"What would you say … you do here?"
It was a serious question of Urban Meyer's right-hand man, who is among the new breed of backroom staffers in college football programs whose directive is simple – identify the best high school talent in America and then help sell the program. Relentlessly.
"I would probably describe it as an everyday, relentless battle to build relationships," the 32-year-old Pantoni said. "As Coach Meyer says, it's the most important thing in this whole process. With some of the kids, it's an everyday deal of reaching out and selling Ohio State and selling yourself and building that trust among myself and the coaching staff and the program."
And there might not be anyone better in the nation at that job than Pantoni. A former pre-med student at the University of Florida, Pantoni is the first impression many recruits receive from Ohio State. He is followed by more than 15,000 people on Twitter, who have come to recognize his excited "BOOM" as a sign that yet another "swaggernaut" has committed to play football for the Buckeyes.
With Meyer having pulled in three consecutive top-five classes since his arrival at Ohio State, including the No. 1 overall group in 2013, it's hard to argue Pantoni's effectiveness at his job.
"I don't know how you do it without him," Meyer said. "I mean, I don't want to put him in the same category as the strength coach, but in his own world, when you start talking about the most valuable assets of a program, No. 1 is personnel, and he's knee-deep in it."
When Pantoni says he's the first contact most recruits will have with the Ohio State program, that's not an exaggeration. When a recruit pops up on the Buckeye radar, the Buckeyes' director of player personnel will open the lines of communication with the player.
"I'm probably the first one who will ever reach out to a kid unless a coach goes into his high school and meets a kid who for some reason we might not know about," Pantoni said. "Typically it's a Facebook or Twitter message. It begins the whole conversation, and then I'll get them going with the area coach or the position coach."
While the area coach – such as Zach Smith in Florida – or position coach will take over the primary recruiting, Pantoni continues to be a key contact for the recruits. Self described as "32 going on 21," Pantoni retweets his players, keeps an eye on pro-Ohio State news and posts thoughts about music and sports, anything to keep the discussion going with players and recruits.
"I think it's fun," he said. "My tweets are directed toward the 18-year-old kid a lot of the time, and 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, so my tweeting out silly stuff, I'm hoping it grabs their attention a lot of the time. If they retweet it or favorite it, that's my time, 'OK, I'm going to send them a message," because they just read it, they're on it, so let's start talking about something silly about it. So it's fun. It's a good part of my job."
That approach often endears Pantoni with recruits, such as three-star OSU signee Brady Taylor. The Columbus Bishop Ready prospect has interacted with Pantoni throughout the recruiting process and considers him someone with a different perspective than, say, his soon-to-be position coach, Ed Warinner.
"He was really the guy that I dealt with the most in the beginning, just because I was still under the radar and I wasn't really one of their guys yet," Taylor said. "This was early junior year. He was really who I went through for my tickets and camps, and that's still kind of how it is. He's kind of more of someone we can relate to as players, and that's definitely important.
"I guess he's a little bit (different) because they're position coaches and he's more of just there for us and everything we need."
That would be music to the ears of Pantoni, who considers himself another set of ears for the players once they do arrive in Columbus.
"The most rewarding part is when the kids get here," Pantoni said. "You get to see them grow and develop. You're there for them when things go good and bad. You just want to be another resource for them to go to, and I try to build that relationship early on with them and then they know they can trust me when they get here. To see guys go on and play in the NFL or get jobs after they get their degree is all rewarding for me."
The ability to relate with players is what drew Meyer to Pantoni to begin with when the two were at Florida.
"His relationship with the players, they'd come on campus, he'd show them around, and I'd always ask, ‘Tell me about your visit,' and they'd say they had a great time," Meyer said, looking back to his Florida says. "I'd say, ‘Tell me who showed you around,' and they said, ‘Mark Pantoni,' and I said, ‘Who?' and they said, ‘Mark Pantoni.' They just enjoyed being around him."
No Time Off
Pantoni is a native of Sarasota, Fla., who received both a bachelor's and master's degree from Florida, earning the latter in 2006, the second year of Meyer's tenure in Gainesville.
The two certainly hit it off, too. Pantoni's degrees are in physiology and kinesiology, but his interest in the medical field paled to his dogged following of football recruiting. With someone like Meyer who considers bringing in top high school talent the No. 1 part of the job of a college football coach, there was a natural marriage there.
And that marriage worked because of Pantoni's no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone approach.
"When I was in college, recruiting was something that I just followed and enjoyed as a hobby," he said. "I ended up getting my foot in the door at Florida as a volunteer and really loved it. It was a passion of mine, so I took it as an opportunity and worked as hard as I could. I never took a T-shirt, never asked for anything, and the coaches started to respect how hard I worked. I was there because I loved what I do. It paid off over time."
Meyer has admitted he wasn't sure what to think about Pantoni at first, but it didn't take long for him to be sold on his abilities.
"I never thought I'd be talking about Mark Pantoni to the media," Meyer said. "He's a guy that was a student at Florida. A guy that worked with our recruiting staff, and he was just a ridiculous worker. He was just nonstop, he knew everything about every player, and I found myself asking him, I think he was an intern, and I'd go up to him instead of asking the guy that was in charge, I'd say, ‘Tell me about so-and-so,' and he knew everything."
That level of knowledge doesn't come by accident, and Pantoni jokes his dedication to his craft has caused his wife, Kristin, to want to throw his cell phone through the window a few times. Pantoni also said he is a fan of extra battery packs for his cell phone considering just how much he uses his phone to stay in touch with prospects.
"To balance a window of 150 to 200 kids, I'm trying to create this huge umbrella and maintain some sort of contact with as many as I can and to get them here on campus, it takes a lot of effort, which I pride myself on," he said. Pantoni says the work engages him from 7 a.m. until his head hits the pillow. It's a 24/7/360 job, basically, as he allows himself one week of vacation per year, and even that trip usually includes a few looks at the cell phone as the day goes on.
"You can't take a day off in recruiting because another top-notch school you're recruiting against is probably talking to that kid," he said. "It's paranoia – if you're not talking to him, someone else is. It's a good thing I don't have any hobbies.
"It takes a lot of time, but I do the best that I can, obviously. My family is the most important thing and keeping my wife happy, but she understands the job and what it takes. She knows my drive and that I want to be the best at what I do. She gets it."
The pace didn't even take a break on National Signing Day. As signed letters of intent came in from across the country for 2014 prospects, Pantoni said he passed the downtime by staying in touch with members of future classes as well.
He is also in charge of the OSU staff that cuts up video tapes of prospects for the coaches to evaluate. Pantoni said he watched 2,700 high school games while helping the staff put together the class of 2014, and each tape of cut-ups includes both good and bad plays of prospects so the on-field staff can get a full picture of the prospect.
It all adds up to a fast-paced job but one that Pantoni says keeps him young. There's no telling exactly what the future will hold, but at the end of the day, the Buckeyes are happy to have him on staff – and it's a feeling that is mutual.
"I love what I do, and I'm happy to be here," he said.