MCGILL: Technology Key in Evolution of College Football Recruiting
The Word on the Herd -- Jan. 31, 2017
By Chuck McGill
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – In the world of college football, National Signing Day is the culmination of a years-long process of evaluations, conversations and decisions. But, it is also a celebration.
It is a day for ceremonies – now seemingly old-fashioned announcements made by choosing between a set of hats or the more contemporary social media declarations by the players. No matter the method, one thing is certain: None of this is like it used to be.
Marshall’s head football coach, Doc Holliday, and his staff have seen it all in their years in this profession. But once upon a time, they were the recruited. There weren’t star ratings, necessarily. They didn’t trim their list of schools to 10 by sending a tweet. They didn’t even indulge in the suspense of letting their friends know their school of choice by lifting a hat off a table.
Below are comments from Holliday and his assistant coaches about how college football recruiting has evolved into what it is today, from their time as a high school student-athlete through their early years as evaluators of talent and recruiters.
Holliday, for example, broke into college football coaching in 1979. That’s the year ESPN’s SportsCenter debuted and 27 years before the social media website Twitter was founded.
“It’s so much different because – gosh, it seems like 100 years – you had to go out and find players,” Holliday said. “In today’s age, with all of the recruiting services with the Internet and the social media, everybody knows pretty much where the players are and you try to evaluate them and recruit them. Back when I started recruiting as a coach you had to go out in May and find those players because nobody knew where they were. You had to go dig ’em up, watch them practice, evaluate tape and everything you do. You had no clue where they were; you had to go find them.
“I wasn’t heavily recruited and probably had more offers in wrestling than I did football. There wasn’t a ceremony. You decided where you were going to go and went there. They didn’t have stars back then but I probably would’ve been a no-star.”
Todd Goebbel, Marshall’s recruiting coordinator and receivers coach, was a three-year starting quarterback for Kent State and was a team captain for the Golden Flashes in 1997. He concluded his career at Northern Iowa, where he earned the 1998 Gateway Conference Newcomer of the Year award. He has coached at the FBS and Division II levels, so he has experience with recruiting at multiple levels as a player and coach.
“The biggest change, of course, is everything is happening a lot faster,” Goebbel said. “When I was coming out you still had your five visits. You were getting noticed your junior year and all of a sudden your senior year is when your recruiting picked up. You took your five visits and when you committed somewhere you stayed committed. Because of the process speeding up so much, it’s a lot more fluid. People are starting to get offered as a freshman in high school and sophomore in high school. It’s hard to evaluate how a young man is going to develop and mature.
“There’s the 25 initial (scholarship) limit and people get commitments and end up signing over and those type of things. It’s how fast decisions are being made on both sides. It used to be you could find some hidden gems because you had to go by foot, and you had to do the homework and put in the effort and time to go find a hidden guy down in south Alabama or in Ohio. But now with all of the Internet services, the recruiting services, social media – there’s really no secrets anymore.”
Pepe Pearson, the Herd’s running backs coach, was a highly touted recruit out of Ohio’s Euclid High School in the early 90s. He eventually selected Ohio State, where he still ranks ninth in career rushing yards. He had recruiting interest from coast to coast, but made it known to programs he wanted to stay close to home. That information, at the time, had to be disseminated by his high school coaches through telephone calls. There was no insta-alert system like Twitter for Pearson to quickly inform coaches outside of his region not to bother.
“Back when I was getting recruited in the 90s it was much different than it is now,” Pearson said. “You didn’t have all of the different websites. I think the computer world was just getting developed at that point. Recruiting was different and I would imagine it would be different for a college coach at that time too because you had to go out and see the players and go to games. It wasn’t all of this technology readily available for guys to locate players and see 4- or 5- or whatever star they are. You had to go out and evaluate talent. It’s much easier for us nowadays to locate who we want, who we’re looking at and get information based off of that. You don’t get so many diamond-in-the-rough type guys. Those guys are really out in the forefront. Back in the day you could find someone and it not be so public, a guy who could really be a difference-maker in your program. The camps circuit is so much different than it was back in the day, the exposure that kids are getting, the traveling to different camps around the country – all of that is different.
“I was a highly recruited guy; I was recruited from the east to the west and the north to the south. What ended up happening for me was my big recruiting period during that time I narrowed my recruiting because I said I wanted to stay in the Midwest. I had USCs, the Miamis, I had everybody recruiting me but I was a Midwest guy so I put it out there. All of the Midwest teams were on me – Notre Dame, Michigan State, Ohio State – those type of teams. It’s a lot different nowadays with the exposure. There was no hat ceremony or anything like that. Now they get the big TV production, the news comes out, it wasn’t like that at all. You may have gotten your name in a magazine or something like that, but that was pretty much it. I still had a beeper when I was in school. Technology was just much different.”
