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Call him The Closer

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When Cam Saddler awoke Tuesday morning, the Gateway football star said he “was about 80 percent sure” he was going to make a verbal commitment to Virginia.

Less than 36 hours later, Saddler chose Pitt in what had to be considered one of the biggest recruiting surprises of the Class of 2008. In May, Pitt pulled its scholarship offer to Saddler, a 5-foot-7, 150-pound receiver/return specialist. In late June, Gateway All-American linebacker Shayne Hale eliminated Pitt from contention.

Six months later, Saddler picked the Panthers.

What swayed Saddler was a home visit from Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who has a reputation as one of the game’s best recruiters because of his ability to close the deal on premier prospects.

When informed Tuesday that Saddler’s final decision could come down to the home visits, one Pitt assistant treated the impending commitment as a mere formality. “When it comes to home visits,” football development coordinator Mike Antonoplos said, “I’ll take our guy over anyone.”

So will Saddler.

“Coach Wannstedt came over and made a big impression on me,” Saddler said. “I said, ‘This is the place for me.’ It was the things he told me, my mom and my dad. There was a comfort that he took to another level.”

The night didn’t start out that way.

Wannstedt and defensive line coach Greg Gattuso, who deserves plenty of credit as Saddler’s primary recruiter, visited Saddler’s home only five minutes after West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez left.

“We just had burgers and fries,” Saddler said, “but before I could finish my meal, they were at the door.”

Wannstedt came armed with confidence, aided by a successful Saturday that saw him sign a three-year contract extension and get a signature victory by spoiling No. 2 West Virginia’s BCS Championship hopes in the biggest upset in the 100-year history of the Backyard Brawl. Yet Wannstedt got grilled immediately, as the Saddlers had their reservations about Pitt, questions they wanted answered.

“I had a sister, Chequel, that went there and just graduated this April,” Saddler said. “My mom (Darlene) is a strong-willed person. She didn’t think Pitt was the right place for my sister. You know how parents are. My mom wants the best for me. Coach Wannstedt really cleared that up with her. Once he did that, she pretty much fell in love with him. He’s a great talker and he can relate very well.”

George Saddler wanted to know why the Panthers pulled their scholarship offer to his son in May, and wanted to make sure Cam was a priority and not just a notch in the belt. Wannstedt explained the circumstances – at the time, Pitt believed it would have only 15 scholarships to offer – and outlined his plans for Saddler.

“That was big with my dad, but coach Wannstedt explained that, too,” Saddler said. “His concern was he didn’t want to recruit just a kick return man. He wanted to recruit a football player. He said once he saw me at their seven-on-seven camp, he saw my leadership ability and that I was a playmaker. For him to come to me and be enough of a man to tell me that he messed up, that was real big. With my dad, that was real big that he came in apologizing.”

Gateway coach Terry Smith has found that former NFL coaches tend to be effective recruiters because of their straightforward approach, and said Wannstedt’s no-nonsense tactics made a strong impression.

More importantly, Saddler said Wannstedt related well to his family both as a parent himself and especially as white coach who was at ease with an African-American family.

“When he came to the house, he felt so comfortable,” Saddler said. “I just thought that was cool.”

Only problem was that Saddler was left torn between Pitt and Virginia, which had recruited him the hardest. Virginia coach Al Groh visited Gateway Wednesday morning, thinking he was putting the finishing touches on the deal.

“I told him when he first got there that things were still up in the air,” Saddler said. “Early in the week I was pretty sure. I got a little nervous and told him how I felt.”

After school, Saddler and his friends followed their post-season routine of going home and playing NCAA Football on PlayStation2. At about 4:30 p.m., he called his parents and sister upstairs and told them that, with their blessing, he was staying home and picking the hometown Panthers.

“This was about relationships and going with my gut and knowing I could come home if I needed to,” Saddler said. “Me seeing them and them seeing me was big.”

Now, Saddler plans to turn recruiter for the Panthers. Hale is expected to give Pitt consideration and the Panthers are in better shape with Gateway juniors Dorian Bell and Corey Brown, who have early scholarship offers. Central Catholic quarterback Tino Sunseri is close to choosing the Panthers, and teammates Dan Vaughan, Quentin Williams and Andrew Taglianetti are possibilities to join him.

Saddler saw something special in Wannstedt, something that made him buck the odds and embrace the 20 percent.

“He proved to me how strong of a character, strong-willed of a man he is. He seems like a guy who’s truly about his players. That’s the kind of guy I want to play for,” Saddler said. “Once I realized what happened, I said, ‘I’m going to be a Pitt Panther. Coach Wannstedt won me over.’”

Case closed.

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