How the pipeline idea evolved
Even with our research, this argument about the best NFL feeder school will never end
Now that we finally know which school has been the best at producing NFL talent over the past three decades, it's time to educate you on what spawned this idea in the first place. It evolved from conversations in locations all too familiar to the average sports fans -- around the watercooler at work, on a stool in a crowded bar and at the dinner table as less interested relatives rolled their eyes. You know how it goes: First, your buddy starts talking about how great his beloved college football team is and then you can't help making a case for your own pride and joy.
I had just such an experience at the Dallas Cowboys' minicamp last spring. An innocent conversation with a friend, Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Clarence Hill, turned aggressive when he started boasting about all the great players that his Texas Longhorns recently had sent to the NFL. When I reminded him that a fair share of those college stars had disappointed in the league, he took offense. When I pointed out that my alma mater, Michigan, had turned out some fairly productive players in the same time frame, he got downright ornery.
Since we were still arguing about the topic when practice ended, I later started thinking about how often I'd been involved in similar arguments throughout my life. I'd had them when I lived in California, where USC grads were relentlessly trumpeting their program's success. I'd had them with the worst kind of Ohio State fan, the type who didn't attend the school but felt compelled to boast about its talent pool all the same. I've even had such debates with people who had no business pumping up their program. Every college football fan, it seems, has some sort of opinion on the subject.
Eventually, I'd tired of wondering who was the best; I needed to know who was the best. Sure, I figured Miami would be at the top of such a list because of all the big names the Hurricanes have produced in the league over the years. But I also knew USC had to be in the running. I understood that Oklahoma, Louisiana State, Florida and Penn State had their share of great players, too. In fact, the more I thought about the past 30 years in college football and the NFL, the more I figured this debate had to be taken to the masses.
The key was figuring out how to structure such a project. For one thing, it wouldn't just be enough to talk about schools that had a certain number of former players drafted into the league over the past three decades. Those statistics would speak only to the potential of such athletes. We wanted to know what those players did once they reached the highest level of football. We wanted to know which ones actually made good on all that promise.
From that point on, it was all about crunching numbers and making sound arguments. We figured the results would be fascinating but we also expected the entire process to be fun. See, if there's one thing I believe about the sports world, it's that you won't find a more relentlessly passionate group of fans than those who follow college football. Even with the popularity of the NFL, you can bet that an Oklahoma-Texas game is going to inspire more vitriol than a Cowboys-Redskins contest ever will.
You can feel that intensity and pride even in the players who come from these programs. I can remember attending a Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice years ago, when former Bucs Derrick Brooks (a Florida State alum) and Warren Sapp (Miami) taunted each other on the way off the field, mainly because another edition of FSU-Miami would be kicking off in a few hours. I recently spoke with former Oklahoma star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the third pick in this year's draft, and he took great satisfaction in the number of ex-Sooners who have thrived in the league lately. In fact, I can guarantee you that our results will fuel more than a few arguments during offseason workouts around the league. That's how much these guys care about this stuff.
That type of interest is why I believed this idea had legs. The NFL has never been more popular than it is now. College football has never been as wildly controversial (thanks to the lack of a true playoff system). Just think of why the NFL draft has become such a huge event, one that moved into prime-time television just a few weeks back. Most football fans know the names of these players before they ever set foot in the league. The expectations are over the top from the moment many of them have played their last collegiate games.
So it only makes sense that we should now have a method of determining which program has done the best job of providing the league with the best skilled players. Sure, I congratulate Miami for its dominance over the past 30 years, but I also have great respect for the programs that also appeared on this list. The sheer depth of talent they've produced is astonishing. What's even more impressive is how consistently they've delivered it to the league.
Now that isn't meant to be a slight for those schools that didn't make our list. After all, like March Madness, we needed to have a cut-off point in the decision-making process. It's just that this entire process was about finding answers about which college football program really has been the best pipeline to the NFL over the past 30 years.
But I also know this much: Even with the truth in our hands, future arguments about such a question will never end.
Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.