Mark Pantoni spent Wednesday morning staring at the fax machine inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
There, one by one, he could see the fruits of his long labor finally reach fruition on national signing day.
Coach Urban Meyer and his assistants got most of the credit for Ohio State’s highly ranked 2014 recruiting class, and those coaches did have to close the deal with the 23 new Buckeyes. But Ohio State’s recruiting success starts with Pantoni.
From identifying and evaluating prospects to building relationships with them and coordinating visits for recruits and coaches, OSU’s director of player personnel is indispensable. For future Buckeyes players, he is essentially the front door to Ohio State football.
“That’s a great way to put it,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “He’s the glue that holds the entire recruiting operation together. He’s the liaison between us and recruits and parents and coaches.
“He feeds you information as a coach in terms of knowing every single thing you can know about a kid before you decide to offer him a scholarship. If it has to do with recruiting, he has his hands on it or organized it himself.”
And to think, Pantoni studied to become a doctor.
The native of Sarasota, Fla., was on the pre-med track at the University of Florida when his fascination with college football recruiting took hold. He volunteered in the Gators’ football office, and recruiting soon became his passion.
“I worked as hard as I could, never asked for a T-shirt, never asked for anything,” Pantoni said. “Coaches started to respect how hard I worked and that I was there because I love what I do.”
Meyer, then the Florida coach, certainly noticed. When he took the Ohio State job in November 2011, he quickly hired Pantoni, who’d worked his way up to be the Gators’ director of football operations.
With the Buckeyes, Pantoni works almost nonstop. He starts at 7 a.m., and he is still working his phone “until my head hits that pillow.”
He said his wife, Kristin, had thrown his cellphone through the window, before he conceded that was a bit of hyperbole.
“She’s grabbed it a few times to try to do it,” he said.
“It’s a good thing I don’t have any hobbies,” he added with a laugh. “My family is the most important thing, keeping my wife happy. But she understands the job and what it takes and knows I’m driven to be the best I can be.”
Pantoni casts a wide net before whittling down to the prospects the Buckeyes will seriously pursue. He estimates that for players that will comprise the 2014, ’15 and ’16 recruiting classes, he and his staff have watched complete game tapes of almost 2,700 high-school games. He discounts highlight tapes because he wants to see a prospect’s bad plays as well as his good ones.
For a given recruiting class, he has about 150 to 200 players that he seriously evaluates. From there, he monitors social media such as Twitter and Facebook and works to develop a relationship with the ones the Buckeyes decide to pursue.
“I would probably describe it as an everyday, relentless battle,” Pantoni said. “Building relationships, as Coach Meyer says, is the most important thing in this process. With some of these kids, it’s an everyday deal of reaching out and selling Ohio State and selling yourself and building that trust amongst myself and the coaching staff and the program.”
Take his pursuit of five-star linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the crown jewel of the 2014 recruiting class.
“I probably messaged him every single day for two years,” Pantoni said. “That was the guy I targeted and told myself I wanted to get and had to get.”
Pantoni is 32 but says he’s “going on 21,” and that enables him to develop a rapport with teenagers. He knows their music and culture. He understands that they prefer to communicate through social media rather than on the phone.
“What I’m good at — and what I have to be good at — is thinking inside the mind of a 17- or 18-year-old,” Pantoni said.
He has a following on Twitter, where he will announce a commitment with a “BOOOOOOOOMMM!” and is fond of using the hashtag “swaggernaut,” a “word” he took from American Idol judge Randy Jackson.
“He’s a funny dude,” Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith said of Pantoni. “It’s all about who can develop relationships, and he develops relationships with recruits.
“As far as organization and the operation of recruiting, he’s phenomenal. We would not be near where we are without his assistance.”
So when the faxes rolled in on Wednesday with official letters of intent, Pantoni felt satisfaction and relief that another highly ranked class was in the fold. But in the pauses between faxes, Pantoni wasn’t relaxing.
“I’m messaging 2015 kids to keep it rolling,” he said.