February 5, 2009
Let me say right up front that my idea of recruiting is a little different this year than in the past. My son has finished his recruiting season – but not to a university's football team. He just graduated from the U.S. Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego, and I've joined the ranks of proud Marine dads.
Across the United States this week, lots of dads and moms are proud of their sons, who have just signed football national letters of intent at major colleges.
This is somewhat of a loose analogy, but it looks like Bo Pelini's attitude about recruitment is similar to that of the Marines, who generally treat their recruits as a unit. In his Feb. 4 press conference, Pelini referred to his recruits as one and didn't single anyone out for praise – even to the point of introducing them to the media and commenting on them as a group.
The University of Nebraska's recruiting class of 2009 is not An Army of One. That is, no individual gets top billing – in fact, any billing – at least from the coaching staff. If Pelini continues the policy he set last fall, each freshman will be off-limits to the media until he has seen some significant playing time. Maybe that's only because there are no ESPN Top 150 recruits in the class, but I doubt it. It looks like Pelini will handle each class about the same, regardless of its talent level.
That is a refreshing change from what we see at all those recruiting services, which try to leave us all gasping and wondering just which collegiate baseball cap any given wondrously talented 18-year-old athlete will plunk onto his head at any given press conference around the nation. And often that announcement is just for his verbal commitment, which may not be place he ends up after signing his letter of intent.
This is not to bag on any certain recruit, or group of recruits. It's just that signing a letter is not an end in itself. It's only the beginning. It's an opportunity, and nothing more, for someone to become an excellent college football player, regardless of how much raw talent he has. An ESPN Top 150 recruit is more likely to end up in the NFL than a two-star recruit from some small town, but fans and media do both of them a disservice if we try to pressure either of them into attending any certain school.
Or if we encourage them to think that they will be the difference-makers at Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Southern Cal or any other football powerhouse. This type of fawning behavior encourages a lot of the preening self-promotion that is one of the worst things about college football. So does a lack of accountability given many of these highly-talented players by their parents, teachers and coaches.
Shortly after his press conference announcing the Huskers' 2009 class, Pelini stuck to his team-first theme in an interview with Sports Nightly's Lane Grindle. He said the Huskers' recruiting style is straightforward, with no sales pitches, no angles and no promises of playing time. This relatively low-pressure strategy is a reassuring reminder that Tom Osborne has left his mark on this program.
"It's different than the way most people go about it," Pelini said. "I think it's refreshing for the kids. I think that's where the trust factor begins."
The national recruiting analysts tell us that most high school athletes are looking for places where they can play right away, and programs that will serve as a pipeline to the NFL. Maybe it's working for schools like Florida, Texas and Southern Cal, but that strategy didn't play well in Nebraska when Bill Callahan used it. It didn't produce wonderful results, either.
Pelini's style of recruiting may never attract many five-star recruits. It will, however, bring in players who are not afraid of a challenge. It will attract players who have as much toughness as talent. I predict that overachievers will come to Lincoln.
Hopefully, Pelini's staff will bring in plenty of speed and athletic ability, but the Huskers likely will not produce top 10 recruiting classes anytime soon. They will merely have above-average talent and depth, with only a few who emerge as All-America players. Nebraska will have to make do with a roster full of players like that. But that's not a big problem in the Cornhusker State, where Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne molded that sort of raw material into five national championship teams.
In the final analysis, each recruit is more important as an individual than he is as a member of the Huskers, but the team-oriented way they are treated in Lincoln ultimately will make them better individuals – better athletes, better students, better men. It's similar to the way the Pittsburgh Steelers approach life in the NFL. In the Steelers' world, the team takes higher priority than the individual. (To see what the opposite football worldview looks like, see the Dallas Cowboys, led by the egoistic Jerry Jones and featuring the self-centered Terrell Owens.)
If the Cornhusker class of 2009 has bought into the Steelers' mindset, good things are ahead for them and the Husker Nation. Pelini appears to believe that team unity will not be a problem for NU in the years ahead.
"We've good conversations with these men," said Pelini. "There's a lot of character in the group. They're hard workers. They're the type of people we want to bring in. I like the group of kids that we have that are coming in here. I think they're going to fit in well, both athletically and in a lot of different ways. I like the character in the kids. They're a good group of kids. They know they're not promised anything. They know what they're getting themselves into and the type of competitive environment that we bring. They know what they have to bring when they get here. I think it's been well communicated and we're all on the same page."
Sure, that's what most coaches around the country are saying. The results will become evident in the next two or three years, both in Lincoln and in other locations. The difference-makers will rise to the top; they'll earn the attention. That's the beauty of the "Semper Fi" attitude. It's designed to manifest itself under pressure, when it's needed most.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. | Archive