Chasing the Dream: Colleges That Produce the Most (Major Sports) Pro Athletes
Top high school athletes often select the colleges they attend based on future plans of a professional career, which is why the colleges that send the most athletes to the major leagues always have an advantage over smaller, lesser-known universities.
Elite high school sports stars are drawn to big-time colleges that have gained a reputation for grooming their athletes for the pros, because that gives them the best opportunity to play at the next level.
The colleges on this list have earned their bones as feeder programs for the NFL, NBA, and MLB, and names such as USC and Alabama also boast multiple national championships, attesting to the level of talent that these universities can recruit.
The combination of money, facilities and the ability to continue an established tradition exerts a powerful attraction to high school sports stars, but at the very highest level, these athletes really want a shot at the brass ring, which is playing in the big leagues, and these schools offer the best avenue to accomplish that goal.
The criteria for selection were simple. Colleges were ranked based on the number of players currently playing in the NFL, NBA or MLB, not on the total amount of players who had ever played in each major sport.
The NHL was not included on this list because teams often chase stars in foreign countries who are already playing in professional leagues, so there is far less reliance on plucking talent from American universities.
So let’s take a look at the schools that turn amateurs into bonafide pros.
It’s no surprise to find the LSU Tigers on this list, because even though the team hasn’t won a national title since 2008 (during the BCS era), it is still known as a factory that ships talent to the NFL every year.
Per Chase Goodbread of NFL.com, LSU leads all schools with 42 players on NFL rosters at the start of the 2016-17 season. (Note: Goodbread’s list, which is the main reference used for NFL stats, compiles its numbers based on players who were on the active roster in Week 1)
And befitting the fact that LSU is in the SEC, where defense is a priority, many of the marquee names that graduated from the school play on that side of the ball including defensive backs Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu of the Arizona Cardinals and linebacker Barkevious Mingo of the New England Patriots.
But probably the most famous alum in the past three years is wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants, who makes impossible catches seem routine.
Nick Saban has created an unquestioned dynasty with the Crimson Tide, and as he attempts to win his sixth national title (fifth with Alabama), his program continues to generate first-round draft picks.
The Crimson Tide are always built on a defense-first philosophy, running the football and the occasional big-play on the offense.
High school football players who are elite enough to earn Saban’s recruitment know that if they excel at Alabama, they are almost guaranteed a ticket to the NFL.
There are 35 players who graduated from Alabama in the NFL, including offensive studs such as receiver Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons, receiver Amari Cooper of the Oakland Raiders and power running back Eddie Lacy of the Green Bay Packers.
In the 2011 and 2012 draft per NFL.com, the Crimson Tide had four players drafted in the first round respectively, including Dre Kirkpatrick and Dont’a Hightower in 2012 and Marcell Dareus and Mark Ingram in 2011.
Florida State: NFL
For the past decade the Seminoles have been one of the few college football teams outside the SEC who have had a legitimate shot at becoming a mini-dynasty, especially after they won the final BCS Championship in 2014 against the Auburn Tigers.
Florida State has always recruited mega-athletes such as Warrick Dunn that can hang in the SEC, and that was evident this year after Jared Shanker of ESPN.com ranked the Seminoles No. 1 on signing-day.
There are 36 players from Florida State on current NFL rosters, second only to LSU, and they include quarterback Jameis Winston of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who was the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft, place-kicker Sebastian Janikowski of the Oakland Raiders and linebacker Lawrence Timmons of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
No longer the neglected little brother to the Florida Gators and the Miami Hurricanes, Florida State is a preferred destination for many of the region’s top athletes.
From 2002 to 2008 the USC Trojans dominated college football with seven consecutive conference titles, one AP national championship, one BCS Championship (despite what the official records say), three Heisman Trophy winners and a 34-game win streak.
During that period of time the Trojans were not only winning on the field, they were also crushing the recruiting wars, including a legendary 2003 class that FoxSports.com ranked as the second greatest of the modern recruiting era.
That class included names such as Reggie Bush, Sedrick Ellis, Ryan Kalil and Lendale White, and helped send a horde of Trojans to the NFL.
Entering this NFL season, 36 USC players were on NFL rosters in 2016, including Bush who won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints, Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers, who also won a Super Bowl, Carson Palmer of the Arizona Cardinals and Nelson Agholor of the Philadelphia Eagles.
With USC’s 2016 resurgence behind the play of quarterback Sam Darnold, the program appears to once again be the pre-eminent NFL feeder school on the West Coast, which means scouts will be paying even more attention to the talent-rich Trojans, especially with players such as cornerback Adoree’ Jackson eligible to go pro after the Bowl season ends.
