Tony Alford.

Irish Extra: Signing Day a Culmination of Long Irish Process

Feb. 4, 2015

Tony Alford, the University of Notre Dame football team’s recruiting coordinator, flipped the switch to turn on the lights in his office at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex at 6:30 a.m.

“I didn’t sleep,” Alford said of a restless night before National Signing Day Wednesday. “I went to bed about two in the morning and got up at five.”

Alford worked the phones Tuesday night, not wanting to leave anything to chance.

“I’ve done this for 19, 20 years,” Alford said. “I’ve seen it all. I’ve heard it all. I called every single guy who is signing or who was supposed to sign with us.

“Some of the conversations were 10 minutes. Some were longer. Bo Wallace and I talked for quite a long time. If I couldn’t get through, I left a message.”

As soon as Alford navigated his car through the snowy streets of South Bend in the dark pre-dawn hours of Wednesday to arrive at the Gug, he was working the phone again. Although the Fighting Irish had four early enrollees and 18 verbal commitments coming into signing day, Alford was recruiting until the last signed National Letter of Intent arrived in the Irish war room.

When four-star running back Dexter Williams announced at 11:08 a.m. that he would join the Shamrock Soldiers Class of 2015 and play for the Fighting Irish, Alford allowed himself a release of emotion. He punched the air and let out a victory whoop near the bronze bust of Knute Rockne in the hallway of the Irish football complex.

“It was a good moment,” said a beaming Alford. “Dexter is a guy we wanted and, quite frankly, is a guy we wanted for a long time. It’s not something that just came up on the board. He committed to Miami, and we honored that. We respected his commitment. As the season went along, we were keeping up with him. We could see he started to waver a little bit. That’s when we asked if Notre Dame was something he would like to look into, and we were fortunate enough to get him.”

Williams’ announcement created a wave of excitement in Irish football complex where about 25 coaches and support staff worked tirelessly to lock up what Irish fans hope is a class that will carve out its legacy in Irish lore.

Notre Dame’s Shamrock Soldiers Class of 2015 ended up with 24 student-athletes. Three were Parade prep All-Americans, five were selected for the Under Armour All-American Bowl, six were selected for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and 12 of the Irish recruits played in state championship games, with eight earning championship rings.

Notre Dame’s recruits stated they appreciated the respectful and professional approach the Fighting Irish coaching staff takes to the recruiting process.

“We don’t want to be used car salesmen,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re not out there trying to get a deal done. There’s transparency in the process … here’s who we are … letting them know that it’s their decision. We’re here to let you know what we’re about and what we can do for you.

“There’s not a hard sell. It’s about this is what Notre Dame can do for you. If you understand that, then you’re going to benefit greatly. I think we spend more time on educating them about Notre Dame and why it’s good for them, as opposed to, hey, you need to come to Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame didn’t lose any of its commits, a tribute to the cohesiveness of the recruits. Kelly noted the Class of 2015 stayed in touch through group chats and built a strong chemistry that will help them as they make the move to a giant on the college football landscape.

“These guys come from so many different parts of the country,” Kelly said. “It’s the way they get through this transition to Notre Dame. They’re not from the same area code. This group chat allows them to build relationships before they get on campus. I think it’s the way they deal with the transition to Notre Dame.”

Enduring the grind of a two-year process, layovers in airports, days away from home, hours of research day in and day out is challenging, but Alford said the Irish staff embraces the opportunity to bring a new class of student-athletes into the Irish family. He said the Notre Dame staff puts in an MVP effort.

“It’s awesome,” Alford said. “You put in a lot of work, and there’s so many people who put in a lot of work. There are so many guys who put in a lot of time.

“For example, Dexter met with everybody on our offensive staff. He met with our student ambassadors, who work so hard at what they do, under the guidance of Megan Whitt. There are a lot of people who work behind the scenes, but they play a big role in getting a guy like Dexter. We’re really excited to get him, as we are all of our recruits.”

Signed National Letters of Intent started rolling into the Irish coaches at 7:04 a.m.

Alford said it felt like his cell phone was attached to his hand, as he made calls, took calls, surveyed Twitter and read texts in rapid succession.

