The call came from former-Tennessee and now-Southern Cal recruiter Ed Orgeron, a man Duncan Byrnes High DE Brandon Willis and his father Gary had grown close to. The Trojans, Orgeron said, were offering Willis, who was committed to Tennessee, a scholarship to Southern Cal.
Then-Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin had broken the news only hours before on Tuesday; he was headed to USC and taking defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin (his dad) and Orgeron with him. The Willis’s were stunned. Kiffin had been in Knoxville less than a year.
“When coach Orgeron made that offer, I told him, ‘I gave you my word and Brandon gave you his word, and you gave us your word and then you leave,” Gary Willis said moments ago as he, his son and other family members drove toward Chapel Hill. “How do we know someone else won’t offer you $5 million and you’ll be gone again?”
Gary said many other schools also called after Kiffin switched, including Alabama and Auburn.
Some were supportive when he told them the Tar Heels’ commitment was firm. Others, not so much.
“I told them, we’re not going to open that (recruiting) book again,” Gary Willis said. “Some coaches said some nasty things, but we respect the coaches who respected our decision.”
He also said that a huge key in Brandon’s final decision was Tar Heels’ junior defensive tackle Marvin Austin, who had become good friends with Brandon.
“Marvin talked to Brandon and he talked to me late last night, and he said he hoped to play his senior year with Brandon,” Gary Willis said. “But he said wherever Brandon went, he knew he would be a baller and he would stay in touch with Brandon and support him.”
Finally, Brandon Willis (6-foot-4, 250 pounds), coming off a 127-tackle, 13-sack season and ranked No. 4 in The Observer's postseason S.C. Top 25, decided on North Carolina. He is already enrolled for the spring semester and will start classes this week.
Which, as you might imagine, pleased the Tar Heels coaches no end.
“They said they just want to see him, to touch him,” Gary Willis said with a laugh. “They’ll get to real soon.”