At the National Football Foundation office in Irving, Texas, Steve Hatchell places a book on a conference room table. The book is sizable at an inch or so in thickness.
It's really more of an encyclopedia.
Everything anyone would ever want to know about the players eligible for the College Football Hall of Fame is in that book. It's where the selection process for Thursday's (May 22nd) announcement for the class of 2014 really takes place.
Page after page is filled with every imaginable piece of applicable information designed to give the 17-member Honors Court, which annually selects 12 players and two coaches for induction, the information it needs. Player backgrounds, awards and accolades, evaluation reports, the number of players per school who have been inducted into the Hall, the number of eligible players per school—it's all in there and categorized by school, position and percentages. And it's all designed to whittle a list that begins in the thousands into a group of fewer than 15.
"We’re not just shooting from the hip," says Hatchell, the NFF's President and CEO.
No, selecting the College Football Hall of Fame class is a much more meticulous process that mixes numbers and knowledge. The NFF estimates that, since college football began, the sport has fielded nearly five million players. Of those millions, only about 1,500 are eligible.
There are 934 players in the Hall along with roughly 250 coaches. Yet, the odds of getting inducted are around .0002 percent.
The process begins when schools, or one of the 122 nationwide chapters, nominate former players who have been out of the college game for at least 10 years. For all the teeth-gnashing that takes place over HOF snubs, that's perhaps the most important thing to understand: The NFF doesn't have a say in who gets nominated.
"We don’t reach in and say we want a certain player to be in the Hall of Fame," Hatchell said.
There's criteria, but the selection process is subjective by nature. There's no one formula for choosing who is worthy of induction. That's why the book is so thorough: everything is on the table.
But one thing isn't negotiable: A player must have been a first-team All-American by one of the five publications recognized by the NCAA. (The Associated Press; the Football Writers Association of America; the American Football Coaches Association; the Walter Camp Foundation; and The Sporting News.)
"At one time, there were a lot of All-American teams," Hatchell said. "The local shop had an All-American team.
"But those eventually fizzled out."
Limiting the pool of eligible players to first-team All-Americans is a point of contention among fans and media. Joe Namath and Joe Montana aren’t in the Hall of Fame, and they never will be, for that very reason.
The NFF knows this, but there's not much it can do about it. "It's hard," Hatchell said. "If you didn’t have a criteria...you’re in the speculation business."
Players must also have played within the last 50 years. Anyone who dates further back goes under consideration by a Veteran Committee.
After nomination, a player is filtered through one of eight regional screening committees made up of athletic administrators, coaches (current and former), Hall of Famers and media. This reduces the group to about 75 or 76 from the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision.
Coaches have another set of criteria. They must have been a head coach for 10 years, coaching at least 100 games with a .600 winning percentage.
"That gets more [scrutiny] because you have people who think a certain coach did a lot for the game," Hatchell says. "Well, how do you define that?"
That's when the book becomes a necessary tool. Even skimming through the pages takes an hour; deliberation takes weeks.
Take former Nebraska linebacker Trev Alberts, for example. He, like all other players under consideration, has a dedicated page. Everything you’d want to know about him as a player is crammed on it. "Is he a minority? What did he do then and what is he doing now?" Hatchell said. "There is his post-collegiate athletic career, the number of years he's been on the ballot."
Alberts isn't the only big name on this year's ballot. Former Texas running back Ricky Williams is on it. So is former Nebraska quarterback and Heisman winner Eric Crouch and Miami linebacker Ray Lewis, as well as former TCU running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Among the six coaches on the ballot are Mike Bellotti (Oregon) and Danny Ford (Clemson, Arkansas).
There's a good chance one, or many, of those names won't be inducted Thursday.
The NFF doesn't believe that one class is inherently stronger than another. For every name that isn't inducted one year, it's cycled back through the process the next year. There are always dozens of recognizable names, but there are also only 12 spots for players.
Someone's going to get left out. It can, and does quite often, happen several times in a row because of the backlog of players.
"If we took 50 players a year for 10 years, that’s 500 players," Hatchell said. "There would still be 1,500 guys to pick. We still wouldn't catch up."
The pool never gets smaller. Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News explained this in his column about the Hall last month:
In the 2013 season alone there were 51 players who earned the All-America designation from the five organizations currently recognized by the NCAA. Those 51 candidates won’t become eligible for induction, though, until 2023 after their 10-year waiting period expires.
Because of the sheer numbers, being a first-ballot selection doesn’t mean anything in college.
"It’s just not something that’s considered a big deal," said NFF Chief Operating Officer Matt Sign. "It’s a big deal in pro football, but they have a snapshot of eight, nine, 10 years for a player.
"We generally have a snapshot of one, two or three years."
There's also a sense of balance that the Honors Court takes into consideration. The NFF wants to be fair when putting a class together—but not too fair. It wants to represent Boise State's linebacker as much as Ohio State's quarterback, but without discriminating against someone because of the number of inductees from his school.
There was a time when Army, Notre Dame and the Ivy League were the collective center of college football. Go back through the list of first-team All-Americans from decades ago and it's evident.
Penn, for example, has 18 players in the Hall of Fame, but no one else is up for consideration. Nebraska has 16 players inducted, but 57 eligible who haven't been. Notre Dame has more players in the Hall of Fame than anyone, but the Irish still have more than 50 eligible who aren't. As of 2006, the Miami Hurricanes had just three players inducted.
It's all broken down into percentages in the book. And it's all taken into consideration, along with everything else about a player. It's an inexact science, to say the least.
The goal each year is to take everything the book tells—and then some—and put the best possible class together. There will inevitably be players who should have been inducted, but aren't. The hope, however, is that those who are inducted won't be viewed as undeserving.
For those who missed the cut, there's always another year. And the book will be updated accordingly.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. All Hall of Fame information provided by the NFF.