MU cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford tricked everyone at Vashon High School in St. Louis. Except for the player he was recruiting: wide receiver Will Franklin, a Vashon junior at the time.
Franklin didn’t believe what people were telling him. He couldn’t see in Ford what others said they saw.
He knew the truth.
Ford is not his father.
“First of all, they knew him because they thought he was my father,” Franklin said. “He would come in, and they’d be like, ‘Will, you look just like him,’ and I’d be like, ‘No, he don’t look like me.’”
The joke continued after everyone found out Ford hadn’t raised one of the city’s most talented athletes, but was instead trying to bring him to MU.
“Whenever he came to school, I would get an announcement over the intercom: ‘Will, your dad’s in the building,’” Franklin said.
Franklin didn’t receive a lot of attention from coaches that year. Nicknamed “The Helicopter” for his hovering leaps on the basketball court, he was grounded after moving to Vashon from Beaumont High School in 2002. Transfer rules kept him off the field.
But Ford wasn’t solely interested in Franklin’s 40-inch vertical jump. He wanted to know how Franklin was performing in the classroom.
“A lot of coaches really don’t pay too much attention when a kid sits out a year of sports,” Franklin said. “That’s something Coach Ford and the staff did. That brought me closer to him.”
For Ford and his counterparts, this Saturday’s game against Illinois in St. Louis isn’t the city’s only college football competition. Every year, schools battle to recruit its star players. Since 2001, Ford has been Missouri’s representative in St. Louis, and he has been successful in attracting recruits for the Tigers.
Teams were going after wide receiver Jeremy Maclin in 2005 during his senior year at Kirkwood High School like popular girls clamoring for the affection of a homecoming king. Even after verbally committing to Oklahoma, universities across the nation were still pursuing him, including top-ranked programs such as Ohio State, Nebraska, Notre Dame and UCLA. Missouri was interested as well.
The other schools went after Maclin like backstabbing cheerleaders trying to force him to take sides, but Missouri was the confident girl occasionally catching Maclin’s eye in the hallway.
The school’s subtlety won him over.
“Mizzou was the only school who said, ‘Play how it is. We’re gonna be here. Just take your time and make sure you made the right decision,’” Maclin said. “Everybody else was trying to pressure me saying I got to give up that school and this school.”
Maclin was also happy that someone was interested in more than what he could do on the field.
“Ford was the only guy who not only was trying to talk to me as a coach,” Maclin said, “but as a person as well.”
Cornerback Darnell Terrell was also impressed with Ford’s sincerity during recruiting.
“He came to me like a friend, not somebody who’s talking to me about the business aspect of just school … just trying to give me that whatever, whatever,” he said.
St. Louis becomes Ford’s home after the Tigers’ season ends in December. Trying to court recruits before the official signing day in early February, Ford visits schools during the week and returns home to his wife, son and daughter in Columbia on the weekend.
Ford wouldn’t be a successful used car salesman. He’s too straightforward.
“I’m not much of a BS’er at all,” Ford said. “I like to tell coaches exactly where we stand, good or bad. … They might not always agree with you, but I think in the long run they respect that.”
But he doesn’t lack charisma. He learns everybody’s name, not just the recruits and coaches.
“You gotta know the secretaries because they can get you the ‘ins,’” Ford said.
Ford’s approach has yielded players who are contributing for the Tigers, not just taking up space on the bench. They include including starting cornerback Hardy Ricks and his backup Carl Gettis, along with Franklin, Maclin and Terrell.
That success is an encouraging sign for recruits.
“When you see a guy coming from your hometown and being successful here, that makes you think, ‘Well, I want to go here and be like that person,’” Maclin said.
Ford would love for his recruits to watch Maclin and others on Saturday. But since the Tigers are the visiting team, he isn’t allowed to give them tickets.
“It’s hard to tell my guys, my recruits, to go to Illinois to get tickets,” he said.
Their rapport is about more than free seats.
“When you’re the recruiter, you’re building a relationship,” he said. “It’s the smiles and the chuckles and all that kind of the stuff during recruiting, and you’re loving them up. It’s not phony.”
Those relationships don’t end after recruiting. Ford and Franklin have assumed the roles everyone at Vashon believed they shared.
“I kind of look at him as a younger son,” Ford said.
Like his early visits to check on Franklin in St. Louis, Ford is concerned about more than just the receiver’s NFL draft prospects.
“I’m very proud of what he’s done so far, and I tell him all the time, ‘Not all you can do for me is obviously play well this year, but get your degree and graduate,’” he said. “‘Then I’ll be a happy, happy man.’”