Rockstar Coaches & Recruiting

Submitted by EGD on December 29th, 2014 at 8:57 PM

There have been a number of threads asking, essentially, “Now that Jim Harbaugh is our coach, what kind of recruiting class can we expect in 2015?”  The most common answer has been “we should do okay in 2015 and then kill it in 2016.”  That seems like a fairly safe assumption, but because we are all in “we got JH let’s party” mode, I figured I would take a look at how some other rock-star coaching hires have improved their teams’ recruiting in the recent past.  I will use the Rivals database primarily since that seems to be the most popular and goes back sufficiently far.

1.    Nick Saban – Alabama

Nick Saban became the 27th head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide on January 3, 2007, and thus had roughly the same amount of time (actually, several days less) to assemble his inaugural 2007 recruiting class that Jim Harbaugh will have before NSD 2015.

At the time he signed, Alabama’s ’07 class had nine recruits with an average star rating of 3.33 (four 4-stars).  Saban added 15 additional recruits to that class, including six 4-stars, to finish with the nation’s #10 class.  This was Alabama’s best class yet in the Rivals era; in the five years preceding Saban’s arrival, Alabama had averaged a 24.4 recruiting class ranking. 

Even so, Saban’s 2007 class would hardly compare to his 2008 harvest.  With 32 overall signees at a 3.72 star average, Alabama signed the nation’s #1 recruiting class in 2008—headlined by 5-star WR Julio Jones.  That 2008 class featured two other 5-stars (OL Tyler Love, ATH Burton Scott) and nineteen 4-stars (including eventual Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, Jr.).  Nick Saban’s performance at Alabama is, accordingly, “Exhibit A” for the suggestion that Harbaugh will help Michigan land a solid 2015 class, and a potentially great class in 2016.


2.    Urban Meyer – Ohio State

Ohio State hired Urban Meyer around November 28, 2011, inheriting the machine from which Jim Tressel had departed earlier that year in disgrace.  Fueled in part by free tattoos and extended “test drives,” as well as a prolonged period of Big Ten domination, Tressel’s recruiting classes had averaged #11.6 nationally in the five years preceding Meyer—including top-4 classes in 2008 and 2009.  

Meyer, at most slightly handicapped by Tressel-related sanctions that would make the Buckeyes ineligible for post-season play in 2012, had significantly more time to assemble his first recruiting class than Saban had (or than JH will have).  He used that time well, proceeding to land the nation’s #4-ranked class in 2012.  That 25-member class included 5-stars Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence, fourteen 4-stars, and an overall 3.72 star average.  His 2013 class was just as good (arguably better, though there isn’t much room to improve from #4) ranked #2 in the nation and featuring two more 5-stars (Vonn Bell and Mike Mitchell), sixteen 4-stars, and an overall 3.83 star average.  Meyer has maintained this level of recruiting in 2014 (finishing #3 overall) and 2015 (sitting at #3 headed into NSD).


3.    Steve Spurrier – South Carolina

Steve Spurrier became the Head Ball Coach at South Carolina on November 23, 2004, after Lou Holtz retired.  The Gamecocks had been a league whipping boy since joining the SEC in 1991, but Holtz brought them to some measure of respectability by going 8-4 in 2000 and 9-3 in 2001.  That success had begun to translate into recruiting, with South Carolina landing the nation’s #11 class in 2002 and the #8 class in 2003.  But by 2004, Holtz’s Gamecocks were mired in mediocrity and their recruiting dipped back to historical levels (the team Spurrier took over had gone 6-5 in 2004, after signing the nation’s #38 recruiting class that spring).

Like Meyer, Spurrier had almost three full months to sign his first recruiting class—and with that time was able to sign the nation’s #23 class with six 4-stars and 28 overall players (2.96 star average).  Spurrier signed a similar class in 2006: the #24 unit nationally, with six 4-stars, 24 total players, and a 3.08 star average.  But in his third season (2007), Spurrier pulled in the nation’s #6 class—headlined by 5-star WR Chris Culliver and joined by fourteen 4-stars, 31 total players, and a 3.42 star average.  Whether this 2007 class was Spurrier cashing-in on his rockstar status after a bit of delay and his 2005 SEC Coach of the Year award, or whether the modest 2006 class as a response to an NCAA investigation (through which South Carolina wound up on 3-year probation for violations that occurred under Holtz), or some combination thereof, is unclear.  But since then, Spurrier has been able to maintain South Carolina’s recruiting at a high level—averaging #18.1 in the nation over the past seven cycles.


