The University of Miami coaches had every intention of this recruiting trip being about searching for a quarterback.
Running backs coach Don Soldinger had been instructed to use the opportunity in the fall of 1998 to sell the rest of the staff on highly touted QB prospect Chris Stephens, a prep All-American out of Gainesville Buchholz High School. That changed, however, the instant a running back from Buchholz's opponent, Gainesville High, received a kick and bolted down the sidelines for a touchdown.
"We were all about getting a quarterback that night," Soldinger said. "Then [head coach] Butch [Davis] looked over at me and told me, 'I don't want the quarterback. I want the kid who just went 97 yards to score on the kickoff return. After that, I started recruiting him."
That other player was running back Clinton Portis. He became one of the cornerstone recruits of the Hurricanes' 2001 national championship team, called by many the greatest team in college football history.
Soldinger said Portis' recruitment was somewhat typical of how the 2001 'Canes came together. Assembling one of college football's most dominant teams had a lot to do with Davis' keen eye for talent.
There was plenty of luck involved, as well.
"Let me tell you something," Soldinger said. "You've got to be lucky [with recruiting]. You can get all the lists you want and you can get all these guys with stats and numbers, but you've got to make sure they're going to work out and mesh with each other to win a national championship.
"Really, we just recruited a great group of guys that got along together."
The Hurricanes' staff, which included offensive line coach Art Kehoe and receivers coach Curtis Johnson, recruited off instincts instead of following scouting services. They secured talent from their traditional stronghold in South Florida's tri-counties, grabbing stars like defensive back Sean Taylor and running back Willis McGahee. However, they also took a more national approach than in years past, securing a few big out-of-state recruits like quarterback Ken Dorsey from California and receiver Reggie Wayne out of Louisiana.
"It's amazing to think of the talent Coach [Davis] was able to put together," Dorsey said. "That's hard to replicate, that's for sure. You don't really see that much anymore, the type of talent he was able to bring, not just from Miami but from all over the country. You had Ed Reed and Reggie Wayne from New Orleans, myself from California, guys from Texas, Pennsylvania, Canada.
"Obviously, you're going to make your living in recruiting right here in Miami, but they did a great job all over the country."
Miami landed top-tier recruiting classes from 1997-99, helping it recover quickly from recent probation that saw its record dip as low as 5-6 in 1997. The '99 class, which was led by Dorsey, receiver Andre Johnson and offensive tackles Bryant McKinnie and Vernon Carey, was recently ranked as the ninth-best in college football history by SI.com.
The abundance of talent contributed to the rebirth of the program. When lineman Sherko Haji-Rasouli was being recruited in 1997, he noticed a roster full of third- and fourth-tier recruits because of the NCAA sanctions. By the time he left, he was surrounded by future NFL draft picks.
"The talent got better and better while I was here," Haji-Rasouli said. "The talent was incredible that was coming in while I was here and some of those guys definitely panned out."
Thirty-eight players from the 2001 team were selected in the NFL draft, including 17 in the first round.
Soldinger said that he and the other coaches knew they were securing very good players during that stretch. Still, they really had no idea just how good.
"I didn't know if we were going to win a national championship," Soldinger said. "I didn't know the whole Ken Dorsey thing and how he'd turn out. I didn't know Portis would wind up being a phenomenon and a great guy. The luck was there. All those personalities meshed."
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