On his first day recruiting for Texas A&M in December, newly minted head coach Jimbo Fisher met with a pair of power players in the Houston area, one of the country's most fertile recruiting regions.
The first was Katy coach Gary Joseph. A four-time state champion and current president of the Texas High School Coaches Association, Joseph is one of the most recognized and well-respected coaches in the state.
The second was Ro Simon Jr., the coach of FAST Houston 7v7, an Adidas-backed 7-on-7 all-star team with a roster stocked with ESPN 300 recruits. It's one of the most notable teams in Texas' rapidly growing 7-on-7 scene.
Fisher posed for photos with both, but it was his visit with Simon that prompted the type of buzz and discussion around the state usually reserved for coaching changes or five-star prospect commitment announcements. Fisher wasn't the first big-time coach to take a photo with Simon (Texas coach Tom Herman did in Austin four months earlier) but no matter: Several of the state's high school coaches were displeased. Others understood the move: Fisher was doing what he deemed necessary to stay ahead of the curve in the ultracompetitive Texas recruiting landscape.
It brought more eyeballs to the growing chasm that exists between the two groups, an ongoing power struggle in a place where high school coaches have long ruled the roost and don't intend to cede their influence without a fight.
— Super K (@SuperK_TFB) July 27, 2017
Long its own ecosystem, recruiting has changed in the Lone Star State.
ESPN.com spoke to 20 key figures in recruiting including college coaches, high school coaches, trainers, 7-on-7 coaches and prospects' family members to understand what it takes to succeed at recruiting in one of the most competitive states in America.
The high school coach still matters
Texas, unlike other recruiting hotbeds, can be strikingly old-school in one way: The high school coach is often still the gatekeeper to the state's best prospects.
"It's what recruiting was like probably 20 or 25 or 30 years ago in other places," Baylor coach Matt Rhule said. "The great thing about recruiting Texas is it still all goes through the high school football coach and the high school football program."
Underscoring the high school coaches' importance, most of the state's new college coaches stop by the THSCA headquarters in San Marcos, Texas, soon after taking over an in-state program. Fisher did so on his third day on the job. That same day he called the association "unbelievable." Herman, in his introductory news conference in November 2016, made mention of the high school coaches less than two minutes into his opening statement and less than a minute into his answer to his first question. Herman told ESPN.com last week that the Longhorns "always start with the high school coach."
The THSCA, which boasts more than 15,000 members across all sports (most of its members are football coaches), still carries weight.
"In public schools, the vast majority of our coaches are professional educators," THSCA executive director D.W. Rutledge said. "They have to have a teaching degree. The coaching staff works at the school, so they're around the kids every day ... and in most states that's not the case."
College coaches say that time investment matters in developing a prospect.
Baylor tight ends coach Joey McGuire, who spent 14 seasons coaching at Cedar Hill High School near Dallas before joining Rhule's staff, says the high school coach is the first person he communicates with in the recruiting process.
"[Rhule] does not want the high school coach to find out on Twitter that we offered [one of his players]," McGuire said. "He wants to make sure we've called the high school coach ... and what I always want to do, is I want the head coach to tell the kid [that we've offered]."
And if a school damages a relationship with a coach at a particular high school, it can have repercussions in recruiting.
Conroe (Texas) head coach Cedric Hardeman, who was a longtime recruiting coordinator at Alief Taylor High in Houston, said that coaches at a Pac-12 school told him that there were "some schools up here in north Houston that they couldn't go into because the head coach was like 'Nope.'"
"You can't go around the head coach, because here, head coaches run everything," Hardeman said.
The 7-on-7 coach and trainers, in some cases, matter just as much
The high school coach matters, but it doesn't just stop there. Not anymore.
As more prospects specialize and practice year-round, other individuals have become part of the process. The University Interscholastic League -- the governing body of high school athletics in Texas -- has restrictions on when high school coaches are allowed to coach their players similar to NCAA rules for football coaches. That is particularly true in the offseason and the summer. Spring practices are allowed and so is summer strength and conditioning, but there are time limits.
For recruits, private coaching and select 7-on-7 provides an outlet. In many cases, players' participation in it predates high school.
