Derek Redd: Holliday goes the extra mile in recruiting
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Doc Holliday isn't unlike any of the real-estate magnates who made their fortunes in South Florida.
He got in on the ground floor, at a time when few others from the outside gave it a second thought. He worked. He cultivated. And, in the end, he was bathing in riches when everyone else was fighting like hell for their own piece of the pie.
Of the 34 Floridians on Holliday's current Marshall football roster, 18 of them come from Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, one of the most fertile recruiting areas in America. He takes the entire Thundering Herd into prep football paradise Saturday, when Marshall visits Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
Back when Holliday started prospecting in the area, more than three decades ago as a young assistant at West Virginia University, there was no Florida Atlantic to compete with for recruits. No Florida International, either. No University of Central Florida or University of South Florida. They were either tiny Division III programs or they weren't even figments of an ambitious university president's imagination.
In those days, few schools outside of Florida's Big Three of Florida State, Florida and Miami mined for recruits in the area. Holliday remembers only a handful of coaches on that trail ... not that he minded.
"When we went down there, it was like Christmas Day, man," Holliday said. "I just picked out the ones I wanted, got on my plane and came home."
He pulled Steve Grant out of Miami in 1988 and the linebacker rewarded WVU's faith by winning back-to-back team MVP awards. On his second go-round on the Mountaineers' staff in the 2000s, he recruited quarterback Geno Smith and receiver Stedman Bailey out of Miramar. And all those two did was finish among the most prolific at their positions in WVU history.
The gravy train found its way to Huntington, too. Quarterback Rakeem Cato and receiver Tommy Shuler were teammates at Miami Central High and both had record-breaking 2012 seasons. Defensive back Corey Tindal, who has helped Marshall's defense rebound from last season's dismal performance as a nickel back, is from Lauderdale Lakes.
Holliday's secret was no real secret at all. According to former WVU Coach Don Nehlen in his book, "Tales from the West Virginia Sideline," it was just a matter of hard work.
"Doc never left any stone unturned," Nehlen wrote. "He completely surrounded a player. The mother, the brother, the aunt, the sister, the girlfriend all knew who Doc Holliday was, because he took time to find out who they were and make their acquaintance.
"I think than in all of the 17 years that Doc and I recruited in Florida," he continued, "I never went into a house where the mother didn't give him a big hug."
There was a reason Holliday went that extra mile, and it can be found in the all-time records at several schools.
The football players that region produces have the attributes he craves.
"The kids down there are different," he said. "They're special. I've seen it year after year after year."
"I love those kids down there," he added. "They're tough, they like ball and they like to compete. That's what it's all about."
"They like ball" is a tried and true Doc-ism, a favorite line of his when he describes what he looks for in a player. In South Florida, though, a high schooler has to love the sport if he wants to succeed. In that area, they don't celebrate one major Division I signing a year. They celebrate four, five or more at each school.
Everyone's fast. Everyone's strong. It's work ethic and drive that sets the better players apart, and Shuler said that starts in the backyard.
"Growing up, just playing street ball, knowing you wanted to win every play and win every down, you wanted to do anything in the street, just knowing you needed to get that last touchdown. Competition is big. We're competitive in everything."
It's not just because those athletes like the cameras and the newspaper clippings and the invitations to the national all-star games. They see college football as a means to an end. In a perfect world, it's their portal to an NFL career. Besides that, it's also the path to a college degree, a nice job and the house with the picket fence and the dog.
"The plan is to get out of the neighborhood," Cato said, "to reach your goals and set your standards high. Not be a follower. Be a leader. Be your own man and be self-motivated. Football and school are a ticket for me, to get a degree and hopefully be a successful man in life."
It's a flooded college football market in South Florida anymore. Programs spring up overnight like strip malls, all elbowing each other out of the way for the same talent. That's no problem for Holliday. He's a stalwart in that region, still winning recruiting battles and hugs from moms and grandmas.
It's the sign of a great closer.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.