Thoughts on Recruiting
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 2/9/97
Without a doubt, the most unexpected and surprising discovery Ive made since starting Hokie Central is that some people go crazy - absolutely crazy - over recruiting. Ive received many requests to follow recruiting and to post information about it, but Ive always refused, for a couple of reasons:
Having said that, I do report on some commitments when they occur. And when all was said and done, I got sucked into following it this year, anyway. Recruiting is called the second season, and once the real season is over, the January/early February recruiting season certainly provides football nuts with an outlet for their interests. Recruiting is just another football game, only this one is a game played off the field.
Tech started the recruiting season off well, getting commitments last spring from Camm Jackson and David Pugh, two fine Amherst football players who were just juniors at the time. As the football season started and wore on, the commitments continued to roll in, and Hokie fans and pundits were generally satisfied with the way things were going. It could even be said at the time that we were outrecruiting UVa in the all-important in-state battles.
After the season concluded, following Techs second straight Alliance Bowl bid, recruiting fans settled in for what they anticipated would be a near-sweep of the major remaining uncommitted prospects in the state. As of Christmas Day, according to The Roanoke Times, there were eight Top-16 recruits left in the state who had Tech and UVa listed 1-2 (or 2-1) on their list: Tyrone Robertson (#3), Ljubmor Stamenich (#9), Chad Beasley (#10), Ahmad Hawkins (#11), Devon Simmons (#13), James Lomax (#14), Monsanto Pope (#15), and Darryl Smith (#16).
Surely, Hokie fans figured, with Techs fortunes rising and UVas falling (after a mediocre 7-5 season), most of those prospects would line up and commit to the Hokies.
Thats not the way it worked out. Beasley committed to Tech, but he was considered to be a lock for Tech, because his father Tom played for the Hokies in the 1970s. Lomax would later commit as well, giving the Hokies another big, gifted tight end in the mold of Bryan Jennings.
But for three or four gut-wrenching weeks in January, the Hokies lost every other player on that list as one by one, they committed to UVa: Stamenich, Simmons, Pope, Smith, and finally Hawkins. The Hoos began sweeping the state players, and when Parade All-American Yubrenal Isabelle of West Virginia backed out of a reported commitment to Tech and committed to UVa, Tech fans went nuts.
The signing of Tyrone Robertson, the top remaining player in the state when all of this started, eased the pain a little bit. But academics were heavily involved in Robertsons situation, and a question that no one can clearly answer is where Robertson would have committed if academics werent a concern. There is a good chance that Robertson will be a non-qualifier, and only Tech would admit him as a student if that was the case. UVa would not, and its impossible to tell how much that factor swayed Robertson in his commitment.
So when all was said and done, despite the two straight Big East championships and two straight Alliance Bowls, it appeared that Virginia had once again cleaned Techs clock in recruiting. In reality, its not that bad. If you scan the list of Top 25 recruits in Virginia, they are almost evenly divided between Tech and UVa. Techs highest-rated recruit was Robertson, at #3, and UVas was Stamenich, at #9. After that, it nearly alternates between the two schools as you move down the list. But the string of successes that UVa put together late, along with Isabelles waffling, made it appear worse.
So the question started being asked: why doesnt Tech recruit better? What, for crying out loud, do the Hokies have to do?
First of all, I think Tech does a fine job recruiting. Every year, the kids get a little bigger and a little faster, and we all know what a whiz strength and conditioning coach Mike Gentry is, and what he can do with good raw material. Mark my words: two or three years from now, the recruiting classes that Tech has put together this year and last year will be big winners.
But lets address recruiting issues, and why Tech doesnt do better, in no particular order.
Point number one is that Alliance Bowls do not equal improved recruiting. There is much more that goes into a recruits decision than bowl games. Factors such as academics, facilities, tradition, TV appearances, location, and the opportunity for playing time are bigger factors than bowl games.
The Big Boys Clean Up in State
This years recruiting was marked by the fact that out of the top 8 recruits, only one stayed in the state of Virginia: Robertson (thank you, Tyrone!). The rest of the Top 8 were sucked up by Penn State, Florida, Michigan, and Tennessee. Only Antoine Womack, the number 1 recruit in the state, remains uncommitted, and he had previously verbally committed to PSU. He is now undecided between PSU and UVa.
Let me go on record as saying that its almost impossible for Tech and UVa to outrecruit the big boys. Both Tech and UVa have small stadiums (50,000 and under) and programs that have only recently become successful (UVa since the mid-80s, and Tech since 1993). There are many other factors that make programs like Michigan more attractive to recruits than Tech or UVa.
