The Inexact Science

WASHINGTON STATE'S list of prospective football recruits numbers around 900 right now. Pretty soon it'll be down to 500. And by the time the Colorado game roles around in early September it'll be closer to 200, with an eye toward the 50-plus who will be brought in for official visits.

The process will culminate the first week of February when national letters of intent are signed.

So how in the world do you narrow damn near 1,000 names to the 15 whom the Cougs will sign in their 2005 class?

For the answer, we sought out the master.

For ye unwashed in the ways of the Pac-10, the master is Robin Pflugrad, WSU's recruiting coordinator and assistant head coach. In his time in Pullman -- and before that at Arizona State -- he's developed a reputation as a high priest of the recruiting crusades.

He arrived at this exalted place mostly through talent, intellect and temperament. But also by default. You see, when he started in coaching at Portland State back in the age of disco, no one on the staff wanted to handle the organizational part of recruiting. Pflugrad thought it would make him more marketable so he volunteered to take it on.

That was 24 years ago. Today, it's more a lifestyle for him than an avocation. "I'm a bad golfer and I don't fly fish," he says. "My hobby is recruiting. I think about it constantly."

The way head coach Bill Doba describes it, national letter-of-intent signing day is to Pflugard what the final round of the Master's is to Tiger Woods: Laser-focused intensity.

"If all the letters aren't in by 10 a.m., Pflu starts getting wound up," Doba quips.

PFLUGARD BRINGS A formal, disciplined approach to recruiting. He puts the Xs and Os mentality you find on the field of play into the field of prospecting.

The trappings of recruiting -- giant steaks on the grill and putting names on the backs of jerseys -- is one thing. And rest assured, Plfugrad leaves no stone unturned in that regard, planning virtually every minute of a prospect's official visit. But the magic in Pflugrad's work -- proven over and over again with stellar classes at WSU and ASU -- is his method. To him, recruiting is more science project than marketing exercise.

The numbers alone -- start with 900, then go to 500, and so on -- are systematically built into the calendar. The paring must be done logically, carefully --- and on time, because there's no greater enemy to ongoing analysis than too wide a landscape to manage as you get closer to your target.

Pflugrad is organized, precise and dogged in his work ethic.

His attention to detail is eye opening.

So much so that he can tell you that it's exactly 314 miles from the front door of Ballard High School to Martin Stadium. That intimate knowledge is one inkling as to why two standout players who led Ballard to the state championship game last season -- J.T. Diederichs and Cole Morgan -- are headed to WSU this fall.

In May, when coaches are allowed to make one phone call to a prospect, Pflugrad puts together a comprehensive list of who will be called and by which coach. He backloads the process to the last 10 days of the month because he thinks you'll be fresher in a kid's mind than if you were 15 calls ago at the start of the month.

This summer, as he does every summer, Pflugrad will assign each Cougar coach a list of 10 to 20 prospects he'll be responsible for communicating with throughout the fall and winter. Phone calls and letters will be consistent, as will the messages contained therein. Pflugrad will track it all religiously.

He pays hyper-attention to the details because geography forces him to do more with less. Case in point: It costs WSU about $350 more in travel costs for each kid brought in for an official visit than, say, USC or UCLA.

"A local player for USC is someone who lives within an 80-mile radius of campus -- that's $25 in gas money. For us, we consider a kid local if he lives within 800 miles," says Pflugrad.

He also has fewer total dollars to work with. Consider that Oregon spent more money on one weekend's worth of recruiting this past season -- on the order of $150,000 -- than WSU spent for the entire winter.

"It's extremely challenging, but more rewarding," he says. "We can't afford to make mistakes."

PFLUGRAD DEVOURS film in his quest for the best. "Video is critical, because it allows you to see things that make a difference. Does he have good balance? Is he willing to go over the middle in traffic to catch a ball? Does he tackle with his face and drive through the ball carrier?" he asks.

"We're looking for size and speed, but we put more emphasis on the speed. Look at two of the great linebackers at WSU over the last dozen years -- Steve Gleason and Anthony McClanahan -- and you'll see that they were 200 pounds at best. But they were fast, had great balance and strength, and they were finishers."

Track meets, basketball games and combines are the other tools in the evaluation arsenal, he says.

And then there are the intangibles that go beyond the physical part of the game: Character and commitment.

To that end, Pflugrad is quick to point out that WSU's incoming class of 28 recruits includes 21 who were captains or co-captains of their prep or JC team. He also notes that 14 of them were voted league, district or state player of the year -- honors that typically reward those whose passion for the game takes them beyond their physical gifts.

As for the various Internet recruiting analysts and rating systems, Pflugrad is succinct: "For a couple of reasons, we don't pay any attention to them. For starters, I don't believe any of the evaluators have ever coached a down of college football in their lives. And second, here on the West Coast, it's all driven by proximity to Los Angeles and, to a lesser extent, the Bay Area and Seattle.

"If a kid lives in a large metropolitan area along the I-5 corridor, his rating is going to be higher than someone from Okanogan, Washington, or Superior, Montana. We stick to our own evaluations -- and we have three consecutive 10-wins seasons that tell us we're doing pretty darn well."

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