Confused and exhausted, Air Force football assistant Steve Russ finally caved and asked for assistance at the airport Thursday.
“I had to walk up to someone and say, ‘Ma’am, can you help me? My flight at 12:39 to Houston is not on the board. Can you tell me what gate it’s at,’” Russ recalled.
“She said, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, ‘You’re in Houston.’”
With upward of 60 days on the road each year spent crisscrossing their assigned areas it’s understandable how Air Force coaches might lose their bearings on occasion. Russ’ story also illustrates the fact that the most important technological advance aiding Falcons coaches is the one that the Wright brothers jump-started near Kitty Hawk in 1903.
That’s not to say they aren’t putting more modern conveniences to use.
“In any industry if you don’t take advantage of those technologies you’ll be left by the wayside and watching as everyone else kind of moves forward,” Air Force recruiting coordinator Capt. John Rudzinski said.
Air Force uses every allowable online avenue. It browses videos through hudl.com and YouTube, it searches profiles and it solicits opinions from recruiting services. It searches countless profiles, taking note of grades and test scores right along with athletic accolades.
Largely, these tools are used to weed out athletes who don’t fit their specific criteria – coach Troy Calhoun’s demands for “no flaws in the character.”
“You have to find kids who are the right fit,” said Russ, a 1995 Air Force graduate who won a pair of Super Bowl rings with the Broncos and serves as assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator. “Our recruiting pool is really a puddle. When you start with the football component – can a kid play in the Mountain West Conference – now you’ve got to see if he has the grades, the work ethic, the desire and the want-to to explore a service academy.”
Online tools make some of that weeding-out process much easier. Russ said he could waste a month blindly watching video of potential recruits, so he instead starts by narrowing that search to athletes who could potentially become officer candidates in the Air Force.
Stockpiling information on a potential recruit – “intelligence gathering,” as Russ put it – takes a fraction of the time than it did in the past when acquiring transcripts, test scores and football highlights might take weeks through the mail. Now most can be found online.
“There’s no postage, no mailing – we get to see you right away,” Falcons basketball coach Dave Pilipovich said. “It’s a lot quicker and more accessible, so it gives us an opportunity to cover more ground just by sitting in the office.”
Russ sees the technological advances as a hindrance to coaches and programs that used to carve their niche by finding gems others didn’t notice.
“It used to be if you outhustled another guy, you could find kids that no one else was on,” Russ said. “That’s getting harder and harder to do. That doesn’t mean that you can’t go out and hustle, and you want to be in there first, but technology has helped level the playing field in that regard. It’s certainly harder for a kid to fall through the cracks in this day and age.”
The online information is helpful, but coaches realize it can’t be blindly trusted.
“Just like with anything on the Internet, it’s only as good as you can verify,” Rudzinski said.
Air Force coaches measure players, judge for themselves what kind of growth potential they might have and scour schools for someone to share information on the kids’ character – secretaries, counselors, teachers, janitors, anyone.
The stakes are high on so many levels.
First and foremost – as the coaches point out at every chance – the athletes they select must be worthy to serve as officers in the Air Force. The nation's very safety may well hang in the balance with the right or wrong young man or woman.
But another component raising the pressure on an athletic level is that this is one-shot deal. There are no mulligans for Air Force – no transfers, no junior college stars to fill a gap. Athletes can leave within their first two years, but these classes won't be adding any newcomers. The only safety net is that Air Force isn't limited by the scholarship restrictions of other schools. No one pays tuition at the academy, so partial scholarships are not an issue.
“It’s imperative to shake a guy’s hand and look in his eyeballs,” Calhoun said.
And that requires travel, coaches like Russ leaving their families for days and weeks on end to find the next wave of athletes at Air Force. And as soon as one class is completed, they had better have gotten a jump start on the next.
“Recruiting is like shaving. If you don’t do it every day you don’t look very good,” Russ said. “But you’ve got to budget your time to create the relationships and make sure you’re putting your best foot forward to make sure that young man and his family will say ‘Yes, I want to come to the Air Force Academy.’”