Let’s start with all the politically correct disclaimers. There are a lot of ways to evaluate players, and every one of them has worked for a long time, at every level. Personnel evaluation has become a sport in itself. With scouting services and “star” ratings for prospects, the NFL draft has gone prime time, and people watch the combine closer than a lot of coaches, because it’s all on video and the statistics are all compiled for you.
When I first went to “Indy” we went to the weigh-in sessions “hours” early so we could get a close up look at each guy, in order to evaluate his body composition and potential for growth. Evaluating was a skill, and somewhat of a gift. I sat next to Al Miller, the current strength coach of the Oakland Raiders. Al was our strength coach with The Broncos, The Giants and The Falcons; he is the best I’ve ever been around. Some guys had to really work at it, and some just went by the numbers. Al Davis sat in the same seat every year, right at the starting line of the 40-yard dash. Mr. Davis wanted to see them close up, and he was so close, he could feel how explosive they were. No one ever sat in his seat. It was just understood – it was his. That is another story for another time, but suffice it to say everyone evaluates differently.
That brings us to “recruiting.” How much of it is evaluation and how much is marketing? Is it all about collecting players or about building a team? Do you just go after the best athletes, or the players that fit your program? How big a part is “player development” after you get them on campus? What is involved with “player development”? Do you walk away from talent because ” he just doesn’t fit in”? Do you take the marginal athlete because his intangibles “are off the chart”?
There is a lot of marketing from both sides. Every prospect has a highlight film on the Internet, complete with statistical graphics and music. These clips show only the best of the prospect, all the things he can do, and although that’s what we look for when evaluating tape, it’s not enough. They (the prospects) know a lot more about us than we know about them. The Internet has changed everything. Social media is a huge part of most of these young men’s lives. Coaches may get “one call” during May, but websites and email are working overtime. Before we get caught up in the frenzy, there are some steps that we are going to take to make sure we are using our time wisely.
It all starts when you evaluate your own players – the ones you deal with everyday. When your staff is new, you constantly evaluate your own players. During those meetings you learn to speak the same language and see through one set of eyes. We define words and phrases like, “short area quickness”, “explosive”, “and powerful”. “What does “instinctive” mean, and more importantly, what does it look like on film?” “What do you see on tape that makes you believe this guy can play?” What do “good hands” look like? Quickness, agility, body control and balance – are those strong points or weak points? Are the weaknesses you see a result of lack of ability, strength or development? Are the strengths you see due to outstanding ability, the result of a great system, or a poor level of competition? One of the biggest differences between player evaluation in professional football and college is that every coach in college is involved in evaluating players that don’t play his position. This dynamic is why it is so important to sit together and communicate, coach to coach, explain what each of us is looking for. Believe me, I give my opinion, and break all ties, but I have tremendous confidence in our staff. I know what it is supposed to look like. My work is to pass my experience on to each of them.
We have a profile for each position that includes height, weight and speed minimums (although getting an accurate time is difficult, this is where summer camps become so important). These numbers start with your own team. What does six-foot-four-inches really look like? What do the best players at their position on our team and on the competitions team look like? What do we have to look like to match up with the people we play? Every year you reevaluate what you need to win.
Here again, I know what it is supposed to look like, but if you ever start believing you’ve got it all figured out, you don’t. Three different people are going to evaluate each prospect. At the end of that evaluation, I’ll give him a final grade, and that’s his position on ” the board”. I sat for thirteen years and watched Dan Reaves put the whole draft board together, and read, watch and grade each player. I’m grateful for the experience. Back then the draft was longer and we would rank two to three hundred players. Makes setting up a recruiting board seem easy.
As easy as it would be to make it all about the numbers, it’s not. It’s much more about the people, reasoning, flexibility, determination, drive and capacity. You have to talk with the people who have first hand experience with the prospect. The more we talk the better. Idle friendly conversation is great, but there is always something to learn. We have to find out about them and they have to find out about us. The intent is to inform and educate. We are not interested in having to de-recruit players once they get here. It’s not good for them or for us. This is where the Ivy League gets tricky. We are going to talk about our program, the strengths that Columbia has to offer to the specific recruit. We believe that we are a good match for any young man that we actively recruit. If it is not a good fit, we move on. The same as recruits will choose not to visit if they do not feel we are a good fit for them.
I made mention of the Ivy League being tricky, believe me it is. It is very easy to see how some schools have developed their recruiting techniques. Parents and players can be deceptive at times; there is a lot a stake. Gaining admission to any of these schools is difficult. Being supported by the football program opens the door for many of these young men. The opportunity that is afforded to these prospects may escape the player himself but seldom escapes the parents. Our intent is to be ourselves, be honest and find out as much as we can, while letting the prospect find out what he needs to know to make the best decision for him. Full disclosure, no hidden agendas, no talking between the lines. If our message resonates with a prospect, and he “gets it”, then he is our kind of guy. If our message doesn’t resonate, then he should probably go somewhere else. We feel it’s important that he find that out for himself. We aren’t going to call him while he’s on someone else’s campus. We aren’t gong to threaten him with loosing our support if he visits another school. These players need to see it all and make a decision, one that they feel good about and live up to. Different schools recruit different ways. It would be easy to say let’s do business as business is being done; we are not going to do it.
We have spent the last four weeks identifying potential prospects. It wasn’t as much recruiting, but more evaluating. In the near future we will have a Junior Day, and hold four one-day camps at the end of June. The more we can be around these players the better it is for both of us. While the recruiting gets started, the evaluation process continues with video, film reports and information gathering. We will spend more time and energy on the evaluation component than the recruiting piece. Recruiting is just like everything else – the harder you work the better you do. Telling the truth, and being yourself doesn’t require a lot of effort. Preparation is the key; preparation and a clear picture of what you want to be. We’re on our way. We will find who is right for us. We have a plan, we have a system, and we have plenty to offer.