College Football is all about the recruits. We hear that over and over again. We hear coaches that are not very successful winning tell you that the boosters and university have not put enough emphasis on the facilities necessary to attract the top talent they need. On the other side of the ledger are coaches that win with enormous talent and yet they are geniuses, either as recruiters or as coaches, maybe both.
My look at myth vs reality is the fact that time and again, top talent classes fail to pan out while classes considered average to below average can achieve great things. This is NOT such an unusual phenomena. Now I don't want the reader to assume that I am saying recruiting isn't important. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The point is great recrits are not always star studded dudes. Some teams whose recruiting classes often rank in the 70's win no matter what Rivals and Scout and Super-Max Preps says. What constitutes a great recruit (and recruiting class) and why may not always be related to what Rivals, Scout or any other hype-site might dictate. Recruiting is at best an enormously difficult task and always a crap shoot when the grown man (coach) is weighing the long-term program value (i.e. his career) on the future of a 17 year old kid. For that reason alone, I think it's a good idea to look hard and fast at why some programs excel even without top 25 or even top 50 recruiting classes, and why other schools with marquee classes continually disappoint their fans.
OVER ACHIEVERS/THE ABYSMAL 70's
There are FOUR outstanding programs that regardless of what the major scouting reports say about their recruiting classes; they kick the bejeebees out of opponents. The land regularly in the top quartile (top 30 of the 120 FBS programs). Lost on many of my colleagues (other football writers) of recent years is the fact that several of the top 30 or first quartile programs regularly do it with 2nd and 3rd quartile recruiting classes. Look at the success of programs at:
- BOISE STATE
- BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY
The first three have rarely had a top 50 or lower recruiting class (if ever). Not far in front of them has been BYU with classes usually in the low second quartile until 2010 when BYU landed it's first top 25 class ever. In general BYU has had slightly better recruiting classes than the other three teams. However, BYU annually faces a much stiffer challenge to getting its best early recruits OTF because of the LDS faith. Its mission program often lauded as some type of advantage is always dismissed as being nearly unmanageable for other programs that could easily do something similar by interrupting the careers of it's best athletes by putting them in a foreign country for 2 years under a vista/peace corp program. Not many critics of BYU's program are leaping at opportunities to send their talent away for two years. Its not really an advantage. That BYU does as well as with it's issues is truly amazing to people in the know.
Other programs at Air Force, Navy, Tulsa, Fresno State, East Caroilina, Southern Mississippi and Houston are other deadpan 70's (or lower rated) programs. They all end up recruiting low and achieving relatively high results in spite of it
Why do these programs succeed with such purportedly lesser talent? I think there are three main reasons and this is very important to understanding how it is the first four teams are fairly rooted in the top 30, and the rest of the programs I mentioned to some degree reach that plateau more than on rare occasions.
ONE - DELTA isn't great between 3's and 5's by the sophomore year!
The biggest myth is that a 5 star athlete is better than the 3 star athlete. There are simply far too many athletes out there to evaluate everyone. Some of the best athletes ever were not highly rated. Furthermore, some of the greatest performers were not great athletes, just incredible workers (Jerry Rice and Steve Young are both excellent examples). People are shocked to find out that Rice was so slow in the 40 you could time it with a calender...ok 4.7, but certainly not why he was great or got separation. Rice ran incredible routes and he could get separation by lining up the appropriate shoulder and foot, reading the opponent, making the adjustment and then going in the correct direction while confusing the defender.
In the case of college players, there are just too many athletes out there that moving to the next step where coaching is vastly better, can make a huge difference. Simply put, 2, 3 and 4 star athletes with a year under their belt often catch up and even surpass the original 5 star. Chronological age vs physical maturity is another area of concern. All too often the difference between the three and five star recruit is just one reached puberty and a high testosterone level earlier than the average teenage male. Give the 2, 3, 4 star six months and suddenly the time between graduation and September the player has gained 2 inches and thirty lbs. In other words, a scout is going to rate the recruit on what he hears and sees on the field but is not really able to look hard at the pipeline (family history, genetic disposition to future developmen, character).
