By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Clearly, the underground railroad is up and running from Pittsburgh to Morgantown, and Tony Gibson is the engineer.
He coaches West Virginia University’s defensive backs, which in and of itself is a challenging and important assignment in as wide open a league as is the Big 12, but perhaps even more challenging and more important is his recruiting assignment, which is recruiting Western Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh area.
Everyone suspects there has to be times when Gibson enters areas of Pittsburgh feeling like Custer entering Little Big Horn.
Let’s just say they don’t exactly lay out the welcome mat when the Mountaineers come trying to pry away recruits from their most hated rival.
So what! It doesn’t bother Gibson, who’s been doing it for a long time.
Each year, it seems, WVU has great success in the Pittsburgh area, and this year was no exception as he went into Aliquippa and got a commitment from four-star cornerback Dravon Henry on Monday and from his teammate, three-star defensive lineman Jaleel Fields on Wednesday.
How much deeper can you go into the enemy territory than Aliquippa, which just happens to be the hometown of one Tony Dorsett, perhaps the greatest football player Pitt ever turned out.
Up until Geno Smith came to WVU from Florida, the Pittsburgh area had been the breeding ground for great WVU quarterbacks.
Think about it.
There’s Major Harris, Marc Bulger, Rasheed Marshall and Bernie Galiffa while Jeff Hostetler and Jake Kelchner weren’t from very far away in Pennsylvania.
Other prominent players from the Pittsburgh area included defensive backs Mike Logan, Eric Wicks, Vaughn Rivers, Ryan Mundy and Charles Fisher; offensive linemen Don Barclay and Pat Eger; placekicker Pat McAfee; and defensive lineman Will Clarke.
Now you can add Dravon Henry, who many considered the best football player from the Pittsburgh area in this year’s recruiting class, making it quite a recruiting coup for Gibson … and you have to give him a lot of credit on this one.
If you listen to what Henry and his mother, Shanell Henry, had to say, you understand the role Gibson played.
“It felt like home when he was talking to me,” Henry told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I didn’t have that feeling at Pitt. No offense to coach (Matt) House (Pitt’s defensive coordinator). I hope we can still have a friendship. I don’t want anybody hating me because I didn’t go to their school.”
As important was the way he dealt with Henry’s mother.
“My mom was tough,” Henry said to the paper. “She asked some hard questions.”
And it was Gibson, of all the recruiters, who had the best answers.
“Just the look in his eyes,” Shanell Henry said. “He was real straight-forward. He was not trying to give us a dream that Dravon was going to start.”
But Gibson didn’t tell him he wouldn’t start, either.
“Coach Gibson told me you can start, but, ‘It’s up to you.’ Every other college, they told me, ‘We need you.’”
Henry said Gibson’s reputation for developing defensive backs was important.
“I want to go to the NFL, and I think that’s my best shot. Coach Gibson has sent 14 defensive backs to the NFL. That’s a lot,” he said.
There was a previous connection, Charles Fisher being his cousin. Fisher was a second-team, All-Big East cornerback on the 1998 Mountaineers who was a second-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. His career ended in his first game when he tore all three of his knee ligaments.
Fisher is now working as an agent with former WVU defensive tackle John Thornton in Cincinnati, but has kept up on Henry.
“I go home to see him once or twice a year. He really can play,” Fisher said. “He’s going to play defensive back. I was a scout for a lot of years (for the Seattle Seahawks), and if he wanted to play running back, he’d be one of the best running backs in the country.
“But he made the right decision wanting to play defensive back. It’s something we traditionally put out at Aliquippa. He can do a lot of good things with the ball in his hands or without the ball in his hands.”
Considering that Fisher was one of the best corners ever to play at WVU, he was asked how Henry compares to him.
“It’s hard to compare myself to anyone. At Aliquippa, there have been probably six defensive backs that were either really, really good and three or four who were special. I think he ranks in that group of special backs because he can do so many different things.
“He has great ball skills. He has size, and the one thing people take for granted and don’t know much about when it comes to a kid like this is his mentality, the drive, how they want to play. From the time Dray was real small he’s always been around, asking questions … not just of me but of Darrelle Revis and the others.
“He’s one of those kids that want to get better. I don’t want to compare physical skills, but he’s a lot like Revis, who was around me a lot when he was younger asking a lot of questions. It was the same with Ty Law, kids who were curious about how to get better, about learning the game.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.