Spring Football Recruiting: It Ain't What It Used to Be

This is the time of year that college coaches love to hate—spring recruiting. It is a complex dance of appearing to be everywhere at once while avoiding breaking NCAA Rules by talking to or bumping into a recruit. Spring is an evaluation period and not a contact period.

Evaluation periods allow coaches to go to a high school to watch prospects work out, or play spring sports but not talk to them. Coaches can gather transcripts, watch video in a coach’s office and talk to teachers about the prospect.

There was a time when this was the beginning of the recruiting process. With schools already having 8 or 10 or 12 juniors committed, spring recruiting is almost a forgone conclusion.

Years ago, before internet recruiting sites and recruiting services were playing king maker naming the best players, college coaches spent spring recruiting logging mile after mile to find the best players.

In the late fall schools sent questionnaires to high schools all over the country asking coaches to recommend players they felt could play in college. Al Davis added an innovation when he was an assistant coach at USC. Al Davis sent out prepaid post cards asking high school coaches to recommend their own players but also to list 3 or 4 players they played against.

Davis had a philosophy that once a player was recommended by 3 or 4 opposing coaches he knew he had someone special.

In the current recruiting process that step is long gone. Despite vast increases in their recruiting staffs, some schools rely on information through recruiting services that are charging as much as $250,000 a year. In a number of instances players receive offers from a school that has never even talked to that prospect’s high school coach.

The speed of recruiting coupled with the vast amount of opinions and information available on social media and the internet have combined to lessen the number of coaches who really track down every lead they can.

Frank Patrick was a long-time assistant coach at Penn State. One of his best tricks when recruiting a player was to pull into town and get gas. While the gas station attendant was filling his tank (at a full-service station) Frank would strike up a conversation. Eventually he’d get around to asking what kind of a person the player in that town was. Often he’d get a line on the player’s character from people who heard the most about them.

For all the hype about recruiting stars and about how highly rated a player may be it is often a high school coach and the people in the community who can best predict how good a player may be.

At Penn State alone future NFL players who were under-recruited like Jack Ham and Allen Robinson were given scholarships based on tips from high school teammates. Other NFL players like Richard Gardner, Joe Iorio and Matt McGloin were given opportunities to walk-on based on recommendations from high school coaches.

While social media and the proliferation of recruiting sites has coaches all running with the herd towards the big-name players, the guys who really do the shoe-leather work in spring recruiting may be the ones who find the difference makers.

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© 2014 Jay Paterno