Yolanda Smith has a unique perspective on Saturday’s SEC championship game between Auburn and South Carolina.
She’ll be in the stands at the Georgia Dome to watch her son, Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina’s freshman-sensation tailback, whose college decision last February came down to an intense recruiting battle between the Gamecocks and Auburn.
She is fiercely protective of her son, who is third in the SEC in rushing yards. So much so that being in “super-protect-your-son-mode” had her struggling with a cold earlier this week.
And with the father of Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton making headlines recently for having shopped his son to Mississippi State in a play-for-pay scheme, Smith is a college football star’s parent who refreshingly stands for integrity. She’s the mother feared by coaches willing to break NCAA rules.
“I guess you could label me as an ‘I’ll tell on you’ type of person,” says Smith, a court clerk, who works in Spartanburg County’s warrants division in South Carolina.
Smith has proven that. When attractive University of Tennessee hostesses attended one of her son’s high school football games last season at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C., she had her son discuss it with The New York Times.
Because there’s an unwritten code of silence among recruits, that wasn’t a popular decision among two of his Byrnes High teammates, who were also being recruited by Tennessee and refused to talk publicly about the hostesses. But that didn’t stop Smith and Lattimore, the Class of 2010’s top-ranked high school tailback, from discussing the matter with an NCAA investigator.
So when Smith talks, we should all listen, carefully, especially when it comes to her thoughts on the differences between the way her son was recruited by Auburn and South Carolina.
She describes Curtis Luper, Auburn’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator, as a “used car salesman.”
“He appeared to be kind of like, sort of a ‘whatever it takes’ kind of person,” Smith says.
Smith wants to make it clear that, to the best of her knowledge, neither Luper nor anybody else at Auburn offered money or anything else to her or anyone in her family. She says she made it known to all schools recruiting her son that she would not allow the breaking of NCAA rules.
“It’s all in the way you present yourself to any schools on how they’ll approach you,” she says. “Once they realized that’s not who we were, they knew better.”
But of Auburn, she says, “They tried to do and say whatever they could to get him there. They definitely did that much.”
Smith says Luper made so many promises to her son that she had to ask him to stop.
“Anything that you tell him, I would expect you to do,” Smith recalls telling Luper. “This is a 17-year-old kid coming to your school and you’re telling him he’s going on the field and he’ll play as a freshman. You don’t even know if he’s physically able or if he’ll be able to do that.”
After Luper failed to hit it off with Smith, she says Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn stepped in as the Tigers’ lead recruiter for her son. She gushes about Malzahn, who she describes as “a super cool, great guy,” and his wife, Kristi.
“Coach Malzahn is a man of integrity,” Smith says. “That’s how I feel about him.”
But Smith says Luper remained persistent in recruiting her son and continued to visit occasionally.
“He was all about, you know, ‘No matter what, we’re going to take care of Marcus,’” Smith says.
And when it became clear to Luper that Lattimore was going to choose South Carolina, he made a last-ditch attempt at him, Smith says.
“He asked us what was Auburn missing that South Carolina had,” she says. “Different things like that. He wanted to know what more that they could do.”
Auburn spokesman Kirk Sampson did not return a call, text-message or e-mail seeking comment from Luper as of Friday night.
It came as no surprise to Smith that Luper was one of the main Auburn coaches who recruited Newton.
“I assumed that’s who it was,” she says. “I’m assuming they used the coach that best appealed to that particular player and his family in order to get them to come to their school.”
Yet Smith credits “God’s hands” for her son not attending Auburn and him being able to avoid the controversy surrounding Newton.
“He steered us in the right direction,” she says. “And for that, I’m very, very thankful.”
As is South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who unlike Luper, didn’t make any promises to Lattimore, Smith says.
“South Carolina let him know that if you come here, you’re going to have to prove yourself,” she says. “That’s what we liked about South Carolina. You’ve got to prove yourself. They weren’t going to promise you anything.”
So when Lattimore decided on South Carolina over Auburn because of its proximity to home, his sister attending there, and the opportunity to become the Gamecocks’ legacy for tailbacks, Smith supported her son’s decision.
“It’s a dream come true for him,” Smith says. “It’s a true blessing for him and for me.”
And one that mother and son accomplished without a price tag.
“You don’t use your kid to further yourself in life,” Smith says. “You hope that they’ll make themselves better people and be able to go on and do that. They didn’t ask to be here. You just give them the best that you can and let them take that and build on that.”
That’s something another parent likely to be in the stands of Saturday’s SEC championship game needs to learn.