If you’re anything like me, you’re probably in Thanksgiving food coma mode over your inability to process the various day-after columns and recruiting rankings coming in from around the college football world. I hate to add-on to your day-after Signing Day indigestion, but I did want to offer my take on a dynamic some have brought up with regards to the “Rise of the Academic Schools.”
If you don’t read Ivan Maisel’s 3-Point Stance on a daily basis, start. It’s short, concise, and written by one a guy who’ll take the time to get back to you if you send him an email. This I can respect amongst a horde or twitter-going college football crazies, of which I may or may not be a part of (+1 if you found your way here via twitter, by the way.)
I want to address a point Ivan made the morning after Signing Day when it comes to the success of the Stanford’s and Vanderbilt’s of the world on the recruiting trail. Here’s what Ivan he had to say:
1. Stanford coach David Shaw told me last April that he and his staff had a shot at nationally prominent recruits who would be the school’s most highly-regarded class ever. Stanford signed seven players Wednesday out of the ESPNU 150 and is 12th in the recruiting rakings. Shaw also said this: “Nobody wants us to be successful. There’s no way. With our academic standards? There’s no way that other schools want to see us have continued success … because if we’re going to be in the top 10 in football perennially, why wouldn’t you come here? How could you say no?”
2. And Stanford isn’t the only one. Vanderbilt, where James Franklin has refused to accept the Commodores perennial role as league doormat, at one point on Signing Day made the ESPNU top 25. Northwestern and Virginia both signed players in the ESPNU 150. Is something afoot here? Are better players getting smarter? Are they more willing to consider their education when deciding where to play?
While I hate putting any stock in recruiting rankings, the two classes Maisel references were ranked (by Rivals.com) fifth and twenty ninth, respectively. Another “academic school” which regularly recruits well — Notre Dame — came in #22 overall, while another well-to-do bastion of higher learning — Virginia — was #29.
Just for yukes I decided to take a look back at the Rivals ranking from 2007 (hey, five year intervals are all the rage, right?) and noticed only two of those teams — Notre Dame and Virginia — cracked the Top 30. Going back ten years also reveals just two of those teams — again, ND and UVA — make the Top 30. So we can all agree that even a quick, elementary survey hints that Maisel is onto the proverbial something. The question is, “what?”
I think you look at a few factors. One, I think you look at the economy. It’s already established that the slow recovery has helped the service academies in recruiting (see my 2009 story here) and it stands to reason that as jobs continue to be tough to come by after college (just ask this unemployed 2011 college grad), that recruits are going to want all the help they can get. Whether that means they’re convinced a Stanford degree holds more weight than an Oklahoma degree — or if they just recognize the networking opportunities at a Stanford — I’m not sure, but I think it factors into some of the recruits’ decisions.
I also think you look at the proliferation and identification of top talent. Long story short: the scope of covering recruiting has grown past where it was in 2007 and definitely from where it was in 2002, and because of that, we’re seeing more recruits in the total supply, and more attention given to refining rankings. The coverage has evolved, so comparing 2007 to 2012 might not be apples to oranges, but it is sort of like apples to pears. Get my drift?
Likewise, success in getting to the BCS bowls – in Stanford’s case, for sure — has helped, as have the NFL-bound careers of top Stanford and Notre Dame players who also happened to be great student athletes. But how does that explain UVA? And what does that say about Vanderbilt, which is just trying to tread water for a bowl birth?
My completely unprofessional ”gut” feeling tells me it has to do with what I like the call the magnet theory. As a young person myself, I get that people want to be around other people that are like them and share their values. They want to be amidst “like-minded” kids, so to speak. I mean, who among us felt out of place being the all AP student stuck in the below grade level math class (wait, only me?) When programs like Stanford have success — or when programs like UVA and Vanderbilt have dynamic, energetic coaches who can latch on to one of two high-profile recruits who also happen to fit the model of the perfect student athlete — it acts as a magnet for others. Let’s face it, there are always going to be the ‘perfect’ kids who excel in football, baseball, class, and yes, LIFE. They date the prom queen, volunteer for their church, and still have time to whip your butt in Call of Duty. Basically, they drive us crazy, but no matter what they do, they’re going to do it well. Thing is, usually these guys are few and far between, and where they go is about as varied as the states they come from. Some, like Russell Wilson, end up at Wisconsin by way of North Carolina State. But others, like Andrew Luck or Toby Gerhart, go to Stanford.
What we’re seeing now, I believe, is a concentration of said “perfect” kids at schools that have shown they can either make the BCS or have coaches who can convince them they can make the BCS. But that concentration is augmented by a magnet effect of recruits, and a decision of young men to follow others “like them” to schools that expose the havs of higher education and top football. As we see the juxtaposition of these young men against a back drop of, lets be honest, increasingly ridiculous notions of ‘student athletes’ that have worked their way into many of the nation’s top schools, it’s a trend we’re likely to see continue. I was reminded of that again on Signing Day, as stuttering recruits made commitments all over ESPNU while listing anything but academic or life pursuits as reasons for their choice.
Are complex factors at work in the rise of the academics? You bet. But when push comes to shove we all gravitate towards the people we have things in common with, which is exactly why the Stanfords ad Vandy’s of the world have such a positive attraction for the ‘perfect’ young men making their college decisions.