Great recruiters like BYU's Bronco Mendenhall, Utah's Kyle Whittingham, TCU's Gary Patterson or BSU's Chris Petersen are all good at one thing....seeing the man within the teenager. These men know how to size up the recruit not just by what they see on the field (potential), but by what they see in the living room. A cursory look through the family photo album can tell a coach a lot about the player's genes. He listens to the father and grandfather that stand 6'4 and 6'3 talk about how they grew mostly in their 18th and 19th years. Unrecruited by name schools, these coaches can look at the six foot 190-200 lb big boned linebacker with 4.5 speed and deduce he will either be an awesome safety prospect or will mature up a couple of inches and 30 lbs into a heck of a defense end or OLB.
Intelligence is an important part of the package as well. The kid that wants to play at BYU, Stanford, Notre Dame better be able to do more than simple math problems also. Complicated offenses means intelligence is required.
The fact is, few freshman contribute much before their sophomore year. Excellent coaching staffs that take in 2,, 3 and the occasional 4 star kid will have them ready to play and often far above that original 5 star kid that relies only on talent and who is poorly coached. Notre Dame has perennial top 5-15 recruiting classes and continues to underachieve. TCU, BSU, BYU and UTAH keep beating the snot out of teams with purportedly greater talent.
TWO - Great Coaching
See ONE above. This is more of a summary of what was stated in one above. But the fact is, a great coach can take good talent and mature it, build it, mold it into something special. BYU has done this with Tight Ends, Lineman, Linebackers and Quarterbacks for decades. Utah with Defensive Lineman, Receivers, Defensive Backs and running backs, TCU with defenders at almost every position and solid runners.
While BSU doesn't often grade "A" out anywhere, the entire team is so well coached, so solid, it is the classic example of synergy in operation on the field. If BSU has a problem, it is that they play such poor competition, they are rarely challenged and suffer mental lapses from the boredom.
The fact is, LaVell Edwards proved a team could win with good talent and great coaching. BYU has always had relatively good and at times even exceptional individual talent. But top to bottom, those four teams have been over achievers, BYU doing it for nearly 4 decades. Exceptional coaching is the key to those team's continuing success. Young coaches like Mendenhall, Patterson, Whittingham, Petersen, Holtz, etc. are precisely what young 2, 3 and 4 stars need.
Edwards surrounded himself with adept technicians who were also innovative and creative. Great head coaches always have exceptional staffs. These are often the X-O minds that can devise a game plan, contingencies for counter intuitive opponents and who can be fluid and change things up during the course of a game. They are wise, flexible and they stick to what they know and have practiced. They have practiced for what they expect to see on game day, and for what they do not expect to see, but think is the logical way of attacking their own team's possible weaknesses. They turn their weaknesses into strengths by taking on the role of their opponent as much as knowing their own team.Never underestimate the power of a game-day persona.
THREE - Committment and Desire
The mental aspect of the college game is enormous. Tell a 2 star recruit he isn't as good as a 5 star and he will cop an attitude. A great coach knows how to harness that and will use it to mold that young man exactly the same way the Marine Corp molds skinny know-nothings into an elite fighting force feared by the rest of the world. Young men willing to work, committed to improvement, who are coach-able, and who are committed to the team concept (there is no "I" in team actually must mean something) are actually easier to coach into a cohesive unit than a team of former High School prima-donnas. You don't find any Reggie Bush's at BYU, TCU, etc. They wouldn't survive in places where aggressive confidence is never confused with cocky arrogance.
The other programs I mentioned earlier are not that far behind these big four. Pat Hill (Fresno State), Skip Holtz (while at East Carolina) clearly take mostly average talents and mold them into much better teams where the sum of the whole is far greater than the individual parts. You men that want to win will be committed to it in the class room, film room, weight room and lecture hall. Winners prepare harder. Winners see the victory in their mind's eye before they step onto the football field. Winners plan to win and all that is possible when the players are committed to each other and their coach.
Teams in the bottom three quartiles, take note of this one thing. To be a top 25 program, you need only get better on 4-5 plays per game. You see, that is usually the critical difference between great teams and average teams. Most games are won or lost on the turn of four or five plays a game. That's it! Improve to perfection those few olays, be committed, work at it and any team can get over the hump of average. Look at BSU, BYU, TCU and UTAH. Those programs have proved you can win with what you have, IF you do what they do year in and year out. Selflessness and dedication produces winners every time.
The bottom line, young players that want to play for a winner, will look at history and coaching staffs as much as glitter. You might be a star and better than the five star guy recruited ahead of you if you go to the right place.
L. E. Deaux
Sports Forum West