Can Stanford keep up with the blue-bloods despite NIL?

Jan. 31, 2024, 1:56 a.m.

The Daily spoke to six incoming student-athletes to understand how they interacted with name, image, likeness (NIL) as they were recruited. The athletes spoke on the condition of anonymity due to privacy concerns and a fear of retaliation.

Many college sports enthusiasts believe that the NCAA’s decision to allow student-athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness has greatly altered how universities recruit players. Some fans believe that collegiate sports has become pay-to-play, where teams that promise the most NIL money to recruits will end up getting the best players and come out on top.

Where does that leave a school like Stanford in this environment, whose primary appeal to recruits lies in the prospect of obtaining a degree from one of the best universities in the world? 

Due to a strict admissions process for athletes, the school already has one of the smallest recruiting pools in the country to draw from. But if it doesn’t directly dangle NIL deals to entice prospective recruits, will that pool become even smaller?

It’s a complex question, one that cannot be answered using the past three football seasons as evidence due to coaching changes and the ripple effects of COVID-19. However, it’s a question that’s necessary to answer in order for Stanford to figure out its course of action in the modern collegiate athletics landscape.

Stanford football’s recruiting in the modern landscape

According to Preston Pehrson, Stanford football’s director of recruiting and player personnel, the prospect of getting a Stanford degree is still an alluring prospect to many recruits, even in the new college football landscape. 

“There’s been some guys that we got this past year that told us they got a ton of NIL money from different places,” Pehrson said. “But [the prestige of] our degrees still give us a chance with them. You add a little bit of money and you add a degree like this, it’s way different than somebody just handing you money, because the money’s just short term.”

While the transfer portal has not been used to a great extent by Stanford in the past, Cardinal head coach Troy Taylor has been more willing to employ it to his advantage. Stanford took six new players out of the portal last year and two new transfer players this year. 

Stanford is able to make a list of targets relatively quickly compared to its competitors due to its stringent academic requirements.

“Off the top of my head, there were 2,500 guys in [the transfer portal], and we cut it down to about 250 that we liked,” Pehrson said. “Then we cut it down to about 50 that we thought had interest in us and the grades. Then we cut it down a little bit more as they started getting more offers and showed interest in other places, or they got in the portal knowing they were going for NIL money.”

Despite not engaging in a recruiting process that features NIL money prominently, Pehrson noted that collectives are necessary to win at a high level in college football.

“At the lower levels, you probably don’t need to have as much money,” Pehrson said. “But I think every school needs a collective. I never spoke to our collective, but I know they are doing all they can and doing a good job.”

Going forward, while many teams are bringing in most of their roster from the transfer portal, Pehrson and the rest of the Stanford staff believe in building through the high-school ranks.

“You used to have the young guys come in, you would develop them, then they get to be juniors and seniors, and then your team is really good.” Pehrson said. “Whereas if you bring in 60 kids, you don’t have a culture. They don’t know how to practice because what are you looking at? Where’s the kids that were here in the past?”

“I think every official visit we’ve hosted, we’ve had a number of players commit,” Pehrson said. “We get almost 80% to commit. We’re shooting for about a 75% to 80% commit rate right now on our visits.”

While other schools are zigging, Stanford is zagging, sticking with its ethos of creating its program through academically-talented high school recruits. But while Stanford may not be changing, the bigger question is how high-school athletes are navigating the modern recruiting process.

How do athletes interact with NIL in their recruiting process?

The Daily interviewed six incoming student-athletes, aiming to explore how NIL factored into their college decisions. All six recruits said that NIL opportunities were not integral in choosing a school to commit to. 

“I was just thinking about my education, degree and being on the field to play,” one recruit said. “There’s a lot of schools that recruit people with NIL, and I don’t want to do that. I want to be able to play football for the team.”

Another incoming student-athlete told The Daily that the most important part of securing NIL deals is getting on the field and playing well, which he believes Stanford gives him a great chance to do. 

Three of the student-athletes said that they had been in contact with NIL collectives at other schools during their recruiting process. When prompted on whether the schools were providing financial offers, one recruit responded, “Yeah, pretty much.”

Another recruit told The Daily that the NIL income opportunities at Stanford and with its collective, Lifetime Cardinal, were better than two other Power Five collectives he had talked to. It’s important to note the recruit did not discuss opportunities with Stanford’s collective directly, but was informed about the collective’s opportunities through a member of the team. 

“A lot of my friends play college football, and they explained that compensation is different at every school,” said one recruit. “Certain schools see you as ‘we need you now to play,’ so they may find you to be worth more. But a certain quality of player will have a certain [compensation] range they fit into.”

The role of college coaches in facilitating NIL deals has been increasingly questioned, especially after Florida State offensive coordinator Alex Atkins was reprimanded by the NCAA for driving a recruit to a meeting with a representative of an NIL collective. But for the recruits The Daily interviewed, coaches at other schools didn’t bring up NIL much at all.

“I didn’t hear too much about it from coaches,” a recruit told The Daily. “They will obviously say that they have NIL deals, but they would never tell me to talk to a particular person to facilitate a deal because that’s against the rules.”

What’s Stanford’s place in the current college sports environment?

Based on trends in the last few years, the NIL arms race won’t slow down anytime soon. An Ohio State NIL collective just announced that it raised over one million dollars during this past week. Moreover, a current player on the Stanford football team informed The Daily that when he was recruited two years ago, NIL collectives were not nearly as established and well-funded as they are now.

The next few years of football will be crucial to establish Stanford as a consistent program that can compete with the powerhouse programs, even without taking an aggressive stance on NIL. The number of schools that will be playing big time college sports is getting smaller by year due to conference realignment. And as Florida State has shown in the past couple of months, realignment attempts don’t seem to be ending anytime soon.

Can Stanford survive in this environment without compromising its identity? Only time will tell.

Kaushik Sampath is a desk editor for the sports section. He is a sophomore from Fayetteville, Arkansas, who's undecided on his major. You can catch him watching and ranting about his beloved Arkansas Razorbacks or hanging out with friends on campus. Contact him at sports 'at' Jing is a contributor to The Daily's sports section.

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