So, today is football National Letter of Intent Day. In layman’s terms, it’s the day when all those high school seniors can officially sign with the college team of their choice. It’s the culmination of the long and arduous recruiting process.
Obviously, since college football is such an obsession with many fans, yours truly included, a great amount of attention is paid to recruiting. Stands to reason that if you don’t get the best players possible, your team won’t be as good as it can be in the coming years… or something like that. Fans buy magazines devoted to recruiting. They pay for websites that track potential recruits and learn what other schools players are considering. At this point, recruiting information is big business, and is just getting bigger.
All sorts of media outlets have their own rankings of high school players. Every player is given a star rank, from 1 to 5 stars. The 5 star kids are the biggies. The golden boys. What everyone is chasing. ESPN has their “Top 150″ list of the top 150 players in the country, and lists what schools they’ve committed to. Sportingnews.com, CBSSports.com, Rivals.com and Scout.com and many others all devote huge amounts of coverage to college recruiting. If you google “college football recruiting” you’ll get 18,700,000 hits. Arguably there is maybe more interest in college recruiting than there is in hockey at this point. Every one of these outlets will ultimately give each school a rank from 1-119 as to how well they did with this year’s recruiting class. The fans of the school with the number 1 recruiting class will get all giddy and dream of the 3 national championships that class is certainly going to win in the coming years. Fans of the teams that don’t get a high ranked class will worry about the direction of their program and why their coaching staff couldn’t recruit better. Coaches have literally lost jobs over perceived poor recruiting rankings.
And you know what? It’s all bullshit.
Oh sure, your team has to have good players in order to win. Nobody is disputing that. But if you actually believe that any 1 media outlet has the means to accurately scout, evaluate and rank every high school football player out there, you’re deluded. For the record, I am no insider. I have never been through the process. I’m just a fan, and this is what I observe. Allow me to provide you with some statistics.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, in 2010/11 some form of organized football (from 6-man through traditional 11-man) was played at 15,513 high schools in the US. At those schools, 1,134,347 boys played football. If we divide that number by 3 to get only the seniors (that number is an estimate, since not all schools/players play 4 years of football, but this is just rough calculations anyway), we get 378,115 recruitable athletes, if we assume that a kid who has the body and ability to play college football could come from any of those schools, which doesn’t sound like that much of a stretch. Further, if we say that maybe 10% of those players could even be considered skilled and/or big and fast enough to play at the highest levels of college football, that still leaves us with almost thirty-eight THOUSAND possible athletes.
Don’t you suppose that the resources required to accurately rate every one of those kids is WELL beyond what anyone is currently capable of? Oh sure, they could easily scout the biggest football-factory type high schools out there. Which is generally what they do. But I’m going to guess that some very good players could EASILY slip through the recruiting media’s nets. Just for reference, Kellen Moore was 2 or 3 star recruit coming out of high school.
Ok. Say that doesn’t convince you. That’s fine. Even if you believe that it is possible for the recruiting media to see every single possible athlete out there, what about their actual evaluations? You know, those handy dandy star ratings stuck on every player to which everyone pays so much attention. Think they’re always 100% accurate?
Sure, they can measure how big and tall someone is. They can measure how much they can bench press. They can measure how fast they run 40 yards. They can even watch film from the games they’ve played. That may give them an idea. But these boys are 18 years old. They haven’t even become what they’re going to become yet. I would argue that a LOT more goes into making a successful football player than just “measurables”. What about work ethic? A kid will have to juggle football, workouts and classes all at the same time. What about maturity? That kid may well be away from home for the first time in his life. What about desire to get better? Drive? Coachability? How do they measure those? What about smarts? Sure they could look at his GPA, but how well a kid does on his history exam doesn’t exactly reflect how well he can read a defense.
If you need any more evidence into just how much of an inexact science football evaluation is, just look at the NFL. Yeah, they do quite a little bit of evaluating of players leading into the draft. They have a MUCH smaller group of players to look at. Players who are older, more mature. More tape to watch of players against top talent. There is the combine where the top players gather in one place and show EXACTLY what they can do. There are hours of interviews. More tape. Teams literally have millions of dollars riding on every evaluation. You know what? Even THEY wiff on players. It happens every single year. Jamarcus Russell anyone? If an NFL team can’t even properly evaluate the #1 pick in the draft, I totally believe that Rivals.com can totally accurately rate a 17 year old pimple-faced kid from Paducah, Kentucky. Sure.
The thing is, every one of these recruiting services has absolutely zero incentive to be accurate. Follow me here. They have incentive to make money. Sell subscriptions. Drive ad traffic. That’s it. If you look at the rankings every year, you’ll always see the same bunch of teams at the top. They are the Texases, the Ohio States, the Alabamas. You know, those teams that have huge, rabid followings. Sure, they all get good players, but if you want to attract that traffic to your publication how do you do that? It’s not by giving them rankings in the 30’s or 40’s that’s for sure. Why is it that Notre Dame has had a top 25 recruiting class every year but hasn’t been relevant in college football since the early ’90s? Couldn’t be that their player rankings could have been skewed, huh?
Where is the incentive for them to be accurate? There is none. Nobody is going to go back to Scout.com in 4 years and say “well, you gave Michigan a top #3 recruiting class but that team finished 6-6 three years in a row. You’re fired”. In the NFL front offices get fired for poor decisions. Yet everyone just gives these recruiting services a pass. You see articles like this from a very respected college football writer wondering why Boise State doesn’t recruit better. He looks at a number of supposed reasons except the one that is shouting from the back of my head… THE RANKING SYSTEM IS COMPLETE BULLSHIT. I’m going to go ahead and trust Coach Petersen to get the kids he wants to get. He’s got actual skin in the game, so to speak. He has said repeatedly that he doesn’t pay attention to star rankings, because he knows what he is looking for. He is certainly not looking at what everyone else thinks of his recruits. Plain and simple. Obviously, he is getting good players despite what the rankings say. He can’t go 50-3 in 4 years by recruiting one-legged hobos and escaped mental patients, which is what the national press seems to think we’re doing.
However, I will say there is one positive aspect of this entire industry for us here at Boise State. Every one of the type of kids we get feels slighted by the rankings. They know the 2 stars they got isn’t accurate. Coach Pete looks for those kids with a chip on their shoulder and looking to prove someone wrong. And that is exactly what they do.
So, later today when you hear about how well, or how poorly your favorite school did in recruiting this year take heart. None of it is by itself indicative of how your team will do in the coming years, good or bad. Just relax. Spring football starts in a few weeks anyway.