Ohio State: NFL
Despite a brief downturn after a scandal that cost former coach Jim Tressel his job in 2011, the Buckeyes quickly bounced back under the leadership of new coach Urban Meyer, including a 42-20 victory over the Oregon Ducks that earned the team the first College Football Playoff (CFP) national title.
And the truth is, Ohio State has been a college football giant for decades, and can legitimately compete with SEC schools for top talent throughout the country.
There’s no doubt that consistent winning brings attention from the NFL, and with the Buckeyes’ appearance in the CFP final four for the second time in three seasons, the school continues to build a reputation as a storehouse of pro-quality athletes.
In fact, 35 of those athletes play in the NFL, including rookie superstar running back Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys, wideout Ted Ginn Jr. of the Carolina Panthers and defensive lineman Joey Bosa of the San Diego Chargers.
Nostalgia for the Hurricanes was at an all-time high after the 2009 ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The U revived interest in the program’s heyday.
The irony is that at the time the documentary came out, the Miami football program was far from its glory days, and in fact, the 2011 Nevin Shapiro Scandal, which was exhaustively catalogued by Tim Elfrink of Miami New Times, had yet to hit the school with bombshells that resulted in multiple NCAA sanctions.
And yet despite the downturn, the Hurricanes still boast 34 NFL players, including Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers.
New head coach Mark Richt has brought calm and stability to the program, evidenced by the team’s 9-4 record this season, including a five-game winning streak punctuated by a 31-14 thrashing of 14th-ranked West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
The Hurricanes appear to be trending up as a school that recruits top-shelf athletes, and ESPN Insider recently ranked the team’s 2017 recruiting class as the 13th best in the nation going into the all-important signing day in February.
The Wildcats are long-established college basketball royalty, and there is no end in sight for its current domination not only on the court, but in the number of players they send to the NBA.
Per Aaron Torres of FoxSports.com, Kentucky leads all universities with 24 players on NBA rosters at the start of the 2016-17 season. (Note: Torres’ list, which is the main reference used for NBA stats, compiles its numbers based on players who were on the active roster on opening day)
That’s no surprise, given that in the seven years that John Calipari has coached the Wildcats, 29 of his players have been drafted or have played in the NBA, 19 lottery picks have come from Kentucky since the NBA instituted the lottery in 1985 and eight Wildcats were selected in the 2015 NBA draft, per RealGM.
Current NBA stars that played at Kentucky include power forward Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans, power forward DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings, point guard John Wall of the Washington Wizards and center Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Each has been an All-Star or NBA Rookie of the Year selection, and Davis and Cousins are on a trajectory that could make them candidates for the best player of their generation if their form holds.
The paradigm for the best high school players in the nation is to catch Coach Cal’s attention, play a year with Kentucky and play in the NBA.
Yeah, most people outside of Durham hate the Blue Devils, but Duke is the equivalent of a “made man” in the Mafia, a team that has earned its bones and is safe from random hits triggered by jealous enemies.
With Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski steering this massive ship for 36 years, the Blue Devils have won five national titles and 20 of the school’s players are on an NBA roster, second only to Kentucky.
Notable Duke players in the NBA include point guard Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers who just won a championship with LeBron James, small forward Brandon Ingram of the Los Angeles Lakers (the No. 2 pick in the draft) and small forward Luol Deng of the Los Angeles Lakers.
And with Coach K having earned universal respect from NBA players — especially from LeBron James —after navigating Team USA through two Olympic gold medals, Duke will continue to gain attention from NBA scouts and general managers as a program where players are well-coached and prepared for the rigors of the professional game.
The Jayhawks can lay claim to being part of the inner circle of basketball royalty occupied by Kentucky and Duke, and with 15 former players in the NBA, that claim would not seem farfetched.
Since he took over the program in 2003, Bill Self has the most wins of any Kansas coach at Allen Field House (the Jayhawks home court), per Matt Norlander of CBS Sports, and has also coached 10 lottery picks and 24 players who made it to an NBA roster.
He also won a national title in 2008, and his team is always in the conversation when it comes to championship contenders.
Current NBA players who attended Kansas include small forward Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves who went No. 1 overall in 2014, and center Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, a No. 3 pick.
North Carolina: NBA
The Tar Heels are the fourth team in the quartet of blue ribbon colleges — including Kentucky, Duke and Kansas — that are good every year and continue to send the best players to the NBA.
Despite the fierce Tobacco Road rivalry with Duke, North Carolina continues to recruit very well under coach Roy Williams, and with 15 former players on NBA rosters the Tar Heels are still generating a pipeline to the big leagues.
