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September 21, 2012

There's more to visit weekends than winning


His job title has changed, but Dan Hawkins is still the hyper-candid football coach that made the world aware that life in the Big 12 Conference was a bit different than intermurals.

The former Colorado and Boise State head coach now works as an analyst for ESPN.

These days, he's paid to showcase the same honesty that made him a YouTube sensation and sometimes led him astray. And without a pesky athletic director in his ear, Hawkins is more Hawkins-ish than ever before.

When he picked up his phone on Monday afternoon, the topic was recruiting visits. How does a coach schedule them? What factors play into choosing a weekend? And finally, how much does an embarrassing loss impact a visitor's view of the program?

Hawkins clears his throat and does his thing. He explains that convincing sought-after recruits to tour Colorado's campus was a victory in itself.

"We always looked at it like, 'we are what we are. Here's what we're doing and here's what's going on. Come in and take a look.'" Hawkins said. "These kids aren't stupid. You're not going to trick them. They know what's up."

There are some things even the most forthright of coaches can't say out loud. You couldn't pay Hawkins enough to admit it when he roamed the sidelines at Colorado, but an internal voice reminded him of the risk involved.

For example, No. 15 Missouri could hang 58 points on the Folsom Field scoreboard in front of a herd of important prospects like it did in 2008. But that voice that never took long to silence.

"We'd rather have them come in against a good team and see a great environment that had other stuff going on in town," Hawkins said. "I think that's more important to kids than the score of the game. Everybody has a different take on that, but I was never afraid of getting beat."

There's nowhere to hide an embarrassing result in today's media landscape. So when a player targeted such a date for his trip, the Hawkins' reaction seemed counterproductive on the surface: Come on down and watch the bloodbath from our sideline. Afterwards, we'll give you a guided tour of the slaughterhouse.

See, there are two schools of thought when it comes to scheduling important official visits. Hawkins is from the first -- the one that would rather have prospective players witness a blowout in person than see it television.

"It's one thing for them to see a bad score, but if they get around you and see how you handle it and how you deal with the team, they can look past it," he said. "If they're at home, they just see, 'Hey, the team I'm interested in just got drilled.'"

Unfathomable as it seems, by the time Hawkins is done explaining his take, getting blown out at home almost starts to sounds like a strategic advantage.

"If you don't do as well as you want and get beat, I think a kid can see you need help personnel-wise and think 'I can come in here and play right away,'"Hawkins said. "Those things happen for sure."

Exhibit A: Beau Sandland.

Sandland, a four-star junior college tight end, was planted in a complimentary seat during his official visit to Ole Miss last weekend. He was close enough to the field to feel the angst of the Rebels' defense as Texas scored nine touchdowns. A day after the game, he became supporting evidence for Hawkins' case.

"It didn't make a huge impact on me," Sandland said after his visit. "It was kind of expected. Obviously, a team like Texas playing Ole Miss by halftime, Texas was laying it on them pretty good. They could have folded after that, but they really stuck in it. They didn't quit and the coaches still had them buying in."

The second method is still out there, though. Hawkins calls this method "the car salesmen approach." Blown speakers? Keep the radio off during the test drive. Sunroof doesn't latch correctly? Keep it open at all costs. Want to impress a recruit? Invite him down to watch your team destroy Savannah State.

Finding an active coach to admit employing the technique is hunting a unicorn. Copping to the move would quash the essence of the philosophy.

Tennessee's Derek Dooly says he's in the same boat as Hawkins.

Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel claims winning on a crucial visit weekend is "an important bonus," but not the most critical factor.

Make no mistake, though, coaches who would prefer to bring in recruits to watch their teams devour a cupcake opponent exist. They're just hoping the technique goes unnoticed.

"There are coaches that have that philosophy for sure," Hawkins said. "I know some of them. It's not right or wrong, but it's their philosophy: 'Let's bring the guy in this week and it'll be good for us. We can really get after this team.' It's just never been my thought."



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