Words by ROBERT STEWART
Photos by MAGGIE BOWLES
The lifeblood of LSU’s football program can be found not on the field, but in a single room in LSU’s massive football operations center.
Inside a second-floor meeting room are four walls smothered with recruits’ names. It’s a war room of sorts, full of hundreds of nameplates with pictures, locations and measurements of each player LSU is targeting. The players’ names are divided by position, year, and which coach will recruit them.
It’s a strategic map for LSU’s coaches, a chemical equation LSU will use in its recruiting experiments.
And its alchemist is Frank Wilson.
The walls comprise Wilson’s symphony. The untrained eye can see the notes up close but will miss the big picture. But Wilson knows where all of the notes are, calculating each step carefully to make sure the symphony is played just right.
The board shows Wilson’s vision for the program, the desire he has to make sure LSU is always prepared in order to stay at the front of the recruiting battle.
And it’s an indication of just how well LSU has done on that warpath with Wilson as its recruiting general, pulling in four top 10 classes since he came aboard in 2010.
Wilson, as running backs coach, is not the face of the program. Head coach Les Miles carries that burden, and coordinators Cam Cameron and John Chavis rack up even more credit for the way their respective units perform.
But Wilson’s role is just as vital as any of them.
Though Wilson is quick to give credit of LSU’s recruiting success to Miles and the entire staff, the role of recruiting coordinator is one that Wilson, widely viewed as one of college football’s best recruiters, fully embraces.
"I’ve always prided myself on never taking a back seat, but taking a leadership role and stepping forward and trying to do the best job that was asked of me,” Wilson said.
Frank Wilson may always be looking into the future, but his crystal ball never showed him as a coach.
Wilson, a New Orleans native and former St. Augustine High School running back, played his first season of collegiate ball at Geneva College, a Division III school in Beaver Falls, Pa. It was an NAIA college when Wilson played there.
Wilson received only a handful of Division I-AA offers out of high school, and a family friend who worked at the school sold him on "being a big fish in a little pond” in Pennsylvania.
But after a year, Wilson missed Louisiana. So he transferred to Nicholls State in Thibodaux to share his football games with his family.
Wilson’s playing days were derailed by an injury. To stay on scholarship, he became a student assistant coach, helping coaches with anything from practice drills to evaluating game film of recruits.
"It was hard work, but it was the path that I guess was intended for me,” Wilson said. "I didn’t, I guess, grow up saying I wanted to be a coach. It just kind of came to fruition, so I embraced it.”
After a year as a student assistant, Wilson spent three years as an assistant at Karr High School before landing the head coaching job at O. Perry Walker High School in Algiers in 2000.
That’s where Wilson caught Ed Orgeron’s attention — for a second time.
Orgeron, who spent the 1994 season as a Nicholls State assistant, first knew Wilson as a tough, competitive football player who had a special charisma about him.
Orgeron remembered chatting years ago with his old friend J.T. Curtis, John Curtis Christian School’s coach down in River Ridge, when Orgeron was Southern California’s recruiting coordinator. They somehow got on the topic of Frank Wilson.
"He says, ‘You need to cross the river and go see Frank Wilson.’ I said, ‘Frank Wilson? Frank played for us at Nicholls,’” Orgeron recalled. "He said, ‘Coach, he’s doing a tremendous job at O. Perry Walker.”
Wilson’s resume at O. Perry Walker was indeed remarkable. He led the Chargers to the 2002 Class 4A state finals and back-to-back district championships in 2001 and 2002. In all, 22 O. Perry Walker players signed Division I scholarships under Wilson’s tutelage.
Orgeron was impressed. He told Wilson he would hire him as soon as he got a head coaching job.
Orgeron stayed true to his word. When he was hired by Ole Miss in 2005, he lured Wilson to become his running backs and special teams coach.
"I knew his character. I knew his work ethic. I thought he’d be a tremendous recruiter,” Orgeron said. "I wanted him around me. There was no question he ended up being one of my most valuable assistants.”
Wilson’s recruiting abilities paid off almost immediately. After finishing with the nation’s No. 32 class a year before, he and Orgeron hauled in a top 15 class at Ole Miss in 2006, featuring future pros like Dexter McCluster, Greg Hardy and Kendrick Lewis.
