By David Fong
Regional Sports Content Director
TROY — In the summer of 2011, the late, great Troy football coach Jim Conard sat in a Perkins restaurant in Sidney, telling tales of the 1971 Troy team, widely regarded as one of the best not only in school history, but in Ohio high school football history.
As he was eating his eggs and hash browns, Conard told the recruiting story of former Troy defensive tackle Dave Starkey.
“He was all set to go to Ohio State,” Conard said of the 6-foot-6, 270-pound lineman who — had recruiting services existed back then, almost certainly would have been a 5-star prospect. “But then he took his recruiting trip down to Florida. From what I heard, when they picked him up at the airport, they picked him up in a convertible car filled with girls in bikinis. Once they did that, that was it. He came back and said, ‘That’s it. I’m going to the University of Florida.’”
Conard sipped his coffee, leaned back in his chair, letting a deep laugh escape from his barrel chest.
“Woody Hayes wasn’t too happy about that,” he said.
Starkey — who was, in fact, recruited by every major program in the country — tells the story a little different.
“There’s always been a lot of stories like that told about me,” said Starkey, now a chiropractor in Tennessee. “It didn’t happen quite that way. I don’t remember any convertible and I don’t remember any girls in bikinis. Now do I remember them introducing me to a lot of pretty girls? Sure … they definitely did that.”
Earlier this week, four Troy High School football players signed to play football at the colleges of their choice on National Signing Day. While none of them had recruiting tales nearly as interesting as Starkey’s, Troy has produced dozens upon dozens of top-tier recruits in more than a century of play — and some of them do have interesting stories to tell … many of which only seem to get better with age.
One of Starkey’s teammates on that epic 1971 Troy team was running back Gordon Bell. The speedy halfback was recruited heavily by every program in the Midwest — with one notable exception. While Ohio State did recruit Bell, Hayes and the Buckeyes were slightly more enamored with a different undersized halfback in Ohio and focused most of its recruiting efforts on him instead of Bell.
That running back was two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin.
Bell — who attended St. Patrick School and St. Patrick Church in Troy — would initially make a pledge to play his college football at the University of Notre Dame, but would eventually sign his letter of intent to play at the University of Michigan. As it turned out, things worked out for both Ohio State and Michigan. Griffin would earn a pair of Heismans in Columbus, while Bell would go on to earn All-Big Ten and All-American honors at Michigan.
Despite Griffin’s awards, legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler still thought he got the better end of the deal.
When the two teams met in 1975, Bell outrushed Griffin with 21 carries for 124 yards, while Griffin finished with 19 carries for 46 yards — but Ohio State still ended up beating Michigan 21-14.
“Gordon Bell is the most valuable player in the league,” Schembechler told the Troy Daily News in a Nov. 24, 1975 story after the game. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
Hayes agreed that Bell certainly was one of the top running backs in the Big Ten.
“Oh, he’s a fine athlete,” Hayes said in that same Troy Daily News story. “But we knew that in high school.”
Of course, Hayes didn’t always miss out on Troy running backs he recruited.
In the 1950s, Hayes was hot and heavy on the trail of former Trojan fullback Bob Ferguson. According to legend, former Troy High School coach Lou Juillerat had a special film room set up at the school for college coaches to come in and watch film of his star recruit. Hayes, it’s reported, spent many hours in that room at Troy. Ferguson’s place at Ohio State was sealed, however, when — according to Ferguson’s family members — Hayes came to Ferguson’s house for dinner and convinced the fullback’s mother Ohio State was the place for her son.
Ferguson would go on to become a two-time All-American for the Buckeyes and was the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1961.
Former Ohio State head coach John Cooper — by his own choice — didn’t have nearly as much success recruiting Troy running back Ryan Brewer, the player who broke nearly all of Ferguson’s school rushing records at Troy.
In 1998, Brewer rushed for 2,856 yards in 10 games — then a state single-season rushing record — on his way to earning Mr. Football Ohio honors. Despite putting up numbers that still rank in the top 10 in nearly every rushing and scoring category in Ohio High School Athletic Association history, Cooper and his staff elected not to extend an offer to Brewer.
The Buckeyes would instead recruit three running backs that season — Lebanon’s Kelton Lindsay, Cincinnati Wyoming’s Richard Hall and Upper Arlington’s Jesse Kline. Lindsay would play one season on special teams before transferring to the University of Cincinnati, Hall enrolled at Ohio State and never played a down before transferring to Cincinnati and Kline played sparingly for two seasons before ending his football career due to injuries the summer before his junior year at Ohio State.
Brewer, meanwhile, would go on to play for Lou Holtz at the University of South Carolina. In 2001, he would meet Cooper’s Buckeyes on the football field in the Outback Bowl. Brewer rushed for more than 100 yards, scored three touchdowns and was named the game’s most valuable player.
The next day, Cooper was fired.
This century, recruiting has become big business. There are numerous websites that offer subscriptions to fans who want to follow the recruiting efforts of their favorite schools. Signing day has become a major event, with signings frequently taking place in front of packed gymnasiums on national television.
Not so long ago, however, it was far more low-key.
In 1986, Troy tight end/linebacker Kevin Mescher was being recruited nationally. His final two choices came down to the University of Michigan and Stanford. When he signed on the dotted line, it wasn’t televised nationally and didn’t take place in front of hundreds of people.
According to a 1986 article in the Troy Daily News, Mescher signed with Stanford while sitting on his parents’ couch at their home on Banbury Road in Troy.
He was watching a “Transformers” cartoon on the television.