Recruiting Rankings: Do they matter?

UNC fans will dissect and evaluate this recruiting class. So will the UNC football staff.

When a football team loses a hard-fought contest, they spend some time and effort afterwards analyzing what went right and what went wrong.  The importance of this review explains the existence of the "film room," where bleary-eyed football coaches spend countless hours viewing reel after reel of tackling, blocking, running and throwing.


After February 6, 2002, when high school football recruits signed their national letters of intent, the UNC football staff will be spending time evaluating the recruiting process – for the same reasons. 


North Carolina came away, for the first time in memory, without signing even one of the top ten players in the state, and several nationally-ranked players who made their decisions on February 6, 2002 declined the invitation to play football at UNC.


This is no knock against the 22 fine young men that did choose to become Tar Heel football players.  They will provide many moments of pleasure for UNC football fans over the course of their careers on the gridiron.  Yet, like it or not, football recruiting is a competitive "sport," with identifiable winners and losers.  By the only measure available to evaluate the results, UNC had its nose bloodied by several competitors in the Atlantic Coast Conference. 


Almost every recruiting service that matters ranked North Carolina's class of recruits behind those of Florida State, Virginia, Clemson, and N.C. State. Placing fifth in a field of nine contestants – and that just includes ACC rankings – is unsatisfactory for the fans and for the coaching staff. 


What are these rankings all about?  Why should the UNC football fan even care about where some recruiting gurus rank their football class? 


It was not long ago that the most the average Tar Heel fan knew about football recruiting was the one article a year, maybe, that appeared in their local newspaper giving the name and hometown of the players signing their letters of intent to play football at North Carolina.  Even to this day, some sports writers on major North Carolina newspapers disdain reporting on football recruiting; yet devote lots of column space to basketball recruiting battles, seeing no incongruity in their differing approaches to the two sports.


Basketball recruiting battles along "Tobacco Road," have long been common knowledge of even the casual UNC basketball fan, and Tar Heel basketball fans have long acknowledged the importance of recruiting in that sport.  Though football recruiting has interested a few Tar Heel football aficionados for some time, it was former UNC head man Mack Brown who kindled interest in football recruiting among Tar Heels.


Brown was successful in bringing in some highly-ranked classes at North Carolina, and trumpeting those class rankings was part of Brown's salesmanship.  Those recruiting rankings began to gain credibility when Brown's last two teams finished in the top ten nationally. 


Florida State's entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference also woke many UNC and ACC fans up to the fact that there was a war raging among the top football programs for high school talent, a war in which North Carolina and a lot of the rest of the ACC were mostly non-combatants.  Florida State over the decade of the ‘90's consistently produced top five recruiting classes – and top five finishes in the polls. 


Those on-the-field results persuaded many fans who had previously been indifferent to the "battle within the battle," that there must be something to this business of football recruiting after all.  Prior to that awakening, all that mattered was hiring the right head coach.  It was coaching, not talent, that somehow totally accounted for the success of the lack thereof in football for many UNC and ACC fans, never making the same connection to the importance of recruiting in football as they did in basketball. 


Some football fans still scoff at "guru" recruiting rankings, but usually they are fans of teams that do not excel at signing blue chip recruits.  Other fans, usually of those schools that do well in this area perennially, take the rankings as gospel and are quick to predict future national championships based on a good run of highly-ranked classes. 


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