Samuel and Teresa Barham had been on the recruiting circuit for a few months, doing what they could to help their son, Quinn, decide where he was going to play college football.
The Barhams had enough of an understanding of how the on-campus visits were going to go — coaches, players and other representatives of the various programs would all be on their best behavior, show the prospects the best of what that school had to offer — that they decided to try an experiment. They made an unannounced visit to a school to see what life there was like, as Teresa put it, “on a normal day.”
Penn State’s coaches were surprised, to be sure. But Joe Paterno did what he could to make the family comfortable.
“The fact that he took the time to see us made quite an impression,” Teresa Barham said.
Quinn Barham wound up committing to and signing with Penn State and is currently the Nittany Lions’ starting left tackle. In his six decades on the staff, nearly five of which have been spent as the head coach, Paterno has made similar impressions on countless recruits and their families, a big reason why he has been able to reach 400 wins.
But as Paterno’s 45th season draws to a close, the Nittany Lions are in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position in the recruiting game. When Paterno put the finishing touches on his 400th career win, Penn State had received just four oral commitments from prospects in the Class of 2011.
“Joe can no longer tell recruits he’s going to be there for the four years, which is what he used to do up to and including last year’s class,” said Sean Fitz, who covers Penn State recruiting for Lions247. “There’s really no sense of what’s going to happen beyond this year.”
Paterno’s future has been hazy for the past few seasons, particularly with some of the health problems — a broken leg suffered in a sideline collision in 2006, hip replacement surgery in 2008, a gastrointestinal problem this past summer — he has had to endure. And yet, the Nittany Lions continued to land deep recruiting classes ranked near the top of the Big Ten.
“He told me in the recruiting process that he would be here,” Penn State safety Nick Sukay said. “And I believed him. I had no doubt that he was going to be here actually. Outsiders thought he was leaving every year, but within the team, we saw how he was and how passionate he was about the game. We didn’t see any end in it.”
Paterno stopped taking visits to see recruits in 2007, saying that part of the reason was that his appearance at high schools was causing too much of a fuss. Linebacker Bani Gbadyu, who received a visit from the coach at Quince Orchard High School in 2005, confirmed that phenonmenon this week.
“It was one of the greatest things that had ever happened at my high school,” Gbadyu said.
So while younger head coaches like Florida’s Urban Meyer and Alabama’s Nick Saban are making in-school and in-home visits to some of the nation’s top prospects, Paterno has let those duties fall to his assistant coaches and tries to make up for it with phone calls and on-campus visits.
For some recruits and their families, those visits are the tipping point, partly because they stress the program’s emphasis on things other than football.“It had such an air of family, felt like our son would be in good hands,” Teresa Barham said of her family’s visit. “There were people in place to keep him in line academically and see that he comes out OK and that he graduates.”For others, those visits represent a bucket-list moment but aren’t always enough to seal the deal.
“It’s more about actually meeting Joe Paterno, the all-time wins leader,” Fitz said. “It’s great to get your picture taken with, for your family to get an autograph, and a lot of these kids are meeting him. But obviously, for an 83-year-old, it’s tough to relate to the younger kids.”
The Nittany Lions still have scholarship offers extended to several highly regarded prospects in the Class of 2011 but have doubled their efforts for the Class of 2012, which Fitz says includes more talent in Penn State’s traditional recruiting areas.
“They’re putting in the work early,” Fitz said. “It’s just a matter of will that staff still be here when those kids get on campus?”
It’s a question that could have a huge impact on future Penn State teams, whether Paterno is here to coach them or not. But it’s also one that he and his players have heard before.
“You hear it all the time, especially about how many more years you think he’s going to be here, and how’s his health, especially this past summer,” Sukay said. “And we really don’t know, we know about as much as any other person. He could go on for however long he wants, and I don’t see any end in the road right now.”