By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
As someone who spent a good part of his adult life following the careers of the kinds of athletes who have wound up in Halls of Fame, their names being Bench and Morgan and Stargell and Seaver, this is almost difficult to say.
To begin with, the subject of this dissertation has not yet even played his first professional game, yet it is pretty much without hesitation that Tavon Austin may have been the most electrifying and best athlete I have been connected with.
It is a point that was driven home in the hours before the National Football League draft this past April when the St. Louis Rams gathered him up in the first round despite the fact that you can find junior high school athletes more physically imposing than him and his 5-foot-9, 174-pound physique.
Yet there it was on Grantland.com, a website producing the most literate and insightful of today’s sports journalism, an essay by Robert Hays entitled “The Chess Piece: Tavon Austin and the Future of Skill Position Players in the NFL.”
The summer months, however, served to dull the memory of the article, although Austin has yet to do anything to prove it to be wrong, until Saturday morning when West Virginia wide receiver coach Lonnie Galloway walked into the room for a session of interviews.
Galloway is back at WVU, where he coached from 2008 to 2010 until he moved to Wake Forest for a couple of seasons.
In some ways, you cannot think of Tavon Austin without thinking of Lonnie Galloway, for Galloway is the man who recruited Tavon Austin to Morgantown.
You must go back to 2008. Galloway’s territory was mostly in Florida, but another coach felt he could offer assistance on the hottest prospect on WVU’s list, a diminutive kid out of Baltimore’s Dunbar High School whose just-completed season had produced more than 2,500 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns.
“You could tell every time he touched the field, he was the best player,” Galloway said in the Grantland.com article. “By far. When you used to watch (Michael) Jordan play, you could tell how much better he was than everybody else on the court. That’s how (Tavon) was on the football field. He was just so much better than everyone else.”
The problem was that Galloway was not alone in that observation. Everyone else in the country had seen it too and was after him. One day you might be seeing him right after the Michigan recruiter and right before the Southern Cal recruiter.
It’s the kind of thing that can go to a kid’s head, the kind of thing that can make him start thinking in terms of the legendary schools like those two or Alabama or Florida or the like.
“He handled the whole process very well,” Galloway said Saturday. “He knew he was a top player, but he stayed humble. Sometimes you get kids in this recruiting process, the way the social media plays out, that they get caught up in it.
“It was five years ago. He understood it, and we hit it off.”
Recruiting is a lot of things. It’s selling the school; it’s selling the program; it’s selling yourself … and maybe even your wife.
Lonnie Galloway admits his wife, Winslow, was involved in the recruitment, although he’d prefer for it to be looked upon as more personal than that, that she was involved because it was the right way to do things.
“The biggest thing for me with him was letting him know he’d be taken care of on the field, that he could come talk any time he needed to,” Galloway said. “Mrs. Galloway was involved a lot. We let him know he was away from home but he had someone who he could come to. I might not tell him what he wanted to hear all the time but she’d be there to listen.”
West Virginia had other things working, too.
“He was a running back but it was one of those things where we thought he could do both. You sell the program, we had Noel Devine and Jock Sanders at the time and he was a combination of both those kids. We had small, body type players and were able to get them in space and he liked that,” Galloway said.
In the end they were made for each other.
“I just had a good bond and things worked out. I didn’t try to tell him a whole bunch about expectations. I told him what we thought we could do for him over here with his talent.
“It was past the football part of it. It was one of those things where he trusted me and I trusted him. I was looking out for his best interests.”
But it is wrong to simply give Lonnie Galloway credit just for Tavon Austin.
WVU has sent two players to the NFL in the first two rounds the past two years – Austin and Bruce Irvin.
Galloway recruited Irvin, too.
“You just have to recruit the best players and if they end up in the NFL and they end up in the draft, that’s extra,” said Galloway. “To have those two guys get drafted that high, it makes you feel good because ultimately, I only want them to succeed. I want them to do well.”
Not only did Galloway coach WVU’s Austin and Stedman Bailey, drafted in the third round of the draft by St. Louis, but he either coached or recruited current Rams’ receivers Brian Quick and Chris Givens.
He helped bring Quick to Appalachian State before coming to WVU for the first time and coached Givens in his two years coaching at Wake Forest before returning to the Mountaineers last season.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.