Not too long ago Stanford football was operating with a questionable recruiting model. The coaches seemed to be recruiting by waiting until January, then contacting the handful of high school athletes who A) qualified academically for admission to the University and B) still hadn't yet accepted scholarship offers to any other schools. The results on the field reflected the quality of this plan.
Things have obviously changed in recent years, as evidenced by the highly-ranked recruiting classes brought to the Farm over the past four years. (Stanford's recruting rankings according to Rivals.com from 2006-2011: 54th, 51st, 50th, 20th, 26th, 22nd, and 5th. Of course, it should be noted that that '08 class, initially ranked 50th, included Andrew Luck, David DeCastro, Jonathan Martin, and Chase Thomas. Not bad.)
All the credit for this turnaround was initially given to Jim Harbaugh, a human force of nature who convinced an entire university that Stanford could actually field a competitive football team. But when Harbaugh left, not only did the recruiting success continue, it actually elevated. David Shaw and his staff, most notably last year's National Recruiter of the Year, Lance Anderson, and current recruiting coordinator, Mike Sanford, have built on Harbaugh's momentum, and last February they signed what could be the best recruiting class in school history. Heck, they've even got a secret weapon in Condi Rice.
But is that all it is? A few dynamic personalities drawing some of the nation's top football players to a place that was irrelevant in the college football world as recently as five years ago?
For a while now I've been thinking that perhaps the greatest recruiter was the University itself. All things being equal -- or least close to equal -- from a football standpoint, why wouldn't an admittable player consider Stanford?
Last month former Stanford running back Darrin Nelson said as much in response to my question about the team's rise to prominence.
Every guy I played with in the pros, if Stanford came calling for their kid, they would send him there. They would send him to Stanford. You know why? Because the average career in the NFL is three years, so their kid is gonna have to end up doing something else at some point, if they make it to the NFL at all. So I bet you, 25% of the guys that have played in the NFL, if they had kids old enough to go to college and Stanford came calling, they would give Stanford serious consideration over their own alma maters.
Most of the recent Stanford recruits have echoed these thoughts, no doubt prompted by the football staff's recent decision to emphasize the University's academics as a sales point rather than an obstacle. Recruits are reminded that the decision they make on National Signing Day isn't just about the next four years, it's about the next forty years. A year ago potential recruits received a letter comparing the future earning power of all schools with football teams in the top twenty-five, with Stanford grads obviously leading the way.
It should be no suprise, then, that offensive lineman Josh Garnett, a player destined for the NFL, talks about wanting to go to medical school, or that Wayne Lyons, generally acknowledged to be the smartest elite recruit in the Class of 2011, chose Stanford. Remound Wright, Lyons's fellow Class of '11 recruit, explained it simply to the Athens News: "You normally had to choose: Do I want to play in the NFL or do I want a good education? Stanford is the one place you don't have to choose."
I had the opportunity to speak with Coach Shaw last spring, and I put the question to him directly, asking if the University itself was the great recruiter.
"Absolutely," he said. "The University is the great recruiter. In fact, we have a saying -- 'Just get 'em to campus.'" The idea, of course, is that once a player drives up Palm Drive, spends time walking around White Plaza, and sits in on a few classes, he's hooked.
But it isn't just about the beauty of the campus. Shaw and his staff pitch the substance as well.
Shaw knows that Stanford isn't the only school on a recruit's travel itinerary, so he encourages a comparison.
"One of the first things I ask is how many professors they met at the other school."
Almost always, Shaw says, the recruit responds that he didn't meet a single professor and sometimes didn't attend a single class.
"So I ask them," Shaw continued, "'Aren't you choosing a school?'"
Because the coaching staff has typically been in contact with the recruit for a year or two or more before he takes his official visit as a senior, the academic portion of the trip can be tailored to fit the player's academic goals. Lyons, for instance, had an interest in robotics, so a robot-building facility was included on his tour.
At an alumni gathering in May of 2011 before Shaw's first season as head coach, he explained his recruiting philosophy like this:
When you get Stanford football back to respectability, the guys that we're looking for will start coming to find us... These are intelligent, bright, driven young people... You walk into the school and the head football coach of the high school team says, 'I know who you're coming to see, you're coming to see my team leader, my best football player.' You go to the counselor and the counselor says, 'That's my best student, I wish I had fifteen more just like him.' You just found a Stanford guy. Now what would happen if you put all those guys in one locker room at the same time? What if you get them all playing together, playing as a team, playing hard, playing physical, and you give them a little bit of confidence... what can happen?
We've seen what can happen, and there's nothing to indicate that it's not going to keep happening for the foreseeable future. I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- Stanford football is here to stay.