On the cusp of his second September in Knoxville, University of Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones is arguably more successful than either of his immediate predecessors.
Never mind the 5-7 record his first year at UT. And never mind the fact that both Derek Dooley (UT coach from 2010 to 2012) and Lane Kiffin (2009) both won six games—one more than Jones—in their respective first outings.
The fact is that Jones can be considered more successful than either of those two ill-regarded former UT frontmen because he is racking up big wins in college football’s new second season: recruiting.
Once upon a time, recruiting was part of college football’s fine print, a matter of passing interest, but no more intriguing than any number of other offseason particulars. Fans didn’t care so much how the sausage was made.
Then the 21st century happened. Internet forums and warp-speed news cycles and social media mixed with the combustible psychology of millennial recruits, and voilà!, a phenomenon—a veritable sports season unto itself—was born.
“It’s become an industry,” says ESPN Southeastern Conference football reporter Chris Low. “There are shows that devote hours to it. Coverage is more pervasive. It’s become so much more mainstream and easier to follow.”
Low remembers the early days of his career, as a reporter for The Tennessean in the late ’90s. “There was a fan, a local attorney, who would call me every day,” he says. “You could hear the angst and anticipation in his voice. ‘Is there some new stud recruit visiting Tennessee this weekend?’
“He told me once, ‘It’s a much bigger deal for me to finish in the top 10 in recruiting than in the polls.’ And there are a lot of people out there like that now.
“There’s always been an innate interest out there. But now there are more eyes on who the next wave of players will be, because it’s so much easier to keep up with.”
To the casual fan, the whole process of recruiting has the aspect of a Rube Goldberg machine—a mad conglomeration of elements including hundreds of recruits and a host of recruiting services, blogs and tweets and daily newspaper stories, dozens of camps and all-star games, star ratings and numerical scores, all of it seeming to resolve by mid-February of every year into a set of 120-odd discrete college recruiting classes, ranked by some arcane statistical hoodoo in descending order of perceived strength.
Sports reporter Josh Ward of Knoxville’s WNML began his career covering football and football recruiting in the early ’00s, prior to the explosion of coverage. “It took off due to a mixture of things,” Ward says. “Social media absolutely pushed it. And there are more media outlets now, and more competition among them. There’s so much more information, and so much more quality information, that fans have access to.”
Another factor is the phenomenon of teenaged prospects suddenly thrust into the spotlight before they’ve taken a single snap in a college football game. “When I started, when you wanted to contact a recruit, you had to call the high school and talk to the coach,” Ward says. “Now there’s social media. They all have cellphones.
“And fans can follow them directly on social media. The players, meanwhile, can put anything they want on social media. And then that can become news in and of itself. It builds on itself, and it’s something people can follow every day.”
Low draws a comparison to the early 1980s, when a top-ranked University of Georgia recruit named Herschel Walker—now often considered the greatest college running back ever—had to earn his It-Recruit status the hard way, by running roughshod over UT defensive back Bill Bates in a highlight-reel-making collision in the first game of the season.
Walker would have had a much easier time making a name for himself had he played the game 30 years later. “Now, by the time these kids get to campus, they’re already rock stars,” Low says. “They’ve had feature stories written about them, been interviewed on TV and radio.”
And today’s recruits seem to bask in the glow of celebrity, holding elaborate press conferences and pecking out self-absorbed tweets—so much so that coaches are said to embark upon a process of “de-recruiting” once new players are safely committed and on campus, a necessary preparation for the brutal and discomfiting work to come.
“Because all these kids come to campus thinking they’re going to be starters, 1,000-yard rushers or whatever that go straight to the NFL,” says Low.
The road to second-season celebrity begins with the recruiting services, media outlets that devote considerable resources to evaluating the skills and deficiencies of high school athletes all over the country. There are four major recruiting outlets—Rivals, 247Sports, Scout, and ESPN.
Recruiting-service evaluators spend hours watching game tape of football recruits. They also travel to various national and regional high-school football camps and combines, sponsored by schools and sometimes by private companies. (Nike’s annual football camps are among the best-attended by top-flight recruits.)
At these events, high-school hopefuls can showcase their skills in drills and seven-on-seven games.