At UVa, the stadium is a smallish, unimpressive facility. The UVa fans are notorious for not traveling well to bowl games, unless the game is in a party town like Atlanta or New Orleans. On the positive side, UVa sells 24,000 season tickets a year, the Hoos have a sterling academic reputation, and some of their athletic facilities are very impressive. Several years ago, Virginia built a training facility that includes a weight room that was named the best in the country at the time by Sports Illustrated.
At Tech, Lane Stadium is an average facility at best that sells out just once or twice a year. The Hokies sell only 16,000 season tickets a year, and many of the Hokies ancillary facilities are extremely old. Frank Beamer is fond of saying that the weight room the players work out in is the same weight room that he worked out in as a football player in the late 60s. On the positive side, Tech has a good academic reputation, a rabid fan base, and a charming rural setting that many recruits fall in love with at first sight.
But how can these two schools, Tech and UVa, compete consistently against the likes of Penn State, Florida, Michigan, and Tennessee? Those are all programs with storied traditions. Joe Paterno is a coaching legend and is reputed to be the best coach to play for in the country. To study the history of college football is to see the names Michigan and Tennessee over and over. Florida currently has a chance to compete for the national championship year in and year out. Each of these teams pack huge stadiums full of 90,000 fans or more every Saturday, not just when theyre playing West Virginia or Miami.
Point being, although Tech and UVa both have some good selling points, its hard for them to out-battle programs like PSU and company when they come calling. To see college football at those schools is to see it on a larger scale than Tech and UVa can currently comprehend.
Battling the Hoos
Just because Tech has beaten UVa three out of the last four years and has gone to better bowls the last three years, this doesnt mean that a recruit is going to automatically pick Tech over the Hoos. UVa still has, and always will have a great academic reputation, and the amount of money that flows through the sports programs at that school is evident in the general facilities, including the training facility and weight room that I mentioned earlier.
UVa also has another huge advantage over Tech: conference. The ACC is a mature, solid conference with a huge media presence in the state of Virginia and nationally. That presence can be felt year-round, from football season through basketball season and into baseball season. Tech, on the other hand, belongs to the Big East, which is a fractured, back-biting, in-fighting collection of teams whose presidents and ADs cant even agree on what to order in for lunch during their meetings. The Big East has a minor media presence in the state of Virginia, and that presence goes away the instant that football season ends. Thats when the non-coverage of the Atlantic 10 begins.
UVa also gets extensive coverage from the national press for their excellent mens soccer and womens basketball teams. How many times have you accessed The USA Todays on-line sports section and seen the name Virginia on the front page, associated with one of those two sports? I dont know about you, but I see it all the time.
In other words, young kids in the state of Virginia hear about and watch UVa year-round, and the same is not true of Virginia Tech. Combine that with their tradition and their well-deserved academic reputation, and UVa makes for a formidable opponent indeed during the recruiting season, one that will not go away. Learn to live with it, or it will drive you crazy.
Other Factors That Hurt Tech
18 players arrested in 20 separate arrests. Dont think opposing coaches havent used that to their advantage. Nuff said.
What Tech Needs to Do to Improve
This is a no-brainer. There are only three things the athletic department controls which they can utilize to improve recruiting:
There is a fourth factor that could affect recruiting, and thats scheduling. But not only is that horse dead, its been beaten to a pulp, and I dont want to get into it again. But yes, it can be argued that if Tech could schedule some big-name teams, it might improve recruiting a smidge.
As Usual, It's Also in Your Hands
Fans can have an impact, too. Weve already discussed facilities, and the donations of Hokie Club members go a long way towards improving that situation, as do season ticket sales and ticket sales in general.
We already have a well-deserved reputation for traveling well to bowl games, but we need to continue to buy more season tickets, and we need to fill up the stadium for more than WVU, Miami, and Virginia. How about selling out ECU and Boston College, too? How about selling out all of them? Attendance and ticket sales have improved dramatically over the last five years, and I think that momentum will continue.
Some Final Thoughts
That about wraps up what I have to say about the recruiting situation. Given all of the hurdles that we face, including that big hurdle in Charlottesville, I think our coaches have done a fine job. And I also think that if we can develop a quarterback, another true leader like Druck, and if we can keep our coaching staff intact, then the recruiting classes of the last two years will lead us back to an Alliance Bowl.
I also think that the recruitment of Tyrone Robertson was key. Tech has always done well with second-tier players, but its also essential that we land at least one blue-chipper. Tech is solid, but what really makes this team fly are guys like Cornell Brown and Ken Oxendine, players who are capable of dominating a game from their position. Hopefully, Tyrone will develop and will be that type of player, or we may wind up with a slew of 6- and 7-win, we-cant-quite-get-over-the-hump seasons, as other teams big players make big plays that win games.
As they say, Rome was not built in a day. Tech football has made great strides in the last five years. As long as we can continue to move onward and upward in the other areas discussed here, the recruiting and the on-the-field success will take care of itself.