For the coaches, the first month after the start of official practice would be, in many ways, the most nerve-wracking portion of the season. Not only was there the business of launching a new team to attend to, they also were locked in battle against one of the most feared opponents of all: high school recruits.
Five years earlier, the National Collegiate Athletic Association had begun allowing high school prospects to sign with the colleges of their choice before the season began to alleviate the pressure from, and for, recruiters. By now, it had become standard procedure for the vast majority of the top-level players to sign in November, so it was vital for colleges to sign the majority of their recruits then. Toward the end of the high school season, when the signing period resumed, the flesh market would resemble an old carcass that had been picked over by buzzards. Some talent still would be available, but not enough to provide sustenance for many of the elite teams.
For Purdue, this recruiting season was particularly crucial. Six scholarships were available, and the coaches thought it was essential to sign at least five players – players who no doubt would provide the foundation for the program’s future strength.
Four years earlier, in the 1983-84 season, Keady had directed a patchwork team of lightly-recruited talent that had been picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten to the conference championship. That same season, he and his coaching staff, after being frustrated in previous efforts to sign the top high school players, broke through and landed Lewis, Mitchell and Stephens, all within a few days of each other, during the early signing period. Those three in turn became the nucleus of the team that won the next Big Ten title in ’87, with considerable help from the other starters, Lee and McCants, and classmate Arnold, a late bloomer who had not been highly recruited.
The next group of recruits, by sheer number alone, figured to be just as influential. Some of them would have to contribute as freshmen, either off the bench or as starters. By the time they were juniors and seniors, they would provide the program’s next foundation, for better or worse.