Ranking basketball recruits, that’s the easy one. Each summer, the nation’s hottest basketball prospects sign on to an AAU team and travel around the country for tournaments, showcases, even made-for-TV events in which college coaches watch them go head to head.
Football doesn’t lend itself to such ready-made evaluation opportunities. There are no offseason AAU football tournaments or game-like conditions in which the nation’s best grid prospects line up across from each other on a regular basis. Coaches hold summer camps, but those are skewed by the limitations of access and availability.
That basketball-football contrast comes to mind the day after Kentucky again found itself smashed at The Swamp, dropping to 0-2 after a 45-7 thumping by Florida, the Gators’ 30th consecutive win over the Cats. Half of those 30 defeats have been by three touchdowns or more, 11 by 30 points or more.
Wasn’t this supposed to have stopped by now? Hadn’t Mark Stoops been lauded for raising the bar for Kentucky football recruiting? Didn’t the self-professed recruiting gurus rank Stoops’ signing classes well above his UK predecessors?
Thirty-eight games, and just 12 wins into the Stoops tenure, have we all been sold, and did we the media help sell a bill of goods? Yes and no.
On the basketball side, John Calipari’s recruits pan out much more than not. The UK coach owns a stellar record of not only signing elite recruits but putting them into position to be first-round NBA Draft picks. No one doubts Calipari’s developmental skills, but much of his most important job is done before the player dribbles a basketball on campus. College basketball is all about recruiting.
College football is all about evaluation. Back when Bill Curry was struggling as the Kentucky coach, I reported on a story about how certain schools had turned their football fortunes around. I talked to a writer who had chronicled Bill Snyder’s amazing reclamation project at Kansas State. Snyder wasn’t a great recruiter, said the writer, to my surprise. Snyder, he said, was a great evaluator. There’s a difference.
No doubt Nick Saban knows how to evaluate. The difference at Alabama — and similar traditional powers — is that Saban is such a great recruiter, he can afford to make the evaluation mistakes all coaches make. If one supposed five-star player doesn’t pan out, Saban can simply plug in another five-star player. His margin for error is wide.
That’s not the case at Kentucky, whose improved recruiting still lags behind the best in the SEC. If a player doesn’t live up to the hype at UK, Stoops and staff lack the luxury of calling another elite prospect out of a deep stable. A couple of mistakes can put a season in jeopardy and a coach out of a job.
And in these digital days of the internet, recruiting is a perpetual hype machine. There are websites after websites that do little but track the development of teenage athletes, compiling rankings, awarding stars. That’s hard enough in basketball, where top players match skills on the same floor at the same time. It’s almost impossible in football, where top players rarely, if ever, cross paths.
This recruiting explosion happened at a time when Kentucky football was in desperate need of something to hype. After a string of bowl berths under Rich Brooks, the program had backtracked under his successor, Joker Phillips. Attendance plummeted. Phillips was fired. Stoops was hired.
In an effort to boost ticket sales back to respectable levels, the selling started. Regional hype commercials ran during Super Bowl telecasts. Recruiting commitments were hyped with “Yahtzee” tweets. Early success was rewarded with premature contract extensions.
So far, however, the results haven’t matched the hype, proving once again that recruiting isn’t an exact science and that evaluation is more important.
Kentucky’s recruiting rankings by Rivals
2013 — 29th
2014 — 18th
2015 — 34th
2016 — 29th