COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Air Force running backs coach Jemal Singleton picked up Troy Calhoun at the Portland airport. There wasn't much small talk on the way to Paul Weatheroy's house. They skipped lunch and went straight to see the recruit. The coaches had little time to waste.
Weatheroy was the Oregon state Player of the Year, a 2,000-yard rusher as a senior, and Air Force's top tailback recruit. Calhoun needed to know anything Singleton could share about Weatheroy on the way to the house. It was January 2007, and he had been Air Force's head coach for about a week.
Calhoun remembers walking up the incline to Weatheroy's house, not nervous, but not really knowing what he was doing either. He and his staff, many of whom had never been on the road recruiting, were, in Calhoun's words, flying by the seat of their pants. Calhoun had been in the NFL for four years as an assistant. This was his first home visit as a head coach, and he was "as green as could be."
"I really didn't know what to expect," Calhoun said.
College coaching staffs recruit year-round. During times coaches are not allowed contact or visits, they evaluate film of players or organize their target list. Calhoun's sense of urgency on the way to visit Weatheroy was understandable. He had about three weeks before signing day.
In those three weeks, Calhoun and his staff somehow put together one of the greatest recruiting classes in Air Force football history.
When Calhoun was hired at Air Force he had a list of recruiting targets, thanks to the holdovers from Fisher DeBerry's coaching staff. Calhoun had to make sure they were the players he wanted. He dug into a box of DVDs at the office and watched film around the clock. The most memorable one was scratched and kept skipping. It was of a fullback from Park City, Utah, named Jared Tew. The first six minutes he watched were useless because the field was just mud. Calhoun had no idea if Tew could play.
"Then one of his runs, he busted it along the bench," Calhoun said. "And I thought 'This kid might be able to run a little bit."'
Tew went on the list.
Coaches continued to look at film. Defensive assistant Brian Knorr, who is with Wake Forest now, saw a tall receiver from Indiana named Kevin Fogler. Late in recruiting they saw a defensive lineman from San Jose named Ryan Gardner. And Calhoun liked the quarterback from Atlanta that secondary coach Charlton Warren had recruited for more than a year, Tim Jefferson.
The wish list was coming together. But what was Calhoun going to tell these players?
Calhoun said he had little to sell the players, football wise. He knew the academy itself was great having been a cadet and player there. But Air Force hadn't had a winning season in three years. The pitch from the coaches became simple: take a leap of faith with us.
"Be on the ground floor," Warren said. "Don't look three years down the road and say 'I could have been part of that.' Be a part of the group that gets it flipped. Because it's going to flip."
Calhoun held onto that bravado when he sat down in Paul Weatheroy's living room. He talked about the academy. Right away he told Weatheroy, his mother and father that academy life is not easy. That's Calhoun's approach in the first five minutes he explains the demands of Air Force, wanting to weed out the recruits he knows can't handle it.
Calhoun put the family at ease. When Weatheroy's mother brought out a scrapbook of her son's newspaper clippings, to the embarrassment of the father and son, Calhoun dutifully looked through it. When he opened it to a story about Weatheroy scoring three touchdowns against his old high school, he joked that he couldn't recruit Weatheroy anymore.
Calhoun came across as confident and honest. Weatheroy was surprised to hear almost four years later it was Calhoun's first home visit. Paul Weatheroy Sr. said Calhoun also talked about a quarterback from Atlanta named Jefferson who had committed. Calhoun wanted Weatheroy to be a part of his first class.
"He struck me as a good coach, a good person and somebody I wanted to play for," said Weatheroy, whose career has been derailed by three knee surgeries. "He made the academy appeal to me."
When Calhoun left, a funny thing happened. The coach was the one energized by the visit.
"I walked out of the house thinking 'This is the greatest. You're interacting with kids that come from great families, and they're great kids,"' Calhoun said. "I remember being so fired up. I thought, 'We're going to be able to recruit at the academy."'
The initial excitement was great, but the next few weeks were draining. Calhoun said about 12 visits were a total waste, because the recruits simply weren't going to be fits at a service academy.
"That would have been legwork you had done in September," Calhoun said.
The coaches flew commercial that first year (since then, they use private jets of two alumni), with mostly red-eye flights. Calhoun's flight from Portland to Houston had a layover in Phoenix. He was delayed there. He got to Houston at 6:30 a.m. and had a home visit at 9 a.m.
"I remember showering and shaving and hoping that would wake me up good," Calhoun said.
Among the players Calhoun met in the Houston area were safety Phil Ofili and receiver Kyle Halderman. The next day, he met Jefferson and quarterback Ben Cochran in Georgia. At Jefferson's school, Woodward Academy, he thought he made a mistake.
"It's the only time I've mentioned something to a kid and thought, 'I never should have done that,"' Calhoun said. "I told him, 'You might be a four-year starter.' I remember leaving there thinking, 'You might have just overwhelmed the guy."'
He went to Cleveland to visit quarterback Anthony Wright, who would become a second-team all-conference cornerback for the Falcons, and linebacker Patrick Hennessey. He stopped near Columbus to see defensive lineman Chase Burge, who went to Navy ("I remember I was so mad when we lost him," Calhoun said) on the way to watch Cincinnati's Jon Davis at a basketball practice. Davis is now Air Force's starting free safety.
