Coach February is at it again.
As sure as guys everywhere will bring home flowers and chocolates on Valentine’s Day, you can bet that University of Texas football coach Mack Brown will bring the school another highly-rated class of seniors on National Signing Day this coming February.
Brown has long been known for his ability to sign elite high school talent and lock-up annual All-American-laden recruiting classes on that first Wednesday of every February, thus earning him the nickname “Coach February.”
This year, however, the ease with which Brown is outrunning his coaching peers in the recruiting race calls to mind Usain Bolt running against your alma mater’s junior varsity track team.
By the first weekend in April, Brown and the UT staff had verbal commitments from 21 high school juniors, according to Rivals.com. Six of those players reside in the Rivals 100 rankings list, and 17 rank as top 250 national prospects.
The Longhorns' biggest rivals on the field have been anything but off of it to this point. The University of Oklahoma currently holds commitments from seven prospects (four in the top 250) and Texas A&M has 13 (with 1 in the top 250).
And what is the reason for the accelerated success of Brown’s recruiting?
“The class of 2010 kids that are giving their commitments to the Longhorns have been building relationships with Coach Brown and the rest of the staff for over 12 months at this point,” said Geoff Ketchum, owner and publisher of Orangebloods.com.
“In the past, the first weekend after National Signing Day was the first real exposure juniors had with UT. Now high school kids are coming in as sophomores to summer camps and practices, and it has really given UT an advantage in recruiting.”
UT’s 2010 recruiting class is all but wrapped up, with just a handful of prospects remaining on it’s radar. Don’t expect Brown to stand pat in his Belmont Hall office, however. The UT coaching staff is already hitting the highways to visit high school sophomores, hoping to establish valuable relationships with potential future Longhorns.
In the mean time, the Aggies and Sooners are left scrambling for student-athletes for which the Longhorns didn’t have room.
“Two years ago, I asked Mack Brown if it would ever come to him offering scholarships to freshman and sophomores,” Ketchum said. “He just shook his head and told me that he would not be coaching anymore when it got to that point. He has had to evolve, and is doing it better than everyone else.”
The method isn’t perfect. Mack Brown’s philosophy has been a decade in the making, and despite the glittering success UT seems to be enjoying, there are certainly hazards involved in recruiting such young athletes.
Recruiting and offering scholarships to student-athletes at younger ages is potentially risky, in that there is greater chance of misevaluation at those ages. Freshman and sophomores have very little game tape to be evaluated, which in turn leaves little information to know how consistently an athlete can perform.
The athletes' skill set may not be fully developed, or their body may not be done growing. They could suffer injuries that may limit their abilities on the football field.
Joe Paterno, 81-year old coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions and winningest coach in NCAA Division I football history, is regarded as the pioneer in early recruiting. After his success at Penn State in the 1990s, he urged his staff to begin recruiting underclassmen, and to get them on campus for Junior Days.
“The staff didn’t do a good enough job in evaluating those younger players, and the Nittany Lions suffered through a stretch where they only had one winning season from 2000-2004,” said Jeremy Crabtree of Rivals.com in an interview done with Sports Illustrated last year.
“Many Nittany Lions insiders point to the early recruiting approach as one of the biggest reasons for those struggles.”
Attrition will always creep its way into any football program. Career ending injuries, low grades, family issues, and run-ins with the law will wreak havoc on any team. But Brown is taking every precaution possible to avoid the kinds of setbacks Paterno suffered through.
“The staff at Texas has prepared themselves to know more about the kid,” Ketchum said. With Junior Days, and summer camps, and Nike camps, there is more chance for evaluation for these athletes.”
Schools like the University of Texas would greatly benefit from an early signing period, like they have in other NCAA sports. It would allow them to focus their resources on other uncommitted student-athletes.
While a verbal commitment is nice, schools and students are not bound to those commitments in any way until the letter of intent is signed on their respective signing day. An early signing period would give both parties the peace-of-mind in having a firm commitment in place for the both of them.
Some day college football might see an early signing period, but the dominance of schools like the University of Texas is the exact reason why such a period doesn’t currently exist.
“Small schools like SMU are opposed to the early signing period,” Ketchum said. “They feel like ‘the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer’ when it comes to recruiting. Giants like Texas and USC will continue their success, while giving schools like SMU even less of a chance to sign the elite talent.”
In the mean time, Coach February will just have to live with doing what he does better than anyone else in the country.