"The [private training and 7-on-7] is good stuff because they're getting familiar with what's going to be coming in high school football [or college]," said Dandrick Glass, father of 2019 ESPN Junior 300 running back Deondrick Glass. "It's why you see more guys starting as true freshmen in college, because they've been doing stuff like this all their lives."
Since it's outside of the school, there are no restrictions or time limits. Whenever the player wants to work, he can.
"It's filling a void," said Simon, the Houston 7-on-7 magnate. "It's a mentality, it's a culture."
The amount of time players spend with their trainers or 7-on-7 coaches can often naturally strengthen the bond between the two. Simon is 30, making him closer in age to the players he trains than the average high school coaches are to the players they coach. Often, the younger you are, the easier it is for you to relate to the next generation.
"If you look cool, they automatically think you're cool," Simon said.
It's why he invested in someone to produce professional-looking hype videos that appear on the FAST Houston Twitter account. It creates an image that attracts today's youth. But it's not just that. The way some trainers and 7-on-7 coaches promote the players they work with on social media can't be overlooked.
Few in Texas are as savvy at it as Rischad Whitfield, known around the state as the "Footwork King." The Houston-based trainer, whose clientele includes NFL, college and high school football players, is active both on Instagram and Twitter. Whether it's posting videos of workouts with clients like Denver Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders and Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback A.J. Bouye, or posting congratulatory messages to recruits he trains who receive scholarship offers, he's visible. It's a trend with top 7-on-7 teams too, such as FAST Houston, Team Texas Elite (also based in Houston) and Dallas-based True Buzz.
"These kids love that. They want that," Hardeman said. "If you don't understand it, you're going to fall behind."
It's why Hardeman, while at Alief Taylor, got more active on social media.
"If I'm not promoting the kid as much as the Footwork King, then he wants to go to the place where he's getting promoted," Hardeman said. "That's why it's important for the school to do it, because if they don't, the [players] are going to gravitate to whoever they feel like gives him the most juice."
Beyond training and promotion, there's another key purpose these trainers and 7-on-7 coaches serve that college coaches value: transportation. Prospects get only five official visits in the recruiting process, meaning most visits they take are unofficial -- on the player's dime. If a player doesn't have the gas money to drive to a school for a visit and parents or family members are working, someone else can fill that void. Sometimes it's the high school coach, but trainers and 7-on-7 coaches are also becoming an option. For instance, Simon said when FAST Houston travels for out-of-town tournaments, the team will often go as a group to nearby colleges for visits.
"They can bring them all over the place," one Power 5 head coach said.
Why the divide?
So what are the issues and why are they forcing recruiters to strike such a delicate balance?
"7-on-7 is the front door to street agents, there's no doubt," said Rutledge, the THSCA director. "Those are things that really concern us. We're going to work hard to try to keep that element out as much as we can. We're losing the battle probably in the Houston area and probably in the [Dallas-Fort Worth] metroplex right now, but we're going to fight to keep that element out if we can."
Said RJ Henderson, a coach at Team Texas Elite 7-on-7, whose son Arjei is the No. 51 player in the 2019 ESPN Junior 300: "That's true. But at the same time, don't think that they don't do that at high school football games, either. ... People like that are going to get in any kind of way they can."
The changing dynamic is bothersome to high school coaches because some perceive it as a threat to the power they wield and fear being cut out of the recruiting process. Some feel that trainers or 7-on-7 coaches are trying to claim the lion's share of the credit for developing the players.
"If you've got 40-something pros that train with you every year ... that means you're probably doing it right," Whitfield said. "[The high school coaches] just get real salty."
"It's 'Your music sucks,' is what it is," Henderson said. "This is the future, whether you like it or not. This is the AAU of football. These kids are getting real exposure, real competition, real training and they're coming out more prepared than ever before, and 7-on-7 has a lot to do with it. So you're going to either get with it or you're going to get left behind."
Bravado and chest-beating aside, there are still legitimate concerns. Much like with AAU teams in high school basketball, the crux of the high school coaches' fears lies in the growth of such influences and shady dealings.