When Ole Miss fired Orgeron in 2007, Wilson moved on to Southern Miss as its running backs coach and recruiting coordinator. Orgeron spent a season as the New Orleans Saints’ defensive line coach.
But Orgeron made sure Wilson followed him to Tennessee when Lane Kiffin hired him in late 2008.
Once again, the ace recruiter was being recruited.
"When we went to Tennessee, we wanted to hire the top recruiters in the Southeastern Conference, and Frank was definitely one of those,” Orgeron said.
Wilson, Orgeron and Kiffin all spent one year at Tennessee. Orgeron left to join Kiffin’s staff at Southern Cal.
Wilson went on a different path, back down to Louisiana.
At the time, LSU had just lost Larry Porter to Memphis. LSU was in need of both a running backs coach and a strong recruiter to fill Porter’s void.
Wilson knew he could serve both of those roles well — not to mention he wanted his family to be able to see him coach.
It seemed like a perfect fit.
"Coming from a big family, they weren’t always fortunate enough to be there. Matter of fact, they were rarely there,” Wilson said. "To come back to Louisiana was something that was rewarding and something that I looked forward to do, to share those big moments with the people of Louisiana and with my family.”
Wilson quickly made an impact on LSU’s recruiting efforts, being named Recruiter of the Year by Rivals.com in February 2011.
But Wilson doesn’t see himself as merely a salesman for the program.
Don’t get him wrong. Wilson prides himself on his ability to convince big-time players to come to LSU. But more importantly, he views his role as that of a talent evaluator for Miles and the LSU coaching staff.
"Everybody can have a conversation or present or sell their program, and that’s fine and dandy,” Wilson said. "But if you’re not on the right (players), then certainly that’s different.”
While it’s easy for Wilson to point to the high-profile recruits who have come to Baton Rouge in his tenure — Anthony Johnson, La’el Collins, Leonard Fournette — Wilson also points to the underrated players coming out of high school that became studs at LSU. Guys like Tyrann Mathieu, Odell Beckham and Jalen Mills, who were no more than four-star players coming out.
Players that are obviously great, like the Fournettes of the world, are always pursued. But for Wilson, it’s more about finding those diamonds in the rough to make a complete class.
"In each one of those cases, there’s an evaluation piece that’s probably more critical than the recruiting piece,” Wilson said. "You’ll see a school that may have a recruiting class that’s ranked in the top five in the country, but they don’t have 10-win seasons, and those kids may not necessarily get drafted to go on in the NFL. So something went wrong in that process.”
Wilson will do whatever he can to make sure that process goes smoothly.
That’s where that recruiting war room comes into play.
The names on the war room are divided into columns based on position, and into rows based on year of graduation. The nameplates are color coded: purple names are commitments, gold names are pending offers, and so on. Though one wall is dedicated solely to Louisiana players, the names draw from all across the country, with LSU eyeing to pull in as many great athletes as possible.
Players as early as the class of 2017 are up on that wall, showing just how far into the future Wilson is looking. LSU already has lined up 10 commitments for 2015 and even one for 2018, according to 247Sports.
Each LSU coach is given a set of players to recruit. Wilson said the coaches look early and often into players’ transcripts, backgrounds, personalities — any indication that they’ll be a right fit for the program.
Each recruiting scenario is different, Wilson said. Sometimes, the coaches have to come from behind, battling off other universities to convince a player to come to LSU. Other times, the coaches have to fight off an onslaught of other teams to keep a player who committed a long time ago.
But Wilson said there’s one thing LSU’s coaches have always prided themselves on: finishing.
"There’s highs and lows, and throughout the entire process, we’re trying to just remain consistent, just stay to the course all the way through and finish this thing and not get too high and not get too low,” Wilson said. "It’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint in the recruiting process.”
The war room seems calm on a Saturday morning a couple of months after National Signing Day. But on that day, it’s a typhoon of anxiety, a glass case of emotion.
It’s a day of national letters of intent constantly churning through fax machines. It’s head coaches sweating profusely, waiting to see what teenage kids just solidified or ruined their college careers.
