NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Dameyune Craig doesn’t like calling attention to himself.
It’s a nod to his mentor, Ben Harris. The former coach at Craig’s alma mater — Blount High School in Mobile, Ala. — always made sure to reiterate that any success he had only came about because of others.
Long after he departed Blount, the things Craig learned from Harris stuck.
“I just wanted to be like him,” Craig said. “He was my hero. I wanted to grow up to be like him. I actually started off coaching at my old school and he encouraged me to move on. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. I think I’m just doing his job on a bigger stage.”
That “stage” is the BCS championship.
And as much as Craig tries to avoid the spotlight, this year’s championship matchup made that impossible.
Both championship participants are inextricably linked with Craig, after all.
He played for Auburn, setting numerous passing records during his time as a quarterback from 1994-97. Now, he coaches the Tigers’ receivers. In Florida State, there is the school he worked at from 2010-12, serving as the Seminoles’ quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator.
Most notably, Craig recruited both of the title game’s starting quarterbacks — Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Auburn’s Nick Marshall — to their respective schools.
He recalled that the first quarterback he extended an offer to at Florida State was Marshall. At that time, Marshall was a record-setting signal-caller at tiny Wilcox County High School in Rochelle. After ranking all the quarterbacks in the 2011 class, Craig had Marshall at the top of the board.
“He actually told me he was coming at the time and he ended up at Georgia,” Craig said. “But he’s quite a talent. He’s a great kid and I think that relationship helped us years later when I came (recruiting) for Auburn.”
Trying to pry Marshall from the Peach State was a cake walk compared to convincing Winston to leave Alabama.
Craig ticked off the difficulties he ran into when he first started recruiting the Bessemer, Ala., native. Nick Saban was building a dynasty in Tuscaloosa. Auburn had recently won a national title. And before he could even go “full-bore” into courting Winston, Craig had to win over a skeptical Jimbo Fisher.
Florida State’s head coach didn’t think they had a shot at landing Winston.
Craig believed otherwise.
“The way I did it, I asked (Fisher) if we could take two quarterbacks that year,” Craig said. “And we took Sean Maguire and we took Jameis. I told him if we lose Jamies, we would have another guy coming in. But if we get him, we’ve got the best quarterback in country, who could probably be the first player taken (in the NFL Draft) and win the Heisman Trophy. And that’s where it started.”
That was only half the battle.
When he finally was given the go-ahead to develop a relationship with Winston, Craig had to win over the competing elements in the quarterback’s family. The majority of Winston’s family wanted to join the Crimson Tide. His mother hoped he would head to Auburn. On top of that, Winston himself grew up a fan of Oklahoma, Florida and Texas.
So how did Winston wind up in Tallahassee, Fla.?
The same way he sold the Seminoles to other recruits: by touting their storied history.
For one reason or another, Craig noticed it had largely been forgotten out, and set out to change that immediately.
“They were 14 straight years in the top five and they had the plaque and it was actually in the back where no one could see it,” he said. “ So I wanted to bring all that history to the forefront. I wanted to talk about the history. I wanted to talk about the Heisman Trophy. A lot of recruits didn’t even know Deion Sanders played there. So my job was to get the information out to the recruits.”
And Craig did so incredibly well. Along with getting Winston out of Alabama in the 2012 class, he convinced a pair of other highly-touted prospects — defensive linemen Chris Casher and Justin Shanks — to become Seminoles. Seeing that kind of talent leaving the state was difficult for many in Alabama to stomach. Craig became a marked man.
He was used to being hated by Crimson Tide backers.
But seeing the Tiger faithful turn on him was another story.
“When the Auburn fans stopped liking me, that kind of hurt,” he said. “That really bothered me. But you have a job to do. You have to sit back and take everything in. But it was hard. It was really hard. I admit that was.
So it wasn’t surprising, even as much as Craig loved Florida State, that he couldn’t turn down Auburn when Gus Malzahn came calling.
It was tough for Winston — who refers to Craig as his “uncle” — to see him go.
“I was depressed,” he said, “But at the end of the day I knew he had to do what was good for his family and himself, so I had to suck my tongue in and say ‘Congratulations. Go do what you do.’”
Even as they went their separate ways entering 2013, Winston showed he hadn’t forgotten about the man responsible for bringing him to Florida State in the first place. After winning the Heisman, Winston thanked him in his award speech.
Craig couldn’t have been more humbled.
“I think that message that Jameis sent on the biggest stage of his life — when he talked about me — that’s what I preach. It’s never about me,” he said. “Any time you have success, it’s always about somebody else.”
Admittedly, Craig was happy to see his protégé accomplish one of his goals by capturing the most prestigious award in college football last month
He just hopes the Tigers are able to do the same for him come tonight.
“I’ve waited 39 years — all my life — to be in this situation and you can’t let it overwhelm you,” Craig said. “You just have to keep doing what you’ve done to get yourself here.”