How USC, Michigan and Others Reexamine Recruiting


A relatively popular assumption of the NCAA mandated sanctions against USC was once the Trojans weathered their two-year bowl ban, they were in the clear. Realistically though, the most challenging years of said penalties are still ahead.

USC had its allotment of football scholarships slashed by 30 over three years, the first round of reductions implemented in this past recruiting class. Scholarship penalties are the true toll takers as it pertains to NCAA sanctions. USC’s penalties are the most severe on any one program since Auburn in the mid-1990s.

AU went undefeated its season in 1993 with no bowl opportunity and jettisoned off television, then followed up with campaigns of 9-1, 8-4, 8-4 and 10-3. Terry Bowden and Co. brushed the proverbial dirt off their shoulders, right?

Well, in 1998 the Tigers crashed to a 3-8 finish and followed that at 5-6 the next year. Those two lowly campaigns were the senior seasons of recruiting classes signed when AU’s allotment was reduced from 25 scholarships per year, to just 14.

Lane Kiffin has had to adjust the lens through which USC examines recruits to avoid a similar fate come 2016, 2017, and 2018. The approach is simple, but if recruiting service rankings are accurate it’s effective enough: quality over quantity. USC has never had difficulty targeting and signing highly ranked talent — and why wouldn’t it? Play football in one, if not the most glamorous locale in college football, earn a free education from one of the most expensive universities and follow in the footsteps of national champions and Heisman winners.

USC pitches itself, but what Kiffin and his recruiting staff that includes guru Ed Orgeron have had to change is what kind of recruit they target. The Trojans need athletes who can contribute almost immediately, and in some cases from Week 1 of their freshmen year. USC also needs prospects who live up to their billing, both on and off field.

Pete Carroll never struggled to bring in talent, but USC also never adequately replaced the backfield tandem of Reggie Bush and LenDale White. Running back recruits that never met their potential came through the program one after another. Carroll signed them en masse, an approach Kiffin cannot duplicate. While Carroll could afford an Emmanuel Moody transferring after not contributing in game situations, or relying on a Joe McKnight more as a specialist than an every-down back, Kiffin cannot.

Kiffin really can’t afford circumstances like Dillon Baxter’s, who arrived on campus with much fanfare but disappeared with virtually no on-field production but a litany of problems off it. Thus, USC staff needs four and five star athletes with four and five star mentalities.

While a USC pitches itself, Rich Rodriguez faces the challenge of almost inventing Arizona’s pitch. UA lacks the tradition of USC, yet must compete with the Trojans in the latter’s own backyard for Southern California recruits. Mike Stoops countered going into Texas, where Oklahoma had (and maintains) a pipeline. Going into Texas presents all new challenges for a program like Arizona that is working to establish its reputation.

The many in-state universities hit the Lone Star State hard, as does every Big 12 member and the western-most SEC schools. I envision Texas recruiting being comparable to the trading floor climax of Trading Places — and of late, Oregon’s Chip Kelly has been its Louis Winthorp.

Compounding the difficult for an Arizona to win in Texas is an Oregon establishing itself instantly in the same territory. UO’s top flight facilities make it an attractive option, and Kelly has exploited that to the utmost. Trying to go head-to-head with the upper echelon programs is not feasible for one building, requiring a different approach.

Rodriguez spread his feelers across the country for his first UA signing class, particularly targeting Florida.

Florida joins Texas and California as the most fertile recruiting states in the nation. The Sunshine State is untapped territory for an Arizona, though Rodriguez knows it well from his tenures at both West Virginia and Michigan. The latter’s vaunted 2009 class featured six Florida products, including quarterback Denard Robinson.

Brady Hoke took over for Rodriguez at UM, and has won on the recruiting trail as he did the field last season. The Wolverines are currently’s No. 1 for 2013, without a single Florida recruit. Hoke’s tactic is dominating locally.

UM has planted flags firmly in Ohio and Illinois with its last two classes, a clear message to the rest of the Big Ten that Wolverine football intends to be the face of the upper Midwest. And in that philosophy, Hoke is practicing the most tried and true recruiting approach of them all.

Appealing locally should be any coach’s No. 1 recruiting priority. Taken to a certain level, it can become a program’s greatest asset. I was working on a story about a resurgence in Philadelphia-area college football before the 2010 season. Temple was coming off a nine-win season, Penn had finished atop the Ivy League and Villanova was defending FCS champion.

Then-Temple head coach Al Golden stressed to me that the program’s first successful run in three decades was owed to local recruiting. Western Pennsylvania is renowned for its football, but the eastern side of the state is known more as basketball country. The same is true for New Jersey. That gave Golden and his Temple staff an advantage of finding talent without as much duress if they were in hotbeds like Florida or Georgia.

Temple has produced three straight winning seasons, and is certainly capable of a fourth with Steve Addazio continuing the philosophy. And that philosophy is what makes Golden a good fit for Miami. His initial classes at The U. were some of the nation’s best, and reaffirmed the Hurricanes’ presence in the talent rich south Florida area.

We come full circle, as The U. likely faces an NCAA fate similar to USC’s. Golden may need to adjust his perspective should Miami receive sanctions as harsh, or close to as harsh as those given USC. And soon, we’ll discover how effective that approach is.