Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin is neither the only coach nor the first coach to employ a helicopter in recruiting. In fact, lots of the schools are doing it these days, according to a recent article in The New York Times.
Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans reported on Oct. 16 that swooping into high school games on a chopper is just the latest emerging trend in major college football recruiting. Cincinnati, Missouri, UCLA and Maryland are among those that have apparently been doing it for awhile. In fact, the Terrapins apparently were one of the first to employ the strategy but no longer do it due to budget constraints, the newspaper reported.
But such grandiose tactics hadn’t been seen in these parts until Kiffin and assistant coach Ed Orgeron arrived at the nationally-televised M.L. King-Stephenson game this past Friday at Hallford Stadium in Clarkston in a small, rented helicopter. It was a carefully orchestrated ploy in which the pilot made sure that he landed at the adjoining soccer field precisely as the “Star Spangled Banner” was playing over the stadium loudspeakers and the 7,000-person crowd was standing at attention. Every player on both teams — there were as many as 20 Football Bowl Division prospects participating — turned and watched as the red chopper hovered longer than needed about 30 feet above the ground.
All eyes now on them, Kiffin and Oregeron entered the stadium from a back gate and hobnobbed with coaches and administrators on the sidelines as the teams went through their final pregame paces, then watched the first half of the game. At halftime, they piled back into the tiny whirlybird, took off and headed north to Suwanee where they arrived during the first few minutes of the North Gwinnett-Northview game.
The players seemed to appreciate the show.
“That really felt good to me,” said Mike Thornton, a star defensive tackle at Stephenson and one of the Vols’ primary targets. “[Kiffin] told me he was going to come in and show off a little bit and, sure ‘nough, he did his thing.”
It’s a two-fold strategy. One, it obviously has the potential to make a big impression on impressionable young recruits. Two, it’s a fast and nimble mode of transportation that can help coaches can avoid traffic and make multiple stops in one night.
UCLA actually has its own helicopter, “Air Bruin,” which was donated by Larry Welk, the grandson of the late entertainer Lawrence Welk. Coach Rick Neuheisel told The Times it is invaluable for navigating over the infamously awful L.A. traffic and allows them to attend mutiple games in one night.
Helicopters can also be rented (costs range from $1,000 an hour up). Judging from the size of the helicopter Kiffin and Orgeron were squeezing into, the Vols went the low-budget route.
Georgia Tech is of course located in downtown Atlanta and is surrounded by some of the worst traffic in the nation. But recruiting coordinator Giff Smith said he doesn’t see the Yellow Jackets resorting to such tactics.
“We’ve never used it with Coach [Paul] Johnson and I don’t see us ever doing that, to be honest,” he said. “The head coach only gets one ‘drop-in’ and we think it’s important for him to sit down in the home with the parents and explain how he’s going to mentor their kid and help him achieve his goals academically and in football. I don’t know you can do that flying into a football game.”