Last year around this time, the top controversy among Florida fans was whether it was worth the coaching staff’s time to pursue California cornerback prospect Chris Steele. Now, it’s whether the staff handled Steele’s concerns correctly before he decided to transfer out of UF after only one semester.
I think the jury is still out on both, given the way that decisions are best made.
First, Steele’s recruitment. He was a top-50 recruit at a position of need. He was interested to some degree in Florida, and that’s not something you don’t pursue. The staff has a California specialist on it in Ron English, who happens to coach defensive backs. The top competition for his services were the local schools UCLA and USC, the former of which was starting over under a new staff and the latter of which might’ve been in for a down year due to graduations.
Steele visited Florida in June and committed to USC in July, but in the middle of what ended up a 5-7 year for the Trojans, he decommitted. Steele then signed with Florida on the December signing day.
The Florida staff stayed with it even through Steele’s commitment to USC and got him to Gainesville. So it was the correct decision to go after him, right?
Well, maybe not, and now we see why. Florida was the third school Steele committed to after both UCLA and USC. Some players who go through multiple commit/decommit cycles end up loyal, but it could signal indecision or flightiness.
Plus, the farther away home is for a player, the harder it can be on him. I know I went through some homesickness my first semester or two while attending UF, and home for me was a two-hour drive away in Orlando. Word is Steele might’ve been going through some too, which would be totally understandable.
It also means that parents are farther away, which only magnifies any possible issues. If Mom and Dad are a short drive away, they know they can show up in person to address things any time they might feel they need to. When they’re a cross-country plane trip away, they naturally feel like they have less control over the situation.
Which brings us to Steele’s departure. The reported story is that Steele didn’t feel comfortable with having Jalon Jones as a roommate as early as January, but the staff said they’d only switch him rooms in the summer. Steele and his family didn’t like that answer. Later on, Jones got himself into trouble in that very dorm by allegedly committing two acts of sexual battery. Steele’s choice to leave came a week after news of that broke.
We don’t know what Steele’s complaints to the staff were. I can think of a number of reasons why they might not have moved him right away, including:
- Steele submitted his complaints in writing, and his point didn’t get across that well because text cannot convey as much as body language and tone of voice can while talking in person
- Steele complained to someone who wasn’t empowered to make a dorm change, and this person didn’t communicate how important the matter was to Steele when running it up the chain
- Dan Mullen didn’t want to seem like he was showing favoritism to a true freshman
- Mullen thought Steele, a good kid, might rub off on Jones, who may have been showing signs of being a bad apple already
- Steele’s mode of communication was either too subtle or too vague to convince Mullen to make a change
Florida has no business airing its side of the story, so we won’t know anything more until and unless Steele tells his side of it. Nothing good will come of UF or Mullen saying anything other than boilerplate well-wishes, and I suspect Mullen will flat-out refuse to give specifics when asked about the matter at his upcoming media appearances.
The point is, though, that you shouldn’t judge decisions based on their outcomes. Signing a highly rated prospect from California doesn’t validate Mullen’s strategy of becoming a national recruiter right out of the gate before reestablishing Florida as a perennial top-ten team. Having that recruit leave after one semester also doesn’t invalidate it, nor does it necessarily mean that Mullen’s player management methods are bad.
Either way, the Steele saga is a strong argument both for and against Florida going hard for recruits from California. He shows that UF can pick up guys from out there, but he also shows that they may be more loosely connected to the program due to the distance.
It’s hard, but as you think through your evaluation of how the Mullen era is going, try to remove the results from the equation and only look at the information they had/may have had at the time when they chose to go for national recruiting. Is it a good idea because of how tough southeast recruiting is with Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia cleaning up while USC and UCLA are showing weakness out west? Or is it a bad idea because signing players from that far away is intrinsically harder and may result in early attrition? That strategy, however it turns out over time, has certainly helped set the tone for Mullen’s early tenure in Gainesville.