There's a great sequence in The Blind Side, where Michael Oher and SJ are wooed by a succession of great college football coaches trying to lure the gifted left tackle to their respective schools. It reads like a who's who of college football coaching greats. Nick Saban (then at LSU), Ed Orgeron (then Ole Miss, now at LSU) and Lou Holtz among others all offering various sweeteners. This scene will have played out in hundreds of households (or virtually) across the country over the last year.
Where the attention in college football over the last month has turned from the Playoff to the NFL Draft, National Signing Day is arguably as important an occasion. It marks the strength of the recruiting classes, the players leaving high school and committing to their chosen college in the next year. The future of these storied teams over the next few years will be in part decided by the high school recruits arriving on campus for fall of 2021. There is huge excitement around these kids moving to the next level and an opportunity for college teams to add the best talent to their rosters. The talent-rich can get richer.
Mack Brown, the highly esteemed coach of North Carolina, and previously of the historic 2005 championship winning Texas team famously said: "Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football." It continues all year round. While having a great coach is a significant cornerstone to success in college football, if you don't have the players, your team will struggle.
Colleges began to appreciate the influence a great football program could have in attracting future students in the very earliest years of the sport.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Ivy League schools were extremely competitive and reports of unfamiliar faces appearing on campuses highlighted the presence of "ringers", brought in to compete in and win the big games. The 1893 Michigan team had only four players of their starting eleven who were actually enrolled at the school. Talented athletes who might not have attained the expected grades normally needed, started to be recruited to colleges.
Eckersall, a prodigious talent, was heavily recruited out of high school by both Michigan and Chicago universities. According to the University of Chicago Magazine, their head coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg in 1904, wanted Eckersall "so badly that he resorted to desperate measures, snatching Eckersall off a train platform to keep him from attending a recruitment rendezvous arranged by Michigan coaches."
The late 1920s saw alumni who hated losing to their rivals start subsidising players, a very early form of college booster, although "boosters" now heavily regulated by the NCAA. Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, is probably the highest profile today, having pumped something in the region of $300million over the years into his alma mater, the University of Oregon.
The rise of the Army as a football powerhouse around World War Two meant West Point was a popular destination for a lot of promising student athletes. Notre Dame's coach Frank Leahy cottoned on to this and started recruiting talent directly from the armed forces to join him in South Bend.
Scholarships becoming commonplace in colleges was literally a game changer. Tuition, room and board were included and levelled the playing field. The coaches, then, made the difference. Recruitment became more personal as players wanted to work with leaders who could motivate and inspire them.
The comparative pace of integration across different parts of the U.S. had a big impact on the quality of players recruited by respective colleges from the Thirties through to the Sixties.
Before integration, black players went to all-black colleges. Talented black players of this period couldn't get into traditional southern powerhouse schools such as Alabama, Georgia and Clemson. They were attracted to schools such as Grambling and Florida A&M to play for the great head coaches and in many cases, father figures, Eddie Robinson and Jake Gaiter,
Colleges in the more liberal North and West Coast also took advantage of the South's then backward stance on recruiting black players. Michigan State became one of the most integrated teams in the country. Their quarterback Jimmy Raye said his head coach Duffy Daugherty:
" was one of the most courageous persons I’ve had the privilege to be associated with in my athletic career. I can only imagine the pressure he must have been under and received when he made the decision to make me the starting quarterback in the mid-1960s.."
Desegregation then changed recruiting again significantly. SEC schools started to hire black assistant coaches alongside players, to ensure that families felt that their sons would feel comfortable and feel looked after.
The Impact of TV
When the networks discovered the appeal of the college game and started showing a "Game of the Week" and various regional games, traditional school brands such as Alabama, USC, Notre Dame and Michigan became household names and as such, more attractive to potential recruits.
The lifting of restrictions on broadcasting rights in 1984 made the college football television market open to free competition, effectively nationalising the game. It meant high school kids in the South could see games in California and vice versa as an example, giving colleges a three hour pitch every game to potential recruits!
Recruiting 2.0 - Technology Adds More Change
Although, as student athletes, the players aren't paid, college athletic department budgets are enormous and huge resource is available to the top teams. Vast amounts of money are lavished on travel - flights, hotel rooms and meals and colleges have internet departments. In an article on 247sports.com, Garrett Stepien reported that in 2019, the University of Georgia spent $3.7million recruiting into their football program. This is big business.
Coaches are evaluating players physically, mentally and on character to ensure the right cultural fit to their program and technology plays a big part in this.
Where kids were sending VHS tapes into colleges, the advent of sites such as rivals.com and scouts.com means that the pool of talent today is vast and easily accessible. High school talent is being assessed earlier, even at pre-pubescent stage. Universities have departments with marketing and graphic designers employed to put together mock ups of players in their prospective new college uniforms and are mailing these kids regularly.
Millions of dollars are spent building state of the art facilities to woo these young prospects. The University of Oregon has a barber shop for it's players, nutritional stations tailored to their players and Ferrari-style leather seats in the team auditorium. LSU spent $28million on a new locker room in 2019, complete with cinema room, pool and sleep pods similar to a first class airline seat with charging stations.
The Class of 2021
On the back of their national championship win, Alabama have signed the best recruiting class for the seventh time in sixteen years. They are relentless in their pursuit of success. Quarterbacks, linemen and cornerbacks have formed the cornerstones of the Crimson Tide's recruiting classes, and in turn, their championship winning teams. This year, they've landed the best two offensive linemen in the country, Tommy Brockermeyer from Texas and J.C. Latham from Florida.
The number 1 overall recruit, Jack Sawyer, a 6'5" 230 lbs defensive end stayed in state to sign with Ohio State. The Buckeyes also captured last year's top recruit, wide receiver Julian Fleming, and have landed 2022 top prospect QB Quinn Ewers, who withdrew his commitment to the Texas Longhorns. Some of these prospects are already on campus preparing for the spring preseason.
It's a year-long process to seek, attract and engage the top talent available to ensure these college football teams remain at the pinnacle. While some players have already committed to enrol in 2022, incredibly, colleges are already competing for players to join them in 2023. Arch Manning, grandson of Archie Manning and nephew of Super Bowl winners Peyton and Eli is already ranked as the top quarterback prospect for a class that won't begin playing for two years. He could be the final piece in a jigsaw that wins a national championship so will be under scrutiny and pursued by the leading teams until then.
The greatest recruiter of them all, Nick Saban, who has just landed the best high school recruiting class is renowned for the level of detail in his research. Gary Tranquill, Saban's former offensive coordinator at Michigan State said:
"He literally knew what brand of chewing gum that kid preferred"
Saban himself said it best. On being hired as Alabama's new head coach, he was famously quoted as saying "I'm nothing without my players." This is why recruiting is "the lifeblood of college football".