Friendly Rivals: Former coworkers Cooney, Herron now recruiting against each other
By noon of Aug. 1, 2020, it appeared Miami director of recruiting David Cooney would soon have bragging rights over close friend and former coworker, Florida assistant director of player personnel John Herron.
Both programs were pursuing a handful of prospects at Miami Palmetto, and Cooney had been telling Herron the Gators would get shut out at the high school.
“‘Y’all are going 0-for-5!’ He thought it would be a clean sweep,” Herron said.
Things began trending that way on the first of the month. The initial Crystal Ball pick was logged at 11:17 a.m. from 247Sports director of football recruiting Steve Wiltfong: five-star cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. to Miami.
Wiltfong is one of the industry’s top insiders, correctly forecasting 97.1 percent of his 553 picks in the 2021 class.
“Everybody says Wiltfong is never wrong,” Herron said.
Two more 247Sports analysts predicted Miami for Marshall minutes later. Within the hour, at 11:54 a.m., UM coach Manny Diaz posted a crystal ball emoji with a GIF of an exploding planet on Twitter.
“That put Florida on high alert,” Cooney said.
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The Hurricanes had just flipped four-star receiver Brashard Smith from UF on July 26, and then landed five-star defensive tackle Leonard Taylor during the first week of August. And with DT Savion Collins also pledged at the time, Marshall had three teammates in Miami’s 2021 class.
He and five-star safety Corey Collier Jr. would give the ’Canes a clean sweep.
Five days after the tweet from Diaz, however, Marshall committed to the Gators on a Thursday night phone call with head coach Dan Mullen, area recruiter Brian Johnson and Herron. When Marshall went public that Sunday, none of his Crystal Ball predictions were for Florida and Miami had received all but one.
“When they were able to pull Jason, it was like, ‘Ah, dang!’ I thought we had him, but Florida was Florida, man,” Cooney said. “To just come out of the blue like that, I was surprised.”
Collier released his commitment video the following day, choosing UF over UM and LSU. Smith and Taylor stuck with the Hurricanes, while Collins ended up at FIU.
Collier and Marshall became the first five-star recruits from Miami to sign with Florida in school history.
“People had an idea about Corey, but nobody saw Jason coming,” Herron said. “After Miami got Leonard and Brashad, they were on a roll. There were two more left and they thought they had Jason, which might get them Corey. But hey, we split them down the middle. It’s all about relationships in this game and who you know.”
Herron learned that the hard way in his first recruiting battle against Cooney. A head basketball coach at South Dade (2002-09) and Southridge (2011-16), Herron was with the Spartans when he began courting an eighth grader to join his team.
The player was Kemore Gamble.
At his middle-school games, Herron kept noticing Cooney in the stands with Gamble’s mother. Cooney convinced her to send Gamble to Coral Gables Senior High, where he was an assistant football coach.
“Hova [Herron] was like, ‘Man, how did you pull that?’ He just thought he had him, but little did he know Kemore Gamble was my cousin,” Cooney said.
Gamble later transferred to Southridge to reunite with Cooney, who had been hired as the school’s offensive coordinator. Cooney and Herron became friends during their time with the Spartans, working together on two-sport athletes (like Gamble) and helping recruits take the right college courses for enrollment.
They would even send each other potential players to try out for football or basketball, rather than hoarding all the talent for their team.
“We coached different sports, but we had the same agenda. It was always for the kids,” Herron said. “We were real big on getting them into school. A lot of our kids played both sports, too, so that’s how we started getting closer.”
Despite his basketball background, Herron’s experience in high school athletics and ties to Miami earned him a job at UF as director of on-campus recruiting in June 2016. The following month, he called up Cooney with an invite to Florida's annual 7v7 tournament.
Cooney drove up with a roster that included future Gators Gamble, Shawn Davis and C.J. Henderson, and his team won the tourney.
“It worked out because their coaches got to see our kids, and they signed three players off that team,” Cooney said. “And to see John at Florida having success and elevating to that, it kind of motivated me to take the next step in my career.”
Shortly after Southridge won the 2016 8A state championship, Cooney joined the Hurricanes football program as a quality control analyst and worked with wide receivers for two seasons. Diaz then hired him as director of recruiting in 2019.
Herron returned to UF for a second stint that August, pitting him against Cooney on the recruiting trail.
“John knows pretty much just about everybody, so when Coach Mullen brought him back I had to kind of double back on my connections,” Cooney said. “But we know our job is to piece a class together. At the end of the day, the kids aren’t coming to play for John Herron and David Cooney.
“They’re coming to play for these coaches and institutions. We just have to do our part during the process to make sure these kids and families feel as comfortable as possible.”
One way Cooney and Herron like to lighten the mood is through social media. Many prospects and parents follow both coaches on Twitter, so they see the back-and-forth banter and recruiting trash talk between the former coworkers.
“The healthy debate and Twitter comments are good because it shows recruits that guys on the staff can have fun,” Herron said. “They like it, some of our players like it. I know the fans love it.”
Staff members from rival football programs typically don’t communicate or acknowledge each other, especially on a public forum.
“We’re always going to have our fun,” Cooney said. “You never want to take the fun out of recruiting, for us or the kids. We always laugh at the fan interactions. They take it and run with it and have fun with it. We joke around, but we’re gonna get on the phone and talk later on and be good.”
Both of them are also in a group chat with Hurricanes cornerbacks coach DeMarcus Van Dyke. He and defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson are expected to improve UM’s recruiting efforts in Dade County and South Florida.
The Gators lost area recruiter Johnson this offseason, but will continue to prioritize Miami with tight ends coach Tim Brewster and new assistant director of player personnel Corey Bell on staff.
“It’s going to be a little tougher now because they got T-Rob and Van Dyke on the road, but I still like our chances with Bell and Brew,” Herron said. “We all know Brew went down there and got the best running back from Florida probably in the last 20 years, Dalvin Cook.
“And before the coaching changes, don’t forget that Bell had Frank Ladson and Tyrique Stevenson committed. And now we got Garrick McGee, who coached Lamar Jackson. We got heavy hitters, so there are going to be some battles.”
Regardless of how they play out, the results won’t complicate or disrupt the long-standing relationship between Cooney and Herron. Like their Southridge days, they offer each other advice or intel on prospects who aren’t being recruited by their school.
After helping countless high school athletes from Miami earn college scholarships, Cooney and Herron are now extending those opportunities to the next generation of players.
“For us to kind of reach back into our old neighborhoods, I love it,” Cooney said. “Of course a kid has to have the ability, but being able to send out those offers is a blessing and I’m pretty sure John holds the same sentiment. We kind of cross paths, but there’s mutual respect.
“His recruiting area is pretty much down in South Florida where I am, and we’re looking at all the same kids. But we never really want to step on toes when it comes to recruiting because no matter what, we both want what’s best for these kids.”