Shi: College recruiting – Why coaching does matter

Feb. 8, 2015, 10:59 p.m.

Recruiting is the lifeblood of football. And for recruiting, there is no more heralded day than National Signing Day – when college football recruits are allowed to formally commit to a university and join that universe. Yet with every National Signing Day comes complaints and recriminations. Players complain that the coaches that recruit them leave. Fans complain that the players are making stupid decisions. All of this only exacerbates the already-gaping disconnect between student-athletes and the fans that support them.

We hold it as a general truth that players shouldn’t commit to a school just because of a coach, and as such, people often criticize players for what they see as frivolity. But coaches matter – they really do. And when a player gets angry because his or her coach has left, he/she is often justified in doing so. Indeed, a coach is one of the most fundamental factors in a recruit’s transition from high school to college. Allow me to explain why.

Yes, it makes sense to factor a coach into your college decision. Players will spend more time with their coaches and teammates than nearly anybody else during their college careers, and few people have more influence on an athlete’s time at his or her university than his or her coaches.

Frankly, it seems that people who lambast recruits for considering the coaches when picking a school have no idea how much time college athletes actually spend on their sport, and how much that sort of time commitment can define a person’s college experience. If you think a coach is going to make your life a living hell – something that can’t be said for the vast majority of professors – then you should seriously consider heading elsewhere.

Yes, it makes sense to make a decision based on a coach…if that coach is a tiebreaker. Imagine two fairly similar programs – similar in academics, in majors, in resources and in historical prestige. If that’s the case, maybe your relationship with your coach could make the difference.

And we tend to underrate this aspect of coaching in particular: Great coaches win lots of games. To a certain extent, this is due to the players themselves – great players make coaches look good. But some coaches are better than others, and some coaches win more than others. Recruits generally gravitate to these coaches.

But while recruits do care about being part of strong programs, they don’t prefer successful coaches because of winning for winning’s sake. Winning is better because it is more fun than losing. Tangible success – in the forms of victories, awards and championships – can make a college experience all the more rewarding. Good coaches are a big part of that.

No, it doesn’t make sense to choose a school based entirely on the coach. The thing is…nobody actually does that. Let’s take the controversial Roquan Smith as an example. Smith, a star high school linebacker, refused to commit to UCLA after Bruins defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was linked to a NFL job. He’s now looking at other schools.

Smith was ready to commit to UCLA, as far as we know, and the only thing that changed in the meantime was that Ulbrich was about to leave. (And now he’s gone.) Therefore, so the popular reasoning goes, Smith was choosing schools based on a football coach. That’s probable – in fact, as I’ve explained, that’s justified, even though he has come under some fire for doing so. Certainly, Smith might have picked UCLA because Ulbrich put the Bruins over the top. But saying that he picked UCLA because of Ulbrich implies by omission that there was nothing else about UCLA that Smith found interesting. It’s incredibly reductive. Making negative assertions about Smith’s intelligence or his character based on that assumption is even worse.

Smith did his due diligence. From a list of 27 scholarship offers, he narrowed his choices down to four colleges – UCLA, Georgia, Texas A&M and Michigan. He personally visited at least 16 schools (even I didn’t do that!), saw the campuses and heard hundreds of recruiting pitches. I am thoroughly convinced that Smith has perfectly good reasons for ruling out the other 23 colleges, reasons that any sane person would accept. If Ulbrich had stayed, Smith would still have chosen UCLA because of its strong academics, its prestige and its football success. Ulbrich differentiated UCLA from other great options, but he would not have made the difference if he had been coaching in Division III. The coach was just the icing on the cake.

In short, saying that Smith picked a school based purely on a coach is to say that Smith cannot make sane or rational choices about his life. But he can and he did.

Regardless, coaches are hardly a guarantee. The strongest argument for not picking a school based on the coach is that the coach will likely not be around by the time a recruit graduates. And while I’ve been very keen to defend athletes for their recruiting decisions, I do think that the traditional post-NSD complaints reveal unrealistic expectations, if not necessarily bad decisions.

Think about this for a second: After Kyle Whittingham, David Shaw is the longest-tenured head football coach in the entire Pac-12. David Shaw has been a head coach for four years. And guess what – when a head coach gets fired, his assistants typically get fired with him.

Players supposedly know this, and honestly, it’d be silly if they didn’t. They know the statistics. They know the stories. Most importantly (and particularly in football), they know how assistant coaches are often asked to stick around until after National Signing Day – in other words, after their recruits have signed their National Letters of Intent, contractually binding them to their schools. Consequently, they choose schools for reasons besides coaches. Nevertheless, even though coaches may not be the big reason for attending a school, too many recruits still expect their coaches to stay. I feel for Ohio State’s Mike Weber after OSU assistant Stan Drayton left the day after NSD. But what did he expect?

After all, it’s all in the (not so) fine print. The National Letter of Intent explicitly states: “I understand I have signed this NLI with the institution and not for a particular sport or coach. If a coach leaves the institution or the sports program (e.g., not retained, resigns), I remain bound by the provisions of this NLI. I understand it is not uncommon for a coach to leave his or her coaching position.”

But that’s not how these things work in the real world, do they?

On the contrary, Winston Shi picked Stanford due to his bizarre love for Herbert Hoover. Find out why the Great Depression was caused by external factors at wshi94 ‘at’

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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