Huskers Established Louisiana Recruiting Pipeline in the 1980s
Story by Shane G. Gilster • Photos by NU Sports Information & Huskers Illustrated Archives
There was a time when the fertile recruiting ground of Louisiana was still partially untapped, when many of the state’s talented players were not only ignored by Southeastern Conference schools, but by the state’s flagship university, LSU.
For a college coach and film-studier like Tom Osborne, it wasn’t difficult to see the number of potentially good players from Louisiana who weren’t getting a chance to play in a major conference. Osborne also saw how Oklahoma was able to convince good players to leave Louisiana and move north, albeit not as far north as Nebraska. The difficulty seemed to be convincing the young men to give another part of the country a chance.
To do that job, Osborne turned to assistant coach Jack Pierce, a former high school coach at Anniston, Alabama, who knew the South better than others on NU’s staff. Osborne made the state a priority, assigning defensive ends coach Tony Samuel to the Bayou beat as well.
The challenge as they saw it: Highlight the positives of a comparatively cold yet football-loving university and state, and convince young athletes to leave the warmth and Southern culture, which was all most had ever known.
“We looked at the kind of high school kids who were playing down there and looked at the LSU team and thought they were not doing a good job recruiting their home state,” Pierce said. “So Tony had the north half of the state and hit the Gramblings and Shreveports and that area, and I did the southern half of the state. We hit all the major high schools, from Lafayette to New Orleans, up the whole coastline. We covered it pretty darn well.”
As fate would have it, Nebraska already had a connection in the New Orleans area, which became Pierce’s main recruiting focus.
Burton Burns, who played at Nebraska, was the football coach at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. Burns helped Pierce and Samuel by letting them in his film room to watch players from around the state.
It also didn’t hurt that the Cornhuskers played LSU in the Sugar Bowl in 1985 and again in 1987, right in the heart of New Orleans. NU would hammer the Tigers both times, raising the Huskers’ profile locally.
“Playing in the Sugar Bowl in ’85 and ’87 brought a lot of attention to our program,” Pierce said. “I loved going to the Sugar Bowl because it affected my recruiting area in Louisiana. That was when we really started making inroads with those Louisiana kids. For me, it was like someone gave me a bonus to go to the Super Bowl, because it really paid off in helping me recruit these kids to play for Nebraska.”
Pierce’s recruiting philosophy involved being around the high schools as much as possible and repeatedly telling prospects how much they were wanted at Nebraska.
He would frequently stop by and talk to the coaches and remind them what Nebraska’s plans were for their kids. Pierce then would tell kids that he wouldn’t be there recruiting them if he didn’t think they could be a first- or second-year starter.
“I would drill into the kids’ minds about their ability to play and how they would fit into what we were trying to do,” Pierce said. “Tom would talk about how we would treat them like our sons, make sure they go to classes and graduate. That type of recruiting combination with the parents really resonated.”
Pierce was always on the lookout for that special player who might open once and for all the recruiting pipeline to Nebraska. He found him, but in a roundabout way.
Pierce was looking at a quarterback in New Orleans when a high school coach named LaBaron Kennedy at McDonough 35 told him about a player on his team who was tall and scrawny but could run like the wind.
As Pierce watched the kid’s film, he quickly recognized what Kennedy was talking about.
“All you had to do was watch one reel of film on him,” Pierce said. “He was only 6-foot-5, 208 pounds, but he never quit. He would run across the field making hits and tackling people into the band. He had a wingspan of a small condor and looked like a giant on the field.”
That giant was future All-American and NFL Pro Bowler Neil Smith. When Pierce got the OK from Osborne to recruit him, Smith couldn’t believe he might have the opportunity to play for a powerhouse like Nebraska. To that point, the only schools recruiting him were Grambling and Southern.
“Jack saw me and saw the motor and energy I had,” Smith said. “Football wasn’t something that I really tried hard at. It was something I just did because my high school team needed some bodies. Nebraska saw something in me and made a decision that I was a guy they wanted.”
Even though NU was recruiting him hard, Smith still wasn’t guaranteed a spot because the Huskers were down to their last scholarship for the 1984 recruiting class.
“They were waiting on an offensive lineman. If he committed then I wouldn’t get it, but it just so happened that an offensive lineman went to Oklahoma and I got the last scholarship. So, they called me the sleeper of the class,” Smith said, laughing.
Smith was thankful Nebraska took a chance on him, and NU got a player who might be the biggest recruiting steal in program history.
“It was a turning point in my life,” Smith said. “Back then, my family didn’t have the money to send me to a major school. I grew up in the projects in poverty, and I always said to myself that if I was going to make something of myself, I had to go out of state, and this was the perfect opportunity to go to Nebraska. Sometimes in life you get put in a position for a reason. By the blessings of God, Jack Pierce saw something in me on film.”
Thanks to Nebraska’s weight and conditioning program, Smith increased his weight to 260 pounds and would go on to become one of the Huskers’ all-time best on the defensive line. He was the second overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, and went on to play 13 seasons in the league, making the Pro Bowl six times and earning two Super Bowl rings.
“The weight, diet and conditioning program at Nebraska made me into the player I became,” Smith said. “Going to school there, attending one of the greatest universities in the world, also made me a better person and a better professional player. Lincoln was a big part of my success, and I met some of my best friends there.”
“Another good thing about my story,” Smith said, “was that I had the opportunity to open the recruiting window to the state of Louisiana for Nebraska.”
Smith’s success at Nebraska gave Pierce even more clout around Louisiana, but he knew that he still needed to learn the local culture and football language to really connect with the kids and their coaches.
