Long before the Internet, message boards and summer camps, recruits had to find their college paths the hard way: On the field.
Posted February 2nd, 2019
Jessie Armstead represented everything that’s still so gloriously ostentatious about recruiting in the state of Texas.
Three decades ago, he was the best player starring for possibly the best high school football team in the country.
The linebacker from Dallas Carter High School called a press conference the first Wednesday in February, 1989. Reporters gathered at a swanky hotel outside downtown Dallas to hear him announce he would be playing for the big, bad, swaggy Miami Hurricanes coached by Jimmy Johnson.
And why shouldn’t the best player in Texas and in the country have signed with the Hurricanes, who were coming off back-to-back appearances in the national championship game and were about to play in a third one at the end of Armstead’s freshman season. Winners love winners.
That year, Armstrong topped the first-ever Fabulous 55, the American-Statesman’s annual recruiting list that is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
Earlier this week, the now 48-year-old Armstead pointed out how his massive blue-chip hype mostly was created by “word of mouth.” He was a three-time high school Parade All-American, possibly the highest honor a player could attain back in the pre-Internet era of recruiting.
In Armstead’s heyday, there were no fluid recruiting lists, no scouting combines or well-attended summer camps. There were no message boards or databases or up-to-the-minute team rankings.
Recruiting fans still had a voracious appetite for any morsel of information about a prospect. There simply wasn’t a lot of information out there to consume. That’s why the Statesman started compiling its annual recruiting list, ranking players 1 to 55, no matter the position they played.
In recruiting, three decades of lists show there have been far more duds than dazzlers. The best prospects in high school can be knocked off track in college by injuries, a coaching changes, competition from equally talented players and something as old-fashioned as homesickness.
But Armstead proved he was worthy of that first No. 1 ranking. Although Johnson departed Miami for the Dallas Cowboys within weeks of signing day, Armstead still was a part of two national championships at Miami.
A severe knee injury on Oct 26, 1990 — he still remembers the exact day — threatened Armstead’s career.
“I wasn’t going to let that (injury) story be what they write about me,” he said.
Armstead wasn’t drafted until the eighth round of the 1993 NFL draft. But he played for 11 seasons, starring for the New York Giants. He made five Pro Bowls and was inducted into the Giants’ Ring of Honor. He still works for the Giants, serving as a special assistant to the general manager. He’s there to help out the younger players, maybe serve as a liaison between the team and management. He splits time between Dallas and New York. His two daughters are in college back in Texas at TCU and Stephen F Austin.
If he could do it over again, maybe he’d stay closer to home. As he recalled, the Southwest Conference was in its dying days. Texas hadn’t been relevant for several years. Texas A&M interested him. So did Baylor. But Miami was the surging program.
A dozen different schools have signed the No. 1 player on the Fab 55. Texas, thanks to a dominating stretch of recruiting when Mack Brown was the head coach, leads all schools with 12 top signees.
In the three decades of the Fab 55, Texas has signed 387 of the 1,650 total players off the lists. Texas A&M, which dominated the state’s recruiting in the 1990s, is second with 279. The rest of the top five — Oklahoma (121), Baylor (89) and Texas Tech (67). The most successful out-of-state schools after Oklahoma are LSU (62), Oklahoma State (43), Colorado (30) and Miami (30).
San Angelo Central quarterback Shea Morenz was the Longhorns’ first No. 1. He signed back in 1992, breaking a run of out-of-state schools raiding the state for top talent in from 1989 through 1991.
Morenz, despite the fanfare of his signing, didn’t make that much of an impact at Texas. After redshirting, he was the starter in 1993. He was beaten out for the job 1in 1994 by James Brown, who was No. 2 on the 1993 Fab 55. Morenz opted for full-time baseball in 1995 after he was drafted in the first round by the New York Yankees.
Texas’ best No. 1 ever was Vince Young, then known as Vincent, when he signed in 2002. The Longhorns’ class of 2002 featured 18 signees from the Fab 55. It could be the best-ever class, given that they made up the nucleus of the team that won the national championship in 2005.