4.    Bobby Petrino – Arkansas

Journeyman Bobby Petrino famously resigned from the Atlanta Falcons with three games remaining in their 2007 season to become head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks in December 10, 2007.  Like Urban Meyer, Petrino took over a strong program from a successful former coach—in this case, Houston Nutt, who’d bolted Fayetteville for Oxford, Mississippi.

Under Nutt, the Razorbacks had steadily recruited just inside the nation’s top-30 programs, finishing no worse than #31 and no better than #24 over the six preceding cycles (#27.2 average national ranking).  Petrino’s first class (2008) ranked #36 nationally, however, Arkansas’ worst finish in the Rivals era.  But Petrino’s second class, headlined by 5-star Darius Winston (and, though not counted, transfer Ryan Mallett coming off his sit-out year) ranked #16; with 31 players and an overall star average of 3.26, the 2009 class was far and away Arkansas’s best of the Rivals era.  Interestingly, though, Petrino was the one rockstar coach who proved unable to sustain his recruiting success beyond the second year; Arkansas plummeted back to #49 in the 2010 cycle, and continued to recruit outside the top-30 for the remainder of Petrino’s tenure.


5.    Bobby Petrino – Louisville (2)

Petrino was fired from the Arkansas job in April 2012 after a motorcycle accident led to the revelation of his adulterous affair with a colleague.  He remained out of work until December of that year, when Western Kentucky hired him to replace Willie Taggart.  He coached the Hilltoppers for a season, but then thriving Louisville head coach Charlie Strong took the head job at Texas.  That left a vacancy at Petrino’s old program, and he promptly returned to the Cardinals for 2014. 

Louisville announced Petrino on January 9, 2014, leaving him only about five weeks before national signing day.  He still managed to sign thirteen recruits, to finish with 25 overall players and the nation’s #40 class (2.82 overall star average).  While #40 may not sound impressive at first blush, Louisville averaged a #49.6 ranking in the five previous cycles (2009-2013), finishing inside the top-30 only once (#29 in 2011).  And Louisville’s current recruiting class is ranked #27, which would make for a nice second-year bump if it holds up through NSD.   


6.    Pete Carroll – Southern Cal

Though arguably not really a rockstar at the time, I am including Pete Carroll anyway because any study of modern recruiting needs to include Pete Carroll.  He took over the USC Trojans on December 15, 2000—meaning (i) he had about two more weeks to assemble his first recruiting class than JH will have, and (ii) that first class was assembled before the Rivals era. 

The 2001 USC Trojans recruiting class featured only sixteen student-athletes—but among them were key contributors like Shaun Cody and Matt Leinert.  Most of the sixteen were Paul Hackett recruits that Carroll locked-down after coming on board. The overall quality of the class is a matter of some disagreement, with Tom Lemming ranking it #9 nationally while SuperPrep ranked the USC class outside the national top-10 and behind both Washington and UCLA in the Pac-10.

Carroll signed the nation’s #13 class in 2002, with 20 overall recruits and fifteen 4-stars among them (3.1 overall star average).  While that was undoubtedly a strong class, it was the following season when Carroll’s recruiting success really took off: the 2003 class featured two 5-stars (Reggie Bush and ATH Whitney Thomas), ten 4-stars, and 26 players (averaging 3.43 stars), good for #3 in the country.  USC would finish with the nation’s #1-ranked recruiting classes in each of the next three years (before dropping to #2 in 2007).



