Booker Chooses Bowden, Stuns ND

Booker Fends Off Irish, Goes with Heart

Tyrone Willingham got what he wanted: a solid class of 17 recruits. He got a nice surprise in No. 18, quality receiver Rhema McKnight. But it was No. 19 that people will remember, the One Who Got Away. IrishEyes reports on Lorenzo Booker signing with Florida State, ending a rollercoaster National Letter of Intent Day.

Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com™

February 6, 2002

Booker Leaves
Irish at the Altar

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

(IE) – "I wanted to sign 17 (players)," Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham said at 3:10 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday afternoon. "I hope to sign 18 or 19."

No. 18 was landed at approximately 6 p.m. when receiver prospect Rhema McKnight of LaPalma (CA) Kennedy faxed in his commitment to Willingham.  McKnight is the No. 1 receiver in the West according to Greg Biggins of PacWestFootball.com and TheInsiders.com.  The Irish beat out Oregon, Florida and Washington.

"It came down to academics," McKnight said.

Then Willingham settled in and awaited what he fully expected would be the best news of all. The National High School Player of the Year -- Lorenzo Booker -- was set to choose between ND, Florida State, Washington and USC live on "Worldwide Leader in Sports."

You could clearly tell that Willingham has a distaste for the whole process.

"With all the hype and celebrity status in recruiting process, we have to be more media conscious," said Willingham. "What you hope is that all of this doesn't spoil the young man. You want him to be the same successful person as in his high school days."

Let's hope that Booker is a grounded individual because the fawning six-minute special ESPN did on him Wednesday bothered on obscene.  In the same feature, recruiting guru Tom Lemming compared another prep prospect to Jim Brown.  It's indeed an irony that SportsCenter also had a news item on Danny Almonte in the 6 p.m. segment.  It's this ridiculous level of hype -- too much, too soon -- that results in warped perspective.  But that's a column for another time.

ESPN had a special 90-minute SportsCenter for National Signing Day.  And, since Notre Dame was involved and there was a large national audience, the network milked it for every advertising minute.  Finally, at 7:03 p.m. Booker announced his choice.

Florida State.

"The Notre Dame coaches thought he was coming," said Lemming. "He let them know he was coming."

"I got to go with my heart," Booker said. "I have to go to Florida State."

"It was a kick in the gut," said Willingham.

As if the October 26 Irish visit to Tallahassee wasn't emotional enough already.

Booker told a press conference in Oxnard, California that he literally labored with the decision until the very last moment. 

Ultimately, Willingham's first class includes one Parade All-American (defensive lineman Derek Landri), two USA Today Prep All-Americans (Landri and wide receiver Maurice Stovall) and seven players ranked among the top 100 players nationally by Lemming.

Defensive end candidate Travis Leitko is the 22nd ranked player by Lemming. Stovall is No. 32. Landri is 51st. Big running back Nate Schiccatano is 58th, defensive end prospect Chris Frome is 91st, offensive lineman Bob Morton 98th and tight end Marcus Freeman 100th.

For a complete look at the Irish recruits, click on "commit list" on the left-hand navigation bar on the IrishEyes home page. Each recruit's national star rating is listed along with height, weight, and speed in the 40. If you are a subscriber to IrishEyes or TheInsiders.com, you'll also have access to a complete diary of the recruiting process of each.

This was Willingham's first official press conference at Notre Dame since his January 1 hiring. The 30-minute session was far from chatty – most of Willingham's answers three sentences or less – but he did share some insights into his philosophy.

"I always believe you play your best players," Willingham said. "If the freshmen come in and are our best players, they will play right away. If not, we will groom them to become our best players."

That answer was in a direct reference to a question on Stovall, who has been described as a "difference making" wide receiver. Willingham clearly is enamored with the Pennsylvania product.

"When you see Maurice, there is a trend toward big, explosive receiver and he fits that bill," said Willingham. "He has the maturity to come in and help us as fast as possible."

It has only been 37 days since Willingham was hired, so to say the recruiting process has been whirlwind would be an understatement. But the new coach feels satisfied with the results.

"I don't think it was a fire drill," Willingham said. "We were able to answer the needs in most areas, and some not quite. I will leave it to the experts to evaluate how good the class is. My evaluation will be 3-4 years down the road, when you look at how many championships you have won."

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RECRUITING NOTEBOOK: Willingham did one thing that IrishEyes can't recall Bob Davie doing in his five years at the helm. He referred to himself in the third person. Speaking of Landri, Willingham said , "It was a huge priority to keep him. De La Salle (California) has one of the finest programs in the country. You want young men in your program to have that same core of winning belief. Derek was very comfortable with Coach Willingham and his staff."……..It doesn't sound like the sole quarterback who signed, Chris Olsen of Wayne, NJ, will be in the mix right away. "I wouldn't say we have an overly difficult system, but it does require a certain amount of reference knowledge. You need a catalog of defenses to be able to execute in this system. That's difficult coming right off a high school background."…….On recruiting players he had been in the mix with at Stanford, Willingham was very clear: "It is borderline on an ethics issue," he said. "Any young man who had possibly been recruited by Notre Dame, that provides the opportunity. If he had only been recruited by Stanford, it becomes ethical."……..Willingham said he was "excited" about the potential of Chicago's Dan Santucci being a "great defensive player."…….The lone holdover from the Davie staff, Greg Mattison, was praised by the boss for "holding things together" in the recruiting process. "He did a great job."……Willingham said he has already begun plotting his recruiting strategy for 2003 and that his geographic net will be nationwide. "Our staff has a lot of experience on the West Coast, but we all have different backgrounds, different experiences," he said. When asked about hiring a recruiting coordinator, Willingham gave a cryptic response. "He needs to be a full-time coach I do believe."

(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at aatandsonspr@aol.com)

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