Florida Gator Great Keiwan Ratliff now recruiting top talent | Player-Turned-Staffer
Two years after hanging up his cleats, Keiwan Ratliff found a way to stay connected to football by coaching 7v7.
The success of his Rat Pak team, along with a tweet that fired up the Florida fan base, landed him a job at UF in 2019 as an assistant director of player personnel. His playing days certainly helped as well.
Ratliff had a decorated four-year career with the Gators, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American honors in 2003. He still owns the single-season school record with nine interceptions that year.
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Ratliff's 7-year NFL career and his Orlando connections
An Ohio native, Ratliff returned to his home state as a second-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals and had three stints with the team during his seven-year NFL career. Wanting to stay close to the game, he started Rat Pak out of the Orlando area in 2014.
“I was just doing it because I loved football and wanted to give back,” Ratliff said. “I had a chance to travel and coach kids from around the country who loved the game like I did. And of course I’m a competitor, so I wanted to win.”
Ratliff won his first tournament with his inaugural 7v7 team and never looked back. That group featured future Florida and NFL safeties Keanu Neal and Marcell Harris.
Ratliff continued to acquire elite talent over the years, including NFL defensive backs Derwin James, Duke Dawson and J.C. Jackson, and Rat Pak won the Adidas East Coast Invitational championship in 2018.
That fall, Ratliff coached in the Legends Showcase and put together a team loaded with top recruits. He retweeted a photo of his East roster with the caption: “I’m the best recruiter in the country not getting paid.”
'Gator Nation started going crazy'
By that night, his post was on every Florida message board and had made the rounds on Twitter.
“After I said that, Gator Nation started going crazy,” Ratliff recalled. “Gator Twitter is ruthless and they started blowing it up. I don’t know if it was a coincidence or not, but a month later I got a call from Vernell Brown.”
Brown was Ratliff’s teammate at UF and then coached with him on the 7v7 circuit. They were actually in the process of expanding Rat Pak together, but Brown was hired by first-year coach Dan Mullen as his director of player development.
“When Vernell took a different career path, that kind of hampered my plans,” Ratliff said. “But, then I stepped into another opportunity that Vernell kind of opened the door for me by going to UF and putting me on Mullen’s radar. 7v7 had kind of groomed me for recruiting because it became very, very competitive as far as getting players.
“So Vernell hit me up and just started feeling me out, wanting to know what my interest was in joining the recruiting staff. I was going to take an opportunity to come back to UF no matter what the position was, honestly. Vernell started kicking the tires and about four months after that vague conversation, I was heading home.”
Given his background with Rat Pak, Ratliff’s new job responsibilities included organizing Florida’s 7v7 tournament. UF typically had eight to 10 teams compete every year, with the biggest turnout being 12.
Ratliff wanted to make a splash that first summer.
“Right away, now I gotta outdo 12. I’m thinking to myself, that ain’t a 7v7 tournament. I’m used to these big two-day tournaments like Pylon and Adidas where there are 50 or 60 teams,” Ratliff said. “So me trying to show off and show Coach Mullen he got the right guy for 7v7, I bring in 36 teams.”
Rookie mistake ruffles Coach Mullen
Ratliff tripled the turnout, but there was a problem.
He didn’t know Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was off limits, so all the games had to be held at Sanders Practice Fields. In addition to the 7v7 tournament, UF also had a skills camp and an OL/DL camp that same day at the indoor practice facility.
Then the rain came.
“Now we gotta run everybody in the indoor, and they already have both camps going on inside there. So we didn’t have enough space and enough fields,” Ratliff said. “Coach Mullen went off. ‘Who brought all these kids in here?!’
“But I didn’t know no better. I just wanted to show I can get all these high school teams here, but it backfired on me. I still brag that we’ve never had that many teams before.”
That first tournament provided a glimpse of his connections, and he’s proved to be a valuable member of Mullen’s recruiting staff. Ratliff has helped the coaches land several prospects in the past two classes, including four-star wide receiver Marcus Burke and four-star defensive backs Donovan McMillon and Ethan Pouncey.
“Guys that played here like Keiwan, they love and care about this program so much,” Mullen said. “They can explain to guys, ‘Hey, this is what to expect. This is what being a Gator can do for you.’ They’ve been through what it was like to be a player here and they personally have that experience to be able to help out.”
Despite that 2018 tweet from Ratliff and his subsequent success on the trail, he doesn’t like to be labeled as a recruiter. He thinks that’s another term for a used car salesman, and that’s not the way he interacts with prospects.
“I didn’t come to Florida to recruit. I came to Florida to build relationships and tell kids my story. That’s why I think I’m a great person for the job that I’m in now because I’ve lived through everything they’re going to go through and I actually made it out,” Ratliff said. “If that helps me guide a kid to choose Florida, then so be it. But you ask any kid that talks to me, I don’t call them and talk about recruiting. That’s not me. That’s not what I do.
“Kids want to build bonds with people. It’s hard sometimes to trust all these coaches that are just selling them. It takes a genuine relationship and genuine answers to get them to understand where you’re coming from. It’s just about how you treat people and being up front.”
A month after hiring Ratliff, Mullen tabbed former Gators defensive back Charlie Skalaski as his director of player personnel. Ratliff works closely with him in recruiting, while Brown handles player development and former UF standout Reggie McGrew trains defensive linemen on Nick Savage’s strength and conditioning staff.
“I just think it’s invaluable,” Ratliff said, “because the players are going to trust us a little more because they see us as brothers. And we’ve got guys at every layer of the program — the recruiting process, the player process and the developmental process — who can help players and talk them through it.
“So that’s huge to have guys like us around. We bleed orange and blue. We’re here out of love. Of course it’s a job for us, but we love the program. We gave everything we could on the field for it.”
Coaching 'itch' and wanting to stay a Gator
Ratliff, 39, is grateful to still be around the game and working for his alma mater. After achieving his first dream job in the NFL, he now has a new one.
Ratliff hopes to become like Florida State’s Odell Haggins or LSU’s Corey Raymond, a former player who returns to his school and stays a longtime staff member. And after having a front-row seat to Florida football the last two seasons, Ratliff admits he’s got the itch to get back into coaching at some point.
“I would love to be one of those program guys like Odell or Raymond. I’d be the damn punt return coach or nickel coach for the next 20 years, however long I’m still able to be a Gator,” Ratliff said. “But the itch of being around the game is burning bad, just being this close to it and not having any input.
“You put a kid in a candy store, he wants a taste. So that part is killing me. But I got 100 teammates that would trade places with me right now. I’m just happy that my University opened the door for me to get into the college game. When I started Rat Pak, this wasn’t my end goal. But I love how it all played out.”