College football’s second season culminates Wednesday. No games will be played, but there’s still high fan interest. National signing day is a day to dream big — for high school seniors, for college coaches, for fans — but the real winners and losers won’t be known for some time.
Sure, scouting services provide detailed rankings based on the potential of teenagers. They’ll display their star systems. On Wednesday, the so-called recruiting experts will anoint some schools winners and others losers. But those ratings paint an incomplete picture because recruiting, while important, is only a piece of the puzzle.
Obviously, signing talented players is important. That’s what sustains the top programs and boosts those trying to improve. But for victories in February to matter in the fall, getting the right players — and knowing what to do with them — matters more than getting the most gifted ones. Identifying recruits who are good fits with programs — and especially with their future coaches — should be just as important as finding those with the fastest 40-yard dash times or most bench-press reps. The whole combination is important, but only part of it is easily measurable.
Success depends, in large part, on personnel, but a roster full of five-star players won’t lead to Bowl Championship Series games if they’re uncomfortable in their roles, or if the coach doesn’t know how to reach them. Even the most talented players won’t flourish in some systems, or under some coaches, and no amount of stars will change that.
Really, it comes down to coaches not just chasing the guys with the shiniest highlight reels, but getting the guys they want and who will commit fully to them.
This past season at Maryland is a good example. A group of players that formed the core of a team that won nine games under previous coach Ralph Friedgen struggled badly under first-year Coach Randy Edsall, finishing 2-10. The same players who might have performed beyond their “star” level for Friedgen chafed under Edsall’s strict discipline and new schemes.
A case can be made that the biggest mistake of Edsall’s first season was his failure to “re-recruit” the players already in his program. That’s the most essential type of recruiting after a regime change, and in this case, Edsall’s sales pitch wasn’t right for his audience, though neither side had chosen the other.
So a big part of Edsall’s mission this recruiting season was to find players whom he believed in and who believed in him. Grumbling within a program isn’t a recipe for success.
The other part was to bring in talent, and Edsall’s hiring of Mike Locksley as offensive coordinator went a long way in that regard. Locksley’s strong ties in the District and Prince George’s County helped put Maryland on the radar of several of the area’s most talented high school players.
A class that draws some positive notice from the recruiting gurus would help appease the disgruntled part of the Terrapins’ fan base. Fans probably would feel better about the rebuilding process if a few impact freshmen emerged next season.
For the most part, though, the fate of this year’s recruits will unfold over the next several years, and that’s the other side of the equation. What really matters is what happens on the field. Once you get the players you want and who want to play for you, you have to do something with them.
For a good illustration of how this works, and doesn’t, look to Michigan’s past two coaches. Rich Rodriguez went 3-9 in his first season in Ann Arbor while scrambling to recruit players that fit his spread offense. He sought quarterbacks with the speed and quickness to direct the no-huddle, shotgun-formation approach. Agile offensive linemen were a must. For the most part, Rodriguez signed the types of players that fit his plan, but despite showing some improvement, particularly offensively, the Wolverines still struggled on the field. Rodriguez was fired after the 2010 season.
Brady Hoke took over, scrapped Rodriguez’s spread for a more traditional pro-style offense that the personnel he inherited didn’t really fit. Still, the Wolverines finished 11-2, culminating in a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech. Hoke found success with players he didn’t recruit because he and his staff figured out ways to maximize their talents in ways Rodriguez’s staff was unable to.
To be sure, Hoke will have to continue to bring top-tier talent to Ann Arbor to maintain that success, and now he’ll be able to choose players who fit with the program he wants to run.
But Edsall’s and Hoke’s first seasons in their respective locales demonstrate that success on the field is defined by what you do, not who you have.
Successful recruiting provides coaches with the kinds of players they want, and it can buy them some time with fans. But ultimately, February triumphs mean nothing if they’re not followed by wins in September, October and November. Landing high-profile recruits is the sign of a good salesman. Helping them to flourish is the mark of a true leader.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.