The State of Recruiting
Breaking down football recruiting data for BCS schools from 2004-08
Schools who drew at least 50% of recruits within 200 miles won more
The state of Florida produced most BCS recruits (981), followed by Texas (974)
One day in late December, dry-erase boards stood staggered a few yards apart on the track surrounding the field at the University of North Florida. A Nebraska assistant coach was posted in front of each board, and around each coach huddled a clutch of Jacksonville-area high school coaches. The Cornhuskers had come to the Sunshine State to face Clemson in the Gator Bowl, but first-year coach Bo Pelini and his staff figured that while they were there, they should lay the foundation for a recruiting pipeline into the state that, from 2004-08, produced more BCS-conference football players (981) than any other.
The Nebraska coaches have little choice but to hit the road. Their state produced only 43 BCS-conference players in the past five years, and the annual output isn't likely to grow. If they don't get their players from Florida, then they must go to California, Texas, New Jersey or some other state rich in high school football talent. To land those players, Pelini will have to work harder now than former coach Tom Osborne did when the Cornhuskers dominated the sport for the better part of two decades. Back then, a winning program was enough to lure recruits, in part because only powerhouses such as Nebraska, Michigan and Notre Dame appeared on television regularly. Now, every BCS conference team plays most of its games on television, and 15 years of the 85-scholarship limit has slammed shut the gap between football's ruling class and the former pigskin proletariat.
In the process, the three most important factors in college football recruiting have become location, location and location. Now, the best players are more likely to stay close to home. That, combined with the U.S. population's shift to the south, has fundamentally changed the sport. Notre Dame and Nebraska have given way to programs such as LSU, the only BCS-conference team in a talent-rich state that borders equally talent-rich Texas and Mississippi.
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. Of the nine schools that won 50 or more games from 2004-08, seven signed more than half their recruits during that span from within their state or from within 200 miles of campus: Texas (93.2% from in-state, 71.8 percent from within 200 miles), USC (72.0, 61.0), Georgia (63.6, 70.1), Florida (62.3, 47.9), Ohio State (55.8, 66.3), Virginia Tech (54.3, 44.0) and LSU (50.4, 56.5). Oklahoma barely missed the cut, with 49.1 percent from within 200 miles.
Of the 22 schools that won 40 or more games during that span, 16 attracted more than half their players from within 200 miles or from within their state. Of the 44 schools that won fewer than 40 games, only 13 met the homegrown recruiting criteria.
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.
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.
"Recruits tend to have short memories," said DuMond, who works for a private economics firm in Tallahassee, Fla. In general, DuMond says, the top recruits are looking for "a place that is in a BCS conference with a big stadium that is close enough that they can be seen by family and friends."
Florida State offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher -- who enjoyed a similar advantage while serving the same role at LSU from 2000-06 -- cited that factor in his decision last year to remain as the Seminoles' head-coach-in-waiting behind Bobby Bowden rather than return to his native state and coach West Virginia. "That's one of the things that made this job so attractive to me," Fisher said. "You have to have a recruiting base. You have to have a solid foundation of players to win on a consistent basis. You'll have up-and-down years, but to win consistently, you have to be able to do that."
Pete Carroll used a similar philosophy at USC. When Carroll arrived in 2001, the Trojans had gone 31-29 the previous five seasons. Carroll and his assistants realized they sat atop a goldmine of players in Los Angeles and Orange counties. If they could lure the best of them every year and coach them well, they could dominate. After a 6-6 start, Carroll and company have gone 79-7.
"We have such a fertile area here in Southern California in particular, that recruiting here is critical," Carroll said. "Most schools around the country that are in the setting we are, you want to own the great players in your state, and then you do what you can outside the state. Without that, I think you're missing the point. So we've always focused with the greatest emphasis here at home."
Florida's Urban Meyer, who is 46-9 with two national titles in four years in Gainesville, agrees. "It's night and day," Meyer says of recruiting from a hotbed state versus one that produces scant players. But, Meyer says, the Sunshine State has its own unique dynamic. It produced the most players (981) and the most players per capita (one signee for every 18,683 residents) of any state in the nation between 2004-08, but four BCS-conference schools had to split those players. Of those, three (Florida, Florida State and Miami) have won a national title in the past 10 years. "The hardest thing we have is that there are other schools in the state," Meyer says. "In some places, [a single university] is the only show in town."
