Commentary

Coaches strive to find the right balance

Originally Published: September 8, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo proved once again Saturday how good a coach he is. The outweighed, out-heighted, out-quicked Midshipmen nearly upset No. 6 Ohio State, falling 31-27.

[+] EnlargeKen Niumatalolo
Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMIKen Niumatalolo's Midshipmen nearly sunk Ohio State's season.

Navy's option offense is a nightmare for opponents. The offense's best asset is the discipline that comes second nature to the Midshipmen. Yet you have to think that if Niumatalolo could induce those bigger, taller, faster players in Columbus to apply for admission to the U.S. Naval Academy, his best asset wouldn't be discipline. It would be weight, height and quickness. Goodbye, option. Niumatalolo has the best players he can get. And in the end, the reason that coaches recruit every day, and fans read about recruiting every day, is because that's how football games are won.

Which is, of course, why we breathe.

The coverage of recruiting has never been greater. Yet recruiting itself still consists of guesswork. Experience, intuition and legwork combine to paint a picture of a boy becoming a man. What kind of man will he be? What kind of player?

NCAA rules prevent college coaches from spending a lot of time with prospects. It is a way to level the playing field. That's not how it used to be.

In his seminal 1966 story about the recruiting of Abilene, Texas, blue-chip senior quarterback Jack Mildren, Dan Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated that Oklahoma assistant coach Barry Switzer "was practically camping on the Mildrens' front lawn."

Mildren signed with Oklahoma, where he became one of the first great triple-option quarterbacks.

So much is different today. The biggest concern that coaches have is figuring how to get to know a prospect well enough to decide whether to entrust him with their program. They spend little time with prospects, yet the marketplace demands that the coaches make decisions faster.

Commitments used to be made during the senior season of high school. Competition among the schools over the past 20 years pushed that back to the summer before senior year, then to the spring of junior year, and then to February.

[+] EnlargeBarry Switzer
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesWhen Barry Switzer was an assistant, coaches could have seemingly unlimited access to recruits.

Now, Texas coach Mack Brown says, high school coaches are calling to warn him that their sophomores are being offered.

"I've actually said to some of the coaches, 'He's not shaving yet!'" Brown said. "My gosh. Help me. You'd like to date before you get engaged. I'd like to at least meet him. Say hello.

"Our poor coaches. I'm saying, 'Well, how are his academics?' He's had three semesters!"

The late bloomers, in the meantime, become prospects after the top schools have run out of scholarships. Oregon, for one, has thrived upon finding players who went unnoticed in the rush to hand out commitments.

In the old days, the powers that be could sign bloomers early and late. The NCAA scholarship limit bloated to 140 players. Coaches such as Bear Bryant of Alabama and Darrell Royal of Texas signed players thinking, if he can't play for us, at least he can't play against us.

Today's coach couldn't hoard players even if he wanted to. The scholarship limit is 85. And some coaches have figured out that signing the best 25 players does not a team make.

Brown said he got that recruiting lesson on his visit to U.S. troops in the Middle East last spring from Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of the multinational force in Iraq. American soldiers are volunteers. They want to be there.

"You all should recruit players who really want to be there," Odierno told Brown, "because they're going to perform better for you than a guy that you talk into coming."

[+] EnlargeMack Brown
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireCoaches like Mack Brown have to make tougher decisions with less information.

Brown has the luxury of picking the players he wants, more or less. He doesn't pick the 25 best players he sees.

"Coach Bryant would take kids that other people didn't want," Brown said. "He'd have some great ones and a lot of really good ones around them that wanted to play at Alabama. Same thing with Coach Royal."

In his autobiography, Bryant described his second national champion this way: "But outside of Steve Sloan, Paul Crane, Wayne Freeman and a few others, most of that 1964 bunch were average players. They just didn't know it."

"The coaches that we hire look at our talent when they come in and say, 'I'm surprised. It's not as good as I thought,'" Brown said. "I say, 'Well, you're going to be surprised on Saturday. They're going to play better than they are.' Since we've got good kids, they play hard every Saturday. They're not flat much. We may not play good, but we're not going to blow games any more because our kids have pride and they are going to play."

Maybe Niumatalolo is on to something. The Midshipmen play at Navy because they want to be there. In the end, whether a coach can sign 140 players or 85, recruiting is about melding talent and desire. The art, then and now, is coming up with the right mixture.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com