Mark Gale is Marshall’s assistant athletic director for football operations. He played at a big-time high school in Oklahoma – Purcell High School, Class of 1977 – but was lightly recruited compared to his teammates. Still, he has witness recruiting evolve over the last three-plus decades, including the last 27 years in Huntington.
“I was actually afforded the opportunity as a long-snapper at Oklahoma State,” Gale said. “Jim Stanley became the head coach of the Michigan Panthers of the old USFL, so I had an opportunity and right after that that’s when Jim Stanley went to the Michigan Panthers. A guy that some people may be familiar with by the name of Jimmy Johnson came in at Oklahoma State, and on that staff was Butch Davis, Dave Wannstedt, Larry Coker … kind of a who’s who on that staff at the time. The eighth day of my freshman year I tore my knee up. It was kind of like a Ferrari with a flat tire, you put a new tire on it. I was kind of like that old Volkswagen bug who had a bad wheel and you just put it in the junkyard. It was short-lived, but I knew my idols and my heroes as a kind growing up were my coaches. I knew from then on that it’s what I wanted to do.
“I remember when I first started you didn’t have GPS, you traveled with an Atlas and city maps and hand-written instructions. Back then you could be present at Signing Day and I remember at Oklahoma having six or seven or eight private planes so you could go from here to there to here to there and watch the signing. You’d take helmets and pennants. When I first got here you didn’t have the planes but you’d take the cars and take everything with you so you could roll it out and soon as that ink – it wasn’t even dry – and you were rolling everything up so you could get in the car and get to the next place. You spend months, if not years, recruiting a young man and his family to join your program and then you can’t be there on that very important, special day. As crazy and as organized as you had to be because you had to be at this school at this time.”
Dave Dunn, the tight ends coach at Marshall, is a Detroit native who was a two-time captain at the University of San Diego, where he played nose guard and established the school record for sacks (19), which stood for 18 years.
“I played at the University of San Diego, which isn’t a huge school, but it was mostly face-to-face interaction, phone calls with the coaches only at night because they only called you at home because there weren’t cell phones,” Dunn said. “I was a teenager, and I played high school football, high school basketball and ran track. I don’t remember talking to college coaches a whole lot, not that I wasn’t recruited heavily, but I remember receiving constant mail and hand-written letters because that was the easiest way. I was never home. My best friend signed with the University of Rhode Island and it was very unceremonious. You just signed. There was no big pomp and circumstance.”
Bill Legg, who has been on staff with Holliday since the 2010 season, is, like Holliday, a local product who stayed in state to play college football. He has witnessed recruiting evolve from a weekly in-person evaluation to a more technology-driven process.
“There are two major changes, in my opinion,” Legg said. “No. 1, the calendar has been pushed dramatically forward. Back in my generation, coaches didn’t know who you were unless they were recruiting another kid at your school the year before. They would come in May to find out if your school had anyone who was a recruitable athlete. Then they would begin to evaluate you in August of your senior year. Then they would start recruiting you in September and October of your senior year. You would visit in late November, December or January of your senior year. Early commitments back then were at Christmas. Most guys didn’t commit until the middle of January and some guys right up until signing day. The recruiting process truly didn’t start until you were already a senior. The evaluation process really didn’t even start until you were finishing your junior year, unless it was a happy accident. Now we’re looking at sophomores and trying to project them further along than what it was when I was being recruited.
“When I was being recruited everything was done face-to-face. All of this other stuff didn’t exist. Now we’ve been taken off the road and having the face-to-face contact. I used to see coaches every single week when I was being recruited during the course of my senior fall. Now, that’s not even a contact period. Now everything is done via text, phone call, social media, direct messaging through social media. Those are the two major changes that I see. You had a better chance of being right, I think, when I was being recruited because you were waiting for that guy to be a senior to make a decision on him. You had an inordinate amount of face-to-face contact with that guy. Every single week, if a school was interested in you, they were at your school in September, October and November. That’s an evaluation period and we’re only allowed to go to the school one time during that three-month span, and we’re not allowed to have face-to-face contact with the kid. Everything is being done through electronic-type messaging, and, like I said, the calendar has been pushed way forward. We’re looking at sophomores who are getting ready to be juniors. We’re looking at their sophomore film and then we’re looking at them in the spring. The risk level is a lot higher because you are making decisions so much earlier in the kid’s career, and the relationship is different because of the face-to-face contact and really getting to know kids because you’re looking at them in the eye versus direct messages, texting and emails. Those are two dramatic differences in my opinion.”