But Frank Wilson tries to find the middle ground. For him, it’s about remaining as calm as possible in the middle of the storm, waiting for the frenetic pace to die down so he and the other coaches can enjoy the fruits of their labor.
"That can get you a little nervous at times. But at the end of the day, we put our best foot forward, and it is what it is,” Wilson said. "That’s kind of a roller coaster from an emotional standpoint. A little nerve-wrecking, a little jubilation … It’s up and down throughout the day.”
For LSU, there was much more celebration than anxiety this year.
The Tiger coaches brought in the consensus No. 2 class in the country, pulling in-state players like Fournette, wide receiver Malachi Dupre and quarterback Brandon Harris, while snagging players like linebacker Clifton Garrett all the way from Illinois.
"The things that we were able to do was something that we were extremely excited about,” Wilson said. "We needed this class to be what it is to allow continue us to do what we’re doing.”
For Wilson, it was a day of seeing LSU’s hard work over so many months — and in some cases, years — pay off.
That’s why it wasn’t so much a relief as it was an expectation once Fournette’s letter of intent came across the fax machine — LSU’s coaches began working on him early and often, Wilson said.
"To recruit him effectively was to make sure that there wasn’t anything missing, whether it was his grandmother, whether it was his grandfather, whether it was his siblings, whether it was his mother, whether it was his father, his high school coach,” Wilson said. "What it gave us what a fleet of LSU support.”
Frank Wilson’s reputation is built mostly on his abilities as a recruiter.
But it’s easy to let Frank Wilson the recruiter overshadow Frank Wilson the running backs coach.
LSU has finished no less than sixth in the Southeastern Conference in total rushing yards since Wilson arrived and finished first in 2011 with 2,836 yards. He’s coached two Tiger running backs who finished in the top four in the league in rushing yards: Stevan Ridley in 2010 (fourth with 1,147 yards) and Jeremy Hill in 2013 (second with 1,401 yards).
Wilson also coached up Ole Miss’ BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2006 to the third-best rushing total in the SEC at 1,000 yards.
Wilson said he wants all of his running backs to be physical and tough. But more importantly, he also wants them to be smart. He likens football to being another class that LSU’s players have to pass, filled with lessons about pre-snap reads, blitz pickup and formation recognition.
"It is a thinking man’s game, and the thinking happens pre-snap. After that, it’s impulsive,” Wilson said. "What allows you to play fast and to be at your very best, to perfect your craft, is to understand defensively how they sit in their intentions.”
But again, coaching running backs the right way can serve as a strong recruiting tool in itself. Show a player all the NFL running backs LSU has produced, and it’ll make him want to play for the Tigers that much more.
Once more, Wilson the recruiter outshines Wilson the coach.
"What people don’t understand is, he knows a lot of football,” said Orgeron, the former Ole Miss coach. "He’s a master at his craft. Sometimes, really good recruiters kind of get pigeonholed as a good recruiter that can’t coach. Frank can do both of them.”
Wilson understands that good coaching can translate into good recruiting. But for him, it ultimately doesn’t matter, just as long as he’s putting his best foot forward and helping LSU succeed.
He also realizes that the recruiting successes could carry him to a head coaching job someday.
Wilson said he has been contacted about a few jobs here and there, though nothing has been terribly serious. He said he’s not chomping at the bit for a head job and is happy where he is now.
"I’ve had inquiries about head coaching jobs and even interviews,” Wilson said. "It’s going to take the right one, though, because I love where I’m at. I love my job.”
How fitting. LSU’s best recruiter is once again being recruited.
But like the savvy recruiter he is, he’s waiting on the right recruiter to pick him up.
Would you expect anything less?
Frank Wilson wouldn’t.
"We’ll see. I think the more success we have here, the greater those opportunities come,” Wilson said. "If it’s meant to be, that’ll put me in a position to do so, as opposed to me soliciting or trying to go out and find one. My philosophy’s always been to be the best that you can be where you’re at.”
"If it’s meant to be, then certainly that’s something that I’ll be willing to walk through. But right now, I just want to be the best assistant at LSU that I can be.”