“We went to coaching clinics in Louisiana, and even when we were not speaking, we came and sat in on them. I spent many a time talking to coaches late at night learning their terminology. We got to know a lot of the coaches and the great part about it was, once they got to know you down there, you are friends forever.”
It wasn’t long before the Louisiana players who followed Smith to Nebraska weren’t diamonds in the rough, but state players of the year.
“Neil was the first kid that got the ball rolling with getting kids from Louisiana,” Pierce said. “So then it opened the door to the more highly profiled players like LeRoy Etienne from New Iberia, Reggie Cooper from Slidell, Mickey Joseph from Shaw in Marrero and Tyrone Hughes from St. Augustine in New Orleans.”
Etienne was the state’s two-time defensive player of the year in 1984 and 1985. Joseph and Cooper were the 1986 offensive and defensive players of the year. Hughes was the 1987 offensive player of the year.
All credit Pierce as among the main reasons they wanted to go to Nebraska.
“Jack was the man,” Joseph said. “He would go into the projects and get the players. Jack came in and laid it all on the line. He was honest and real; nothing fake about him. He treated us like family and that was all we needed.”
Joseph not only was the state offensive MVP but a USA Today and Parade All-American. He was rated as the top high school quarterback recruit in the nation and No. 4 player overall by the National High School Football Recruiting Service before signing day in 1987.
“It came down to Nebraska and Oklahoma,” Joseph said. “I orally committed to OU and then committed to Nebraska. I thought the wishbone at OU was more of an offense that I would be pretty good in as opposed to Nebraska’s offense, which ran the option out of the I formation. But my mom fell in love with Coach Osborne and felt he was the right person to groom me.”
Cooper knew Joseph well and decided to join him at Nebraska. For him, it was either stay in-state or go to Nebraska.
Cooper was also recruited hard by Oklahoma and SEC schools, but after going to the 1987 Sugar Bowl to watch Nebraska hammer LSU, he was sold on the Huskers.
“I went inside the Nebraska locker room to meet the players like Neil Smith, and I just felt comfortable. I wanted to get away from home for college, and Mickey and I talked about going to Nebraska together,” Cooper said.
Pierce did his job selling Nebraska to Cooper’s parents. “Jack made everyone in my house feel comfortable about me going to Nebraska,” Cooper said. “They just had me look at the depth chart and told me how I was going to get a shot to play. Jack was just real. What I mean by that was there were a lot of recruiters you could tell were full of it, but Jack was fun-loving, outgoing, personable and trustworthy.”
Pierce remembers well the recruitment of Cooper and laughed as he recounted a story when he signed the highly recruited athlete in Slidell.
“The LSU coaches claimed I recruited Reggie illegally, but I didn’t,” he said. “I had run out of visits at his high school. This was back in the day when you could sign the kid at his high school. So I had Reggie come out to me and he signed his letter of intent on the hood of a Cadillac, and that photo ran in the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune sports section with the headline: ‘Cooper to Nebraska?’ The Cadillac was my rental car, but they were questioning whose car it was.”
Hughes’ father was a car salesman and got a lot of pressure from his co-workers for his son to go to LSU. The dealership even put up a sign that said, “Hodson to Hughes.” Tommy Hodson was the quarterback for LSU at the time.
“Jack Pierce was the main reason why Nebraska got me to come there,” Hughes said. “I was sold on Nebraska the day I met Jack. He sold the school by being honest with you. He looked you in the eye and you just knew what kind of man he was. My mom liked Nebraska because of Jack, but my dad wanted me to go to LSU.”
Hughes’ teammates at St. Augustine, linebacker David White and wingback Vincent Hawkins, also liked Nebraska and all three played at Nebraska together. White and Hawkins also had high praise for Pierce.
“If it wasn’t for Jack, I wouldn’t have even considered Nebraska,” said White, who wanted to go to college out of state and had Notre Dame and Oklahoma on his final list. “Once I visited Lincoln, it helped a lot that Reggie and Mickey were my recruiting hosts. I thought, ‘If they could adjust up there, I could do it too.'”
Said Hawkins: “Jack could relate to a rock. He was ‘Mr. Personality.’ He interacted well with my high school coach (Burton Burns) and they were good friends. Nebraska was a successful program with good, humble coaches. There wasn’t a sense they were doing things inappropriately and that I could cut corners by going to college there.”
It seemed Pierce had the magic touch. But he narrowly missed on two prized recruits.
Kordell Stewart was a star quarterback at John Ehret High School in Marrero and the state MVP. Pierce thought he had him until Colorado came in with a newly hired offensive coordinator and eventually won Stewart over.
Then there was Marshall Faulk who attended George Washington Carver in New Orleans. Pierce got Faulk to visit Lincoln but before he arrived on campus, Pierce told the other NU coaches to not mention Faulk as a possible defensive back recruit.
“As we were all walking up the stairs in South Stadium, the first thing our defensive back coach (George Darlington) told him was that he would look good back-pedaling as a defensive back,” Pierce remembered. “The kid’s face just dropped and it hit the stairs. He then got it in his mind that we didn’t want him as a running back and we had trouble convincing him otherwise. He went on to play running back at San Diego State.”
But the kids Pierce and Nebraska got were the right fit for the Husker program.
Smith, Etienne and Cooper were first-team All-Big Eight selections. Hughes led the Big Eight in kickoff returns in each of his last three years, finishing as NU’s record-holder in kickoff returns and second all-time in career punt returns. Joseph quarterbacked NU up to a No. 3 ranking during the 1990 season, and White and Hawkins were key contributors on the Husker Big Eight championship teams in 1991 and 1992.
“They believed in work and they were honest kids,” Pierce said. “They were about family, they worked hard, and if they said something to you, it was going to be done.”