“You’re never done with any particular recruit until his fax comes in,” Alford said. “There are a lot of anxious moments until the fax comes in. Quite frankly, half the day is spent talking to 2016 kids. One calendar year from today it’s going to be their time. They are immediately on stage. They’ve been on stage for some time, but they’ve never been on stage as the main characters. Once all those faxes come in, all eyes turn to the 2016 class. To say you’re going to take a day off and go golfing … no. You move on to the next class. You get on Twitter and start entrenching yourself with the 2016 guys.”

Until mid-afternoon, though, the focus was on the Shamrock Soldiers Class of 2015.

“It’s a good day for celebration,” Alford said. “Hopefully, you’re upgrading your program. You’re seeing the fruits of your labors when you started recruiting these guys two years ago–or some of them, three years ago. Some of these guys, I knew them when they were freshmen.”

Notre Dame’s Shamrock Soldiers Class of 2015 was a massive effort requiring countless hours.

“We have a team effort at Notre Dame with recruiting,” Alford said. “Our entire staff is involved with these kids. It’s not one coach or one person, an area recruiter or the position coach. It’s a multitude of people, because when they’re here, they’re going to see all of those people. We’re all going to be a part of their lives. We serve as a different role model in some capacity for each player. We’re all involved in this together. We’ll use the phrase family atmosphere that we like to use here. There’s a different dynamic, and every member of that family has a role to play.”

Alford tackles college football recruiting with the same passion in which he coaches his players.

“Absolutely, this is a very competitive day,” Alford said. “It’s a competitive world, and this is a very competitive environment we’re involved in here. It’s an extremely competitive environment. If you don’t like to prepare and compete, you’re probably in the wrong profession.

“Just like on Saturdays or practice or training camp, you’re competing and you’re competing hard,” Alford said. “You think about how much time our players and coaches put in for 13 games. The time you’re investing is exhausting, and in recruiting it’s the same thing. But that’s what’s fun. It’s like a chess match. You’re going to get some, you’re not going to get others. For each kid, you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to get an edge.”

Alford said he loves the recruiting class the Irish have put together and the potential to forge greatness.

“Today’s kid is a little different,” Alford said. “The social media has really changed recruiting, not just for the coaches, but it’s changing things for the kids. They’re staying in contact with each other. The kids from California are talking to the kids from New Jersey constantly. They’re building relationships before they ever get on this campus, and it’s because of social media. This class is extremely close. It’s fun to watch.”

Dave Peloquin, Notre Dame’s director of player personnel, oversees much of the recruiting process. He arrived at the Gug at 5:45 a.m.

“I was a little worried about the snow,” Peloquin said. “Four years ago, we had so much snow they closed down the University. Ever since then, I’ve made sure I give myself plenty of time to get to the office.”

Peloquin, who has worked through the night on several occasions as the Irish neared the finish line for recruiting, makes sure the prospective student-athletes meet the NCAA and Notre Dame’s academic standards. At the height of signing day, he had 106 text messages waiting for a response. Through it all, he makes sure the Notre Dame message to recruits is strong and true.

“A lot of times in the recruiting business, people say, ‘What’s your pitch?'” Peloquin said. “I don’t think we really have a pitch. We’re who we are and how we do things. That comes from Coach Kelly and how we approach things.”

Notre Dame starts off looking for the right type of players, student-athletes who are a fit for what Notre Dame stands for in terms of academics and athletics. The Irish have found that an honest approach works.

“There’s not a lot of crazy hoopla and balloons,” Peloquin said of Notre Dame’s recruiting. “That’s not how Coach Kelly wants to represent the University. He’s upfront with families. We tell the recruits, ‘We’re going to challenge you in the classroom. We’re not going to put you in the easiest class all the time. We’re not going to ask you to take easy courses. We’re going to figure out what’s good for you and we’re going to develop and challenge you.’ It’s the same concept with football.”

Peloquin said the current Notre Dame players have a key role in recruiting.

“The guys in the locker room need to be the best recruiters on our staff,” Peloquin said. “If you’re a prospect coming in, those are the guys you’re going to be with every day, working in the weight room, at practice, sitting in the meetings, eating meals together, hanging out on Friday nights at the hotel … that’s the key group of guys. That goes back to Coach Kelly’s philosophy. The group of guys in that locker room, if you’re comfortable with them … that’s what it’s all about. I give our players a lot of credit for doing a great job when they host kids. They do a great job of trying to get the right type of guys.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent