An Inside Look at the Complex World of College Football Recruiting Rankings

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An Inside Look at the Complex World of College Football Recruiting Rankings
USA Today

"Initially college coaches hated us. They didn't want anything they were doing scrutinized. They didn't want kids they were trying to hide being discovered. High school coaches didn't trust us. They didn't know who we were. Now that the high school and college coaches associate us with the rankings, they are more cooperative. We've earned our stripes."

— Mike "The Godfather of Recruiting" Farrell

Over the last decade, I've had the opportunity to cover college football recruiting for ESPN and Rivals.com. The most common question I get is, who has the better rankings? But it's a question that just can't be answered. Rankings are too subjective. There isn't a rankings formula where you plug in stats, height and weight, SPARQ Rating or level of competition to get a star rating.

As an evaluator, I watched a ton of football. Every season I attended well over 30 games and watched countless other game tapes for up to 12 hours a week. As you might guess, this is the most time-consuming part of the job.

During the spring and summer camp season I traveled the country every weekend to scout players in person. The other analysts and I teleconferenced for weeks at a time, eight to 10 hours a day, going over thousands of players individually while breaking down film and fighting for star rankings.

"Derrick Henry is a 5-star to me. But is he better than Ty Isaac? They have similar body types and upright running styles, and Isaac is a 5-star right now. If we keep him as a 4-star it’s going to be difficult to justify. Let's vote." — Quote from a Rivals.com evaluation meeting for the final rankings of the 2013 recruiting class.

I've been asked countless times, are there industry requirements to evaluate and rank college prospects? The answer is no. Each site has a slightly different model in place.

 

The System

247Sports

247Sports, ESPN RecruitingNation (ERN), Rivals.com and Scout.com make up the "Big Four" of the recruiting industry. Each site is tasked with the difficult process of keeping up with the ever-evolving college football recruiting landscape. Every day prospects are offered earlier and earlier, such as middle schoolers like Dylan Moses and David Sills.

Between new seven-on-seven events constantly popping up, fans hounding prospects on social media outlets and student-athletes receiving over 100 letters a day from persistent colleges, it's a never-ending cycle.

 

The Big Four

Rivals

Rivals was founded in 1998 as an advertising-based site by Jim Heckman and his group out of Seattle, and the first Rivals rankings came out in 2002. Rivals can be seen as the breeding ground for the Big Four recruiting services, as early officers Shannon Terry and Heckman went on to found 247Sports and Scout, respectively.

Rivals Experts
Name Credentials
Mike Farrell Started with Rivals in 1998 and introduced the Rivals Ratings in 2002.
Josh Helmholdt Been a part of the Rivals.com network since March 2003. Played at Grand Valley State for one season under current Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.
Adam Gorney Prior to this role, he worked at the Florida and UConn Rivals.com sites. He has also worked at Newsday.
Woody Wommack Prior to this role, he covered football and others sports for the Naples Daily News.
Rob Cassidy He spent five years working at Rivals.com's Kansas State team site and started his career in newspapers.
Jason Howell Prior to this role, he worked at the Baylor and Texas Rivals.com sites. He has been with Rivals.com since 2003.
Adam Friedman Prior to joining Rivals in October 2012, he worked with the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Adam Krohn Began at Rivals.com in June. Prior to Rivals he covered high school sports for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Kynon Codrington

Farrell has been there since the beginning and currently serves as the National Recruiting Director. Former Rivals Radio host Chris Childers gave him the "Godfather of Recruiting" moniker when introducing him on his show.

"In the beginning we were an ad-based company that started ranking kids and doing recruiting updates," Farrell recalled. "Essentially we were doing what the magazines were doing quarterly on the Internet. We were giving people quicker access to what kids were thinking and where they were committing. Then we started ranking kids off video."

 

247Sports

247Sports is the new techy kid on the block. Rivals.com co-founder Shannon Terry launched the service merely four years ago in 2010. The site has differentiated itself from the competitors with a couple of key components.

247Sports Experts
Name Credential
J.C. Shurburtt Prior to joining 247Sports in 2010, he worked at ESPN and Rivals.
Barton Simmons Worked at Rivals.com before joining 247Sports in 2010. Simmons played safety at Yale from 2000 to 2003.

Kynon Codrington

First, the 247Sports Composite is the only list to factor in rankings from other sites in addition to 247's own Top247. The Composite offers an unbiased look at where a prospect stands throughout the entire industry. Second, its Crystal Ball prediction engine also allows for fans and media to guess where prospects will end up. It's considered the fantasy football of the recruiting space.

"There was a lot of excitement when we launched 247Sports in August 2010," Terry said. "Our industry had been stagnant for several years with very few editorial and product enhancements—while at the same time the digital sports media landscape was moving at warp speeds. We are just now starting to focus on what 247Sports is all about—your team all the time."

 

Scout

Scout Experts
Name Credentials
Scott Kennedy Ran the Under Armour Combines for Scout.
Brandon Huffman Started with Scout in 2005.
Greg Biggins Began covering recruiting in 1996. Worked for ESPN, Rivals and Student Sports, prior to rejoining Scout in 2011.
Chad Simmons Worked at Rivals before joining Scout in 2008.
Jamie Newberg Started Border Wars magazine. Worked at ESPN and Rivals, prior to rejoining Scout.
Allen Trieu Began covering recruiting for Scout in 2004.

Kynon Codrington

Scout.com was founded in 2001 by the aforementioned Jim Heckman and sold to Fox Sports in 2005. Recently, the North America Media Group led by Heckman purchased the rights back from Fox and led an impressive site redesign.

Scout has one of the most unique origin stories of any of the Big Four.

"Scout started as The Insiders," explained veteran West Coast recruiting analyst Greg Biggins. "You made money by 900 numbers. If you wanted to know about Notre Dame, you would call a number, and someone will tell you about this prospect."

 

ESPN RecruitingNation

ESPN is the only one of the four sites to have a dedicated TV component to cover recruiting, which gives its staff a credibility advantage when discussing recruiting on ESPNU, College GameDay, College Football Live and SportsCenter. The network has come to own National Signing Day with its 12-hour show complete with live commitments, analysis, college staff reaction from the "War Room" and a running ticker to track all the news.

Another defining factor for ESPN is that it is not solely dependent on a subscription revenue model.

ESPN Experts
Name Credentials
Tom Luginbill Played quarterback at Georgia Tech and Eastern Kentucky. Coached and scouted in NFL Europe, Arena Football League (AFL), Arena Football League 2 and the XFL.
Craig Haubert Played offensive line in the Junior College ranks. Coached 10 seasons at various levels in college. Spent five seasons in the AFL.
Billy Tucker Decade of college coaching experience. Served as a recruiting coordinator at the college level.
Gerry Hamilton Prior to rejoining ERN, Hamilton served as a recruiting analyst at 247Sports.

Kynon Codrington

When it comes to evaluators, ERN truly values coaching and scouting experience at the college or professional levels. It also has a smallish staff ranking 2,500 players, so resources are limited. But what ESPN may lack in breadth, it makes up for in depth, as its analysts pride themselves on viewing most of the top prospects in person.

The Worldwide Leader in Sports also televises high school games, The Opening and the Under Armour All-America Game.

"ESPN has made a massive commitment to integrating into all of their college football platforms," said ESPN’s director of national recruiting, Tom Luginbill. "We have a tremendous advantage when it comes to National Signing Day because our company treats it like the NFL draft. We also are the only site to offer full player evaluation on who the player actually is, and I care more about that than where a player is ranked."

 

Showcase Events

USA TODAY Sports

As each site has grown over the last few years, the competition to stand out has evolved exponentially. In 2011, ESPNHS (later dissolved and renamed Student Sports) created Nike Football's "The Opening." The Opening takes place at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, and has since been combined with the Elite 11 Quarterback "Campetition" to come to be considered the nation's top skills competition.

"The Opening is the best [camp] from an evaluation standpoint because you at least have players that are equal caliber competing in things that you would actually see on the field at a football practice," said Luginbill.

Student Sports is in charge of selecting the 150-plus participants and all other player personnel matters. The team of experts selects players from in-person evaluations at Nike Football Training Camps, along with film breakdown and evaluation of student-athlete character. It has a "Big Board" of all the prospects and devise teams in its War Room. Despite the fact that Student Sports has an experienced group of personnel of talent, it is not directly involved in rankings for any of the Big Four.

