For Muschamp and USC, winning back the state begins with winning over high school coaches

South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp and his staff are working to improve the relationship between USC and high school coaches in the state. (Sean Rayford/Special to The Post and Courier)

COLUMBIA — Shortly after Joe Call had been named the full-time successor to John McKissick at Summerville High School, his cellphone rang. On the other end was South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, congratulating him on getting the job.

“To take the time to reach out to high school coaches and try to establish relationships is a big thing,” said Call, named Green Wave head coach in February. “When South Carolina was successful, winning 11 games a year, they were getting the best players from South Carolina to stay in-state and go to the University of South Carolina. I think they see that as being extremely important.”

Muschamp’s battle cry since taking the job at USC has been to win back the state in recruiting. Indeed, many of the star players on those three consecutive 11-win teams coached by Steve Spurrier were from the Palmetto State, and the Gamecocks’ rise was in direct proportion to its recruiting fortunes within its own backyard.

The same can be said of USC’s sudden decline, to a 3-9 squad last season that at one point had eight current or former walk-ons listed on the two-deep. Reversing that slide hinges on bringing in better players, and for Muschamp and his staff that effort begins with improving the relationship between USC and high school coaches in the state.

“What we’ve got to do is cultivate the relationships (with) these high school coaches to get guys to stay in-state,” said Gamecocks running backs coach Bobby Bentley, who for many years was a successful high school head coach at Byrnes.

“We’ve got to keep those guys in this state. That’s our job. That’s why (Muschamp) has nine assistant coaches in this state, recruiting this state. That’s going to be the key for our success. South Carolina’s most successful years were when we were getting the Marcus Lattimores, the (Jadeveon) Clowneys, the (Stephon) Gilmores, and keeping all those guys in this state playing here.”

While South Carolina can punch above its weight in the quality of football players it turns out, the pool of elite homegrown talent is often shallow, just due to the state’s relatively small population. USC landed only one of the state’s top 10 prospects in recruiting this year (receiver Bryan Edwards of Conway) and just two the year before that. There was little room for error if a few highly-recruited players transferred or didn’t pan out.

That’s why the first order of business for Muschamp, who acts as his own recruiting coordinator, is to upgrade the Gamecocks’ talent level. And doing that begins with making the right impression on high school coaches.

“They jumped right into the pool. A lot of coaches will take their time to get the lay of the land, get the feel for the dynamics of what they’ve gotten into. But coach Muschamp just jumped right into the pool,” said Wando head coach Jimmy Noonan.

“He made it clear that they’re going to recruit our kids, and do a thorough job of doing so. I think I’ve talked to at least everybody on the offensive staff, and coach Muschamp himself came to the school. They’ve done a great job of getting out and making themselves visible. I think they’ve done a great job this spring in identifying with everybody and letting everybody know who they are.”

Before he landed the head-coaching job, Call had worked as an assistant at Summerville for nine seasons. At the beginning of his coaching tenure with the Green Wave, he remembers Spurrier and members of his staff being very visible at the school. In more recent years, he saw less and less of them.

“Everette Sands, who recruited our area, he’d stop by and check in,” Call said, referring to the former Citadel great who served as Spurrier’s running backs coach. “But I think that coach Muschamp is showing he wants to be visible in high schools. That’s kind of what Clemson’s done a real good job of lately — not just get a coach to recruit your area, but if a school does have a specific player, they make sure the position coach gets to see that kid personally, along with the head coach.”

The tide of in-state recruiting has clearly shifted to Clemson, which last season went undefeated and was ranked No. 1 before a loss in the national championship game to Alabama. It can’t be a coincidence that high school coaches also rave about the relationships built by Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney and his staff, notably Lowcountry recruiter Tony Elliott, who played at James Island.

“Clemson has done an excellent job in that area,” Noonan said, “in establishing that family atmosphere and reassuring those (high school) coaches that they are going to take care of our ballplayers.”

