Dan Mastromatteo hasn't played a down of football for the University of North Carolina.

But the Holy Spirit High School senior has already had three college head coaches.

Mastromatteo, one of the state's top linebackers, will sign a national letter of intent to become a Tar Heel today. The Absecon resident is one of at least 13 local football players to sign letters of intent to attend NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) and Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) colleges.

Mastromatteo's recruiting journey illustrates the often topsy-turvy world of big-time college football and the challenges recruits face.

"It was a lot of ups and downs," Mastromatteo said. "At one point, it was really stressing me out."

Mastromatteo emerged as one of the region's top players as a junior. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker made 90 tackles and had 11 sacks as Holy Spirit finished 12-0 and won the state Non-Public III championship.

After his junior season, Mastromatteo emailed highlights of his play to several colleges. A few days later, Rutgers University offered him a scholarship.

For the first time, Mastromatteo knew he could go to college for free.

"Once you get a couple of offers," Mastromatteo said, "other schools see that, and they start coming around. The more offers I got, the more schools would come after me."

Mastromatteo received 14 scholarship offers in all.

He took informal visits to Penn State, Boston College and Rutgers with his parents, Al and Michele.

"After each visit, we walk away saying, 'Oh my gosh, what a spectacular place,' " Al Mastromatteo said.

Dan Mastromatteo visited North Carolina last spring with former Holy Spirit coach Charles Roman.

Once he saw the Tar Heels' campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., Mastromatteo's decision became easy. He also liked the school's academic programs. He verbally committed to North Carolina last May.

"I just loved it," he said.

Mastromatteo grew up a fan of North Carolina basketball. One of his favorite athletes is former North Carolina standout and current Indiana Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough.

"They were always my favorite basketball team," Mastromatteo said. "You see them on television all the time. I love the Carolina blue."

Mastromatteo also liked North Carolina head coach Butch Davis, a defensive guru who was the head coach at the University of Miami from 1995-2000 and the Cleveland Browns from 2001-04.

"He's a defensive-minded coach, and just hearing him say good stuff about me and how I played was really nice to hear," Mastromatteo said.

After he made his decision, Mastromatteo relaxed. He didn't have to worry about his future. He could concentrate on leading Holy Spirit to another state title as a senior.

Little did he know, his decisions were just beginning.

North Carolina fired Davis on July 27 because of an NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct. North Carolina named defensive coordinator Everett Withers interim head coach on July 28.

Mastromatteo came home from a summer football workout and his parents told him Davis had been fired.

"We didn't know what to do," Al Mastromatteo said.

Mastromatteo felt depressed. With Davis gone, Mastromatteo reneged on his verbal commitment and began to once again talk to other schools.

A few days into this process, Mastromatteo came home from a workout. He looked tired and went to his room.

His father followed him.

"He looked pretty beat up," Al Mastromatteo said. "I went to his room and said, 'Whatever, you want to do we're behind you 100 percent.' "

The next day Mastromatteo decided for a second time to attend North Carolina.

"You have to pick the school for the school," Mastromatteo said. "You have to ask, 'If football wasn't there, would I fit in there?' In college football there's new coaches every day."

So, Mastromatteo again verbally committed to North Carolina.

Mastromatteo played this season and made 99 tackles. Holy Spirit finished 8-3 and won the state Non-Public II title. Mastromatteo had a sack and drew two holding penalties as the Spartans beat Camden Catholic 51-7 in the title game at College of New Jersey in Ewing Township on Dec. 2.

A week after Mastromatteo celebrated a state title with his teammates, North Carolina football made another coaching decision.

The Tar Heels did not rehire Withers and introduced former Southern Mississippi coach Larry Fedora as the new head coach on Dec. 9. Fedora brought in a whole new coaching staff.

Mastromatteo again rethought his verbal commitment. He knew that the new coach would honor his scholarship but Mastromatteo wanted more than that. He watched Fedora's introductory press conference on the North Carolina website and was impressed.

"I was pretty nervous," he said. "I wanted them to like me as a player. I liked him, and I hoped he liked me."

Fedora watched Mastromatteo's highlights and liked what he saw. Tar Heel coaches, including Fedora, have visited Mastromatteo's home three times in the last three weeks.

"I really lucked out," Mastromatteo said.

Mastromatteo decided for the third and final time to attend North Carolina. Under NCAA regulations, Tar Heel coaches are not permitted to speak about Mastromatteo until after he signs the letter of intent.

Many college coaches tell recruits don't pick a college because of a coach. But that's tough to do.

"The lesson we learned is that you can't go to a school for a coach," Al Mastromatteo said. "That's the best advice I would give a boy who is a Division I prospect."

And as frustrating as the recruiting process might have been, Mastromatteo knows deciding where to attend college for free is a nice worry to have.

"I'm not complaining," he said. "I feel for the people who don't even know where they're going to college. I'm lucky enough to have choices."

And for all the instability Mastromatteo experienced the past eight months, his college career should be the opposite.

"I know (Fedora) is going to be there at least four years," Mastromatteo said, "hopefully."

Contact Michael McGarry:

609-272-7185