Through the Trifocals

Ron Zook's first recruiting class was celebrated at the Illini's first ever football recruiting party last week. Do the rankings of the recruiting experts measure accurately the quality of this class? Is there reason for optimism? Illinisports discusses these issues in this column.

Illinois had its first ever football recruiting party at the Assembly Hall on February 2, and it was a breath of fresh air. Certainly, having the new scoreboard, with its video capability, was a big factor in having this party. But it is an innovation that is long overdue. It helps fans develop a better understanding of what type of talent is slated to join the team next fall, and it makes them feel closer to the program.

The UI Quarterback Club and Division of Intercollegiate Athletics are to be commended for sponsoring this party, which offered fans an opportunity to meet returning players and the new coaching staff and to watch video highlights of new recruits on the big screen scoreboard. There were only 1000-2000 people there, counting the Marching Illini Pep Band and cheerleaders, but that figure will grow exponentially as enthusiasm for Illini football and new coach Ron Zook's excellent recruiting ability flowers.

And it WILL flower. Having seen video of recruits from several previous recruiting classes, this writer is encouraged by a new class filled with one important ingredient: athleticism. It is obvious Coach Zook and his staff have the ability to communicate with and recruit dominant, fast athletes. And it is this athleticism that is necessary to compete with the top programs in the country. We are on our way to making the improvements necessary to win big on the football field. Optimism is on the upswing.

No, this class isn't considered one of the top 20 recruiting classes in the nation, but we weren't expecting that. It WAS much better than it would have been had there been no coaching change, and it was much better than expected given our recent struggles and the late recruiting start by the new staff.

No coach can be expected to replace a fired coach in December and then get commitments from elite players by the first Wednesday in February. This is especially true when the program has not been winning lately. High school seniors were involved in the recruiting process for two years or more by the time Ron Zook was hired. It takes time to develop relationships with athletes and their parents, get them in for official visits to the school, and then convince them your school offers them more than every other top school involved in their recruitment. Two months simply is not enough time.

Given these constraints, Ron Zook performed amazingly well. Without even time to hire a full staff of assistants, Zook signed 20 players to scholarship tenders, and to a man they bring improved athleticism to Illinois. Even the linemen are quick for their positions.

How good is this new class? We will have a better idea when they have been in the program for a year or two. But it helps us at a number of positions of need and gives us a chance to be improved on the field next fall. Many of these new athletes were sold in part on an opportunity to play as freshmen, and most will have the chance to compete for playing time this fall.

It appears to be a quality class. Not all self-proclaimed recruiting gurus agree with this assessment, but they have their own biases. In fact, it might be a good idea to study the experts and their ratings systems to see whether we should give their assessments credibility. After all, this writer has studied each previous Illini football recruiting class since 1961 and can make informed comparisons with past efforts. This class is one of the best classes any previous coach has attained in his first year at Illinois since Pete Elliott, in this humble opinion. It may eventually rival Mike White's first class. So whom should we believe?

It seems we all want rankings. We want to determine one undisputed National Champion. We want to know which schools did the best in recruiting each year. We want to know what athletes are better than others. We are always looking for ways to pass judgments and create separations between players, coaches, teams, and leagues. If every halfback in the country weighed 200 pounds, ran 4.3 forty times, had shifty hips, tremendous explosion and a strong drive to win, we would find some way of declaring a small percentage of them at the bottom of some arbitrary scale.

Thus, recruiting gurus make a living by playing off our biases and desire to be at the top of some arbitrary pecking order. We cannot seem to get enough of their information, regardless of its legitimacy. But perhaps we should pay more attention to the details before relying too heavily upon their information.

It is helpful to evaluate how recruiting experts create their rankings of top high school athletes. First of all, it must be understood that NO expert sees every possible recruitable athlete, either in person or on film. He must rely on the advice and opinion of his friends in the coaching profession at the high school and college levels if he works alone. He must trust a team of regional experts if it is a group effort. Thus, only those athletes who are identified by these methods get included in any ranking system.

