Experts say Michael Sam will open more doors for Mizzou, recruiting-wise, than close them
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Quick word of advice for rival schools: If you’re trying to flog Missouri coach Gary Pinkel over the head with Michael Sam as some kind of negative, it sure as hell doesn’t seem to be working.
A midweek check of Scout.com’s top 25 recruiting classes for 2015 shows the Tigers at No. 23, nationally. It’s early, granted, and there’s a long summer ahead, but considering that Mizzou’s average recruiting class ranking from 2009-14 was a solid-but-hardly spectacular 36th, business is, indeed, better than usual.
In fact, it’s downright brisk. Of the Tigers’ seven public commits, four are of the four-star variety, spearheaded by Kansas City locals Drew Lock of Lee’s Summit and A.J. Harris of Blue Valley High.
"I would like to think there’s not (a negative effect)," former Tigers star and current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Chase Daniel tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "I think whatever happens, happens, and they’re just excited to play football at the next level."
Fact: The Tigers won the SEC East in just their second season as a member of the most football-rich, football-nuts, football-centric conference in Division I.
Fact: The Tigers had four players taken in the NFL Draft earlier this month, bringing MU’s total to 17 since 2009 — or roughly three, per draft, over the last six springs. (Perspective: Arkansas has produced 17 draftees since 2009; Auburn, 15; Kansas State, eight; Kansas, four.)
Fact: They did all of these things with an openly gay player in their locker room, every day.
An openly gay player who was good enough to be named the SEC’s co-Defensive Player of the Year. An openly gay player whom his teammates and coaches protected from media scrutiny during a historic fall of 2013. A player who, at least publicly, they threw their support behind once he’d elected to come out of the closet for the rest of the world.
"For me, (Sam) doesn’t affect anything," says Lee’s Summit High School coach Eric Thomas, one of Lock’s mentors.
"If anything, I thought it was really good, and really cool that the team and coaches kind of stood behind him and it didn’t become a public thing while he was playing there. I thought that was a strong suit, that they came together as a family and as a team and no one said anything about it during the season. It didn’t become a distraction, they accepted it and went on. I would say that’s a strong vote for what they’re doing as a family atmosphere at Mizzou."
The circus never really came, never really hit, until after Sam’s eligibility had expired, after a 12-2 season was already in the books. In a world of 24-hour television networks, message boards and social media, beasts that never rest, that’s impressive enough.
Pinkel made a point to put a metaphorical arm around Sam after the latter came out this past winter; the Mizzou administration and many of his former Tigers did the same. But the coach also admitted that some of Sam’s teammates disagreed, on religious or moral grounds, with the defensive end’s sexual orientation. There are parents and coaches and prospects, especially in the South, who doubtlessly will, too.
And some recruiting peers — chasing front-line talent can be an ugly, cutthroat game in itself — won’t hesitate to spin Sam’s saga in the least politically correct way possible. Count on it.
"Absolutely. It’s the nature of the beast," says Scout.com national analyst Brandon Huffman. "Negative recruiting is done more than positive recruiting, frankly. Most coaches seem to be able to point out the flaws of their rival schools and their fellow conference schools before they can key on the selling points of their own university, so it would be a surprise if their competitive nature looked past this and didn’t bring it up."
That said, Huffman agrees with Thomas — Mizzou’s public stance of tolerance, even sheltered tolerance, will ultimately open more doors, long-term, than it will turn off prospective recruits. While politics and mores remain provincial, American culture as a whole is shifting when it comes to formerly taboo topics such as homosexuality and marijuana.
"I think you’ll see a little bit of both," Huffman continues. "There may still be some who don’t agree with Sam and therefore, won’t agree with Pinkel for supporting him. But then you’ll also see a good number of people who will appreciate Pinkel’s unwavering support of Sam, and that loyalty can’t go unnoticed. And frankly, you may see a little bit of both from each person.
"Ultimately, I think college coaches need to be father figures to their players and support them, and Pinkel’s support of Sam only emboldens that."
The paternal hook still sells.
The trophy case does, too.
"No. 1, I’m sure (Sam’s) not the first gay football player that’s ever been — nor will he be the last," offers Jamie Newberg, a Florida-based national analyst with Scout.com.
"No. 2, in terms of perspective, I’m sure there are going to be a number of guys that have their preconceived notions, and that may hurt (Mizzou). But I’d imagine there will be very few. Obviously, what (Sam) did took an amount of courage, and in all honesty, I think it might help (Mizzou) in the long run, because I think he’ll open up a lot of other people’s eyes with the chance he took, being so open.
"At the end of the day, it’s about getting to a program where you can go and win and, hopefully, play on Sundays."
Before Sam was on Oprah’s radar, before he was an NFL Draft pick, before he was SEC gold, he was a two-star prospect from the Class of 2009 out of Hitchcock, Texas.
"It’s unbelievable," Daniel says. "You know, some of those guys (Mizzou draftees) are one-star and two-star, three-star (recruits) coming out of high school. So, going to college and making the next jump-off, I think scouts around the league are starting to realize Mizzou’s for real and putting out talent every single year."
Fact: Prep stars care more about that Cotton Bowl win, more about those division championship banners, more about that roster of recent NFL alums, than who the guy three stalls down is dating. Open enough doors, and funny how others start to return the favor in kind.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.