Less spending, lack of in-state talent hurts football recruiting

By Les Johns
ljohns@kykernel.com

Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series about the state of the UK football program.

Part 1: Financial deficiency capping UK football.
Part 2: Football rusty without ‘gold standard.’
Part 4: Just changing head coach may not be the answer. | UK to the ACC?

It’s not the X’s and O’s but the Jimmys and Joes that win football games, many believe.

Alabama and LSU had the top two recruiting classes in the country as ranked by Rivals.com in 2009.

Those two teams inevitably met for the national title in 2012, as those recruits from 2009 blossomed into experienced upper-classmen.

UK lags behind in recruiting investment and faces regional barriers to securing the top-level recruits it needs to compete in the SEC.

Mitch Sherman of ESPN.com reported on SEC recruiting budgets in June. That report revealed the Cats were ranked eighth of the 11 teams whose budgets were reported in 2011 (there were 12 SEC teams in 2011, and Vanderbilt is a private institution that does not have to report these numbers).

“It’s difficult to put a comprehensive comment on that statistic without knowing how expenses were, and were not, counted by each individual school,” UK spokesman Tony Neely said in an email to the Kernel. “We spend the money and the coaches have the resources they need to get the job done in recruiting.  Our recruiting budget does not limit our recruiting efforts.”

The Cats spent $336,035 in 2011, compared with an average of $665,585 for the rest of the conference’s teams.

“You can make numbers say anything you want to and can slide numbers from one budget line to another. I’m not disputing those numbers but don’t put a lot of stock in them, either,” said Oscar Combs, founder of The Cats’ Pause and member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. “I don’t think the amount UK Athletics spends on recruiting is a problem.”

Keith Niebuhr, a national recruiting analyst for 247sports.com, said it isn’t always about how much you spend, but how wisely you spend.

“Your most natural play to go geographically would be Ohio. Most people in Ohio don’t think about Kentucky as a destination, they think about Ohio State and other Big Ten schools,” said Mark Nagel, associate professor in the sport and entertainment management department at the University of South Carolina. “I would think Kentucky is in a very difficult place from a football perspective, because they don’t have the tradition.

The first thing you have to do is convince the best local players to play at your school in your state, which is hard to do when you have 50 years of mediocrity.”

Combs agrees that the Cats need to better secure players from within Kentucky first.

“Right now, they are on target to get maybe only one from their own state —that is an issue that money has nothing to do with,” Combs said.

There are three players in Kentucky rated four-star prospects by Rivals.com for 2013. Hunter Bivin, from Owensboro, has committed to Notre Dame and Jason Hatcher, from Louisville, has committed to Southern California. James Quick, a wide receiver from Trinity High School in Louisville, has yet to commit.

“Players want to go where they are going to a bowl every year and have a good shot at a BCS bowl and/or a national championship,” Combs said.

“Today, you can’t say either one of them at Kentucky and be sincere. I think that is their limit in recruiting.”

One could argue that UK needs to spend more to compete with the other programs in the SEC in deeper talent-pool rich states, with so few high-level recruits coming from Kentucky.

Kyle Tucker of The Courier-Journal compiled raw data from Rivals.com recruiting data to reveal that Kentucky produces fewer four- and five-star players than any other state in the SEC. In the past four years, Kentucky has produced six such recruits, compared with 42 in Alabama, 53 in Louisiana, 99 in Georgia and 194 in Florida.

“They are in a disadvantage from one standpoint — the state of Kentucky just doesn’t have a ton of talent.  That means you have to spend money to get your coaches to where the talent is,” Niebuhr said. “Then you ask, where is most of the talent that is in Kentucky? The higher percentage is in Louisville. Not only do you have the disadvantage of not having a ton of D-1 kids in your state, but many of ones you do are in your rival’s backyard.”

Lack of investment in recruiting coupled with geographic disadvantages led to the Cats reeling in what Rivals.com ranks as the 14th best class in the SEC for 2012 (out of now 14 teams).

“Kentucky has to travel, and you can see that from where they earn commitments, but it wasn’t that long ago that the team led by Andre Woodson was right in the thick of things for the division race,” Niebuhr said. “There’s a lot of selling points to coming to Kentucky. Is it an uphill battle?

Sure. It can be done. It isn’t easy, but it can be done. Five-star guys will be hard to get.”

Neibuhr said the Cats could compete in the southern states by targeting what he labeled “difference makers” and by recruiting smartly.   He cited Woodson and Randall Cobb as difference makers in the past for UK — players who flew a little under the radar but turned out to be huge contributors.

“When you go to the states with a lot of talent, there isn’t much difference between the Number 7 defensive tackle in Georgia and the Number 13 defensive tackle in Georgia. There’s not always a big difference,” he said. “When Georgia and Alabama are done in the state of Georgia, there are still plenty of good players there. There’s still plenty of good players left in Florida. A lot of this starts with asking where the talent is, and it is a long way away.

“There are guys that get overlooked, and they are going to have to find those guys.”