"I remember the end of the first week, the end of it, thinking 'Holy cow, what are we doing, what have we gotten ourselves into?"' Calhoun said.
And he hadn't yet dealt with the negative recruiting that almost cost him his star quarterback.
Calhoun didn't quite land Weatheroy during the visit in Oregon. Paul Weatheroy Sr. liked Calhoun, but Army, Navy and three Ivy League schools wanted his son, too. On a recruiting trip to another service academy, Weatheroy Sr. said that school spoke negatively about Air Force. He said the coaches claimed the Falcons were going to use Weatheroy as a fullback, that Calhoun had lied about him being their top tailback recruit, that Calhoun was going to run a pro-style offense. Warren said he heard other schools showed recruits film of the NFL's Broncos and Texans, to convince them that would be Calhoun's offense at Air Force.
Weatheroy Sr. was bothered, so when he got home he called Calhoun, even though it was late at night. What Calhoun didn't say to Weatheroy Sr. struck him. Calhoun never trashed the other school. He just set the record straight. More than anything Calhoun said in the home visit, the short phone call convinced Weatheroy that he wanted his son to play for this man.
"He stayed calm and cool," Weatheroy Sr. said. "I thought, 'I like this guy."'
More negative recruiting was happening on the other side of the country with Jefferson. Jefferson had told Air Force he was coming, but he wasn't so sure now that he was hearing Calhoun wouldn't run the option. Jefferson said his commitment wavered for about two weeks. During that time Jefferson said he told Navy he would go there. Jefferson's father and high school coach wanted him to go to Annapolis, because there was no uncertainty about that staff.
Jefferson called Warren and said he didn't know what he was going to do. Warren told Jefferson he would hang up and call back from Calhoun's office. They spoke on a conference call and set the record straight. Jefferson reaffirmed he was coming to Air Force. That was a crucial commitment for the Falcons. They had just one season left with starting quarterback Shaun Carney, and nobody in the pipeline.
Jefferson wanted to be a pilot since he was 4 or 5 years old. During that call, Warren urged him to think about the big picture.
"He helped convince me the whole thing isn't about football, it's about what I want," Jefferson said. "And I wanted to fly."
Had Jefferson wanted to be on a submarine since he was a little boy, maybe he'd be playing for Navy. Instead, Jefferson is three wins from becoming Air Force's all-time leader in victories for a quarterback. A little luck never hurts.
The final two weeks of recruiting were hectic, between constant phone calls, transcript requests and traveling. Calhoun and Knorr still laugh about driving to Denver's airport in a blinding snowstorm to make a flight to Kansas City, only to be delayed four-and-a-half hours. And they didn't even land the receiver in Kansas City they went to see.
The campus visits over those weekends were critical. Calhoun sat down with parents and recruits individually in the Falcon Stadium press box and told them about the benefits of coming to Air Force, and the football program he was trying to build.
"Jared pretty much committed on the spot," said Steve Tew, Jared's father.
Others, like Wright, were tougher to convince.
"When I met them, his father, I could just tell, was: 'No way is Anthony coming here,"' Calhoun said "He didn't say it, but I could tell. Then on Saturday night I met with them at the stadium and his dad said, 'This is best for my son. For his future and for his life."'
The commitments started coming in. Knorr can visualize the white dry erase board in the football offices where the recruits were listed.
"One by one we were marking them off as 'Yes,"' Knorr said. "I don't think we thought we'd get all these kids."
Knorr said he thinks the Falcons landed 60-70 percent of their targets, a high percentage for a service academy. Signing day was on a Wednesday, Feb. 7. Calhoun admits he started to worry that afternoon, wondering if they had overvalued the recruits they landed. He went back and looked at video on every one.
"My thought was, 'I think there's some good players in this group,"' Calhoun said.
That class is a mix of direct-in seniors, who will be playing their final game in Monday's Independence Bowl, and juniors who went to the prep school. Behind them, Air Force has won at least eight games in four straight years for the first time since 1982-85, and made four straight bowl games for the third time in school history.
"I realized he'd start from ground zero," Jefferson said, thinking back to his commitment. "I guess it was just all faith. We believed in him."
After reminiscing about late-night commercial flights, convincing parents he wasn't going to run the Houston Texans' offense and the around-the-clock DVD study to find players, Calhoun started rattling off the names in that class, getting lost in his thoughts.
Calhoun chuckled, snapping himself back to the present.
"Those are some good players," Calhoun said.
HERE are the players from Troy Calhoun's first recruiting class who are listed on the Falcons' roster for Monday's Independence Bowl:
DB P.J. Adeji-Paul
K Zack Bell
QB Ben Cochran
OL Chase Darden
S Jon Davis
TE Chaz Demerath
WR Kevin Fogler
TE Josh Freeman
DL Ryan Gardner
WR Kyle Halderman
LB Patrick Hennessey
DB Kevin Jablonsky
QB Tim Jefferson
DL Caleb Konemann
LB Andre Morris
OL Tyler Schonsheck
FB Jared Tew
FB Nathan Walker
DL Wylie Wikstrom
DB Anthony Wright Jr.