This week's deep dive looks at the process of college football recruiting. In the story and videos below, the Washington State football coaches and I explain the process by which they winnow down the world of high school football into a manageable group of potential players.
It is often noted to young football players by their parents, coaches and other mentors, that only 6.5 percent of varsity high school football players will ever play college football. In fact, only 2.5 percent of them will ever play at the NCAA Division I level.
This is most often said not to discourage kids from having goals and dreams, but to emphasize the importance of valuing the time spent playing with your peers on Friday nights and to illustrate that a big win before the Homecoming dance is the worthy culmination of a childhood spent sweating on practice fields.
Because the reality is, almost nobody is good enough to play at a Pac-12 school. Schools such as Washington State are so selective that even those players they do recruit only have around a three-percent chance of going to WSU on a football scholarship. And that means the rare athlete who is good enough can be pretty selective himself.
Each year, the WSU coaches begin with a database of more than 1,000 high school juniors who have been flagged as potential recruits. These are players that have been marked by the assistant coaches as players to watch in their specific recruiting areas.
Most of these receive a letter and/or a brochure to one of WSU's camps, meant to make first contact with the prospect as well as gather information such as height, size and contact information. That questionnaire is available online here.
Then, the coaches watch a lot of film. To whittle the 1,000-plus recruits into a more manageable group of around 350, the coaches and other staff watch hours and hours of film to determine which players simply aren't worth recruiting. They also eliminate some prospects based on their perceived interest.
I have to think the film evaluation process has gotten a lot more accurate (and fun) now that film looks like this:
Instead of this:
The film has also gotten easier to obtain. I'll let Mike Leach explain.
"The biggest way it's gotten easier is with the digital stuff, it's all on the net so you're not constantly chasing film or begging some coach to send you film, or something gets lost in the mail or they're holding film out on you," Leach said. "It's all on the net. The search for film used to be ridiculously time consuming."
Once the coaching staff has spent the summer narrowing their wide net into a still pretty wide net of about 350 athletes, they cast it. Those recruits receive four or five pieces of mail a week from the Cougars, often personalized.
"I think the biggest thing is you just have to identify the type of player or athlete that you're truly, truly looking for," said outside linebackers coach Roy Manning. "You'll have cases where guys kind of offer a guy just because he gets offered at another school and things of that nature and as an offensive or defensive staff, you've got to trust that what you see."
The coaches keep winnowing the list down and by the season starts the Cougars have a pretty manageable list of about 200 players they're keeping tabs on, and those kids get mail almost every day.
In fact, Leach's chief of staff, Dave Emerick, says that "If we have offered a kid, he easily receives 10+ pieces of mail per week beginning the time we offer him as that recruit will get hand written notes from our coaching staff almost every day in addition to the general mail."
Throw in the mails from all the other schools recruiting those kids and, well, let's hope those kids have been taught to recycle.
The Cougars coaches also begin calling players, a little over 100 a week, during September of their senior years. During these calls the coaches feel out how interested players are and set up visits, both unofficial and official.
WSU has taken a tact of saving most of their official visits until after the season. An "official" visit is one where the travel, lodging and food is paid for by the school and a recruit may only take five of these.
During an "unofficial visit," recruits have to find their own way to Pullman, although the coaches can generally still say hi, arrange a tour and provide a certain number of free tickets to the game. According to special teams coach Eric Mele, those free tickets have been particularly popular in 2015.
"For unofficial visits we've actually blown out, I guess it's been every home game this year," Mele said. "We've run out of recruit tickets for unofficial visits. Which is great, to pack the stadium for home games. But for officials we want to have us around with them and the coaches and players don't get to spend a lot of time with them either."
So the Cougars have held off on official visits until later in the year when they can spend more time with the prospects, and when the prospects would have less time to reconsider after making a potential commitment. WSU is only allowed to bring in 56 kids on official visits each year, so they have to have a pretty high hit rate with the kids they bring on campus to get 25 players.
And it's not just the head coach and assistants involved in the recruiting effort. The various staff members and analysts who are not coaches on the field (yet), but make the machine work by cutting up film, tracking plays, grading film, etc., are also involved in the recruiting efforts.
They will give tours to players and parents, follow players on social media and interact with them and help create the family atmosphere that is the primary selling point (along with facilities, judging by Leach's comments) of WSU's recruiting efforts.