Talk the Talk

Victoria Chow/Staff

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Kenwick Thompson's recruiting career began 12 years ago at Birraporetti's, an Italian restaurant in his native Houston. It was spring break and the Cal linebackers coach, then working at Texas Southern University, finally had some much needed time off from the job.

Thompson spotted his target at a table, surrounded by a group of friends. He made his move.

"I just kind of said, 'OK, that's the one I want,' and then I started recruiting," he says. "I told her the advantages of coming to my program in compared to somebody else's. We went on an official visit, took us a date."

Wait a second - her?

"My first recruiting job was my wife, and then I went from there."

It's fair to say that Thompson has been doing this for quite a while. And as successful has his 10-year marriage with his wife Monica has been, the Bears might be more in love with him.

Cal hired Thompson away from San Jose State in 2007 to replace the retiring Bob Foster. In five years prior, the program had totaled just one Texas recruit: Justin Forsett. Since then, the Bears have nabbed a full dozen - and the 2011 class isn't even complete yet.

Everything's bigger in Texas, starting with the state itself. Attempting to sew together a cohesive cultural fabric to cover the largest state in the continental U.S. is a near-impossible task. But from the corporate hub of Houston, to the vibrant music festivals of Austin, to the rusty pumpjacks of West Texas, one common thread has always run thick and strong.

The important things in life there are ranked something like this: God, football, family, school, football. When high school fields are bathed in the soft light of Friday nights and teenagers kneel down to pray, the place isn't a stadium anymore - it's a church.

California has produced more NFL talent - 211 players to Texas' 181 - but the gridiron doesn't grip Los Angeles or San Francisco with the same ferocity. There's a reason the Pac-10 is still regarded as a finesse conference, one that doesn't play real, smash-mouth football.

To recruit Texans, you need a Texan.

"Because of the fact he was from Houston, a Texas dude, he would know where I'm coming from " says linebacker Jarred Price, whom Thompson plucked out of Blinn College, where he's recruited for 15 years. "If he was from anywhere else besides Texas, I think it would have been hard for him to kind of talk to me, to relate to me. It's all about how you can relate to the recruiter."

You can't fake a lifetime's worth of roots, the most valuable thing in Thompson's recruiting cabinet. He spent his prep career at Houston's Nimitz High, located in the same district as Klein Forest High. That's where Thompson found safety Josh Hill and nose tackle Kendrick Payne, both two-star recruits who have now carved out part-time starting roles for Cal.

"I know the kind of football that's played there," Thompson says. "Throughout most of those schools, I know somebody. Most of the schools in Houston, if I don't know somebody there, I know somebody that knows somebody there."

But connections are only a foot in the door. It's up to Thompson to seal the deal. The man has a way of talking to players - partially because, once upon a time, he too was pulled out of Texas to attend Arkansas' Harding University.

He claims that school's reputation precedes itself, but once you stray too far from the Bay Area, people don't always make the connection between "Cal" and "Berkeley." Some credit has to go to Thompson.

To hear Price say it, Thompson has "a good mouthpiece on him." He believes in what he's selling, figuring out what it is that stands out most about his program, wherever he's working. (One laptop presentation starts with "California Love," then transitions into a montage of scenery and statistics. If 2Pac and the weather can't get someone to come out here, nothing will.)

"I felt like I could trust in what he was saying," Payne says. "I felt like he didn't come in with a lot of BS."

Thompson prepares for who he pursues. He tries to find out the kid's motivation, because he's not about to waste time on someone that's not a good fit. He pops his go-to question: "Do you always want to be thought of as a football player?"

After that, the visit is practically a formality.

"In my mind," he says. "I really feel like if I can get them on the plane, we got a good chance of getting them."


Jack Wang covers football. Contact him at [email protected]

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