Big as a house, swift as a deer, strong as an ox, smart as a whip, good as gum – those are the clichés that college football fans want to hear to describe the players who make their autumn Saturdays fun.
Washington State, Idaho and Eastern Washington reveal today how many of those big, fast, strong teenagers are headed their way.
It’s national letter of intent day for high school and junior college football players. It’s a day when players and fans alike raise expectations to the sky and celebrate a bright future.
The reality is about half of those won’t play football for the same team, if at all, in four years.
WSU’s 2004 recruiting class is a good example. Scout.com, a recruiting Web site, ranked the 2004 class the third best in the Pac-10 and 21st best in the country. It came on the heels of a 28-20 win over Texas in the Holiday Bowl that capped a 10-3 season.
Yet that highly regarded class has never been part of a winning season. Of the 31 players announced on signing day, some delayed enrollment from earlier recruiting classes and a couple of more delayed enrollment and became part of a different class (see accompanying chart).
Just four years later, eight who came from a junior college or didn’t redshirt have used all their eligibility and 12 still have eligibility. The other 11 either didn’t get into school or quit along the way for various reasons.
Depending on how many players stick through the coaching change from Doba to Paul Wulff, the attrition rate for the ‘04 class is right about average. Asked how many players could be expected to use all their eligibility in a typical class of 25, coaches said the more the better, but the norm was 10 to 15.
“To be real honest, I thought it was a class we had high hopes for, but didn’t see it anything more special than any other class we brought in,” said University of Idaho head coach Robb Akey, defensive coordinator at WSU at the time.
Strong academics and character are key components in minimizing attrition.
“We’re looking at a more talented individual (at WSU). They’re bigger and faster (than EWU recruits),” said WSU recruiting coordinator Rich Rasmussen, who moved from Cheney to Pullman with Wulff. “Character and academics, those two things never change.”
But to please fans, some level of chance on character and academics has to be taken to get the best players possible to come to a remote outpost or play at the lower level.
“You try to get as good of player as you can because you have to win, there are no ifs ands or buts about that,” Doba said. “We’ve taken chances because we’ve had to.”
“We want high character guys,” Rasmussen said. “Depending on what (a past) mistake is, discretion has to become involved. Was it, for example, an MIP (minor in possession)? You can counsel that. Was it a robbery or something like that? For the most part, we steer away from those guys.
“Academics obviously play a role. In the past you could take chances, but you can’t do that now with the APR. You run the risk of losing scholarships.”
APR is Academic Progress Rate, a formula introduced in 2005 that determines how well a school is doing in graduating student athletes. If the graduation rate falls to less than 50 percent, a school is penalized by losing scholarships. Both Washington State and Idaho are likely going to take a scholarship hit when APR numbers are released in April, according to both schools.
Akey, heading into his second season with the Vandals, said character is even more of an emphasis in recruiting now because 19 players, many with character issues, left the team after he was hired.
“We have taken some chances on academic kids over our history. I am a believer in second chances, but we have to be real careful about that,” Akey said. “This class we expect to sign fewer academic risks. … We can’t afford to be wrong.”
Because of the number of players that left the Vandals and the APR hit Idaho is going to take, Akey will need more time to rebuild the Idaho roster to full strength.
“That’s because we elected to do this the right way instead of keeping (bad characters) around,” he said. “Right now (the system is) encouraging you to keep bad actors in your program (to protect APR numbers).”
Even after signing that potentially good student/athlete, other factors make it a challenge to keep players – not just the academic or character risks.
Top-end athletes can enter the pro football draft early. Coaching changes can push players out the door, either voluntarily or involuntarily, as evidenced by the exodus at Idaho. The fallout from the coaching change at WSU probably won’t be known until fall camp starts.
Injuries have curtailed more than one career, as has the loss of passion for the game.
In the off-season coaches can demand of maximum of eight hours a week in the weight room and conditioning. During the season, outside of games, coaches get 20 hours for practice and meetings, “plus they take video tape home with them,” Doba said, adding that there are public relations obligations as well, such as interviews and visiting elementary schools.
“There are a lot of demands on them,” Doba said. “People think they’re getting a free ride. I always told kids in recruiting, ‘You’re going to work your way through.’ You would probably get more per hour working at McDonald’s.”
“They decide once they’ve been in it two years the time commitment is just too much,” Rasmussen said. “They lose their love for the game because, basically, it’s a 12-month commitment now.”
Through all of that, a kid sticks with it hoping for his chance at glory on the gridiron, when suddenly a younger recruit comes in and wins the position.
“Typically, where you start losing guys is when they get passed by on the depth chart,” Rasmussen said. “You’re always trying to find better players. That’s where the high character comes in. You want the guys who are going to stick it out, provide depth, play on special teams and graduate.”
Generally, the more upperclassmen on a team, the better chance for success.
Doba pointed to the Boise State team that captured national attention in 2007 by beating Oklahoma in a BCS bowl game. The Broncos had a huge number of fifth-year senior starters in key positions.
“The (WSU) group that went to the Rose Bowl in ‘02, a lot of those guys – that defense in particular – were seniors for me,” Akey said. “When we beat Texas in the Holiday Bowl, those guys played a lot of football for me. The longer you’ve got them together, the more they buy into your program. They know the expectations.”
Just getting them to that point is a game within the game.