GAINESVILLE, FL – Florida head coach Urban Meyer notched another victory Saturday when legendary running back Barry Sanders decided to switch his commitment from the NFL Hall of Fame to the defending national champion Gators, marking the eighth time this season a recruit has chosen Florida after a previous agreement with another institution.
Sanders, center, accepting the MVP award at the Army All-American game in San Antonio, TX. At the time Sanders was firmly committed to the NFL Hall of Fame.
“Coach [Meyer] convinced me the University of Florida is the right place for me. I mean no disrespect to the Hall of Fame, the city of Canton, the state of Ohio or anyone else, but I had to do what was right for me. I couldn’t sleep for a week straight, but when I made my decision I felt completely at ease with myself. I talked to my family and they said that I needed to do what was best for me,” Sanders said in a press conference aired on CSTV. The 38 year old member of the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team couldn’t suppress a smile when he put on an orange and blue Florida hat.
Meyer and the Gators are riding high on the momentum from their Jan. 8 41-14 domination of Ohio State in the BCS title game, and that success has spilled over into the recruiting wars that make the month following bowl season a period of vicious cloak and dagger battles. The Gators – led by freshman All-America quarterback Tim Tebow and fellow frosh sensation Percy Harvin – seem to be a unanimous pre-season top five pick for the 2007 season and blue chip recruits are flocking to the Swamp… even if it means they have to leave behind old promises to do so. Sanders joins recent high-profile players like offensive lineman James Wilson (Augustine High, FL) and defensive end Justin Trattou (Don Bosco Prep, NJ) who de-committed from USC and Notre Dame, respectively.
“Meyer and Florida have really capitalized on the shine of the national championship. Poaching Trattou from [New Jersey born Notre Dame head coach] Charlie Weis’ backyard is pretty amazing, but Sanders leaving Canton? What Urban is doing right now can only be described as logistically impossible, but those scholarships are flying off the Florida panhandle like hotcakes off of a griddle-like metaphor,” Rivals.com recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree said.
The 5’8″ 203 lbs. Sanders retired in July of 1999 after rushing for 15,269 yards in ten years with the Detroit Lions, who selected the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner out of Oklahoma State. He was named to the Pro Bowl in all ten of his seasons. His retirement came as a shock as many considered Sanders still in his athletic prime and certainly within striking distance of Walter Payton’s since broken career rushing record.
“Like any recruit who takes time off from football, sure there are questions about Barry. Kids go on missions, they play baseball, they choose other things than football all the time, but a guy with Barry’s potential makes the payoff higher than the risk. A lot of recruiting services project him as an all-around athlete and even as a true cover corner, but we think he’s got running back written all over him. I believe the departure of [Florida tailback] DeShawn Wynn really convinced Barry he could earn some early playing time with Florida, and Meyer sold it well,” Crabtree said.
According to Sanders, Meyer’s other selling points included the possibility of helping to lead the Gators to another national championship, the chance to play “against the best athletes in America in the SEC” and Gainesville’s location.
Though normally not a selling point compared to places like South Beach or Los Angeles, Sanders was convinced when Florida recruiting coordinator Chuck Heater showed the NCAA single season touchdown (39) and rushing (2,628 yards) leader a large custom poster with a picture of Gainesville next to a picture of Detroit.
Sanders, a Motor City resident for more than eighteen years, got the point: “Coach Meyer and Coach Heater made it clear that I had to get out of there. My family was really big on the distance factor, and I agreed. The more miles between us and Detroit the better.”
Though Sanders’ NCAA eligibility was exhausted when he turned pro in 1989, he will nonetheless have four years to play three seasons for the Gators.
Meyer expressed excitement for his new recruit, praising Sanders repeatedly and stressing that the Wichita-born tailback would get an equal shot at the starting position in August.
“We got a bunch of guys who rushed the ball for us pretty well returning from last season, plus two great running back recruits already. Then there’s Tebow. He’ll occasionally run the ball too. No one is handing Barry that starting job just yet,” the second year head coach said.
“But [Sanders] did juke [NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time defensive back] Rod Woodson so badly he ruptured the guy’s knee, so I like Barry’s chances of getting some carries next year,” Meyer added.
Though most recruiting analysts believe Florida’s latest pick-up will help vault the Gators’ class to the top, some caution that a late push by rivals Miami and Florida State could very well make the race a photo finish.
“There’s been a lot of buzz about Jim Brown de-commiting from Canton and heading to the Sunshine State. He’s been out of the game a bit longer than Sanders, but there’s no doubt in my mind that both the Seminoles and ‘Canes could use [the 70 year old] Brown,” Crabtree said. “Then again, Urban is well known for his medical plan explanations and he’s got an in-home visit scheduled with Jim this weekend.”
Meyer refused to comment on any ill will between him and the NFL Hall of Fame after Sanders’ de-commitment, choosing instead to stare northward for a quarter of an hour in intensely silent focus.