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Recruiting Hype

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Does the name Kevin Willhite ring a bell?

Forgive us for digressing far, far into our gridiron archives, but every year on college football’s national letter-of-intent day, we marvel at the fuss made over all of the signatures, and which schools ended up “winning” the recruiting wars. A cottage industry has developed around this business, highlighted by inane ratings that attempt to measure the strength of each school’s respective recruiting class, and pretending that there is some exact science attached to this process.

Oh, yes, back to Willhite. Twenty-seven years ago, the race to sign Willhite was regarded as the main storyline of that year’s recruiting wars. The younger brother of Gerald Willhite, a star San Jose State running back who was to be a first-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos a few months later, Kevin was regarded as the nation’s top recruit, a can’t-miss prospect who was considered by many as perhaps the best RB ever produced in the state of California. Willhite won all available honors at Sacramento’s Rancho Cordova High, and the race for his signature was the big storyline of the recruiting trail in early 1982.

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The winner for Willhite’s services was Oregon, something of a surprise considering that the Ducks had yet to emerge as a force in the Pac-10 under then-HC Rich Brooks.
Willhite, also a sprint star, was also enticed by the legacy of the Ducks’ track-and-field program that was already famous for featuring late distance runner Steve Prefontaine the decade before.

But like others that preceded him, and others that would succeed him, Willhite proved not worth the hype. While the Pac-10 and rest of the country waited with baited breath for Willhite to begin dominating, a curious thing happened. Willhite turned out to be a quite ordinary football player. His production was modest at best for the Ducks, and his only taste of the NFL was for three weeks of “strike ball” in the 1987 season with the Green Bay Packers. Willhite was one of the greatest false alarms in recruiting history. But he wouldn’t be the first, nor would he be the last.

The Kevin Willhite tale is always worth remembering at this time of year, for it points out the inexact science recruiting can be, and moreso for the recruiting rating services. There are a few key reasons why such ratings should be viewed skeptically:

1) Almost all high school athletes are still maturing physically. The ones that have progressed faster tend to shine brighter in high school, but the fact is that many football players really begin to mature once they enter college, and by the time the recruits from past years are lining up against one another in college action, those less regarded a few years earlier might now be the physical equal of those once rated ahead of them.

2) Many schools “redshirt” much of their freshmen anyway, meaning a good number of all those players who signed letters of intent on Wednesday won’t even see the field, at the earliest, until the fall of 2010.

3) Most recruiting rating services are not objective in their analysis, instead simply adding up the “stars” attached to each school’s recruits, and then determining which schools ranked ahead of others in the recruiting derby.

It’s the latter point that we believe where most recruiting services miss the mark. That’s because a school could sign numerous top-rated players at the same position (four running backs, or two top QBs, for example), who would be unlikely to ever get on the field at the same time. On the other hand, some schools can recruit for need and fill some immediate holes with quality instead of quantity, and their “rating” would suffer.

A case in point is UNLV’s recent football recruiting. Last night, I attended the free fans’ “preview” party for the Rebels’ gridiron recruits at the Thomas & Mack Center. Certainly, HC Mike Sanford was pleased with his new recruiting class, which by all accounts was the best of his 5-year tenure in Vegas. Eight of Sanford’s 22 recruits, however, are defensive backs, an obvious area of need for the Rebs in the fall (indeed, Sanford went hard into the juco ranks to fill gaps in the secondary), but it points out the folly of rating classes like UNLV’s on a couple of different fronts. First, not all of Sanford’s defensive backs are going to be able to get on the field at the same time, so it would be a tad misleading to rate the entire Rebel class (and others like it elsewhere in the country) based on a plethora of student-athletes who play the same position. On the other hand, if UNLV’s recruiting class was a bit shallow, except for those defensive backs who could make an immediate impact, then the Rebs might be able to deem their recruiting efforts a success despite the fact they might have been downgraded by those rating their efforts.

As for the case of athletes shining brighter in high school simply because they are quicker to physically mature, we cannot forget the tale of James McAlister, the Willhite of his day at this time in 1970, when UCLA won the race to sign the big, fast bulldozer from Pasadena’s Blair High. Of course, those were the days before freshmen were eligible to play college varsity ball, but such was McAlister’s prowess that UCLA’s frosh football games in the fall of 1970 were newsworthy items, just for the chance to see McAlister perform.

Indeed, James starred for the “Brubabes” in the fall of 1970, but was subsequently ruled ineligible for his varsity debut in 1971 because of questions about his test scores and whether someone had doctored his answers on the standardized tests of the day. The hype, however, continued, and by the time McAlister finally became varsity eligible in 1972, Bruin Nation was rapt with excitement at his debut. But McAlister would prove something of a false alarm. Although James had a decent career at UCLA, he was in fact overshadowed by his less-heralded Blair High teammate, Kermit Johnson (the other half of the “Blair Pair”), who proceeded to outshine McAlister while a Bruin.

The fact is that McAlister, while in high school, was fully matured physically, simply stronger and faster than all of the high school defenders that couldn’t tackle him. But in college, that physical edge once owned by McAlister began to disappear. By the time McAlister finished his UCLA career, he had achieved almost as much as a track-and-field performer (where he starred in the long jump) as a footballer. His gridiron career ended rather quietly in the old WFL, performing for the Southern California Sun (and outshined again by teammate Kermit Johnson), before a short and undistinguished NFL career with the Eagles.

(McAlister, by the way, was eventually able to make a more-lasting impact in the NFL by fathering son Chris McAlister, left, a longtime All-Pro DB with the Ravens).

Not to downplay the importance of good recruiting; indeed, it’s the lifeblood of college football programs. We just have a problem with all of the recruiting services treating their rankings of the newcomers as gospel. “Rating” the recruits is an inexact science at best. Or, as our late founder Mort Olshan used to like to say, it’s much ado about nothing.

A better, and more valuable, rating system would be to look at each recruiting class a couple of years later, when the players are still in the programs as juniors or seniors. That would be a lot more revealing, and interesting, than simply projecting a recruiting class before any of the student-athletes step on campus. It would at least make an inexact science a bit less...inexact.

  
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