame is going to allow you to do is get in the door of the top-echelon athletes and students where a place like Wisconsin couldn't touch that.
"You still have to battle your butt off to recruit against Texas, and Texas A&M, and Alabama and powerhouse football programs. But if you get in the door, then you have a chance to compete with those guys."
And Cooks has done more than just compete in Texas. In fact, he's beginning to build an impressive talent pipeline. The current Irish roster features eight players from the Lone Star State - the fifth most in school history - a list that includes some of the top players that were also recruited heavily to stay and play at in-state schools.
Junior running back Cam McDaniel (Coppell), junior safety Nick Baratti (Tomball), junior cornerback Jalen Brown (Irving), fifth-year kicker Nick Tausch (Plano), along with freshman wide receivers Corey Robinson (San Antonio) and Torii Hunter, Jr. (Prosper) highlight this fine and promising group of Texas talent.
"We need to continue to build on what we've done and continue to challenge for those top-level kids in Texas," Cooks says. "Getting the talent out of Texas is critical for sustaining your program."
In total, about 90 players from Texas have played at Notre Dame, including consensus all-Americans Dave Huffman (Dallas, 1978), Bobby Taylor (Longview, 1994), and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown (Dallas, 1987).
Brown said he chose educational endeavors over football success when he decided on Notre Dame, and even today, almost 30 years after graduating from Dallas Wilson High School, he's still reminded of leaving his home state behind.
"I realized that going to Notre Dame was the best thing for me, so the decision to leave the state wasn't that difficult like it might be for some other high school players," says Brown, who works as a businessman and radio personality in Dallas. "But the thing that I have noticed even after having a very successful NFL career, these folks from Texas, they don't forget. `You didn't go to a Texas school. You didn't play for a Texas pro team.' I didn't feel pressure before but I can tell you now living here in Texas, it is definitely something to deal with, not playing for any of the Texas schools."
When it comes to recruiting the state of Texas, nobody understands the trials and tribulations better than Notre Dame legend Brian Boulac.
As a football player, assistant coach, recruiting coordinator and administrator, Boulac spent about 50 years in and around Notre Dame athletics.
Boulac played football for the Irish from 1959-62 and was hired as an offensive line coach by Ara Parseghian in 1970 - one season after Notre Dame lifted its bowl ban - which created the chance to build a stronger presence in the state of Texas by playing in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl.
Immediately after lifting the bowl ban, the Irish played back-to-back Cotton Bowls against top-ranked Texas after both the 1969 and 1970 regular seasons, with both games carrying national title implications.
Notre Dame lost to the No. 1 Longhorns, 21-17, in 1969, making undefeated Texas the consensus national champion. The one-loss Irish knocked off top-ranked Texas, 24-11, in 1970 but because bowl game results were not included in the UPI national championship vote, Texas split the title with AP champion Nebraska.
Notre Dame has played in the Cotton Bowl seven times, which is more than any other bowl game.
"Those games did help recruiting because it created more attention for our school and what we were trying to sell," Boulac says. "Those (Cotton Bowl) games helped give us a stronger presence in the state."
Much has changed but the challenges remain the same when it comes to recruiting in Texas. Boulac worked the state during the glory years of the old Southwest Conference when the nine-team league consisted of eight Texas schools and Arkansas.
Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, SMU and Houston were the conference heavyweights that Boulac was up against as recruiting coordinator in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But Rice, Baylor and TCU were also competing for the top players in this talent-rich state.
"It was interesting trying to recruit down there because of the pressure for the kids to stay in state," Boulac says. "Mainly because they had all of those state schools in the power conference recruiting them at that time. There were some interesting things that happened."
Boulac shared a story about going to a Friday night high school game to evaluate a player and having nine coaches from one Texas university show up for the same game to emphasize the interest in the player. More than any state in America, Texas applies the pressure to stay home and play.
Defectors were often considered outcasts during the Southwest Conference reign of power.
"There were comments for sure, `You live in Texas, you should play in Texas.' But it was really never something that we bowed down to," say Brown, who also admitted to not hitting it off with former Texas coach Fred Akers. "Certainly coming back here at the time, people looked at me like I was crazy, winning the Heisman and all that stuff. `Well he left Texas.' The pressure is definitely real."
Boulac said that competing for top Texas talent was always an "uphill battle" because of the logistical advantages held by the many strong in-state programs. But that didn't diminish the efforts of any of the Irish coaches who made the trip and occasionally hit the recruiting grand slam.
John Dampeer (OL, 1970-72, Kermit), Bobby Leopold (LB, 1976-79, Port Arthur) and standout Dallas offensive linemen Dave Huffman (1975-78) and brother Tim Huffman (1977-80) were just a few of the top Texas targets the Irish landed when Boulac was an assistant under Ara Parseghian.
"We had success recruiting Texas," Boulac recalls. "Maybe not a lot of numbers at that time, but some successes. We were one of the few schools that could get in there and do some damage against the top schools in Texas."
The Texas player pipeline started with Boulac and continues today. But Notre Dame enjoyed the most recruiting success from this state in the late 1990s when former head coach Bob Davie and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison arrived in South Bend after coaching together at Texas A&M.
Under Davie, a number of terrific Texas recruits left the state and headed north, including quarterback Carlyle Holiday (2000-2004, San Antonio), wide receiver David Givens (1998-2001, Humble), center Jordan Black (1999-2002, Rowlett) and offensive lineman Mike Gandy (1996-2000, Garland) just to name a few.
The names of the coaches and players have all changed over the years but the mission remains the same: if you're going to compete for the top players in Texas, you better have top-flight product to sell.
"The message hasn't changed," Boulac says. "You were selling the same thing then that they are today. `You get a chance to play a very competitive schedule, and be in the national championship picture on occasion, and get an education that is second to none.' That's what you went into the battle with, and many times that's enough to get the job done."