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Recruiting Landscape Revelation

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A great article on recruiting including some excellent data mining tools (look at the right hand side of the article) that illustrate some pretty clear principles related to the art of convincing cocky 18 year olds to come to State U.

Think local

If you want to understand Mack Brown's obsession with recruiting locally, perhaps even to his occasional detriment, it's because he intuitively understands this little fact:

An SI study of 2004-08 recruiting data for the 65 BCS-conference schools and Notre Dame revealed that programs which draw at least 50 percent of their players from within 200 miles or from within their home state stand a far better chance of winning consistently than those that did not

That's the hallmark of consistent winning. And that's what Mack Brown is about. It is not predictive of optimization - that is to say, what % mix is ideal (i.e. what a program should do in a down year for in-state linebackers). So that's still an important debate to have.

Indeed, localism is also the most decisive factor in school choice by recruits:

Those data complement the findings of a trio of economists who, in 2005, designed a model to predict the college choices of sought-after recruits. The model created by Mike DuMond, Allen Lynch and Jennifer Platania -- rabid college football fans who met while Ph D. candidates at Florida State -- found that among heavily recruited players choosing from among only BCS-conference schools, distance from home is the most important factor in a recruit's choice. The model was published in the February 2008 issue of The Journal of Sports Economics.

I will grant that a Florida State PHD economics candidate is academically proximate to a UT undergrad in the school of Education, but the data here are fairly easy to crunch and as they confirm a number of beliefs that I've always held, I accept them as relative truth.

The model found that a school's academic standing -- whether it's in the top 50 of the US News and World Report rankings -- provides a miniscule bump. So does the final poll ranking of the school the previous season. What didn't matter to players shocked the economists more. According to the data, the players weren't, on the whole, worried about the depth chart, how many national titles schools had won or how many players the school put in the NFL.

No kidding about the academic standing. Every time I read in a recruiting interview that a kid is focused "on his education" and wants "to major in engineering or business" it's fairly predictable that he'll end up at LSU, OU or Florida State majoring in Stacking Things!, Tickling Studies, or Does This Object Taste Good When Placed In Your Mouth.

Depth chart, tradition, and NFL participation as overrated predictors is a bit of a surprise to most, but it makes a whole lot of sense when you consider that Florida, Miami and FSU are relative Johnny-Come-Latelies to college football dominance - their ascendance in the 1980s was directly tied to the hire of coaching catalysts who created programs healthy enough to allow localism. This also explains the rise of LSU - a place with far less winning tradition than the average college football fan believes. To put it in geopolitical terms, there are a lot of very poor countries sitting on resource goldmines and a lot of very wealthy countries without a resource pot to piss in.

Governance is key.

State loyalty often supersedes straight-line distance. "If I'm a recruit in south Georgia, and it's 200 miles to Gainesville and 200 miles to Athens, the physical distance is the same either way," DuMond said. "Georgia still has an advantage because I live in that state."

Great point, but that also reveals a regional data bias. Some states have a stronger regional loyalty than others. It's quite strong in the South, almost non-existent in New Jersey. So often is the key word there. Additionally, if you don't see a viable program in-state, you may be a fan, but you've got to look elsewhere. See Southern California pre-Carroll, Texas mid to late 80's, Florida pre-1980's.

This also explains why Tennessee's Lane Kiffin hire makes some sense. And Kiffin's subsequent hiring of a staff that is single-mindedly dedicated to recruiting. The Vols know what they are in a way that, say, Auburn does not. Tennessee is one of the few SEC schools with a poor natural recruiting base and they're hugely reliant on talent from neighboring states - several of them featuring SEC schools with strong in-state localism. You must possess a crack staff of recruiters at Tennessee if you want to get it done; you have to overcome powerful regional biases. Expect Kiffin to make his raids into ACC country to battle North Carolina and Virginia as much as into Northern Georgia and Mississippi. State loyalties are less closely held in ACC country when it come to football.

The other great exception here is JUCOs. They're the Hessian hired guns of the college football landscape and they'll go wherever they can find easy admission requirements, a forgiving class schedule, and a friendly depth chart.

Underachievers and Overachievers

Some coaches in sparse areas are better than others at convincing talented players to leave home. The state of Oregon produced only 44 BCS-conference signees in five years, but Oregon and Oregon State combined to win 81 games. What does that mean? It means Ducks coach Mike Bellotti and Beavers coach Mike Riley deserve raises.

Agreed. The Pacific Northwest is a football recruiting wasteland. I've always laughed when people are dismissive of Mike Bellotti when Oregon loses a few games in a down cycle, although having Phil Knight is an extraordinary X Factor. Not so Mike Riley. These outlier schools exists on a razor's edge and they know that one or two bad years of recruiting decisions or program strife can ruin their programs. And, unlike a Texas or USC, reviving them once they're down is a bitch.

Ask Washington.

Conversely, some programs have failed to take advantage of their nearby recruiting bounty, meaning coaches either are choosing the wrong players, or they aren't developing those players. Even if it draws only the second-best 25 players from Southern California every year, UCLA should win more than 33 games in five years. That may seem a cold analysis, but at least those coaches don't have to convince players accustomed to wearing flip-flops in December to come to a place that requires Gore-Tex boots.

UCLA and Texas A&M are key examples of this and college football's most extraordinary underachievers. UCLA made a conscious decision, somewhat similar to Texas during the late 80s, that football simply wasn't a priority and that a robust football program is opposed to academic standing. They may be moving past that now, so it will be interesting to see.

A&M is fully dedicated to a winning football program in theory, but they possess self-imposed cultural handicaps that allow them to be bullied by the triangle of powers (Texas, LSU, OU) around them. Their inability to make quality secular hires has been debilitating. Despite all of this, it's still a Top 20 college football job.

Your thoughts?