"It's bad when it gets to the point of having a street agent," Joseph said. "It's not about the kid anymore. It's about that guy and what they can do for him."
Said Herman: "There's good trainers and good 7-on-7 coaches that have provided some of these young men with some really, really good mentorship. And so ... to lump them all into shady character category, I think, is unfair to them as well.
"As long as we're following the rules, unless we've been specifically told that a guy has been sanctioned by the NCAA -- which we have a list of -- as long as we go about our business in compliance, who we're dealing with is irrelevant. Just follow the rules and you'll be OK."
Kim Eagles, whose son Brennan Eagles was an ESPN 300 recruit who signed with Texas last month, said Eagles played 7-on-7 both for his school (Alief Taylor) and with select teams (Team Texas Elite and FAST Houston). He did some work with trainers sporadically. She felt he benefited from the experiences, even if they didn't necessarily significantly impact his recruitment.
"As long as it's a win-win on both sides [prospect and trainer/coach], I'm good with it," she said.
So, who's making the decision?
One thing that hasn't changed in recruiting from the college coach's perspective: Find out who, along with the prospect, the key decision-makers are. In some cases, there's a lot of people to sift through.
"What I learned when I was a GA under coach [Bob] Stoops is you have to find out who helps them with their decision, who is influential in their life and you have to make sure you have a relationship with them," Texas Tech linebackers coach Zac Spavital said. "Well, when you do that now, there could be 10 people, but it could be somebody other than their parents. I think that's been the biggest change is you've got to build relationships with people that you normally didn't have to in terms of the impact and trust in the kid's decision."
These are the challenges a college coach must navigate, all the while balancing the egos of all the parties involved.
— Ryan Brauninger (@R_Brauninger) January 24, 2018
"Sometimes [a trainer] is the influencer. Sometimes he's just somebody who helps [the prospect] get faster and stronger," Houston coach Major Applewhite said. "It's case by case. ... If you see a situation heading down a path you don't want to go down as a recruiter, to me, that's part of the evaluation process."
And that's why Fisher, who was not made available for comment for this story, went to see Simon in his home. The first player Simon brought on to FAST Houston when it was created was ESPN 300 safety Leon O'Neal, who was once committed to Texas A&M and is still considering the Aggies as signing day nears. Jaylen Waddle, an undecided ESPN 300 receiver whom the Aggies are recruiting, is also a FAST alumnus and Simon client.
"It's being efficient, if I'm a college recruiter, if I'm Jimbo Fisher," said Hardeman, the Conroe High School head coach. "I gotta get to know 20 different [high school] coaches in order to have an in of 20 of these top kids. If I know that there's one [7-on-7] coach that I have to build a relationship with to get in good with these 20 top kids, then it's more efficient for me to build a relationship with that one coach than the 20 different high school coaches."
The optics and the politics more than anything are what ruffled some Texas high school coaches' feathers. The fact that Fisher visited Simon on the first day -- the same day he visited Joseph -- felt to some like he was putting them on equal footing.
Later that week, Fisher's praise of high school coaches and meeting with the board of directors calmed the waters. Rutledge said there was no specific discussion about it when they met with Fisher, and he's "glad to have him in Texas." Joseph cautions not to persecute Fisher. "I didn't think he was trying to slight me. I just think he was trying to do what he felt like was best for his program."
But, still, it comes at a price. When tweets show a college coach's interaction with a trainer or 7-on-7 coach, it validates them in the eyes of the players and raises eyebrows among high school coaches.
"In the state of Texas," Hardeman said, "that's a problem."
It's a reminder that Texas recruiting comes with some different unspoken rules than the primary grounds Fisher recruited at Florida State.
"That's the way people operate in Florida," Joseph said. "They don't operate like that in Texas. I think he's finding out more and more about that, too. You don't necessarily have to meet with those people."
Herman, with a few more years' experience in the diplomacy of this Texas cold war -- which he says helps him combat misperceptions -- aims to educate the high school coaches who might have some hurt feelings.
"There is an element of 'we've got to do business the way business is done,'" Herman said. "It's not our job to change the way things are; it's our job to find out who the influential people are in a young man's life and make sure that we build relationships with them."