Cal and the recruiting landscape

Where do the Bears stand against their peers, and how much of a difference does name, image and likeness rights change things?

As many long time readers are aware, recruiting is not really my thing, even though I absolutely acknowledge that it’s the most important thing a coaching staff must be able to do to win games. But I’ve been trying to stay more up to date on all things recruiting for general reasons, and also because I’m curious to see how, if at all, the advent of name and image likeness rights fundamentally change recruiting in football and basketball.

This week, two articles popped up that get at some of the current trends in recruiting, and both are worth a read and further discussion. The first is from The Athletic’s '“Recruiting Confidential” series. Their California edition surveys a bunch of people well connected within state of California recruiting and surveys them on the current landscape, and it’s all interesting.

First, a couple of criticisms. While the article is nominally about California as a whole, it’s really about Southern California generally and LA recruiting more specifically. And of course the information we get is filtered through the questions asked of the panel, which skew towards information about USC and UCLA and the very biggest recruits. For that reason, it’s not hard for me to quote every time Cal was mentioned within the very long article:

Which assistant coaches on the trail have impressed you the most?

(Cal outside linebackers coach) Keith Heyward is a beast. 

Keith Heyward at Cal does a really good job.

(Wide receivers coach) Burl Toler III at Cal does a very good job.

Who are some of the state’s under the radar prospects we’re not talking about enough?

Justyn Martin (Cal commit and Inglewood quarterback) in ‘22.

So on one hand, lots of positive mentions! Two assistant coaches making waves on the recruiting trail, and one commit with positive buzz. And these four mentions are four more than Stanford got. But it’s also true that the California recruiting article spent a lot more time talking about how Oregon and non-Pac-12 schools are increasingly raiding California for talent.

To be clear, recruiting is going well right now - Cal’s 2021 class was the best in about a decade and their 2022 class is shaping up to be even better. But it does feel like Wilcox and company are scraping up against the ceiling of how well anybody can recruit at Cal. Why? Because the hierarchy of college football is so stratified.

Michigan site MGoBlog described the current landscape as “the ladder problem.” You should read the entire section at the bottom of the article, that gets deep into scouting and how the recruiting elites handle business, but the quick summary:

To have a shot at equivalent talent Harbaugh’s staff needs to start with a significant advantage (e.g. player is a legacy, or grandparents live nearby), pursue teammates and friends, and/or find the guy a year before their competition, then knock every subsequent interaction out of the park. Even then their shot of landing anyone Ohio State or Alabama wants is less than 50 percent. We’ve seen Bama close on guys who told Michigan they’re coming, even one whose stuff was already in his Michigan dorm. Ohio State is worse because they eat peoples’ souls. Also we hate them.

What you’ve got to remember is that a lot of these recruits are just looking to land at the strongest program willing to save a spot for them. You think it sucks for us that Michigan poured all this effort into Grant from March through July, but Purdue offered the in-state prospect a year ago. There’s a pecking order, and our spot, all things considered is a good one. It’s just not good enough to compete with “do you want a ring?” in an age when certain schools are systemically guaranteed all the rings.

I think this problem is a little less massive in the Pac-12, where only Oregon wins almost every recruiting battle they want to win. Even USC loses out occasionally for talent because of doubts about Clay Helton’s short and long-term prospects. But the larger point - that nationalized recruiting has created a clear pecking order that is hard to break through - stands. This year’s crop of elite California talent hasn’t yet been raided by eastern teams the way the prior few classes have been, but we’ll have to wait and assess once the cycle ends.

Seth at MGoBlog also assesses whether or not NIL rights might change that landscape. His assessment? Is the new NIL reality really going to be that much different than how programs handled their business prior to NIL?

I don’t have direct knowledge of this (by design) but I assume we are already doing the thing most Power 5 schools do, which is have the assistants give some of their pay to their guys, a system one person who’s deeply familiar with SEC recruiting called “The Bama Way” because it spread along with the proliferation of Tide assistants in the 2010s. By TJ Duckett’s admission, Saban’s assistants were doing that at MSU too. Bama likes to keep things in-house so they can control it, which is why their coaching and analyst budget is so much larger than the rest of college football.

None of this is stuff I have proof of. But people these days are pretty free with stories, so I'll share some of the things that have come around more than once. Most Southern schools have separate, “unsanctioned” operations that don’t go through the coaches, but still take directions from them.

Again, you should read the whole thing. But one of the reasons that I was skeptical that giving athletes their name, image, and likeness rights would actually change college football that much is because the programs that had the means and desire to pay athletes were already doing it, in some fashion or another.

It’s true that the precise way that players are getting paid is changing, and that the previous way players got paid was only occasionally documented, and even then only via anonymous sources.

So ultimately I don’t think NIL rights will have an obvious impact on the balance of power in college football. But if you forced me to choose, right now, if NIL rights are more likely to increase or decrease parity in college football, I’d pick increase. Even if only because it would be hard for college football to become MORE unequal.