The Art and Science of Recruiting

Zero. Zilch. Nada. That is the total number of elite in-state football recruits, out of a possible 4, that Wolf Pack football was able to bring on board for 2011, according to ESPN’s college football recruiting website.

This means that 11th-ranked Nevada, which is set to lose four starters to the NFL draft in the off-season (including DE Dontay Moch and QB Colin Kaepernick), will have to try and meet historically high expectations, and do so without the help of a proportionally historic recruiting class.

Not only that, but–as my earlier post on Colin Kaepernick’s economic output hopefully illustrated–landing premier recruits can translate to easy money (or, in econojibberish, “the marginal revenue product associated with a single National Football League (NFL)-caliber athlete is in excess of $500,000 per year.” (and very often more: Tim Tebow was worth $3 million)). To that end, there is no easier money out there than the in-state recruit: he’s cheap to bring here and happy to stay and play in front of his family.

So how can it be the case that Nevada, still basking in the afterglow of 2010’s historic, Boise State-beating campaign, finds itself whiffing on top-flight local talent and tied with New Mexico State for dead last among WAC recruiting classes? There are a couple of possible reasons (given that we only have to compete with UNLV for a recruit’s favor), foremost among these might be that we are strategically ignoring in-state talent in order to focus on exploiting the inefficiencies of other local recruiting markets. This probably isn’t the case, since it’s much cheaper, on a shoestring athletics budget, for a coach to drive to Vegas on a recruiting trip than it is to fly anyone to practically anywhere else for the same reason. The other prominent possibility, of course, is that we are just plain not succeeding, for one reason or another, at recruiting our townies. Are local recruits just not interested in staying home if they can go somewhere, anywhere else? Doesn’t it matter to them that our team is markedly improved and gaining national recognition as a program? Would it help if we begged, just a little bit?

The answer to all the above, as it turns out, is a definitive maybe. We know this in part because of a college football recruiting prediction model developed by the Stetson School of Business and Economics at Mercer University. The model can predict recruiting commitments–whether or not a recruit will go to his hometown/state school–with about 70% accuracy, and can also determine what contributing factors went into making  to that decision. As it turns out, all our best Nevada-born athletes chose anyone but us for reasons that include…

  • Whether the athlete made an “official visit” to a specific college
  • Whether the school is in a BCS conference
  • The distance from the high school athlete’s hometown to a specific school
  • Whether the recruit is in the same state as a specific school
  • The final AP Ranking of a specific school in the previous year of competition
  • The number of conference titles a school has recorded in recent years
  • Whether the school is currently under a “bowl ban” for violating NCAA rules
  • The current number of scholarship reductions a school faces for violating NCAA rules
  • The size of the team’s stadium (measured in terms of seating capacity)
  • Whether the school has an on-campus stadium
  • The current age of the team’s stadium

… but do not include, at least in a statistically significant way: “the school’s graduation rate, the number of Bowl Championship Series (BCS) bowl appearances, the current roster depth at the recruited player’s position, the number of players from a specific college drafted by the NFL, and even the number of national championships won by a particular program.”

As the research shows, modeling the recruit’s decision to choose some other school over yours is one that boils down to whatever cost/benefit analysis he runs through before making a final commitment (this is a matter of what economists call “expected utility”). Formalized, it looks like this, and includes determinants like expected winning percentage, expected playing time and media exposure, university amenities, proximity to the recruits high school, and even the players estimated likelihood of making it to the NFL :

E ∑ 4t-1 ßt-1 U( WIN t z , PLAY t z, k , AMEN t z , MEDIA t z , DIST z, j )

+ E ∑t=5 ßt-1 (GRADPROB z , ACADRANK z , NFLPROB z )

Simplified to the major determinants, the probability estimates that can be extracted from the above look like this:

Pjz = f (X jb + Y z d + Z jz q )

or, in Plain English:

[ Probability (of recruit picking UNR)= function of (recruit ranking, position + school reputation, stadium size +  geographic distance away from school, # of recruits recently signed at recruit’s position) ]

From here I was going to go take you through a lengthy breakdown of why the state’s top 2011 product, Jalen Grimble, opted to go to Miami this year and what, exactly, the statistical probability would have been of him coming to UNR. Then, interestingly, I noticed that his brother Xavier had gone to the same exact high school, had received the same impressive recruit ranking, and, most importantly, had committed to USC just one year before.

Hmmmm…

So yeah, there’s not a coefficient accounting for sibling rivalry in the prediction model, though its an element that could easily have be considered statistically significant. Which means that you’ve been spared, I guess, for now. Let it suffice to say, however, that the prediction wasn’t necessarily leaning UNR’s way. The good news about that, of course, is that the model did rule out almost all laziness, stupidity, or ineptitude on the behalf of UNR’s recruiting personnel. Recruits, it seems, leave here for much better and stranger reasons than our recruiting practices. The bad news, similarly, is that one of those reasons can turn out to be as simple and humbling as a recruit’s (potentially irrational) insistence on going to a program as historically “big-name” as the one that his brother is attending.

So it goes, I guess. The closer you look, the less you see.

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