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June 20, 2010
Top prospects stay home to play for dads
As they roomed together at a high school all-star game this year, top-50 prospects and close friends Ray McCallum and Trey Zeigler discussed the possibility of playing college basketball together.
Both had grown up as sons of college coaches. After moving to Michigan, they got the chance to play on the same AAU team. The idea of remaining teammates in college percolated this spring at the Kentucky Derby Festival Basketball Classic.
But the common trait that had brought McCallum and Zeigler together eventually drew them apart. As much as they wanted to play at the same school, they couldn't pass up the opportunity to play for their dads. So on the same mid-April day that Zeigler signed with Central Michigan, McCallum announced he would play at Detroit. They're the two highest-ranked prospects to sign with mid-major programs this year.
Both could have gone to any number of more highly regarded programs, but they couldn't have imagined themselves anywhere else.
"We didn't really tell each other [where they were going], but we kind of knew in our hearts the best place for us both was to stay home and play for our dads," said McCallum, the son of Detroit coach Ray McCallum Sr. "It's kind of funny. We're only about two hours from each other, and we're both playing for our dads."
McCallum and Zeigler are the highest-ranked prospects to sign with schools in their respective conferences -- Central Michigan plays in the Mid-American Conference and Detroit's in the Horizon League -- since Rivals.com began covering basketball recruiting in 2003. McCallum is ranked 28th and McCallum 43rd in the incoming freshman class.
"They have a chance to be program-changers," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.
Conventional wisdom among recruiting insiders suggested McCallum and Zeigler always seemed likely to play for their fathers, but they insisted their decisions weren't that simple.
"I was neutral for most of the process, all the way through probably the last month," said Trey Zeigler, from Mount Pleasant (Mich.) High. "I liked probably four different schools about the same. UCLA, Michigan, Michigan State, Arizona State -- I liked them all."
Ray McCallum Sr. believed his team was a dark horse for much of the recruiting season in the race to land his son's services.
"We were there at the end," McCallum Sr. said. "Of the five schools [he was considering], we were always the fifth."
McCallum Sr. and Zeigler faced the type of dilemma few coaches have to face. Both savored the rare opportunity to sign the type of high-level prospect that rarely considers a Horizon or MAC program. But they also wanted to make sure their sons made decisions they wouldn't regret. They had to balance being a recruiter with being a father.
"We strategically sat down from the very beginning and said we'd go about this trying to find the best situation for him," Ernie Zeigler said. "I allowed him to be recruited. He had aspirations of wanting to play at the highest level. He was very privileged to have some of the better institutions in our country [interested in] him. I kind of let him navigate his way."
The sons faced an even more difficult situation. Playing for their fathers meant turning down programs that would have given them much better shots at long NCAA tournament runs. The other option? Telling their dads they'd rather play elsewhere.
If that decision weighed on McCallum and Zeigler, they didn't let it show. They instead pointed out the benefits of having fathers with an inside knowledge of the recruiting game. Their fathers let them know how coaches might mislead them about playing time or other issues during the recruiting process. They mentioned the strengths of their own schools while advising them to make their own decisions.
"He just acted like my dad," McCallum Jr. said. "He told me everything that was going to happen before it happened, how the process was going to work. He never pressured me in any way. He just told me, 'I'm going to support you in everything you do.'
"He helped me all along, and never pressured me or told me I had to come play for him. I really respected that."
McCallum Sr. and Zeigler needed to make quite the sales pitch, since Detroit and Central Michigan don't have UCLA's championship history or Michigan State's recent run of Final Fours.
Zeigler could point to Central Michigan's two straight MAC Western Division titles and the $21 million renovation of its home arena. McCallum Sr. could note Detroit's rapid improvement, as the Titans went 20-14 last season just a year after finishing 7-23.
The results of the most recent NCAA tournament also helped persuade McCallum Jr. and Zeigler that they wouldn't necessarily be sacrificing postseason glory by playing for a mid-major program. NCAA runner-up Butler won its two games with Detroit last season by a combined seven points. Cornell, Northern Iowa and Saint Mary's also advanced to the Sweet 16.
"I've always said through this whole process that the biggest thing for me is winning," Trey Zeigler said. "I wouldn't have made this decision if we didn't think we could win."
Central Michigan and Detroit now have a much better shot of winning.
Zeigler, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, gives Central Michigan a player who should score in bunches right away. He averaged at least 24 points and nine rebounds in each of his final two seasons at Mount Pleasant and finished second to Michigan State signee Keith Appling in Michigan's "Mr. Basketball" voting.
McCallum, a 6-1 point guard, is a McDonald's All-American who placed third in the "Mr. Basketball" balloting. He averaged 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists as a senior while leading Detroit Country Day to a Class B state title.
"Ray is a very good point guard, very reliable with the basketball," Meyer said. "He plays like a coach's son. He knows exactly what to do on the court and can execute a lot of different plays. Zeigler's not a point guard but a shooting guard, but he has that same mentality you'd expect from a coach's kid and a real dose of explosiveness. Zeigler can put up big scoring numbers and be a great defender. Ray's going to be a solid defender and can score, but more than anything, he can be a great floor general. He's top of the line."
Their fathers deserve much of the credit. Zeigler started being tutored by his dad long before he signed to play for his father's team. By the time Zeigler got to middle school and started showcasing his versatility, his long-range potential became obvious to his father.
McCallum Sr. remembers his son having a ball in his hands virtually from the time he started walking. As soon as the former Ball State star realized Ray Jr. had an interest in the game, he started making sure his son learned the game the right way. They even watched film together throughout Ray Jr.'s high school career.
"My dad has been coaching me my whole life," McCallum Jr. said. "He's taught me everything I've learned. He's made me quite a good player. I think the best way to get better is to keep learning and working with him. There's no better coach out there for me. He knows my game better than any coach in the country."
Coaching your son individually is one thing. Coaching a team that happens to include your son is much more complicated. If the son immediately cracks the starting lineup, will his teammates start griping?
The McCallums and Zeiglers don't anticipate that being a problem. McCallum Jr. and Zeigler already know their new teammates because they've seen them so often while attending their fathers' games. Both coaches are confident they won't show any favoritism toward their sons.
McCallum and Zeigler aren't seeking special treatment. They're savoring the opportunity to spend more time with their fathers while finally establishing roots somewhere.
The nomadic nature of the coaching profession prevented Zeigler and McCallum from having a permanent home for much of their childhoods. McCallum said the situation was similar to growing up in a military family.
Zeigler never attended the same school in back-to-back years until he reached high school. He went all over the map while his father took assistant coaching jobs at Kansas State, Bowling Green, Pittsburgh and UCLA. Zeigler even spent his second-grade year overseas while his father was coaching a club team in Saudi Arabia.
"Being in the family of a coach is tough," Trey Zeigler said. "You never know where you're going to be the next year."
Now he knows where he's going to live and that he's going to see his dad every day. At times during his childhood, he went days without seeing his father because of a coach's demanding schedule. Now he's going to accompany his dad on every road trip. Father and son are eager to make up for lost time.
"We feel truly blessed to have this opportunity to spend these next four years doing something we love to do," Ernie Zeigler said. "We really realize how precious this opportunity is."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.