Bill Callahan hadn't won a game in 24 days.
A season he hoped would vault Nebraska back to national prominence was unraveling. He'd lost three straight games by a combined 88 points. His boss had been fired. His new athletic director had given him no reason to think he wasn't next.
Now, halfway through his weekly press conference, a reporter asked about recruiting losses.
Callahan, just two weeks earlier, landed his 24th commitment for 2008. No program in the country had more. Experts were calling it another top 10 class.
Trouble was, recruits were watching the losses pile up. The night before, blue-chip tailback Jonas Gray reneged. Three more would decommit by week's end, including five-star quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
For four minutes that Tuesday morning, Callahan rambled about the “disappointment” and “hurt” of losing prospects he'd pursued for a year.
“You're just building your program and you're at the position where you can get a top class of talent like that and to let it slip away, that's tough. That's really tough.”
Five years later, the coach and his assistants are long gone. Fans have blocked the blowouts from their memories. It all seems so long ago.
But for six Huskers, the wild fall of 2007 will always be part of their story.
Their commitment to the Big Red predates Bo Pelini. They watched the worst season in half a century, and when other recruits ran away, they stood by Nebraska and became part of the long-term solution.
Will Compton. Cameron Meredith. Kyler Reed. Brandon Thompson. Sean Fisher. Baker Steinkuhler.
They've accumulated 147 starts. They've been part of 48 wins and three divisional titles. They represent the last link to the Callahan years. The best part: They lived to tell about it.
Steinkuhler was No. 1. In September 2006, on the first day Nebraska could offer him a scholarship, he said yes. Over the next 12 months, the Huskers showed mild progress on the field, reaching the Big 12 championship game. The biggest victories came on the recruiting trail. Collins Okafor.
Sean Fisher, who turned down Bob Stoops.
One highly ranked prospect after another. Callahan showed Husker fans the new era of college football recruiting. No longer did programs do all their work in the six months leading up to signing day. In fact, when Will Compton committed in late July 2007, he was the 19th Husker pledge. Nineteen!
“It was a no-brainer,” Compton says, citing the facilities and connection with the coaching staff, most notably Kevin Cosgrove.
Two months later, Compton was in Lincoln for the USC game. So was a defensive end from California named Cameron Meredith, commit No. 21. And a tight end/linebacker from Overland Park, Kan., named Kyler Reed.
Reed doesn't remember much about the Husker loss — “I remember getting some Valentino's pizza.” But on the ride home the next day, he decided it was now or never. He became No. 22.
South Dakota lineman Riley Reiff was No. 23. Brandon Thompson would follow days later. The 2008 crop was on target to rival Callahan's ballyhooed 2005 class.
Classmates were so excited, they routinely called each other to plot the future and talk about NU's most recent game.
On Oct. 6, 2007, the Huskers played at Missouri. Prime time. ESPN. Compton was in the bleachers. He has no words for the memory, he just shakes his head. Nebraska lost 41-6.
Suddenly fans had an epiphany. What good was talent if you couldn't coach it?
The next Saturday, NU trailed 38-0 at halftime to Oklahoma State. Memorial Stadium was half-empty. Steve Pederson got fired. Then Texas A&M trounced the Huskers 36-14.
Suddenly, Compton says, recruits started calling each other for a different reason: “What other schools are you looking at?”
Tom Osborne, a week into the job, saw the floodwaters rising. He emailed committed prospects and told them to call him. He encouraged them to stand by Nebraska.
But two days after the A&M debacle, Gray broke the dike.
“Even if (Osborne) does keep Coach Callahan, you figure every year he's going to be on a short leash,” Gray said that week from Southfield, Mich. “Was I committed to the coaching staff or the school? I was definitely committed to the coaching staff.”
Gabbert, two days later, was an even bigger loss. Then D.J. Woods and Darius Parish.
Had Nebraska simply won a game, perhaps it would've plugged the hole. But the Saturday after Callahan's lament, NU blew a 17-3 lead at Texas.
“Jamaal Charles went off,” Reed remembers. For 216 fourth-quarter yards.
The fifth consecutive loss came at Kansas, where the Blackshirts gave up 76 points. Reed's friends, many of whom were Jayhawk fans, couldn't resist teasing him: “Are you sure you don't want to change your mind?”
By the time Osborne put Callahan out of his misery on Nov. 24, most of Nebraska's recruiting class had either decommitted or started looking around. It was every man for himself.
“After you have someone recruiting you for a year and a half and all of a sudden it changes,” Meredith says, “it kind of scares you away.”
Nebraska went eight days without a head coach. Osborne tried to fill the recruiting gaps. On the sixth day, he drove to Omaha to visit Sean Fisher and Trevor Robinson — the Elkhorn lineman had decommitted back in August but was still considering NU.
On the seventh day, Osborne boarded a twin-engine turboprop and flew to Kansas, where he spent about 90 minutes at Reed's high school. Then on to southeast Missouri, where he created a stir at North County High School. Compton's classmates pointed — that's Tom Osborne!