Each recruiting guru must combine personal information with the evaluations of his friends and allies to categorize each player on his list, but can he be sure the adjectives used by one source are identical in meaning to those used to describe players in some other area? Of course not. But he has to equalize these descriptions because he has no time to evaluate every possible player himself and then truly pick one player over another. He must assume his sources are describing players exactly as he would describe them.

Unfortunately, every evaluator has an inherent bias, including those few considered to have great integrity. A guru sees more players from his own region than others and wants them all to get college scholarships. Because of his personal preference, and a lack of adequate comparison, he is going to rate a player in his area equal to or better than one from another area just because of his bias. He has a natural blind spot against putting his regional players at the bottom of his own list. After all, he develops relationships with them, and he makes most of his income from fans in his area.

The players who start on their high school teams as underclassmen and play well for their age are considered future standouts, even if they have matured early and are about to level off in their development. Most can be projected as future superstars, but certainly not all of them. Factors such as level of competition, behavior and academic issues, inner drive, fortunate life cycles, and the favorable publicity generated by their coaches and families are often ignored when early rankings of these players are made.

There are also combines in play these days. Functioning like the NFL combines that measure size, speed, and strength, many high school athletes now get tested by specialists for their potential. Since the top performers are always most valued, their measurements may be a more important factor in their rankings than their actual play on the football field. Illinois recruited a halfback several years ago who was considered a high school All-American because he ran a 4.40 forty yard dash and succeeded against weak competition even though he was afraid of contact and had no ability to compete at the Big 10 level. Combines are relied upon a great deal by those who rank players, but they are not always accurate predictors of future success.

A player who attains a peak performance on the one day of testing sees his image improve, while one who is injured or is otherwise off his feed that day may see his school choices limited. Speed measurements are taken on grass some places and on a track at others, and running surfaces can make a big difference in an athlete's results. The temperature and overall weather conditions are other variables.

Late bloomers, those who have missed part of their high school careers with injury or other problems, those who toil for losing teams or small school teams, and those who play out of their ideal positions all suffer in the evaluation process. Many fall through the cracks and are thus either poorly ranked or not ranked at all. A few may make a spash in their senior seasons and receive some late publicity, but they cannot replace the players already highly ranked. These are the types of players Illinois needed to recruit this year, and we may have found some good ones. But they lower our overall ranking.

Once a player has a national reputation, that reputation guarantees his placement high in everyone's rankings throughout his senior season and on through the recruiting period. Everyone seems to copy everyone else's rankings. It is not at all uncommon for some of these highly ranked players to have mediocre senior seasons, but their rankings don't go down unless the top schools stop recruiting them.

Yes, most ranking services modify their rankings based on the quality of the colleges recruiting a player. If a school considered "elite" is contacting a certain player, his ranking tends to go up. When a college is struggling but gets a commitment from a great player, that player's ranking starts to slide. It is as if the down teams are incabable of outrecruiting elite programs for top athletes. If they get a recruit, he must not be very good. This is an absurd methodology, but it occurs frequently.

In looking at five of the many recruiting services, we see much discrepancy between their lists of top ten teams for 2005. A Midwest guru, who happens to be good friends with head coaches Bill Callahan at Nebraska and Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, ranks Nebraska's recruiting class #1 nationally and Iowa #6. It is true that Nebraska had 8 junior college All-Americans among their large number of 30 recruits. It is also true that Iowa did extremely well this year, especially within Illinois.

But neither was ranked as high by the four other services studied for this column. In those other rankings, Nebraska was ranked #3 by two services and #5 by two. Iowa was ranked #7, #10 twice, and outside the top 10 by the other four services. Either the Midwest guru was biased toward his friends, or those other services were more biased toward their areas of interest, or both.

A Texas service ranked Texas A & M as the fourth best recruiting class in the nation. Only two of the other four services ranked the Aggies within the top ten, at #7 and #9 respectively. Southern Cal was given the number one ranking by two services, although a California service ranked them only #3. Perhaps they are less excited about players they know well than others around the country, or they are trying to prove their lack of bias. Regardless of the agendas, there is much disagreement from one recruiting guru to another.

