-- Deland McCullough can still remember sliding into a Waffle House booth and, between forkfuls of his all-star breakfast, watching whatever grainy video he could find on eventual UAB transfer Jordan Howard.
A short highlight of a Howard TD run? Yes, please. A YouTube clip of someone taking a video of their TV? Let's go for seconds. The Indiana running backs coach tried to digest whatever he could on Howard, whether it was high-def or VHS-quality video, 30 seconds or 30 minutes.
McCullough knew, back in December, how important the running back could be to the Hoosiers. But he certainly couldn't foresee that the UAB transfer would lead the Big Ten in rushing after this season's first two weeks (304 yards), or that he'd average more than a half-yard better than Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott (6.5 ypc to 5.9 ypc). McCullough just knew he could be a difference-maker.
But Howard? Even when rumors first picked up about the elimination of UAB's football program, the Alabama native never envisioned himself up north in the Big Ten, where the winters were 17 degrees cooler. And, certainly, never at Indiana, where basketball reigned supreme.
"I wouldn't have believed you," said Howard, who received messages from more than two dozen schools. "I thought there would be no way that would happen. Now I'm just glad I have the chance to be here. This is the best choice for me."
But it was a winding road that led Howard to the Hoosiers. One that had Howard -- basically the equivalent of a five-star recruit -- feeling as though he was caught in a whirlwind and Indiana wondering if "doing everything" would still be enough to charm the All-Conference USA running back into a crimson-and-cream uniform.
The road to Indiana
It all started with McCullough watching that tape.
The 42-year-old former running back, who played for the Eagles and Bengals, heard rumblings that UAB would shut down its football program about a week before the official Dec. 2 announcement. So he decided to look at the Blazers' roster, glance at their stats and watch their videos. Maybe there was a player or two who could help the Hoosiers.
He was recruiting in the week leading up to the announcement when he received a late voicemail from head coach Kevin Wilson: "You need to check out this Jordan Howard from UAB."
"I started laughing because I'm like, 'I looked at this earlier,'" McCullough said. "The next morning I spoke to him and I'm like, 'Yeah, Coach I looked at him. I watched him. I'm on it.'"
Added Wilson: "This just kind of lined up perfectly. On paper, he was maybe the feather in their cap."
McCullough had already parked himself on a black chair in Reagan National Airport (Arlington, Virginia) and canceled his flight to Cleveland. He wasn't moving -- even sleeping in the airport, if he had to -- until Howard received his release papers.
Within minutes of Howard's release later that night, McCullough had already sent him a direct message on Twitter, called his cellphone and booked a flight for an in-home visit. He was the first to reach out.
"At first, I didn't really want to talk on the phone or to any coaches because my emotions were still running high," Howard said. "But I still wanted to take the time to hear what everyone's pitch was. He caught my attention. He was someone I could get along with."
The timeline for Howard's recruitment came incredibly fast.
UAB cancelled football on Dec. 2. Howard was granted his release Dec. 3. McCullough visited him Dec. 4. And Howard flew to Bloomington, Indiana, on an official visit Dec. 5. McCullough even picked him up at the airport.
"It was very unusual," McCullough said. "But I knew time was of the essence, and I knew the caliber of player Jordan was. I knew there was going to be a bunch of people down there, and I just didn't want to be another face in the crowd."
Within the next week, McCullough met up with Howard at his favorite restaurant just off campus, Al's Deli & Grill. He met with Howard's mom, Flora Williams, at her workplace. He showed up at their house.
When Williams requested a spring schedule for his classes, McCullough came back with a schedule for the rest of his college career.
A week later, McCullough leaned back in Howard's living room -- it was his third visit to Howard -- and felt a commitment was close. McCullough would ask about one program and Howard would say "Well, I don't want to go there." He'd ask about another and hear "I can't see myself there." So McCullough just said "Then what are we waiting for?"
McCullough can still remember the smile and the glance Howard's mom shot at her son. Howard just shrugged, and McCullough didn't want to push too much. So Howard headed downstairs, brought up his video-game console and popped in NBA 2K15. (Howard's Phoenix Suns beat McCullough by more than 30 points.)
Howard committed the next week.
A perfect fit
The Hoosiers' effort in December could now pay off through this season and next. Howard is only a junior, after all. And he already leads the Big Ten in rushing.
In his Indiana debut, against Southern Illinois, he rushed 20 times for 145 yards and three touchdowns. He literally thanked every person who wrote him a congratulatory message on Twitter -- about 40 variations of "Thank you" in all. The next week, ran 27 times for 159 yards. He again thanked fans on Twitter.
"I don't really think about the numbers," Howard said after the game. "I just keep running."
Howard isn't one to rest on his laurels. He told McCullough in the spring he knew he had to get stronger. He knew his conditioning could be better. So he focused on both. He was a high-end running back at UAB, and he wanted to be an elite back in the Big Ten.
So far, Howard has lived up to all the hype and become a critical part of this offense. And none of that has come as a surprise to the man who followed him the most in December and coached him up since January.
"I saw this coming," McCullough said Tuesday. "He's definitely a physical presence on the field. He's not a rah-rah, lead-the-charge guy, but he's going to lead with his production. He's important."
And so are all the steps Indiana took to get him here.