It's September. Bill Mulligan, UC Irvine basketball coach, is on a plane headed for Las Vegas to recruit the Nevada high school player of the year. He has no chance.
Midway through the flight, another coach, this one from a fancy-schmancy, big-time basketball program, begins trading stories with Mulligan. The guy is well-known among recruiters. He gets results. Always has.
"Just visited a kid in Southern California," the coach tells Mulligan. "I've never seen the kid play, but I went into the kid's house and told him, 'You're our No. 1 prospect and you're my guy and you're going to play immediately. You're the guy I want the most."
"So what?" said Mulligan. Nothing new here.
"Yeah," says the coach, "but I've got five guys, all 6-10, just like this guy, and I told them all the same thing."
Mulligan--and it doesn't happen often--is speechless.
"I can't do that," he says.
Not that Mulligan hasn't been tempted. This past early recruiting season found Mulligan spending his time in such exotic ports of call as Rochester, Minn.; Decatur, Ind.; Peoria, Ill.; Port Huron, Mich.; Golden, Colo.; Grand Junction, Colo., and Beaumont, Calif. Chicago, too.
To get to most of these places, you need the collected works of Rand McNally and an inventive travel agent. In all, Mulligan visited 21 homes in three weeks' time.
Chicago was interesting. One recruit lived behind Comiskey Park, where the White Sox play. Mulligan and assistant coach Mike Bokosky were midway through their sales pitch when the stadium scoreboard went bonkers. Fireworks galore. Spinning lights. Explosions. Bokosky nearly slipped off his chair.
They didn't get the player.
Mulligan convinced another recruit to visit UCI. That's all Mulligan wants anyway, a chance.
So they had a barbecue on the beach. Dinner at a nice restaurant. Accommodations at a swank hotel.
They didn't get the player.
"The kid's father calls collect to tell us that the kid had picked Tulsa," says Mulligan. " Collect ."
Another player told Mulligan he chose the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay instead of UCI.
"Can you imagine trading Newport Beach for Green Bay?" Mulligan says. "So much for quality of life."
Mulligan's top recruit, a 6-10 center from Beaumont, told Mulligan that UCI was among his final five choices. But on his way back from a visit to Syracuse, the recruit decided to commit. Syracuse says fine, except that they just received a commitment from another 6-10 player. This means less playing time. The recruit changed his mind; he was going to Oregon State. Mulligan couldn't believe it.
"You question a Southern California kid who, first of all, wants to live in the snow, and then he chooses the rain."
Mulligan has heard it all, of course. Several years ago, a recruit's mother began crying when her son chose another school over UCI. Mulligan turned to Bokosky.
"Hey, Bo, we did a great job on the mother and a . . . on the kid," he said.
But this last time around was different. His recruiting budget was at an all-time high. He had the newly constructed Bren Center available. He carried with him a 12-minute videotape that highlighted the virtues of the university.
And still, the Anteaters almost went 0 for the United States. Had Brett Pagett of Los Alamitos High School not signed, Mulligan still would have four scholarships available.
Now he has three and all sorts of doubts.
"One reason, I think, is that we have the five freshmen in the program," he says. "I'm groping now. I'm hoping that's one of the reasons.
"We've almost cried sometimes. What you feel like is a rejected suitor. You say, 'How could a kid not come with me?' "
Theories abound. Too few majors at UCI. Too-high grade requirements. Too few times on television. Too close for Orange County recruits. Too far for anyone east of the Continental Divide. Too obscure a school. Too absurd a nickname.
Mulligan has enough scholarships to field a front line, but no one to give them to. "We're going to have to re-evaluate everything we did," he says.
Everything except ethics. Those stay, says Mulligan.
"If I had sat down three of the kids we recruited and said, 'You're the guys I want,' I maybe could have gotten them," says Mulligan. "But unless you're North Carolina, or Duke, or maybe Indiana or Notre Dame, you almost have to lie to get kids. We can't choose, so we get the best we can.
"I'm not saying I'm a great human being, but I won't lie."
By the way, Mulligan and the gang are 2-0. Here's to them.