CRAWFORD: For U of L, Hatcher's pick is red flag, not red alert - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD: For U of L, Hatcher's pick is red flag, not red alert

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Let's not make Trinity senior Jason Hatcher's commitment to the University of Southern California something it isn't.

Hatcher, the No. 3-rated defensive end in the nation by, in the end picked USC in a news conference tonight at Louisville's Hyatt Regency Downtown because he wanted to get away from home for school and, well, because it's USC. Even had the University of Louisville, which Hatcher thought long and hard about, been a member of the Big 12 Conference, it's likely he still wouldn't have stayed home for school.

But let's also not gloss over this.

Being outside college football's emerging power conference structure didn't help U of L coaches. It was, Hatcher said, "a small part of his decision."

He said U of L's conference situation concerned him, "a little bit, honestly, with the Big East falling apart the way it is."

That's a perception problem. And in recruiting, as in many things, perception is reality.

"That wasn't the main reason," Hatcher said. "I'm not going to say it was a big reason, because I believe you can have success at any school at any conference. But the Big East, that was kind of a small concern, being that after the next couple of years they might not even be a BCS contender."

Hatcher said that there was a significant pull to stay home. "With Ryan (White, a Trinity teammate) there and the talk of (Trinity teammate) James (Quick) going. My family would've been able to see every game."

"I mean, really, Louisville just came down to the fact, the conference played a small part, because the Big East might not be a BCS contender. But you can shine anywhere. I built a strong relationship with those guys over there and it's almost like family. But it came to the point where I have to do what's best for me and my whole life I've wanted to go away for school."

It's important to see Hatcher's quotes in context for two reasons. First, to understand that you can't blame U of L's conference for a big-time national recruit leaving town to play for a big-time national power.

But second, to understand what U of L coaches are up against in recruiting. Because while conference may not have been the determining factor for Hatcher, it might be for others. And at the very least, it's a perception that head coach Charlie Strong, recruiting coordinator Clint Hurtt and the rest of the U of L football staff are having to deflect in increasing amounts.

Does that paint a fatalistic view of U of L recruiting and its football future? Not necessarily. The question was put to U of L athletic director Tom Jurich earlier this week and he responded this way:

"I don't worry about that because I look at the personnel who are recruiting for us," Jurich said. "I looked at John L. (Smith) when he first came here, he was recruiting to Conference USA and might have put together the best team that was ever at this school. Bobby (Petrino) got the advantage of it, absorbing a lot of those athletes, but John L. got them to campus."

Strong, Hurtt and staff have demonstrated already an ability to attract high-level talent under less than optimum circumstances. Jurich is right about that. You don't have to be in a power conference to build a power team. The Cardinals' 2004 team that finished 12-1 had 20 eventual NFL Draft picks on the roster. The current team -- and recruiting class -- have plenty of highly rated players.

But that also shouldn't obscure this: Even though Hatcher's decision didn't hinge on his perception of the Big East, his perception is a problem nonetheless. Because he's far from the only one who is going to have it.

Strong, U of L, and the other Big East football programs, old and new, are officially swimming upstream. You can argue that U of L always has been, and you can argue that it has reached top 10 status in a season or two with far worse facilities than it has right now.

But the landscape is not what it used to be. And the headwinds the current U of L staff is working into may be stronger than any that have come before it -- at least any that had any kind of realistic designs on national relevance.

If there's good news, and an indicator of the work U of L's staff did, it was that the first coach Hatcher called to deliver the bad news was Hurtt. (Hatcher also called Tennessee to say no.)

"When we were on the phone, Coach Hurtt was like, 'I understand, we always thought you would go somewhere because you didn't want to stay home,'" Hatcher said. "But he said that the recruitment wasn't over, and it was a long time till February (and national signing day)."

Expect U of L coaches to be working overtime to the final day. They're going to need to.

COMING SUNDAY: Eric Crawford makes himself Big East commissioner for a day (unsalaried, unfortunately).

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