“First and foremost, evaluation is based on the film—what happens on Friday nights,” says Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports. “Next is the combines, the seven-on-sevens, camps. The camps provide lots of other insights, too. You can get feedback from high-school coaches at some of these things, what they think about a kid or his skill level.”
Simmons says there are more than 100 scouts and reporters in the 247 network nationwide; their job, in the end, is to rate players based on a 0 to 100 scale. (With “extra credit” points available, the scores actually top out at a potential 105. Simmons says former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was the only recruit to score a perfect 105 in the service’s five-year history.)
Different recruiting services use different numerical grading systems, but all of them ultimately render judgment through a star rating, one through five. According to 247, a five-star player is “a potential NFL first-round draft pick,” says Simmons; a four-star recruit is “a future NFL player,” while a 3-star recruit is “a really good college football player.”
But team rankings—the lists produced by recruiting services that reflect how well individual schools have done in relation to one another—are a little dicier. To be sure, the top two or three in the annual recruiting ranks are usually easy to spot—perennial recruiting stalwarts like Alabama and USC and Texas usually win top honors with classes full of four- and five-star prospects.
But then there are questions like: Why is Notre Dame’s 2014 class (24 commitments, 16 four-star players) deemed inferior to the University of Florida’s (24 commitments, eight four-star recruits), per 247?
The answer is: It’s complicated. Simmons says the services each have their own method of assessing team rankings. 247Sports uses a formula that weighs various factors, variously. The size of a particular recruiting class (more is better) receives some weight, but only up to a point; as numbers mount, there are diminishing returns on the value of having additional recruits.
And recruits at different positions are weighted differently. In class rankings, quarterbacks and wide receivers offer great bang for the buck; kickers barely rate the recruiting discount bin.
It’s no small wonder that even experienced sports reporters like Low are mystified at the mix of magic and mathematics that goes into college football class recruiting rankings. “It seems like such a subjective deal,” says Low. “The ninth-ranked class versus the 16th-ranked class—what’s the difference? I think a lot of times, it’s a crapshoot.”
Whatever you make of recruiting by the numbers, evidence suggests that there is at least a reasonable correlation between pulling blue-chip recruits and fielding top-drawer football teams. “It’s not a perfect system,” says Ward. “But if you have lots of top-five classes, for instance, your recruiting is probably in pretty good shape.”
And at UT, Butch Jones and his staff seem to have mastered the peculiar skill set that enables middle-aged men to coax 17-year-olds into placing the next four to five years of their lives in the hands of loud, burr-headed strangers. Jones’ first full year of recruiting yielded a consensus top-five class for 2014. And with the 2015 class filling fast, Jones and company appear to be on track for no worse than a consensus top 10 in 2015.
Good recruiters have a number of tools in their bag. They are versatile, adaptable, charismatic, tenacious, capable of relating to young men and to their parents with equal aplomb.
“You have to be able to engage with high schoolers,” Ward says. “You have to have an ability to be honest and yet, at the same time, be able to sell something that may not end up being true. And you have to be relentless.”
Ward says Jones’ staff scores well on all counts. “They’ve hit the right buttons,” he says. “They’ve taken advantage of so-called legacy recruits,” a rash of recent prospects with family ties to the UT program. “They’ve been relentless recruiting in the state. They’ve embraced technology.”
One of many criticisms of the Derek Dooley football regime at UT was that Dooley and his staff had poor-to-non-existent relations with high-school coaches in the state of Tennessee. Jones rebuilt those relationships, at a time when the state has produced an unusually high number of top recruits.
“Josh Malone wouldn’t have committed to Tennessee under Derek Dooley,” Ward says of the ’14 wide receiver recruit. “RaShaan Gaulden [’14 safety] wouldn’t have committed under Dooley. The Berry twins [Evan and Elliott, twin younger brothers of former UT superstar Eric] wouldn’t have committed. They took what was wrong and flipped it into a positive.”
All of which is playing a big role in keeping fans and potential recruits excited about UT prospects even as Jones’ current squad prepares for what could be another losing season, a season of massive uncertainties owing to the depleted state of the program upon Dooley’s firing at the end of 2012.
The plight of University of Tennessee football also illustrates the best reason for the evolution of recruiting as a phenomenon. “The whole thing revolves around one thing; it offers everyone hope,” Low says. “I don’t care if you went 5-7 last season, there’s always that premier running back or defensive back that promises that next year might be better.”