Most recruiting gurus fill a need, and most make an effort to demonstrate accuracy and integrity in their evaluations, but the temptation for inequities in the system is vast. As a means of describing other possible weaknesses in the recruit rankings system, perhaps it is a good idea to offer a hypothetical example. This will be a composite of the numerous complaints raised toward different gurus. Any similarity to a particular recruiting guru or recruiting service is purely coincidental.

Let's say there is a recruiting guru who has made a living for several years by providing recruiting information for colleges and their fans. He makes his living through several means. He produces a newsletter than subscribers receive on a periodic basis to update them on top players and the schools of interest to them.

He also offers a 900-number recruiting hotline that fans can call at all hours to receive the most up-to-date information on the college decision-making process of young superstuds. Of course, he receives payment for each minute a phone call continues, and he places news about several colleges on each phone message, guaranteeing each customer will have to stay on the line for awhile waiting for his preferred school. There is a temptation to show bias toward schools whose fans purchase the most newsletter subscriptions or spend the most time on the phone hotline. After all, creating news creates income.

If possible, he tries to get advertising or sponsorships for his newsletters and other activities. After all, he must spend most of his summers travelling across country looking at prospects' film provided by their high school coaches and meeting and interviewing top players. This costs him a considerable sum of money, so he is always looking for ways of paying his expenses, receiving more information or otherwise making his job easier.

Colleges can pay for his services as well. If nothing else, they can subscribe to his newsletters, perhaps several subscriptions per coaching staff. They can also share information with him on a quid pro quo basis. The guru can provide every tidbit of knowledge he has on players of interest to a college, including their home phone numbers, names of family members or significant others, and information provided in confidence by the athletes during periodic phone conversations. He can also gather together groups of players in a given area of the country to obtain interviews and a group photo. If the guru has a working relationship with the coaches at a particular college, he can have the athletes meet somewhere on that college campus. This is an excellent introduction for those players to that particular college.

In return, the guru receives information the college coach has about the players he is recruiting. This not only adds to the guru's database of players, it gives him access to "inside" information so craved on his recruiting hotline. And it provides him a way of guaranteeing that athletes committing to that school will use him to make the big announcement, giving him more credibility and therefore more income. He is selling information, so the more information he receives the better for his business.

From the recruiting guru's perspective, he is providing an desirable service while making a living. And the coaches who befriend and work with the guru stand to benefit as well. But what happens when a coach refuses to utilize the guru's services or provide athlete information? Will there be negative repercussions for the coach and his recruiting needs?

For argument's sake, this hypothetical recruiting guru dislikes those coaches who refuse to assist him. He downplays the coach's recruiting ability to any press contacts he has, minimizes the value of the coach's school among athletes considering that school, steers athletes toward his friends and does absolutely nothing to help the estranged coach while providing extra help to that coach's competitors. He does this to make the coach regret not using his services, as if that will make him change his ways and begin to support a guru who has stabbed him in the back. It is illogical but not totally uncommon.

Ron Zook is a coach who prides himself on making his own evaluations of high school athletes and beating the bushes to find "diamonds in the rough." So it is possible he may be less inclined to utilize a recruiting service than some others. If so, his recruiting will be less appreciated by some than others. Just this first year, Zook's Illinois class is rated among the top 50 in the country and 7th in the Big 10 by some services, but it is rated a distant 10th in the Big 10 and near the bottom nationally by at least one other service. Could some gurus have some negative bias toward Coach Zook, or is the optimism of some too generous? Only time will tell.

Thus, ratings are all relative and not absolute. We love them when they rate a recruiting class highly, and we disregard them when we fair poorly compared with our competitors. We don't have to be Einsteins to understand relativity, we just need to make our own evaluations rather than relying exclusively on others.

When we do that, we must conclude that Coach Zook's first recruiting class appears to have Illinois on an upswing. It is not great relative to the elite groups, but it is outstanding relative to what we had a right to expect. It also appears to be at least on par with Ron Turner's best classes, if the athletes recruited live up to their press clippings. If those recruits upgrade our product on the field this fall, we will be excited for the future.

All things considered, Ron Zook and staff must receive a good grade for their first recruiting class. And his first recruiting party shined some positive light on a program that has struggled in recent years. If he can keep this momentum going, Illini fans have some good years of football ahead of them.

Go Illini!!!

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