Programs must go national to find system-fitting players
Reid Fragel (Grosse Pointe, Mich./South), a recruit from Michigan who committed to Ohio State, recently criticized the Wolverines for being "disrespectful" toward prospects on their home terrain. In a Columbus Dispatch article, Reid said the fact that the Wolverines are concentrating so heavily on prospects outside the state is only going to alienate in-state prospects and help Michigan State.
College football fans have a love for their in-state heroes, the local guys who make good and become major contributors to their home-state institutions. It's unrealistic, however, to think a college program can target only the talent within its own area. Many factors contribute to the national recruiting trends in today's world of college football.
In the world of college football, there is no doubt that the schools that have a large in-state recruiting base have an advantage over the ones that must go out of state for their talent. The home pool of players for schools like Texas, USC, Florida, Ohio State, Georgia, LSU and Penn State is much larger than schools like Michigan, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma. As a result, many colleges and universities that are more like the second group have traditionally had to venture far and wide to fill their roster with enough talent to compete. Many of those schools have been successful in attracting players to their programs and have gained the reputation of being national recruiting powers.
Ten different states are represented in the 16 verbal commitments for Notre Dame's 2009 recruiting class. In fact, only two of the 16 are from Indiana. Likewise, one-half of Nebraska's class is from the state of Texas, with only two players coming from the home state.
It's not uncommon for programs that draw a large percent of their players from the immediate region to look nationally for some of the very best high school gridders. The recruiting game has become so precise in terms of filling specific needs that programs would rather go after an impact player than take a local athlete who would have to grow into the position.
USC gets the vast majority of its players from California, but coach Pete Carroll traveled all the way to Louisiana for outstanding running back Joe McKnight. Ohio State didn't have to go far, but it was able to land the nation's No. 1 quarterback from the 2008 class in Pennsylvania's Terrelle Pryor.
Because of the time commitment, college coaches do not have the opportunity to recruit national talent in the depth and detail they would like. As a result, schools find recruiting areas, or pockets, where they have had success in the past and put their limited time into those places. Success breeds success, and players who have a positive experience at a college or university become the best salesmen to younger athletes from their high schools or geographical areas. Often, a veteran player can convince a young player to take an official visit or attend a camp at his institution.
Over time, the college coach often establishes great relationships with the high school coaches in a certain area. High school coaches often are major players in the recruiting process, and the more comfortable a high school coach feels about a college program, the more likely he is to encourage his player to at least keep an open mind about that school.
Penn State has had tremendous recruiting success along the Eastern Seaboard and Tidewater area. In fact, the Nittany Lions already have seven commitments from the state of Maryland for 2009.
The media has been a major recruiting tool for colleges that have traditionally found it hard to recruit on a national scale. The exposure given by televised games, sports shows, the Internet, etc., have given lower-profile schools opportunities to attract talent they might not have been able to reach because of geographic restrictions and tight recruiting budgets.
Athletes now see the chance to compete on national television no matter where they attend college. Because they may be able to play sooner at one of these programs than at a major power -- since the competition within the team itself is more intense -- players often opt for the early opportunity.
Years ago, who would ever have thought that teams like Utah State, South Florida, Appalachian State and UConn would attract a national television audience? Who also would have thought they could even compete with the national powers? Who knew Boise State had a blue football field?
It wasn't that long ago that football coaches simply would recruit the very best players they could get and let their staffs fit the players in the best positions. Great coaches like Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes and Tom Osborne recruited the very best players they could, and then they made them fit into the program because the team was the most important thing.
That team concept, however, has been replaced by systems. Whether it's the triple option, run 'n' shoot or the West Coast offense, colleges now often recruit to their specific system. College coaches seek out the exact type of quarterback, running back or wide receiver for the style of football they run. This means traveling wherever necessary to meet those needs.
Coaches are sometimes stubborn, or confident, that their way is the right way. That's why someone like Michigan's Rich Rodriguez will go national to recruit talent for his spread offense, while Pete Carroll will look for a more traditional pro-style signal-caller. One thing for sure, Rich and Pete will go to the ends of the earth to find the guy who fits into their way of doing things.
Bill Conley is a recruiting coordinator for ESPN Scouts Inc. He previously worked at Ohio State for 17 years as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator.