The Cult of College Football Recruiting

 

(Dave's piece yesterday got me thinking about my own thoughts on how fans follow recruiting, so I decided to dig out this piece from last fall that I wrote before the Purdue game (and got buried when it ran on a Friday night).  It was originally in response to a post from another blog, but I think it more generally applies to our fan experience over the last couple weeks and especially National Signing Day.)

For my fourteenth birthday I received NCAA Football '99 for Playstation.  I had played football games on Sega Genesis years before (Deion Sanders Primetime '95 for the most part), but I wasn't prepared for what I was getting in to with NCAA '99.  I had a couple friends over a few days after my birthday (I was born on Christmas Eve, so birthday parties were always tricky to arrange), and we spent an entire night playing the game and eating a mixture of sugar and kool-aid packets that was essentially cocaine for middle schoolers.  We began our dynasty as any three young Wolverine fans would, we picked UM and started our quest to conquer the college football world.  The funny thing is we didn't play any of the regular season games.  We would set the schedules in the preseason so that the non-conference games would be easy victories (Boom, SEC'd) and then simulate all the games until we got to a bowl game.  Once we played the bowl game we would move to the real objective of all that scheduling, simulating, and sugar:  recruiting.

Being only 14 at the time I had a very simple view of how college football worked.  I watched the games and cheered for Michigan, but I was hardly a student of the game.  I wouldn't really begin to understand football on a more complex level until I began playing football---badly I might add---the next fall.  Something as complex as recruiting was at once foreign and extremely fascinating to a 14 year old perfectionist.  Sure, I wanted to win the games, but at the time that seemed like only a means to a larger end.  I wanted to assemble the perfect recruiting class.  Could I get all blue chip players?  Could I find a fool proof way to get any prospect that I wanted?  I was hooked on the chase.

We simulated through five years of a dynasty that night before we all passed out in deep sugar induced comas.  We also got fired from Michigan after that fifth year.  Simulating all those games was our ticket to the hot seat, and I am still convinced that an upset by Rutgers in that final year doomed us.  My friends went home the next day but my coaching career moved on to North Carolina for a decade, then Kentucky for another 15+ years before I moved on to a different game months later.  But through the end of that dynasty I had learned from my first coaching stint.  Playing the games was important, and I dedicated myself to winning them.  But it was all still a means to an end.

I was a recruiter.  I've been hooked ever since.

 

 

Over the next decade I graduated to PS2, and have owned almost every version of NCAA Football that has been released.  All of them included dynasties that were focused not on the games themselves, but the building of a program.  I prided myself on roster management, player development, and savvy recruiting.  God I'm a nerd.

I suppose it was only natural that I took such a deep interest in the real thing.  A few years ago my biggest brush with recruiting was reading up on the incoming class on ESPN.com in August.  As I gradually discovered tools for following recruiting (first Varsity Blue, then mgoblog, and finally Rivals and Scout) my obsession deepened.  I started looking for information in any place I could find it.  Which way was this recruit leaning?  Was this recruit going to decommit?  Did Michigan really have a chance with so and so?

As with everything in life there is a limit to how much a sane person can invest themselves in college football recruiting.  I knew I had passed that point when last February I followed a Cover It Live for two hours at my desk during work, awaiting the announcement of Demar Dorsey's college choice.  I spent that time at my desk not just watching the computer screen but agonizing over the lack of information.  I would text friends and use google chat to commiserate with a former college roommate who was doing doing the same thing.

My name is Zach, and I am addicted to the college decisions of 18 year old athletes.

After that point I tried to cool off and take a step back.  I knew that either way his decision wasn't the end of the world (His denial by admissions was.  ZING).  I am calmer and more rational about recruiting these days. I read TomVH's weekly updates on mgoblog and shoot over to Rivals every couple weeks to look over the class (even though I know nothing has changed).  I know some hot shot recruit will cause me to agonize for a couple days preceeding national signing day in February, but for now I am happy to just let things develop on their own.

When DeAnthony Arnett announced his commitment I opened up the live video feed for a minute only to close it shortly thereafter.  I knew I would find out sooner or later---and I did thanks to twitter.  Over the last few months I would read about other live announcements and see links to video feeds.  I just ignored them.  No sense in working myself into a frenzy at night thinking about where recruit X was going to spend four years playing college football.  Besides, it was a nice surprise to wake up to a "Hello" post over at mgoblog every once and a while, but I didn't let these things keep me up at night.  Step one:  admit you have a problem.  Step two: do something about it.

*  *  *

All of this brings me---in a roundabout way---to the point that I am trying to make.  As fans we want the best for our program.  We all have our theories on who the most important recruit is, or if that 2-star sleeper was really worth a scholarship (yes, he was).  We want greatness from our team and we realize that greatness takes time to build. These recruits aren't just prizes in the moment, they are a tonic that makes us comfortable that our team will be as great as we want it to be four years from now.  It doesn't matter if things work out that way or not.  Hope for the future is the kind of thing that gets even the most pessimistic fan through years like 3-9 or 5-7.  If you don't have that hope you just end up beating your head against the wall because nobody will "fire that ignorant hick" that is running your precious program into the ground.

It is hard to seperate the emotion from it all.  We feel attached to these recruits.  Watch enough highlight film and read enough scouting reports and vested interest becomes an emotional roller coaster tied to these kids.  Some complain that so and so is a bust.  Others ask every five minutes "what about player x?" (He is a true freshman, that's what.  Give it time).  We develop expectations for most of these kids years before they ever set foot on the field turf of the Big House, then we deride them when they fail to meet the impossibly high standards we set for them.  I think most of us control ourselves fairly well.  If we slip up and make some comment about a kid being out of shape because he is "lazy", or question the development of some sophomore we were sure would have cracked the starting lineup already, we realize it soon enough.  They are kids after all, but often what Rivals and Scout say become less helpful guides and more gospel for what a player should and shouldn't do during his four years on campus.

*  *  *

Today, the first day of February, we have nothing to do but wait.  In 36 hours it will all be over.  Most of the 18 year olds who still haven't put on that hat in front of a crowded room will have done so.  A few of those kids will don the block M.  A few that we hoped would, won't.

The new staff has done a marvelous job rebuilding this recruiting class after the dismissal of coach Rodriguez.  Hoke and his assistants have solidified commitments from a number of valuable players already on board while making a strong push for players we needed.  Most of us never considered that the 2011 recruiting class could turn out the way it has.  Just like my friends and I, locked in my bedroom late at night putting together top-10 classes and chasing blue chips, the Michigan fan base has hope for the future.  We dream that this class is the solid foundation on which a Big Ten (or dare I say, national) championship is built.  However, all those hopes are a long way off, and some of them might not ever turn out the way we planned.  We may end up with a top 25 class this year, but that doesn't guarantee results on the field.

Tomorrow I will follow all the stories.  I'll lurk around mgoblog's Cover It Live and probably turn on ESPNU at some point, but I'll take a deep breath and relax.  If Darian Cooper doesn't go blue or Jake Fisher doesn't reaffirm his commitment it won't be the end of the world.  Unlike the misguided views of my fourteen year old, video game obsessed self, I now see that recruiting isn't the end in itself.  A disappointing class ranking isn't the end of the world, just like a highly ranked class isn't the beginning of a dynasty.  Tomorrow will merely become the first chapter in the college careers of twenty-some 18 year olds.  The rest has yet to be written. All we can do is wait, cheer, and hope that the story has a happy ending.

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