Of the six cases of “rockstar coach hires” studied herein, three were able to improve upon their schools’ recent recruiting performances in the first cycle.  But in two of those three instances, the incoming coach was taking over a strong program whose prior coach had left for greener pastures (Petrino, replacing Strong) or for reasons unrelated to failure on the field (Meyer, replacing Luke Fickell after Tressel).  Most of the coaches were able to make a dramatic improvement in recruiting by year 2, however—and all of them by year 3.  Only Petrino (at Arkansas) was unable to sustain that high-level recruiting beyond their second or third-year increases.

So, what does this mean for Harbaugh?  I am no statistician, but I highly doubt there is enough of a sample size here for the numbers to mean anything.  But for what it’s worth, the few existing examples suggest that Harbaugh should enable Michigan to sign a top-30ish class for 2015 (Michigan finished no worse than #31 in the past five recruiting cycles), improve significantly upon that with his second-year leap in 2016, and land top-10 (maybe top-5, comparable to Meyer/Saban/Carroll) classes consistently thereafter.

Or maybe he'll just kick everybody's asses from day one.



December 29th, 2014 at 9:17 PM ^

Harbaugh's class ranking will be hindered because it's such a small class this season. But that will help the staff. Less spots to fill, more time to commit to less recruits. They should do fine.


December 29th, 2014 at 10:13 PM ^

Attrition always happens.  There will be more than 11 slots to fill.  I think Harbaugh is more than able to leverage the excitement of his hire to salvage a great class.  Remember that nobody was close to being this excited when Harbaugh was hired at San Diego, Stanford or San Francisco.  Each time he was someone moving up the ladder with no guarantee of success.  

Now, everyone knows he is the real thing.  He may have the best recruiting pitch in all of college football at this point because of his background.  I am expecting a few "surprises" on NSD.


December 29th, 2014 at 11:38 PM ^

Smart recruits will jump on board.  Saban, Meyer, Dantonio - their NFL coaching success is what again?  Elite recruits are looking at the next level.  Harbaugh wins at both levels and has developed talent at both levels.  He has proven he can win with a Luck type player and a Kaepernick type (despite the rough go recently) which means he is not a cookie cutter ideologue (his observed man ball preference notwithstanding).  Which also means certain types of players may not simply rule M out from the get go.  At a minimum he is on equal recruiting footing with his top peers out there.

I'd say his sales pitch is going to be pretty sound. A proven guy that has won at both levels and can show kids he knows how to get them to the next level as well.  I'm predicting a better than expected 15 class.  Realy going out on a limb here, I'd say much better than expected.

swan flu

December 30th, 2014 at 9:35 AM ^

While I am not technically a statistician, I am a quality engineer, so I work almost exclusively with statistics.


I would suggest that this type of situation is not appropriate for statistical analysis, due to all the moving parts and qualitative details.


Heuristic approaches would be better and it is clear that hiring a rockstar coach will improve recruiting. therefore: let's all get excited.


December 30th, 2014 at 10:51 AM ^

the momentum will continue. I agree there will likely be some 5 star surprises on NCD particularly once the rest of the M staff is on board. I have not heard/read about potential OCs? It surely will be a much more optimistic off season no matter how the 2015 class shakes out.


December 30th, 2014 at 2:08 PM ^

Shocked to see Spurrier in here.   Rockstar?  He can recruit but... his record isn't commensurate with his recruiting classes.  Hmmmm, remind you of anyone?

His bowl record is good though.



December 30th, 2014 at 3:33 PM ^

He was a big deal back in the day; now he's older and not as popular with the younger crowd, but is still a great coach.  I'd say he reminds me of, oh....David Bowie?

Thing is, there aren't all that many true rockstar coaches that have gone from one college program to another, or from college to NFL and back to college.  I had to use a bit of a broader definition or this would have been a very short diary.  Even among the coaches listed, Harbaugh really stands alone as the only coach to leave the NFL at basically the height of his success and go to a college team.  



December 30th, 2014 at 4:13 PM ^

Yeah, I know--I was just joking around.

Spurrier actually has gotten results though.  His Florida teams were always good and he won a MNC there.  He's been competitive at South Carolina; he hasn't won at the same level as Saban or Miles, but he hasn't been pulling in top-5 recruiting classes like they have either.