NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Dameyune Craig was one of the first people to know.
Two full days before state prosecutor Willie Meggs announced that Jameis Winston would not be charged with sexual assault, Craig, the assistant coach who recruited Winston to Florida State University, knew that the Seminoles’ star quarterback would walk.
“He’ll be fine,” Craig told the Miami Herald at the time. “I can’t talk about it, but he’ll be fine.”
That an assistant coach at Auburn University knew the outcome of FSU’s messy controversy long before most everyone else raises more questions about the professionalism of the state attorney’s office, but this is not another critique of the process that ultimately allowed Winston to be playing for a national championship on Monday night here in Southern California.
No, this is about another offshoot of the big business of college football. Recruiting is the heart of the beast, and because of that mechanism Winston will be playing for FSU inside the Rose Bowl and Craig will be an assistant coach for the Auburn Tigers.
Craig, a former quarterback for Auburn, was an assistant at FSU from 2010 to 2012. During his time in Tallahassee, Craig’s most significant contribution to the Seminoles’ program was pulling Winston out of Alabama amid the national success of that state’s marquee teams.
In other words, outrecruiting University of Alabama coach Nick Saban for Alabama’s best college-football prospect in years solidified Craig as one of the nation’s elite recruiters, landed him a job at his alma mater and delivered a future Heisman Trophy winner to the Seminoles.
Winston’s Seminoles play Craig’s Tigers on Monday at the Rose Bowl, so when Craig gushes about Winston and says things like, “I wouldn’t be where I am without him,” it’s not just more hyperbole from a football coach. It’s the literal truth.
Stealing Winston away from Alabama and Auburn made Craig’s career. The assistant coach began recruiting Winston when the high school phenom was in the 10th grade at Hueytown (Ala.) High, and the enduring relationship between the two adds another intriguing angle to a college football national championship that’s saturated with subplots and back-story.
Winston’s bond with Craig has remained strong long after the coach left for Auburn, a school that’s only 193 country miles to the northwest of Tallahassee.
“My main man,” Winston said of Craig upon winning the Heisman. “I still love that man today.”
Craig might be wearing enemy colors this week, but he is still connected enough with FSU and Winston that he knew well in advance of Meggs’ public announcement that the state attorney would be delivering positive news to FSU on Dec. 5. Winston said last week that he considers Craig “like an uncle to me,” and “he helped me handle everything and prepared me for the situations that I am in now.”
Florida State is an overwhelming favorite (10 points, according to Las Vegas) to win the national title, but Craig’s insider knowledge of FSU and Winston can only help the underdog Tigers. Craig knows what makes Winston tick, and, in one respect, no matter its perceived insignificance, Winston’s routine in preparation for this game — the biggest game of his career — already has been affected by his relationship with Craig.
Even though Craig left for Auburn last year, he has remained in communication with Winston and has been a constant source of support.
“Just not this week,” Winston said.
This week, Winston will be working directly with FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, and Craig will be helping direct Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall. Marshall was Craig’s first big-name recruit as the co-offensive coordinator for Auburn.
If you’re counting at home, that means Craig recruited both starting quarterbacks for Monday night’s big game.
And, of course, there’s a South Florida angle to this twist as well, because, when it comes to national news, there always seems to be a South Florida connection.
In 2005, Craig was a young assistant special-teams coach for Saban’s Miami Dolphins. Saban hired Craig as a graduate assistant at Louisiana State and then brought him along to Davie.
But Saban cut Craig loose after leaving for Alabama, a decision that came back to haunt Saban this season and, of course, directly affects the matchup of this, the final BCS National Championship Game.