B.J. Johnson of South Grand Prairie and Midland Lee’s Cedric Benson were the top players on the list in 2000 and 2001. They helped set up the Longhorns for a string of seasons with double-digit wins that stretched from 2001-09.
Benson, who won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best back in 2004, left UT second on the career rushing list. That was expected of him way back when he was in middle school and folks around Midland recognized him as the next big star for Lee High School. With Benson bullying his way through defenses, Lee won three straight state titles.
“It kind of where it was for me, kind of was normal,” Benson said this week of the attention he received as a teenager.
Benson gave his commitment to Mack Brown before his senior year. Although he said “just about every school out there” offered him a scholarship, he was enamored with the Longhorns because of 1998 Heisman winner Ricky Williams. Williams grew up in San Diego, so he wasn’t on the Fab 55.
Coincidentally, Benson’s last high school game was in Austin. More than 35,000 fans showed up at Royal-Memorial Stadium to watch Lee smash Westlake for the Class 5A Division I state championship. A large portion of them were recruiting fans, there to see the next big Longhorn.
Johnson signed with the Longhorns in 2000. Texas needed receivers and the Longhorns landed Johnson, Odessa Permian’s Roy Williams (No. 2 on the Fab 55) and Klein’s Sloan Thomas (No. 4).
“We weren’t afraid of competition,” Johnson said.
Williams, a first round NFL pick in 2004, had the best career. He and Johnson now co-own MVP Vodka. Johnson has a communications business with his father. And he also has a concrete business. His goal is to build a massive dam.
And he’s also reliving the recruiting process with his son Keyton, a star receiver for Mansfield Lake Ridge. Johnson said his oldest son, a junior, is being recruited by Baylor, Connecticut and Illinois. He said Keyton also is on the Longhorns’ radar.
The greatest difference between recruiting circa 2000 and present day?
“Now, the coaches DM you on Instagram or on Twitter,” said Johnson, who goes through all the messages.
Johnson said the best advice he received during the recruiting process was from Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum, who told him if he planned to one day return to the state to live and do business, he should probably go to school somewhere close as well.
Staying in state is a recruiting pitch often used by the coaches in Texas’ top programs.
William Carr, a Dallas Carter star who topped the Fab 55 in 1993, was one of the Lone Star blue chips who didn’t buy into the stay local plea. The defensive tackle signed with Michigan, where he became an All-American. After a three-year stint in the NFL, he returned to Dallas and started a merchandising business. He also was a volunteer coach.
By 2012, Carr had re-enrolled at Michigan to finish his degree because he wanted to be a full-time coach on the collegiate level. Charlie Strong gave Carr his first full-time Power Five job, hiring him as a defensive analyst for the Longhorns in 2016.
Carr now is the recruiting coordinator at Alabama A&M. He also works with the defensive line.
Alabama A&M is an FCS school that recruits players who may be too small or not fast enough for the blue blood programs. Carr said he hits a lot of small towns in search of an undiscovered recruiting gem. He said too many schools rely on recruiting lists and don’t do enough personal homework on a prospect.
“Recruiting has become a lazy art,” Carr said.
To get his foot in a prospect’s door for an in-home visit, Carr says he often has to “sell himself.”
“Google me,” he says, knowing that an ancient list of prospects from a recruiting-crazy state still can give him recruiting credibility with today’s players.
Fab 55: By colleges
The 10 — well, 11 — colleges that have signed the most players off the last 30 years of the Fabulous 55. Numbers in parenthesis are the total number of prospects signed. There have been 1,650 total players from the 30 combined lists:
1. Texas (387)
2. Texas A&M (279)
3. Oklahoma (121)
4. Baylor (89)
5. Texas Tech (67)
6. LSU (62)
7. TCU (51)
8. Oklahoma State (43)
9. Notre Dame (38)
T10. Colorado (30)
T10. Miami (30)