The Basketball recruiting budget at UK is the highest in the nation at over $500,000. You read the treatment Julius Randle recieved on his visit. That is the kind of treatment teams like Alabama, Florida, UT, LSU, etc. show their high level football recruits. Coach Cal has the use of a private plane when necessary as well. These luxuries are simply not afforded to the Football program. And when you have nearly twice the budget to spend on a fraction of the numbers of players being actively recruited, it certainly can’t bode well for our football program.

I think local recruiting is more important than ever.

Forty years ago two or three games were on TV a week. Now just about every game is on broadcast, cable, or ESPN3.

Good players will be seen by NFL scouts no matter where they play. If a kid has NFL talent, he will get a shot at the NFL. He doesn’t have to play at Alabama or Notre Dame or Southern Cal to get noticed.

Playing college ball close to home, though, gives his parents and friends a better opportunity to go to the games.

Unfortunately, high school football isn’t that big a deal in Kentucky. That’s what produces local talent.

Marc – you should also include two Utah schools – Utah and BYU. Those schools should have no business being on the college landscape, however, they are. Both schools have more football tradition than UK. Can anyone seriously say with a straight face that Utah produces more D1 talent than Kentucky or surrounding areas? Hell no.

I think it is obvious that we need better recruiters to land the better recruits. I’m sure that a larger budget may expand our territory but as mentioned we need the players who fly under the radar like Cobb. It takes a real talented coach and recruiter to recognize the small things that others never see. It only takes one or two play makers to even out the fact you aren’t loaded with 4-5 star recruits. Our staff doesn’t have the talent to find these guys.

The premise of the article that we are at a geographical disadvantage in recruiting is fundamentally flawed in my opinion.

In-state recruiting is important but it’s much less important than it used to be due to the fact that in the information age with the internet, smart phones, numerous sports sites, Youtube, inexpensive video equipment etc. recruiting is done more on a regional, rather than local basis for most everyone. The region Kentucky recruits in includes primarily southern Ohio, Tennessee and the northern portions of Georgia and Alabama. That includes the metro areas of Lexington, Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and even Atlanta. Ohio our boarder state, is 4th nationally in the production of FBS football players.

The SEC is now considered the fastest and surest route to the NFL by talented recruits. Playing for ANY SEC team is considered a bonus since you can display your talent against the best players in the country every week. Other SEC schools are taking advantage of this. Even Vanderbilt which has been a proverbial cellar dweller is putting together top 25 classes.

When you think about geographical recruiting advantages and disadvantages consider a few examples. West Virginia, Idaho and Oregon are sparsely populated states. They have limited regional recruiting opportunities and must convince players from as much as a thousand or more miles away to come to their program. Yet they field high quality football teams at WVU, Boise State, and Univ. of Oregon every year. Whereas the university of Texas which sits in the most fertile recruiting state in the country failed to qualify for a bowl game in 2010 and won only 7 games last season University of Miami in the #2 talent producing state has had mediocre teams playing in half empty stadiums the last few years.

I believe that pointing to perceived geographical limitations for recruiting as a reason for UK football’s lack of success is for the most part a myth and is used simply as an excuse when the real problems lie in the lack of resource commitment such as the recruiting budget, as pointed out in the article and other areas outlined in Part I of this series.

Great article. I would love to see a follow-up with Tony Neely. He says, “It’s difficult to put a comprehensive comment on that statistic without knowing how expenses were, and were not, counted by each individual school.” That suggests it might be hard to compare numbers between different schools. That is a great answer to shirt the issue. So how about pinning him down by making an all-UK comparison?

1. Are UK men’s basketball and recruiting expenses accounted for in the same way as football?

2. If so, what is the UK men’s basketball recruting budget?

3. How much is being spent per recruit for basketball and for football?

My guess is the difference between the two programs is staggering and it foreshadows the program results. This would be very telling information. I hope you get it. Keep up the good work!

Top Instate FB talent leaves or goes to UofL more often than not, due to NOT BEING BLIND!

No serious student wants to go to a C rate college…And no talented football player wants to play at a C rate football program! They will continue to slide away until UK makes a REAL COMMITMENT to FB. Plan & simple. If you build it, they will come. UK will not consistently get the best in-state/regional FB talent, until they make UK alluring to those prospective student-athletes. (We have heard it from many a top recruit. UK’s facilities are “ok”…but “ok” doesn’t beat the AUB/ALA/UGA/LSU/UT’s of the world. Not even the UofL’s, who’s stuff is much newer / much nicer & more modern!)

No one can argue w/ that. Anyone that would try, need only to look 70miles up I64 & look at what UofL has accomplished in the last 20yrs.

They went from being a perennial also-ran/ready to cut the FB program – to Top 25’s & on the Up&Coming list. Why??? They chose to invest in their future, instead of continuing to accept failure & second rate facilities.

UK has all the tools needed to build their own success story. But will they ever use those tools??? They haven’t my entire life, So why should I expect them to do so now!