By comparison, the bonds between high school coaches and the Gamecocks program “kind of needed to be built back up. Not that it was that far away. But you had about two years in there where all you’re seeing is that one coach who recruits your area maybe one time for a brief five minutes,” Call said.

“Now they’re coming in, and they don’t just open the notebook and say, ‘OK, in your 2017 class, who can play in the SEC?’ Now they’re coming in and talking about you. ‘How are things going? You’ve been on the job for a couple of months now, how’s it going with your staff? How are players responding to workouts?’ Things like that. They’re showing more of an interest in us personally instead of just, ‘OK, I need to know if you have an SEC-type player on your team.’”

Noonan agreed that the relationship between USC and high school coaches needed strengthening. “I think it did,” he said. “I had a great relationship with coach Spurrier and his staff. But at times there were, I guess, gaps in communication.”

Muschamp, who in his four years at Florida assembled recruiting classes ranked consistently in the top 10, is trying to bridge that gap. “Even in my down time, when I’m off the road, I’m going to try to hit as many high schools as I can in the state of South Carolina,” he said at a recent Gamecock Club meeting, “to try and build those relationships.”

In the effort to get better players, it’s the first step. “They realize it all starts with the high school coaches,” Call said. “We have a big influence on our players, as much as their parents. We see them on a daily basis, for eight to 10 hours a day.”

When Will Muschamp attended a Falcons-Panthers NFL game last season as guest of his friend Dan Quinn, Atlanta’s head coach, he at one point counted seven players on the field from the state of South Carolina. Only one, Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco, had played at USC.

To Muschamp, it underscored the fact that for its size, the Palmetto State produces more than its share of quality football players — and that the Gamecocks were either overlooking or missing out on too many of them.

“Our staff needs to get out and roll up our sleeves and go to work in this state,” he told Gamecock Club members in Columbia. “We have nine coaches recruiting the state of South Carolina, and it’s important for all of our coaches to have relationships in South Carolina.”

That effort requires a personal approach, “the feeling and understanding that ... they’re not on a pedestal. That they’re real coaches willing to interact with us,” Noonan said. That’s why Call was impressed when Muschamp showed up at Summerville one week after being hired, along with assistants Shawn Elliott, Bentley, and Pat Washington, his Charleston-area recruiter.

They left behind contact information including email addresses and cell phone numbers. “I’ve had people ask, ‘Coaches from South Carolina were here? Really? Who are they recruiting? Do we have an SEC player?’” Call said. “We might not have one right now, but maybe two years from now we will. Maybe five years from now we will. They’re just doing a real good job of establishing those relationships.”

Call said Muschamp extended an open invitation for the Summerville staff to visit USC, something the Gamecocks head coach said he’s done at other high schools as well.

“The biggest thing for me is to be accessible,” Muschamp said. “When a high school coach comes on our campus, they can sit in every position meeting they want to sit in. They can come to every practice. And the comments I’ve gotten from our high school coaches is how accessible we are to them. That’s what you need to do to build those relationships.”

That seems to be what high school coaches want most from their brethren at the major-college level. “I want them to offer an open-door policy so when we have questions about how to get our players recruited, how to get our players to college, they’re not just blowing us off and thinking we don’t know anything,” Call said.

“There have been staffs in the past, not recently, but before coach Swinney and coach Muschamp, you’d try to talk to them, and they’d give you a short answer to everything. I’d ask, ‘What can I do to get this kid recruited?’ ‘Well, get them to our camp and we’ll see if they can play.’ That was the old answer. The new answer is more of establishing relationships with players, first and foremost talking to them about academics and their personal life and how to be a better person.”

That’s the approach Call has seen from Swinney and the Clemson staff “over the last four or five years,” he added. And so far, high school coaches appear to be getting it from Muschamp.

“We take pride in the product they put out there, both Clemson and South Carolina,” Noonan said. “We look for those guys to be a resource for us as a coaches’ association. We want their accessibility. So far they’ve made it clear that we’d have access to their knowledge and their experience, and there’s not a coach out there who doesn’t look forward to that.”