Student Sports' Experts
Name Credentials
Brian Stumpf Spent four years at ESPN before rejoining Student Sports. Two-year letter winner at wide receiver for Cal-Berkeley.
Tyler McClaughry Spent four years at ESPN rejoining Student Sports. Played offensive line at Oregon State from 1997 to 2001.
Michael White Spent four years at ESPN before rejoining Student Sports. Lined up at quarterback for Missouri State for two seasons.
Eugene Jackson Spent four years at ESPN before rejoining Student Sports. Played defensive back at the University of Oregon.
Todd Huber Played offensive line for two seasons at Cal-Berkeley before a knee injury ended his career. Worked as a recruiting assistant and undergraduate offensive line coach at Cal following his injury.
Michael Fletcher Started four seasons in the secondary at Oregon from 1996 to 1999. Played 11 seasons in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts.

Kynon Codrington

Rivals responded to The Opening in 2012 when it created its own showcase event called the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge presented by Under Armour.

At these premier events, a player's stock can rise or fall depending on his performance. These camps serve as a unique platform for top prospects to compete against each other and see how they stack up. Your average 4-star prospect may not face top-tier talent in their region until he arrives at an elite camp or The Opening. If he doesn't perform at a high level, he could plummet in the next round of rankings.

 

Who Cares About the Rankings?

247Sports
Ray-Ray McCloud III attends a recruiting camp

The rankings are mainly for fans. According to a FootballScoop.com story, only 29 percent of college and high school coaches trust Rivals.com, and they are the first to tell you they don't pay attention to rankings or stars. Fans, on the other hand, may know more about their team's recruiting class than the athletic director.

"The system is flawed," said former Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) University School defensive coordinator Chad Wilson. "You have reporter types without any intimate knowledge of the game trying to determine how much a kid is worth as a player. College coaches by and large don't respect these opinions, but some for various reasons feel the pressure to govern themselves according to these opinions. Doing so usually ends up being a mistake. With that said, rankings aren't going away anytime soon."

Like it or not, college coaches have to care about recruiting for two reasons: Fans care, and it is a metric their bosses use to evaluate their job performance.

"Now the coaches have bought into recruiting more because the fanbase talks about each recruit more, so it's almost like they are accountable," Biggins explains. "Whereas before you could say, 'Oh well, who cares how we recruit.' At times you have fans that care more about recruiting than how their team does on the field."

As for the players, some care and some don't.

"Stars and rankings don’t mean anything," said Florida State commit Calvin Brewton. "I'm a 4-star on Rivals and a 3-star on other sites. Rankings are determined by size, opinion and what schools offer you. They can measure your height and weight, but they can't measure your heart."

 

An Inexact Science

247Sports

There isn't a guideline or a specific set of criteria for analysts at any of the Big Four to rank and break down athletes consumed by the masses. Again, each list is flawed to an extent, and that's all right. The debate gives fans something to talk about and college coaches something to gripe about.

College coaches will tell reporters they don't look at recruiting sites and that star rankings are for the fans.

However, when a kid commits to his respective school and is considered underranked or overrated, fans are the first to let you know via message boards and social media, and college coaches will blow up your phone with complaints.

On National Signing Day in 2013, a head coach at a BCS program called to let me know we had one of his signees severely underrated and asked if I could change his ranking after the fact.

I replied, "I'm sorry, I've had the chance to see him in game action two or three times in the last couple of seasons, and we feel we have ranked accordingly based on his talent." His response: "I've been coaching college for over 30 years, and I know South Florida talent. He is better than all the running backs rated in front of him in the state."

How do you reply? Here is a coach at a major BCS program telling you he knows more about football than you ever will. And you know he is probably right. Yet he is biased toward his recruit, and it is my job to determine the player's strengths and weaknesses. I saw some holes in his game, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a quality prospect. You do your best job with the information you have. It's similar to the NFL draft, and every year the draft experts start the telecast by saying, "It's not an exact science."

The boom or bust factor is evident when ranking high school players as well.

"Do the coaches believe we know more than they do?" Farrell asks. "No. They never will. But when David Shaw at Stanford says he doesn't look at rankings, you absolutely know 100 percent that if he isn't looking, then he should be. Not for the rankings, but you have to know who is out there, who's hot and what they are saying."

 

Kynon Codrington is a national recruiting analyst formerly of Rivals.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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