The only drawback is that North Carolina hasn’t had a No. 1 overall pick since Brad Daugherty in 1986, and small forward Marvin Williams of the Charlotte Hornets is the last Tar Heels player to be drafted as high No. 2, which occurred in the 2005 draft, per RealGM.
Current NBA players from North Carolina include point guard Ty Lawson of the Sacramento Kings, small forward Harrison Barnes of the Dallas Mavericks and small forward Danny Green of the San Antonio Spurs, who won a championship in 2014.
For the past few seasons, the Bruins were the definition of underachievers, with teams stacked with talent but lacking the structure and will to turn that into wins.
But this season after several highly ranked recruiting classes, coach Steve Alford has one of UCLA’s most potent squads in years, despite the team’s first loss of the season to Oregon on December 28.
And that turnaround has come largely because of one-and-done phenom point guard Lonzo Ball, who is considered a lottery pick and might even go No. 1 depending on which NBA team lands that lucky ping-pong ball.
Thirteen former UCLA players are on NBA teams, and some of the names are among the 20 best ballers in the league, including whirling dervish point guard Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder, power forward Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers who just won a title, and high-flying point guard Zach LaVine who has won two consecutive NBA Slam Dunk Contest titles.
And according to Brian Snow of SI.com, UCLA’s 2017 recruiting class is filled with five-star prospects that should keep the assembly line to the NBA on track for years to come.
The Wildcats have 12 former players in the NBA, including small forward Andre Iguodala of the Golden State Warriors who was MVP of the 2015 NBA Finals, point guard Jason Terry of the Milwaukee Bucks who has also won a title and small forward Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic.
Under head coach Sean Miller, Arizona has always been competitive, though the team has yet to break through to the Final Four under his tutelage despite amassing some of the best talent on the West Coast.
That’s evident by the fact that Miller recently snagged the commitment of DeAndre Ayton, the top-ranked prospect in the country, ensuring that the pipeline to the NBA remains wide open.
Long Beach State: MLB
Long Beach State probably has the most distinctive team name in college baseball: the Dirtbags.
But even more interesting is the fact that per Nick Selbe of NCAA.com, Long Beach State has 12 former players on an MLB roster as of the start of the 2016 season, which leads all schools in the country. (Note: Selbe’s’ list, which is the main reference used for MLB stats, compiles its numbers based on players who were on the active roster on opening day)
That’s an amazing stat considering that the Dirtbags are not as well known as some of the big-time college baseball programs, but their former players include third baseman Evan Longoria of the Tampa Bay Rays and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Dirtbags have won their conference 11 times since 1964, made four College World Series appearances — the most recent in 1998 — and appeared in the Regionals in 2014 and 2016, per The Baseball Cube.
Arizona State: MLB
The Sun Devils are college baseball royalty with 20 appearances in the College World Series, five national titles and more than 100 former players who have played in the MLB since 1959, including Barry Bonds and Reggie Jackson, per the Arizona State University baseball website.
In the past six years, Arizona State also leads all Div. I universities with 50 players selected in the MLB draft.
No university has a more prestigious baseball history, and there are 10 former players from ASU in the major leagues, including second baseman Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox and outfielder Andre Ethier of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The SEC school is like the little engine that could when it comes to major sports — especially in football —but the Commodores have produced nine players who are currently on an MLB roster.
The most famous Commodore in the majors is Cy Young-winning pitcher David Price of the Boston Red Sox, who also happened to be the first pick in the 2007 MLB draft.
Under head coach Tim Corbin; Vanderbilt has four College World Series appearances, one title in 2014 and a second-place finish in 2015.
You don’t think of Miami as anything but a football school, yet the Hurricanes baseball team has eight former players in the MLB, including All-Star outfielder Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, and All-Star catcher Yasmani Grandal of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Hurricanes are coming off a year in which the team advanced to the College World Series and also had seven players drafted by MLB teams, per the University of Miami baseball website.
Miami has won four national titles — the most recent in 2001 — and were conference champions in 2008, 2014 and 2016.
The Hurricanes ended the 2016 season ranked sixth in the country per Baseball America.
North Carolina: MLB
Better known as a basketball school, the Tar Heels baseball team is tied with Miami with eight former players currently playing in the MLB.
The most famous alum is All-Star pitcher Matt Harvey of the New York Mets who battled injuries in 2016, but when healthy is considered one of the better flame-throwers in the game.
Andrew Miller, the relief pitcher who was used so creatively by the Cleveland Indians this past season in their run to the World Series, is also a former Tar Heels baseball player.
North Carolina was the runner up in the 2006 and 2007 College World Series, and per Baseball-Reference.com, MLB teams drafted six Tar Heels in 2016.