Try telling Jack Pierce it's overly difficult to recruit great football players to Lincoln.

"That's bullsh--," he said recently.

The Nebraska program has everything a kid wants, he said. The objective is to convince players that's the case, and Pierce was pretty good at it.

As the Huskers' chief off-campus recruiter from 1985 to 1992 (when there was such a thing), Pierce played a lead role in NU landing Neil Smith, Broderick Thomas, Reggie Cooper and Mickey Joseph, among other prominent names.

Pierce has a zillion recruiting stories, including ones that involved big names — as big as it gets — who got away or were turned away.

He took a break last week from his duties as a Husker fundraising officer to share a few memories:

* Hart Lee Dykes: A 6-foot-4, 215-pound wide receiver from Bay City, Texas, Dykes "had hands of velvet," Pierce said.

Dykes also had a peculiar way of shaking hands with recruiters.

"He held his hand the wrong way when I tried to shake with him," Pierce said. "His hand was flat."

Dykes evidently was expecting some sort of payment for his services.

"I told him, 'We don't shake hands like that in Nebraska,'" Pierce said.

Dykes committed to Oklahoma State in 1984 without visiting the campus. He became a two-time All-American. In 1989, however, the NCAA hammered OSU to the tune of four years' probation for recruiting violations, including a three-year ban from bowl games and a two-year ban from appearing on live television.

The school's most serious breach of NCAA rules, the Committee on Infractions said at the time, was a former assistant coach's involvement in a bidding war for "a very talented and highly visible prospective student-athlete."

It was the guy with the flat handshake.

* Barry Sanders: Charlie McBride liked him and wanted him at Nebraska. Frank Solich felt the same way. Pierce, well, not so much. He recalls traveling to Wichita, Kansas, to see two prospects — Lawrence Pete at Wichita South High and Sanders at Wichita North. Nebraska landed Pete and he turned out to be an All-Big Eight middle guard in 1988.

The Huskers passed on Sanders. Bottom line, Pierce thought Sanders was too small to play I-back for Nebraska. He was only 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. 

"I didn't know whether he could take the wear and tear or not," Pierce said. "I mis-evaluated that like a big dog."

Sanders was 200 pounds by the time he left Oklahoma State.

"He ate a lot or swallowed a weight or something ..." Pierce said.

* Marshall Faulk: Here was the deal on Faulk: He wanted to play running back. But also was an excellent defensive back. Pierce, though, says he made it clear to the Husker coaching staff to talk to Faulk only about playing running back.

But as Faulk was walking up the stairs to the second-floor NU coaches offices, one of the defensive coaches — I'm leaving out the name —  leaned over a railing and said, 'You're going to look good in a back-pedal,'" Pierce recalled. 

"We lost Marshall on the sixth step going up the South Stadium stairs," Pierce said.

* Emmitt Smith: Nebraska's recruitment of the NFL's all-time leading rusher has been told often. But it's worthy of revisiting this time of year.

"Greatest kid I ever recruited, by far," Pierce said. "Polite, honest. He'd sit down and talk to you. Wasn't presumptuous or arrogant. We had a great relationship with the mom and dad. We hadn't done Pensacola (Florida) much, so we were kind of the new kid on the block, but the family really liked Tom (Osborne)."

During an in-home visit, Smith's dad took a Polaroid photo of Osborne, Pierce and Emmitt.

"I said to Tom walking back to the couch, 'How about this? We got him,'" Pierce said. "Then the dad threw back a curtain in the living room and there were about 30 other coaches and Emmitt in Polaroids they had taken."

Smith, of course, ended up at Florida.

* Marcus Dupree: Pierce sat in the stands with 30 other coaches at one of Dupree's practices in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

"We were looking for his number on the field and he's up sitting behind us in the stands," Pierce said.


"He did what he wanted to do, brother," Pierce said of the 6-2, 220-pound tailback who wound up at Oklahoma.

How would have Dupree looked in the I-formation at Nebraska?

"Like the Statue of Liberty in the Harbor," Pierce said.

Nebraska never had much of a chance.

"I talked to Marcus," Pierce said. "But that was an Oklahoma deal through and through."

* Deion Sanders: Nebraska recruited him as a defensive back. A star at North Fort Myers (Florida) High, Sanders wanted to play wide receiver in college.

The Huskers never had much of a chance.

"The funny part about it is, he did play both positions at Florida State," Pierce said. "But I don't know how they convinced him."

* Roger Clemens: He wasn't only a flame-throwing pitcher.

"What a tight end," Pierce said.

Pierce was friends with Clemens' high school coach at Spring Woods High in Houston. Pierce went to recruit Clemens but struggled to find a parking place. That's because a big crowd was on hand to watch Clemens pitch in a key game.

"The coach and I walked out to the fence and watched Roger throw," Pierce said. "I thought, 'OK, I'm not going to get him to play football.'

"He was throwing fire."

Clemens won seven Cy Young Awards.

You want to see Pierce spit fire? Bring up the Huskers' recruiting disadvantages. The key to recruiting a player is to determine the ultimate decision-maker and be relentless with the sales pitch, Pierce said.

"It's just like sales," he said.

Yes, 'tis the season for relentlessness.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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