The Athletic’s Jesse Temple interviewed former Wisconsin director of player personnel Saeed Khalif in-depth earlier this week, diving into why he left Wisconsin for Michigan State and what was the story of his time in Madison.
Khalif’s move back in late May was a shock, as he’d quickly elevated Wisconsin’s recruiting profile during his time with the program and had just capped off a 2021 recruiting effort that saw the class finish No. 16 in the nation.
Since his departure, there were more questions than answers relating to how Michigan State was able to pry him from Wisconsin and what the program may have lacked during his time there.
Well, some of those questions have been answered, as the program did not allocate Khalif enough resources to fulfill his vision for the department, Michigan State offered him more control and Wisconsin had a sense of complacency when it comes to their recruiting profile.
The article is a great one and is well worth the read. But here are my five takeaways from Khalif’s answers in the piece:
Wisconsin has a true potential to elevate their recruiting status
Sep 1, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst celebrates with his players after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against Utah State at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports
When Khalif arrived in Madison in 2017, the program was fresh off 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes that ranked No. 41 and No. 35 in the nation respectively. The program had hovered around that spot for years, always putting forth a solid effort in recruiting but never rising into the tier of college football powerhouses. On the field, it still obviously led to a lot of success. But imagine what the program could do if the talent coming in was equitable to that of Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State. That’s where Khalif came in, as his efforts led to a No. 29-ranked class in 2019 that included Graham Mertz and Logan Brown, a No. 26-ranked group in 2020 and a No. 16-ranked 2021 class that was the best the program’s ever seen. So even though Wisconsin is far up north and doesn’t have the in-state talent of some southern states, we’ve seen the program show real potential recently in the department and an overall movement towards the top of the conference. Much of that was thanks to Khalif, as the way he took advantage of summer visits beginning in 2018, the way he built relationships with the players and families and the way he sold Wisconsin all clearly culminated in impressive recruiting outputs. Here’s what he had to say when asked whether the Wisconsin program can maintain top-15 or top-20 recruiting classes:
I think when they get the right (recruiting staffer) in place and they allow them to do it. If they get a person with experience and vision and give them the resources to execute a plan and Coach Chyrst supports them by giving them buy-in because the assistant coaches follow the lead of the head coach, they’ll be right back in those numbers. Because the place didn’t change. The experience, the student life doesn’t change. Madison is still a great town to be in. You experience all four seasons. Spring and summer are probably better than anywhere else in the country that I’ve been. Those things still stand true. The level of the degree is still a quality degree. The level of football as long as they continue to track and be the hard-working program that the culture is built on, they’re going to win. They’ve just got to tell the story to the kids, and sometimes the best kids don’t always reside in your backyard. One of the differences that I found is I could tell the kids the same story in California and Georgia and Florida. Not that they weren’t getting them before. But it became a destination. It became, “Yeah, I want to go there. That’s different.”
So whether it’s with Khalif at the forefront of the recruiting push or someone else, Wisconsin is undoubtedly a program and school that has the ability to elevate its recruiting profile.
But although they’re able…are they committed to do it?
Nov 24, 2018; Madison, WI, USA; The Wisconsin Badgers offense huddles during the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
This is the big question, and after reading the article my answer would lean towards no. Khalif discussed how the athletic department only gave him four full-time staffers during the height of his time with the football program, and only one throughout the last year (Jensen Gebhart, who joined Khalif at Michigan State). The Spartan program gave him 12, including more power with player personnel and an overall commitment to his vision. The former Wisconsin staffer explained how his goal at Wisconsin was “to recruit with the national presence of its (win-loss) records. The school had football success on the field for decades running. I wanted recruiting to get the same level of prowess and attention, so that you could get the higher level, the better quality of athlete. They do a tremendous job of developing those players that others would overlook. But I was like, ‘Let’s get some of these better players and develop their skills and see how much different we can be.'” However, Khalif explained how the program was not fully committed to his vision. “There was a level of complacency, a level of comfort with what was being done,” Khalif said. “And the championships still eluded them. So we’ve got to get uncomfortable to go to spaces we want to get at.” Specifically, he mentions how instead of following his requests and investing in his vision, those within the athletic department often responded to his requests with “‘We’re working on it. We’ll get back to you. I need more time.'” And it wasn’t only Khalif that felt this way, as Jensen Gebhart—his only full-time staffer throughout the pandemic—also felt frustrated with how everything was being handled. “I’m pretty sure, not to put his business out there, he felt a level of frustration with the situation there,” Khalif said. “And then just coaching him and talking to him, he was prepared to leave the business altogether and then do what was best for his family.” And if you want the biggest indication as to the difference between what Michigan State offers and what Wisconsin does, see the end of Khalif’s answer about his colleague.
I went in and I said, “Mel, I’ve got a guy that speaks my language and can make things a little smoother in transition for me. Would you be interested?” And he said, “Hey, it’s your department. Do what you need to.” That was the first time I have heard that in 10 years, so I was ecstatic.
There are numerous anecdotes throughout the piece that point to this main theme: Wisconsin not allocating enough resources to the recruiting department and Khalif specifically. Some of the story is told directly by Wisconsin’s former director of player personnel, with the rest coming from seeing the difference in what he can now do at Michigan State. So even though the program may still find loads of success both on the field and on the recruiting trail in the coming years, there will always be the ‘what if’ surrounding their lack of commitment to Khalif’s vision and recruiting plans.
Saeed Khalif did a remarkable job given the resources his department received
Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics
Even with limited people resources, Khalif’s work in the football program will prove over time to be quite remarkable. There are the class rankings I went through above, but there’s also the overall mantra surrounding Wisconsin football that seemed to be changing while he was at the helm. He explains this perfectly at the end of Temple’s article:
Again, I would say my time would be marked with one of my greatest professional accomplishments in recruiting happening for me right there at Wisconsin. What makes me proud is that I stuck to my guns and I was willing to toe the line for what I believed and how I could get it done, despite whether others supported it or not.
The key words there: “I was willing to toe the line for what I believed and how I could get it done, despite whether others supported it or not.” I mean, he landed the highest-ranked quarterback the program’s seen (Graham Mertz), two five-star offensive linemen (Logan Brown, Nolan Rucci) and numerous high-caliber recruits from nearby Big Ten states. We’ll see it play out on the field in the coming years, but it’s already abundantly clear how much Saeed Khalif meant to the Wisconsin football program during his time there.
Khalif’s time at Wisconsin could still prove to be the most valuable recruiting tool out there
Oct 29, 2016; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers cornerback Sojourn Shelton (8) celebrates during the game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin won 23-17. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Arguably the greatest recruiting tool is winning football games. We see it at the top with Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State consistently winning and churning out top-5 classes, and we see the opposite elsewhere with programs that struggle for a few years on the field, and then proceed to struggle to land recruits. This is maybe the only positive we can take away from the last few months: the 2019-2021 recruiting classes are getting set to lead the program for the next 2-3-4 years and it is lining up to be an impressive stretch of football. Yes, Khalif is no longer at the forefront of the program’s recruiting. But if Mertz, Jalen Berger, Braelon Allen and company can lead the Badgers to a few Big Ten Championships? That will prove to be a huge recruiting tool in and of itself. So, overall, this entire situation is frustrating to watch play out after what the last few years have been like on the recruiting trail. But this is no end-of-the-world scenario, as this is still one of the best football programs in the country. However, I will ask the ‘what-if’ down the road—if these recruits lead the program to a heightened level of success—about Khalif’s tenure at Wisconsin and what the program could have done to keep him around.
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