When it comes to recruiting rankings for Ohio State and its Big Ten brethren, we have looked at who has put together the best classes on average and what they have done with those classes, both in terms of wins and productive players.
But is any of it intentional? Of course coaches are trying to develop players and win games, but what about the first part -- do they seek out the top-rated players, and do they care where their classes rank when all is said and done? That was a topic of conversation when the Big Ten held its annual coaches spring teleconference, and the line of questioning yielded some interesting answers.
The most eye-opening came from Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who might have been grateful for the opportunity to talk about anything other than the unionization vote that was nearing at that time for his players. Fitzgerald, a standout linebacker at Northwestern before becoming the head coach of the Wildcats in 2006, operates on a different plane in many ways as the mentor for the only program in the conference that is a private school. The Wildcats have signed the fewest recruits of any school in the league since 2002 (the first year Scout ratings are available and the start of our survey period), and their classes have on average ranked ahead of only Indiana in that span. Yet the Wildcats' 42 conference wins over the past 12 seasons are seventh in the league, and they recently put together the longest streak of bowl appearances in school history.
Fitzgerald has to be more selective in how he recruits for a variety of reasons, including academics and national profile, but he indicated some of his competitors could stand to look a little harder before they make some of their offers, too.
"Yeah, you asked the right guy the right question," Fitzgerald replied when asked if he cares about star ratings. "I put zero stock in star ratings. I have no idea what that means, nor do I care. I could care less, and if you want to call me off this teleconference I would love to tell you philosophically what I believe in."
He then proceeded to explain the importance of getting to know prospects personally and making sure there is a cultural fit.
"I need to know everything about a young person and whether or not he's going to fit the culture of our campus, fit the culture of our academic expectations and fit the culture of our football program and our expectations before offering a scholarship," he said. "This process is what it is right now, but what I see is staffs making huge mistakes."
Of course, Fitzgerald did not name any of the staffs he sees making those mistakes, but he did identify some of their errors.
"They're recruiting based on star ratings. They're recruiting based on another team offers, and this is more innuendo than fact, but that's what we're seeing. I'm not going to drive the bus over some schools, but I know when we offer a scholarship I can tell you 10 or 15 schools are going to reach out to the kid, so it is what it is. We believe and we trust in our evaluation, and the only thing I need to stand upon as fact is look at our APR scores.
"I think the biggest area you look at for coaches recruiting the wrong fit is APR, because guys are ineligible and guys are transferring. And the reason why that's happening is they're unhappy and they recruited the wrong guy, and it's the coach's fault first, not the young man. We're the ones that recruited them and we're the ones making those mistakes. I'm proud of the job our staff does and proud of having the highest APR in the country. I think that speaks to the evaluation process that our guys are willing to take. It takes us a little longer, but I'd rather be late in the first part than wrong for a year. That hurts the young person and his experience as he starts and it hurts our program, so it can be a lose-lose if you don't take the time to do it right."
With a chuckle, he added he does look at some recruiting lists but does not take them for fact. That was a common position among the other coaches asked similar questions, including Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Bo Pelini of Nebraska and Mark Dantonio of Michigan State.
"No we don't choose recruits because of that," Meyer said. "We're all competitive and I like to see... it's not by accident that usually, not 100 percent, but usually, those who recruit well play well. So we'll check it, but that's certainly not why we start to recruit a guy. I think we had a couple of three-star guys we were actually kind of shocked they were only three-star guys. At the end of the day, I like to look at the rankings but they have no bearing on who we recruit."
Dantonio also acknowledged the existence of recruiting ratings and (perhaps intentionally or perhaps not) alluded to the notion most players who end up being recruited by BCS programs end up with at least a certain minimum ranking, but he stressed potential for development as a more important factor in his staff's evaluations.
"Everybody comes with a certain amount of stars relative to their name if they're the quality of player you can recruit in this conference and other BCS conferences around the country," the Spartan mentor said. "Beyond that, are they three-star or are they four-star or five-star? I think how can they be developed really. There's a general foundation as to each and every player you recruit across the board as a conference let's say then it's about how you develop those players and how they come intangibly to you, competitively, character, football intelligence, football IQ -- all these different attributes that are very difficult to ascertain as you're in the recruiting process."
That is not so much a criticism of the recruiting ranking process as a statement of fact when it comes to human nature.
Pelini, a former safety at Ohio State who was a well-known recruit himself at Youngstown Cardinal Mooney in the mid-80s before recruiting rankings much resembled what they do now, sang a similar tune.
"I put everything into what we're looking for and is he the type of kid that fits our program," Pelini said. "I really don't worry about who else is offering him or what kind of star rating they have or anything like that. I don't think I ever really know what kind of star rating they have. I look to see if it is a good fit for us, is he a young man who can flourish in this program. What type of long term potential he has. I go off of what I see. I don't worry about what the recruiting analysts or the different star ratings or whoever that comes from, that's the least of his concerns."
Ultimately, no matter how much they pay attention, all gave the impression they shared Meyer's general point of view that there is a purpose for the rankings even if they don't do much to help them build and maintain their programs.
"Those recruiting guys, there's some guys out there that know what they're doing in recruiting services, so we'll take a peak at that, but it's not how you make decisions," Meyer said. "A five-star recruit usually has a better career than another one. There's always examples of a young, late-developer, but that's an interesting question. Those recruiting analysts aren't bad now. They do a good job."
Follow on Twitter @marcushartman