The business of college recruiting has become almost as big as the actual games themselves in the last two decades.
Rivals.com and scout.com established in the 1990s and early 2000s that there was serious craving among diehard fans for recruiting information in both football and basketball, prompting ESPN to jump headfirst into the fold several years ago. Star ratings, player evaluation traits and the differing types of commitments have become common nomenclature among the diehards and even the less devoted.
Fans often swear by the rankings that such sites produce, banking that the opinions of an analyst are more valuable to a program’s success than those of its actual coaches. But do the coaches themselves take notice of or care about the information circulating on the Internet?
“To a certain degree,” USC recruiting coordinator Shane Beamer said, admitting that he and his fellow coaches will look at them from time to time. “We’ve got 10 coaches on this staff that have a pretty good idea what they are looking for and looking at. If we as a staff believe a guy will help us win SEC championships, we’re going to sign and recruit that guy regardless of what anybody says about that guy or has him rated.
“We don’t put a whole lot of stock into them. That’s not to discredit the people that do them. They do a good job and put a lot of work into it. But for us it doesn’t matter how many stars a guy has. It matters what we think of him and our evaluation.”
That’s the answer that all coaches in America should honestly be able – some might say it not-so honestly – to provide to the question, ESPN basketball analyst Dave Telep said. However, some of them rely too heavily on rankings earmarked for fan entertainment instead of trusting their own evaluations.
Also, the allure of signing a great class sometimes wins out over signing the right players. These days, coaches can often create just as much momentum – and the positive recognition that goes with it – for their programs, especially in football, by signing a great class as winning a big game. That often impacts important decisions made in recruiting.
“It does matter to them,” Telep said of college football and basketball coaches. “This is the kind of business where salaries are driven by public perception and momentum. All that stuff feeds into recruiting. As much as they tell you they don’t look at them, it does get them excited when their classes are ranked well.
“But the real answer is that they shouldn’t care about the rankings. College coaches should be good enough evaluators of talent – not all are but they should be – and have a good enough concept of who fits into their team. Some guys are a lot better than others. Some guys don’t have a real plan.”
A distinct plan, Telep says, allows you to make personnel additions not from the best-ranked players in the nation but the players that are the best fit for what you do. Recruiting rankings are made to fit general offenses and defenses, meaning they devalue how a player might fit in a specialized scheme.
For example, the majority of the players USC recruits to fill its “Spur” position on defense are too slow to play safety and too small to play linebacker. However, they have the perfect size-speed mix to play a hybrid of the two, making their value to USC much greater than it would be for many other programs.
Also, recruiting rankings struggle to assess a prospect’s ability to fit in socially and academically. Different settings can greatly impact a player’s on-field performance, meaning that every five-star prospect isn’t right for every school. Just because he’s there for the taking, Telep says, doesn’t mean you should do so.
One of the factors that contributed to Florida State’s fall from college football royalty, according to former coach Bobby Bowden, was a greater reliance earlier this decade on the recruiting rankings instead of trusting their own instincts. That allowed the Seminoles to sign great classes – they had four top-four classes between 2002 and 2006, according to Rivals.com – but didn’t translate into on-field chemistry.
“You can look at the tape and see a guy make plays all over the field,” Beamer said. “He might be electric and dynamite, but when you go visit him in person, you might find out he’s got some character issues and his teammates and teachers don’t have positive things to say about him. That’s a situation where a highly rated guy isn’t the best choice for a school. We have to evaluate a player’s athletic ability, his academic ability and his character on and off the field.
“There are so many things that go into it. There’s a thin line between winning and losing. Sure, we want good players, but we want solid people and solid teammates, too.”