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COLUMBUS — For the Ohio State football program’s resident 32-year-old going on 18, it was a delightfully white Christmas on Wednesday.
Mark Pantoni awoke at 4 a.m., cleared 10 inches of snow from his driveway, and headed to the office for the biggest day of his year. The Buckeyes were about to sign a third straight top-five recruiting class, and now coach Urban Meyer’s right-hand man — a self-made scouting guru who said it’s a good thing he doesn’t have a hobby — could at last breathe easy.
Well, maybe not.
"There’s no catching our breath," he said. "Its like brushing your teeth. You can’t take a day off from recruiting because another top school you’re recruiting against is probably talking to that kid. There’s a paranoia."
Some may know Pantoni for his cult-hero following on Twitter, where the Buckeyes’ director of player personnel christens each recruit’s verbal commitment with a "BOOM!" and live tweets the Grammy Awards ("Jay Z = Swaggernaut"). Pantoni must, he said, burrow "inside the mind of a 17- and 18-year-old," which means "tweeting out silly stuff" and staying on top of hip-hop.
Inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Complex, though, Pantoni is the indispensable coordinator of the year-round recruiting operation.
"The glue that holds it together," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said.
If Meyer was the closer of this year’s class, think of Pantoni as the starter, with the assistants as relievers.
Pantoni and his staff help compile lists of hundreds of possible recruiting targets in upcoming classes by breaking down film of thousands of prep games, seeking leads from coaches, and monitoring scouting services. For instance, if a power like Alabama or Florida State offers a recruit OSU may have missed, the Buckeyes will immediately enter the fray.
"There’s a list of schools that you over time learn to respect their opinion and evaluation," Pantoni said, noting other schools do the same when OSU extends a scholarship offer. "If they offer a kid, we’re almost guaranteed to do it, too.”
Pantoni, a former pre-med student at Florida whose path detoured when he turned an interest in recruiting into a volunteer position with Meyer’s Gators in 2005, is often the first staffer to reach out to a recruit before passing them along to the coaches. All the while, he remains in close touch with the prospects via social media, organizes their visits to campus, and coordinates the coaches’ recruiting trips.
“Guys like Mark Pantoni ... it’s almost like they’re an assistant GM or director of player personnel in professional football," ESPN national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said. "They weed out all the stuff that could get in the way of the coach focusing on who the best players are. That’s the model that’s being used to build successful programs."
Pantoni detailed the scouting process, calling a job that requires some 80 to 90 hours per week a passion that keeps him young.
It begins years out from signing day. Every potential target undergoes intense vetting, which is no small feat considering OSU offered scholarships to 187 prospects in its 23-member Class of 2014, according to 247Sports.com. Pantoni said he and his staff have watched and parsed 2,700 full high school games involving recruits in the 2014 through 2016 classes.
"We break down a minimum of two to 10 games on every single kid on our board for the coaches to evaluate," he said. "That way we aren’t just watching a two-minute highlight tape of good plays. We’re making good and bad play cuts so the coaches have a true evaluation of the players and we avoid making a mistake. If we initially screen a guy and we think he’s good enough to make it on the board, we’ll alert the area coach and position coach and say, ‘Hey, here’s a guy.’"
Pantoni, meanwhile, stays aboard as an unofficial extra recruiter. Ask new Buckeyes linebacker Raekwon McMillan, a five-star prospect from Hinesville, Ga.
"I probably messaged him every single day for two years," Pantoni said. "That was a guy I targeted and told myself I wanted to get and we had to get."
Pantoni calls the pursuit of the next blue-chip star a "relentless battle" — and one he would not trade for anything.
"I’m glad I made this decision," he said of choosing football over medical school. "I’d probably be finishing up residency and be in a lot of debt right now.”