KeiVarae Russell knew his decision to play college football at Notre Dame wouldn’t be popular among University of Washington fans.
Russell, a blue-chip running back from Mariner High of Everett, had seen the venom spewed by a vocal segment of Huskies fans at other in-state recruits who bypassed the home school.
“I knew for sure it would come my way,” Russell said.
Within seconds of announcing that he was going to Notre Dame, picking the Irish over UW in a ceremony in late December at his high school, Russell became a punching bag for jilted Huskies fans on the Internet.
Like a horde of just-dumped boyfriends, anonymous posters left bitter messages in the comments sections of newspaper websites and on Huskies-centric message boards.
“I didn’t want him to come to UW anyways because his position, running back, isn’t vital to UW and he would have sucked up a scholarship,” a poster by the name of “UW_Alum” commented on a story about Russell’s commitment at The Seattle Times’ website.
Others ripped on Russell’s mom, who (gasp!) had the gall to influence her 18-year-old son’s decision and steered him away from UW.
All of a sudden, the 6-foot, 178-pound Russell, who played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Saturday, was deemed too small and would languish on the depth chart. Never mind that three-year starting running back Chris Polk was leaving for the NFL and there would be open competition for carries in the backfield next season, or that Russell’s versatility as a pass-catcher sets him apart from any running back on UW’s roster.
Russell suspects the reaction would have been different had he chosen UW.
“They wouldn’t have said anything,” he said, laughing. “They would have loved me.”
Those anonymous online comments are more than fans blowing off steam over losing in-state recruits. They have real-life ramifications, particularly when it comes to recruiting.
Tacoma Baptist offensive tackle Walker Williams said recruits talk about the comments written by posters on recruiting message boards. Williams, who has given an oral commitment to Wisconsin, said they caused at least one UW prospect to eliminate the Huskies from consideration.
“I’m not going to talk about which person,” Williams said, “but that was a factor in one of the recruits deciding not to go to Washington – how the Washington fans treated another recruit when he decided not to go to Washington.”
Obviously, a recruit considers others aspects – playing time, location, academics, relationship with coaches, program prestige, etc. – that probably carry more weight when choosing a college. However, the way fans treat recruits is not insignificant. Russell said the comments could have long-term effects.
“It might affect the next recruiting class,” he said. “They might look at that and think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go play for those guys.’ ”
Williams was the first recruit in the class of 2012 to be a target of angry UW fans. He committed to Wisconsin in August and message boards and UW fan sites filled with comments that said he wasn’t good enough to get UW’s full recruiting attention, that he would fail because he played Class 2B football in high school, and that the Huskies didn’t need him because elite offensive linemen Zach Banner of Lakes High and Joshua Garnett of Puyallup High were going to be Dawgs. (Garnett has since eliminated the Huskies, and UW could strike out on Banner, who has yet to make a commitment.)
What many of those posters don’t know is that UW ratcheted up its recruitment of Williams immediately after he committed to Wisconsin. In fact, Huskies offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto visited Williams at Tacoma Baptist on Thursday to try to persuade Williams to take an official visit to UW. Williams declined, telling Cozzetto that Badgers coach Bret Bielema was coming for an in-home visit on Friday. Williams remains firmly committed to Wisconsin “unless something Sandusky-ish happens,” he said.
Since pledging the Badgers, Williams said he has truly tried to consider Washington, but he can’t get past the boorish treatment he received.
“To be honest, every time I think of UW, I think of their nasty fans – more so than Oregon,” Williams said. “Even though that’s a very small percentage and most fans are great fans – they support commits that go to UW and wish well the recruits that don’t – that small percentage really ruins it for the whole fan base.”
At Dawgman.com, a UW-focused website, message board moderators have warned members that the rising number of personal attacks will have a negative impact on UW’s ability to attract recruits. Some have heeded the advice and chastised other members for bashing recruits, while others dismiss the warnings, calling recruits “thin-skinned.”
No matter one’s opinion, it’s a fact that Washington has lost out on many of the state’s top recruits this year, and ripping recruits further probably won’t help matters.
Already, three of the state’s best players – Lakes High receiver/defensive back Cedric Dozier, Garnett and Russell – have committed elsewhere or eliminated UW, and Banner could become the fourth highly rated recruit to leave. Banner said he will choose between Oklahoma, USC and Washington later this month.
Garnett, widely regarded as one of the top linemen in the country, revealed in December that the Huskies did not make his final cut and he would play at Michigan, Notre Dame or Stanford. Within minutes, the news reached Dawgman.com and Huskies faithful were stunned. Many comments showed anger at the recruiting efforts of UW’s coaching staff, but some were personal attacks leveled at Garnett.
“If he ever tries to practice medicine in this state I hope he gets sued for malpractice,” “2002Dawg” wrote, referring to Garnett’s ambition to become a medical doctor.
In an interview on Dec. 28, Garnett said he understood if UW fans were disappointed to lose out on in-state recruits, but choosing a college is the biggest life decision most high school seniors have made and the geographical location of a school is only one factor to consider.
“A lot of people assume we’re automatically going to go (to UW) because they’d go there if they could be high-schoolers again,” he said.
One day after Garnett made that statement, Russell declared for Notre Dame.
BLAME TO SHARE
Of course, UW supporters don’t have a monopoly on launching personal attacks on recruits who went elsewhere. This behavior happens across the country. University of Oregon fans took bitterness to a new low when Lake Oswego (Ore.) High star Kevin Love, who spurned the Ducks for UCLA, played his first game at MacArthur Court as a Bruin in 2008. Love received death threats and spectators yelled slurs at his grandmother, mom and sister.
Over-the-top fans can’t take all the blame. Some of it falls on the recruits, who sometimes allow fans to become close through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. A former Pacific-12 Conference coach laid out the scenario.
“What happens is because of the recruiting websites’ desire for information, it gets out who you are recruiting,” the coach said. “Then every (John Doe) from the fan sites starts to become friends with these kids and thinks he is trying to be helpful by sending him encouraging messages. At that point, the recruit basically gives them instant access to everything he does.”
Kim Grinolds, publisher of Dawgman.com, says the reactions are nothing out of the ordinary in the highly charged atmosphere of college sports.
“They don’t get to play on the field,” he said, “so they paint their hair purple and take out their passion for the game on the keyboard.”
Williams understands that zeal. Wisconsin fans are some of the most fervent in the country, but he cautions that the actions of fans can tarnish the perception of a program to the people it needs to appear most attractive to – recruits.
“I’m trying to separate in my mind that these are fans and this is the football program and coaches,” Williams said, looking at each of his hands, palms up. “What the fans say is not a direct representation of the coaches and the program, but you can’t get around it. What they say does reflect on the coaches and the program overall, whether you want it to or not.
“They don’t realize how much it really affects recruiting.”
Doug Pacey: 253-597-8271