The competition is just as fierce within Texas. Despite the recent rise of Texas Tech, Texas still rules recruiting in the Lone Star State. Mack Brown and his staff have won at least 10 games in eight consecutive seasons by cherry-picking the best players from the state that produced the second-most BCS-conference signees (974) between 2004-08. The Longhorns had a greater percentage of players from within their state (93.2) than any other school in the nation. Of those, 71.8 percent came from within 200 miles of Austin. For the others, distance is not as much of a factor because of the state's relative size -- class of 2009 commit Mason Walters calls the 400 miles between Wolfforth, Texas, and Austin "close enough to home, but not too close" -- and because of state pride.
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."
But what about programs that must look elsewhere? Schools can keep 85 players on scholarship at any given time, and NCAA rules allow them to bring in at most 25 new scholarship players a year. Most schools sign between 20-25 a year, meaning a state would need to produce 100-125 players in a five-year span to properly stock a program. Wisconsin produced 55 players, meaning that if coach Bret Bielema's Badgers signed every BCS-quality recruit the state produced, they'd only have half a team.
"We'd love every player from our roster to be from the state of Wisconsin, to be quite honest," Bielema said. "But we can't fill up our scholarship numbers. There just aren't enough Division I football players to get us at that point."
So the coaches at schools in less talent-dense states must cast a wider net. They also must use their recruiting resources wisely, since they'll have to spend more money than a staff that can drive to see half the players it recruits. Rutgers, for example, takes most of its players from its home state of New Jersey, but since other schools (Syracuse, Boston College and Penn State) also raid the Garden State, the Scarlet Knights must fill out their roster from somewhere else. Coach Greg Schiano, a former Miami assistant, grabs a huge supplement from Florida. From 2004-08, Rutgers drew 42.7 percent of its players from New Jersey and 25.4 percent from Florida. The program even rented a billboard on I-95 in Florida to advertise to potential recruits.
At Nebraska, Pelini and recruiting coordinator Ted Gilmore prefer to canvas the entire nation. The Cornhuskers use a careful vetting process, because they can't afford to chase too many recruits who aren't serious about playing in Lincoln. "You want smart, tough and dependable," Gilmore said. "Usually, those qualities are represented on championship teams. With the 85-scholarship rule, you can't miss on too many. ... If we're going to go that far, we're going to make sure we get our money's worth."
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. The University of Oregon, popular among athletes because of its close relationship with Nike, intrigued Aldine, Texas, safety Craig Loston, one of the top players at his position in the class of 2009. Loston took an official visit because Eugene seemed so different than his home. Loston wound up committing to LSU, but he said he understands why players would commit to Oregon, with its state-of-the-art facilities and creative, aggressive coaching staff.
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.
Coaches at schools such as Notre Dame, Michigan and Nebraska must overcome negative recruiting that often focuses on how often the temperature drops below freezing. Asked how many times coaches from southern schools mentioned the cold weather in Lincoln, Nebraska cornerback Armando Murillo laughs. "They said that all the time," said Murillo, who went to high school in Tampa, Fla., and who played at a junior college in Arizona.
Florida State's Fisher doesn't deny that he offers a chilly warning to southern skill-position players thinking of crossing the Mason-Dixon line. "I don't know if we ever said, 'You'll freeze.' But the landscape of playing, especially if you're a skill guy, is not as conducive as it is in The South," Fisher said. "The weather can prohibit you from using all your skills at times and prevent you from getting the numbers and recognition and things you want. I think it is a significant difference."
Nebraska's Gilmore has heard it all, and he has an answer ready. "We have two indoor fields," he said. "We can keep them warm."
That's the fundamental problem for the Cornhuskers and the rest of the old-guard, frost belt schools. They have to worry about keeping southern transplants warm. They have to worry about players getting homesick. Meanwhile, Florida's Meyer, Texas's Brown, USC's Carroll, LSU's Les Miles and the rest of the coaches fortunate enough to have geography on their side need worry only about plucking the best players from their own backyards.
"A lot of people wonder why our staff is at Florida," Meyer said. "Five hours from our doorstep are the finest players in America."