Well, college football’s National Letter of Intent Day came and went without a post on recruiting from yours truly, Ragnarok. Why was that? Surely, a rabid football fan such as myself would follow the ins and outs of the next potential Golden Bear stars, anticipating the next big verbal commitment, deciphering the clumsily worded statements of 17-year-olds for hidden clues regarding where they want to play football. Well, sorta. But not really.
Despite the dearth of any other football-related news in the month of February, I find myself struggling to care whenever recruiting news pops up. A glowing article on the latest big-time recruit to pick Cal will appear, and all I take away from the story is "Oh good, we got a Tight End." I don’t know this kid, or if he’s any good, and unlike HydroTech, I’m unable to glean any information from grainy video of the kid running over other high school kids. Let’s be honest here: if the kid’s being recruited by a Division I-A football program, he’d better be dominating ordinary high schoolers. Heights, weights, 40 times, ESPN 150 rankings, none of these have any meaning for me. Recruiting class rankings? I guess it’s better to be ranked higher than lower, but these rankings have only a rough correlation to how good teams will be in another 3 years. (For example, check out this re-evaluation of the 2004 recruiting classes — clearly, Tedford knew more about these kids than the recruiting websites did.)
What I really want to know when I read news about my favorite college team (in this case, Cal, obviously) is this: does this news mean that my favorite team will be better next year? Will they win more games, maybe finally getting that coveted conference championship? I read a story about some hotshot recruit, and honestly, I have no idea. I will forget the names of most of these players by next week, long before they ever make an impact at the college level (if they ever do); if they turn into stars, or even starters, I’ll relearn their names then, just as though I had never bothered to follow recruiting in the first place.
One of the biggest reasons I can’t follow recruiting is because the metrics used are so blunt. Rating a kid from 1 to 5 stars? That’s the best you got? That’s the same system I use to rate songs on my iPod, and believe me, that system is fraught with difficulties, too. Obviously, "Stairway to Heaven" is a 5-star song, but what about "Kashmir"? Does that merit the same level of consideration, or is it down with the other 4-star songs like "Immigrant Song" and "Heartbreaker"? In actuality, it’s somewhere in between. The problem here is that 5 stars don’t give you very much precision at all.
Then of course, songs have outside associations which can affect my opinion of them. Do I really think "Dancing Days" is a great song, or do I just know it so well because the Stone Temple Pilots covered it? There are times where high school prospects can increase their star rating simply by committing to, or even drawing interest from, high profile schools like USC or Florida. The hype can go too far, however. "Rock and Roll" used to be one of my favorite songs until it got used in an SUV commercial. Now I can’t stand it. Think people weren’t similarly tired of hearing about über-recruit Jimmy Clausen and how he was going to be the "savior" of whatever program he chose?
We can also run into trouble trying to apply the same metric to players of different positions. Is a 5-star long snapper as valuable as a 5-star quarterback? Or, given their diminished role, do we cap long-snappers at 3 stars? Does that give us an accurate picture of how good they are? I run into the same problem with my music collection, attempting to use the same rating system to evaluate both "Whole Lotta Love" and some random song from the soundtrack to "Legally Blonde." (Fellas, this is what happens when you let your significant other add to your music collection — random stuff like this comes up.)
Of course, one of the biggest problems with recruiting is that there are so many more prospects than any one person, coaching staff, or website can possibly keep track of. I’ve got something like 10,000 songs in my iTunes Library, and only a small fraction of them are even rated. Yeah, I’ve got most of the 4- and 5-star songs rated, but every now and then I come across a forgotten gem that got overlooked, or perhaps an album track that never got much play but turns out to be really great (like "Down By The Seaside").
Kids with Division I talent fall through the cracks all the time for various reasons; maybe they go to a small school, or one that doesn’t showcase the kid’s talent (say, quarterbacks or wide receivers in an option offense). Perhaps their high school coach isn’t well-connected, or the kid doesn’t know how to promote himself. Regardless, lots of big-time talents end up at smaller schools, or perhaps at junior colleges, where they can get a second chance to prove that they belong with the big boys.
Everyone knew Jimmy Page had 5-star talent coming out of the Yardbirds, but it was his recruitment of the lesser-known Robert Plant that forged the nucleus of one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
Here’s a little example to drive the point home: do you know where Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver in the history of the NFL, played his college ball? That’s right: Division I-AA Mississippi Valley State, in part because not one Division I-A school even offered him a scholarship. Similarly, would it surprise you to learn that "Stairway to Heaven", which often tops lists of the greatest rock songs of all time, was never even released as a single?
Another thing those who follow recruiting love to do is "rank" the recruiting classes. Honestly, I don’t know how much such an exercise could possibly be worth. Coaches are recruiting different sets of kids to different schools in different environments with different academic standards. They have different sets of positional needs and they run different systems. Yeah, lots of kids with lots of stars are great, but what happens when you become enamored with stud running backs and forget to recruit offensive linemen? A couple injuries later, and your running backs have no running lanes through which to run. Furthermore, how do you account for coaches passing on a 5-star kid that they thought would never make it academically, or local high schools not producing much talent from which to choose? I don’t know how you could possibly rank recruiting classes without making a lot of arbitrary assumptions about what is valuable and what is not, ignoring vast amounts of relevant data.
So, if I think all the recruiting hype is a bunch of cock and bull propagated by fans with too much time on the internet and not enough football to entertain them, do I not bother paying attention to recruiting at all? Not exactly. In general, I trust Tedford and his staff’s ability to evaluate talent, both because of their coaching experience and because they’re paid to spend a lot of time doing it. Coaches keep their job based on their player’s ability to win football games; the guys on recruiting websites keep their job based on whether those websites can sell enough subscriptions to their premium content. Given this, here’s what I look for in a recruiting class:
- Does Cal get most (if not all) of the best talent in northern California, where "best" is defined as those Tedford deigned to offer a scholarship to.
- Who else do these recruits have scholarships from? San Jose State? (Meh) Oregon? (Good) USC? (Great!)
- Does Cal get recruits from across the country to want to come play for Cal? If so, this would indicate that our national profile has been raised and Tedford has a wider possible area over which to cast his recruiting net.
- Does this class address all of the glaring needs of the current team with players ready to compete for a starting job (i.e. junior transfers or absolute stud freshmen, hopefully who have already enrolled in the Spring)?
- Does this class add to position depth across the board, anticipating injury problems and glaring needs that might come up in a year or two?
- Does the class hold together well, avoiding last-minute defections as kids go back on their verbal commitment to sign with another school? (In general, I’m not a fan of kids who make a commitment before they’ve actually made up their minds. I think it speaks to a lack of character.)
Well, that’s what I think. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader as to whether this year’s recruiting class meets these criteria.