On the eighth day, he rested.
Picking up the pieces
Bo Pelini's assistants had no time to celebrate their new jobs. They sat down in front of the recruiting board and plotted a game plan.
Eventually, they would need to lure their own prospects to Lincoln. But first, they focused on Callahan's recruits. Who was committed? Who had decommitted? Who did they need to keep? Who was worth letting go? Fortunately, Ted Gilmore and Shawn Watson were still on staff to guide them.
Once they formulated a strategy, they started rushing to airplanes. Tried to maximize every opportunity to sit down in front of a prospect.
“The way recruiting goes, a lot of these relationships are established a year beforehand,” says John Papuchis, then NU's new defensive line coach. “You're trying to build that bond in a very short amount of time. That's a hard thing to do in a sincere way.”
Papuchis' first home visit was David Whitmore, a Husker commit. Port Arthur, Texas.
“I'm in his house, I'm throwing out this spiel of who we are,” Papuchis says. “They're looking at me like, 'Who is this guy sitting in my kitchen?'” Whitmore signed with NU.
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Papuchis went to Parkston, S.D., for Riley Reiff.
“I thought I almost had him turned around,” Papuchis says. Reiff chose Iowa.
He went to Santa Ana, Calif., for Cam Meredith.
Meredith wanted to stand by Nebraska. But his mom kept telling Papuchis he was leaning toward Oregon. “No, I'm not, Mom!” They were arguing in front of him.
Papuchis, then 29, hadn't done much in-home recruiting. “Is this how it's gonna be?” he thought.
One recruiting trip stands out. Five years later, it's still one of the most memorable “recruiting adventures” Papuchis has ever experienced.
The new defensive assistants — Papuchis, Carl Pelini, Marvin Sanders and Mike Ekeler — flew to Bonne Terre, Mo. They landed at a little airstrip and borrowed an old car. Had to be 30 years old, Papuchis said. Frayed fabric was hanging from the roof.
They turned the car toward the No. 1 defensive player in Missouri.
Compton hadn't officially decommitted. His parents wanted him to show better character than that. But by mid-January 2008, he was leaning toward Mizzou, Illinois or Notre Dame.
“If Notre Dame would've offered me out of the gate,” Compton says, “I would've been there. Because I was a guy who camped there for two years. And I was a Catholic kid growing up. It was Notre Dame, Notre Dame.”
But Compton was “a rebound guy” for Charlie Weis. He got an offer in January only after other blue chips said no. Pelini's assistants still had a shot.
The NFC championship game was on TV. Giants-Packers. Brett Favre's last game in Green Bay.
Sanders and Ekeler tag-teamed Compton in the kitchen. Pelini and Papuchis stayed with Mom and Dad.
“I always thought that was interesting foreshadowing of the different personalities coming together for the first time,” Papuchis says. “Ek and Marvin kinda played with the kids. Carl and I stayed with the grown-ups.”
It took a little childlike creativity to seal the deal. Ekeler had gotten a temporary tattoo — “Compton” — on his arm. Will initially thought it was real.
“I think that put it over the top,” Papuchis says.
The long haul
The two-month sprint ended on Feb. 6 when 28 prospects sent letters of intent to Nebraska.
They included 16 players NU started recruiting after Pelini's hire, most notably Alfonzo Dennard, P.J. Smith, Alonzo Whaley and Ben Cotton.
They included 12 of Callahan's original commitments. Ricky Henry and Tyson Hetzer were junior-college transfers. Collins Okafor, Josh Williams, John Levorson and David Whitmore left before exhausting their eligibility.
Six stayed until the end. All five years. You can commit to a coaching staff or you can commit to a school. Meredith chose the latter.
“Coaches can change,” he says. “You have to go to a place where you'll feel comfortable. You never know going into college if your football career is going to work out or not. So you've got to pick a place that fits you as a student.”
Occasionally, Compton thinks about one of his old classmates. He lived an hour from Gabbert. They used to talk often on the phone.
“We'd hit the lake in St. Louis,” Compton says, “or he'd come and hang out at my place.”
When Gabbert decommitted, they texted a few times. But once they signed, “we didn't stay in touch too much longer.”
Gabbert's in the NFL now. So are Riley Reiff, Trevor Robinson and Jonas Gray, who ended up at Notre Dame. The same Notre Dame that will play in the BCS championship game.
Had Compton chosen the Irish and redshirted, he might be facing Alabama. He might be the middle linebacker instead of Manti Te'o. Compton laughs.
“I probably would've been next to him.”
The recruiting game is full of gut decisions and second thoughts. Bad rental cars and fake tattoos. Relationships built and broken. You only live it once.
For the six Huskers who endured 2007, that's probably a good thing.
“It's crazy how it all unfolded,” Compton says. “But I'm happy with the way it turned out. If I did it all over again, I'd do the same thing.”
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