It’s All About Recruiting–And I Still Think It’s Nuts!

Coach John Lilly is one of the most effective and respected recruiters in SEC football. As tight-ends coach and recruiting coordinator for Florida State for a decade before coming to Georgia, he scouted a lot of high-school football players. As tight-ends coach for Mark Richt’s program at Georgia, Lilly has played a prominent role in bringing elite talent to Athens. The Bulldogs are among the top five programs in the country in putting players into the NFL, including veterans like linebacker Thomas Davis, quarterback Matthew Stafford, and wide receiver A. J. Green, along with promising rookies like running back Todd Gurley.

John Lilly, Tight Ends Coach and Recruiting Coordinator, University of Georgia Football
Coach John Lilly

Parents and coaches I interviewed for Farewell to Football (click here to see more about this book) all agree that Coach Lilly is a man of his word, one of the most honest men plying a trade that ranks somewhere in the vicinity of snake-oil sales on the BS-meter. As I found out in my interviews with him, John is also a man of his faith, who prays that he and the rest of the coaching staff will do right by the recruits who come their way, and similarly prays that those who “get away” will also end up where God wants them. And for all that, I found that there’s one point about which I don’t think Coach is being completely honest with himself.

In Must Win, Drew Jubera’s 2012 book about a season of football at Valdosta High in Georgia, John Lilly is depicted recruiting star tight-end Jay Rome, who does end up coming to Athens to play for the Bulldogs. For Lilly, this involves driving five hours to Valdosta, then waiting in his car for a few more hours while other recruiters have their turn visiting Rome at home (read the book for the full story about Jay’s father Stan Rome, who played in the NFL and also nearly died when a drug deal went bad), then driving the five hours back to Athens in the dark of deepest night.

When I talked on the phone with Lilly in the summer of 2014, a year after my first interview with him, I asked him what spiritual resources he drew upon to avoid becoming distorted or disordered from such excessive demands of his job. I must admit that he surprised me by shrugging off the premise of the question, just matter-of-factly indicating that he doesn’t really think of it as all that extreme, and that for most of the coaches in the recruiting business (what Bruce Feldman in his 2008 book called a Meat Market), it just comes with the territory. I can understand that in his mind, within his frame of reference, having done this work for decades, it’s no big deal, but looking at it objectively, I just think it’s nuts! (I’m reminded of a bumper sticker I used to see on that bucolic campus along the Hudson when I was training cadets at West Point: “Army Football, It’s Not Just a Sport, It’s a Pathological Obsession.” Army humor.)

The business of recruiting college football players–nominally student athletes–is just plain nuts. Grown men chasing after high-school kids, driving across the state, waiting for hours to visit them in their homes, calling them, texting them, inviting them to campus for official visits, cajoling their parents or surrogate parents or teachers or mentors, Skyping them the day after a tornado hit Tuscaloosa (we’ll have to see if we can fit that anecdote–not involving Coach Lilly but Nick Saban–into Farewell to Football) . . . how can you throw all that attention at kids who are already growing balloon-headed from their success on the football field and not expect some of them to suffer from the excess and illusions? That’s a variation on a Farewell to Football Examination of Conscience question.

Damn Good Dawg

Later in that 2014 interview, Lilly enacted with me the singular character that his admirers find so persuasive. The story goes all the way back to the summer of 2013, and my interview with Jaia Benson, my nephew’s son whose decision to say “farewell to football” the year before had given me the idea for this whole project. (Jaia’s greatest game as a Junior Plainsman running the “27 Toss” is narrated in the book.)

Jaia Benson gets ready for the next play.
Jaia Benson thinking up a great interview question.

I’ve gotten in the interviewer’s habit of asking subjects what questions they might pose to upcoming interview subjects, and Jaia came up with a great one when he found out I would be talking to coaches and players at a big-time SEC football program: what do coaches tell players, and what do players want to hear from coaches, when the players aren’t having a good game?

Jaia’s question came back to me when I was watching the Georgia vs. Florida game later in the 2013 season. In the third quarter, Arthur Lynch had dropped what he thought was a forward pass thrown nearly parallel to the line of scrimmage, but it was called a lateral–and a fumble, picked up by a Florida defender as tight-end Lynch groaned over his miss. It turned out there was more to the story: Lynch was hurting from a wicked hit he had taken earlier in the game, and he ended up staying in a hospital room in Jacksonville overnight while the team flew home. Not having his best day.

I thought of Jaia’s question and emailed a query to Coach Lilly. It was the middle of the season, and recruiting time (it’s always recruiting time in the SEC), so I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get a reply.

When I was conducting a second interview with Lilly on the phone in the summer of 2014, the coach stunned me. As I was wrapping up, I asked him if I had missed anything. He replied that if I was still interested he could try to answer that question I had asked–after apologizing for not replying at the time.

His answer to the question of what he said to Artie Lynch after that bad play on the lateral pass was quintessential Lilly: first of all, he told me, as a coach he had let the player down because when they had run the play in practice, Lilly hadn’t warned him that it might be a lateral and thus a fumble if he dropped it. And then, the coach added, he didn’t have to say much because Artie Lynch knew he had made a mistake, and was hurting, and there was still a whole lot of football game left to be played (Georgia did hang on to win that game). Pretty great answer, but even that wasn’t the best part.

To me, it showed the attention to detail and the personal concern that must have impressed a lot of student-athletes and their parents over the years. He had remembered the question for the better part of the year, and then had reminded me of my own query long after I’d let it slip into the past, and then did his level best (which was very, very good) to answer as well as he could.

Coaches John Lilly and Mark Richt before the 12/30/14 Belk Bowl, for which Lilly called the plays.
Prayerful Men: Coaches John Lilly and Mark Richt before the 12/30/14 Belk Bowl, for which Lilly called the plays.

So I was, to use an old-fashioned expression, tickled pink when John Lilly got to call the plays for the Bulldogs in a bowl game, as Georgia soundly drubbed Louisville in the Belk Bowl, 37-14. (I have to admit, though, that my loyalties were equally divided: one of my Army buddies in the picture below is a Louisville alumni, while another is The Dawg Doc–the fourth character depicted is a rather mysterious Aggie; I’m the one in the handsome eyeglasses.)

Way to go, Coach Lilly, Damn Good Dawg, but I still have to say, I disagree with you about SEC recruiting: it’s not just excessive, it’s just plain nuts!

Read more about all of these characters in Farewell to Football? An American Fan’s Examination of Consience.

Graduates of (L-R): Louisville, Texas A&M, Binghamton University (Cornell U ROTC; Ph. D. from Houston), Colorado (DVM from Georgia)
Graduates of (L-R): Louisville, Texas A&M, Binghamton University (Cornell U ROTC; Ph. D. from Houston), Colorado (DVM from Georgia)
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