Shi: Cardinal football recruiting is about more than just the numbers

Feb. 4, 2016, 2:58 a.m.

I have a complicated relationship with college football recruiting. It is all-important, and yet I hate it so much. It matters more to success than anything on or off the field, and because of its importance, it gets creepy and, at times, outright illegal. Of course, it’s also National Signing Day, and the Cardinal just inked yet another talent-studded class that will help power the team for another four years. And I don’t want them to stop.

First things first, though.

Recruiting is empirically critical. Talent levels are the most important predictor of success in college football. Nothing else in the game – not academic caliber, not athletic revenue, not playcalling skill – is as tightly correlated to victories in the aggregate. If you have more talent, you win more games, and if you have four years’ worth of good talent, you have the depth you need to survive injuries and finish the season unbeaten. Talent is difficult to project, of course, but while the recruiting evaluators aren’t perfect, the numbers show that they do a pretty good job.

Recruiting and Stanford’s rise are connected. The Cardinal revival post-2007 coincided almost exactly with a commensurate rise in Stanford’s recruiting skill. Sure, Stanford found diamonds in the rough like Ben Gardner and turned them into weight-room beasts. But Stanford also identified guys that everybody in the country wanted – players like Andrew Luck and Christian McCaffrey. The Cardinal has had to fight these battles: Technology has given every player the privilege of broadcasting his ability to the world, and it is very, very difficult for players to slip through the cracks these days. If a player has talent, he will most likely be found. He will have choices. He must be convinced to choose Stanford, and that’s something that David Shaw and Jim Harbaugh do really well.

Finally, the relationship is causal. Stanford’s jump in recruiting actually preceded Stanford’s jump in wins, so it’s not like recruiting services started latching onto the Harbaugh/Shaw hype. That’s not to say that Stanford’s coaches had nothing to do with Stanford’s rise – far from it. But their contributions most keenly involve finding the right talent, getting that talent to come to Stanford, and making sure that that talent delivers on its growing potential. The best play-caller in the world – and Stanford has had some great ones – can’t do too much with players that can’t physically match up with the likes of USC and Notre Dame.


You can see why people care a lot about recruiting. Interest in recruiting has gotten to the point where teams like Auburn and Alabama have turned National Signing Day into all-day events. Enough has been said about fans that pay good money to players in order to bring them to campus. But even within the bounds of the law, wonkish fans pay good money to reporters who cover recruiting full-time. Some try to convince recruits to come to their schools using, shall we say, a personal touch. Sometimes tweeting and texting turns into harassment, as Stanford’s newest defensive lineman Mike Williams explained.

Why? It’s just college football. But a lot of people care too much about college football. Of course they’re going to care too much about the most important foundation of college football success. A lot of people care about recruiting. These are the same people who pay hundreds if not thousands (or, in the case of Texas A&M, hundreds of thousands) of dollars a year in order to cheer on their teams in person. The recruiting industry isn’t the cause of the problems we see. It’s a symptom of our larger obsession with college football.

Recruiting quite neatly sums up college football: something we care about so much that it becomes unrecognizable and strange to us.

I don’t really see too many things like that in life, either, which is what makes college football quietly frightening to me. We normally think that once something becomes important, it becomes professionalized; once it becomes professionalized, it becomes perfected; once it becomes perfected, the price already paid has risen too high. Recruiting is like that. But that’s not really the case for most things I like. Major League Baseball is professionalized, but the Dodgers are still the Dodgers. Music doesn’t become unrecognizable. Reading doesn’t become unrecognizable (well, except @GuyInYourMFA), unless you’re James Joyce, and I never really enjoyed reading Joyce anyway. Cars. Traveling. America. Women.

The only other time I’ve ever felt terrified of how much I cared about something is when I realized I’d been rooting for the Los Angeles Lakers to lose 80 games this season. But even that is actually sensible. It’s the NBA rules that don’t make sense: Losing, when you’re in the Lakers’ situation, is winning. It’s not basketball itself. On the other hand, college football can get out of hand because of something that is basic and fundamental to its very being – the annual ritual of convincing a bunch of 17-year-olds to accept full-ride scholarships to Stanford.

Maybe that’s the reason why a fairly vocal section of the Stanford fanbase yearns for the Stanford of years past. Something was lost, they say, when Jim Harbaugh stopped recruiting two-star athletes. (Never mind the fact that Stanford handed out scholarships to three two-stars yesterday.) There was, they argue, a public school, chip-on-the-shoulder, blue-collar ethos that defined Jim Harbaugh’s early Stanford teams, as opposed to the pedigreed studs that typify modern Stanford football. And sure, there’s some truth to that: We all love watching unheralded guys turn into stars because, if we’ll be honest, we see ourselves in them.

But there’s clearly something more consequential about the past that people so miss. I don’t think they miss losing. I think they miss a time when success wasn’t a mathematical formula that worked 95 percent of the time. I’ve argued before that sports are dream machines. One might reasonably argue that numbers kill our ability to conjure up the narratives that give sports color and life. Sportswriters might disagree, but sportswriters are also a uniquely obsessed breed of sports fan. (*cough cough Do-Hyoung Park*)

Nevertheless, the central premise of Stanford Athletics is that our players are not just numbers. Fans of other teams will laugh, and perhaps they should. But I’ll stick with my original belief because I’ve seen more than enough evidence during my time on The Farm to believe it.

Good luck to the incoming recruits, then. One of the reasons why Stanford is an appealing destination for college football recruits, aside from the academics and the winning, is the fact that athletes have the chance to be normal. They will find normalcy here. They may not find perfection, but the problems they go through will likely be problems every student here can relate to in some way. And hopefully, as David Shaw can attest, they will find four of the best years of their lives.



“Cars. Traveling. America. Women.” Ask Winston Shi what he’s even talking about at wshi94 ‘at’, because his editors honestly have no clue.

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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