On Friday, Paul Myerberg of USA Today published an in-depth look at Chris Petersen's recruitment style, contrasting his minimalist approach to the insanity that characterizes modern-day college football recruiting. There is no argument that Petersen's approach is a departure from much of the rest of the conference; rather, the question is, do the benefits of that departure outweigh the costs?
The Pro: Nothing Wrong with an Old-School Approach (Ryan)
Last February, a five-star cornerback named Iman Marshall out of Long Beach, Calif., committed to USC. That in and of itself is not particularly notable; five-star players from Los Angeles commit to the Trojans all the time. What is notable, however, is the way in which he did so. Marshall made his commitment known by releasing a music video.
I will repeat that.
Marshall made his commitment known by releasing. A. Music. Video.
If you clicked the link in the preceding sentence, what you spent the last two minutes and fifty-four seconds viewing is Exhibit A of how the college football recruiting process has become a flamboyant circus, a parody of a parody. It is a process in which even the language we use to describe it, much like legal terminology, has adopted its own meaning: After all, in what sane world does "committed" mean anything other than "committed"?
(If your significant other catches you texting an old flame, tell them that you had in fact only given him or her your "verbal commitment," and are still free to consider your options. Then, please head over to the comments to let us know how that strategy paid off for you.)
To his credit, at least, Marshall only committed to one school. "Flipping" and "poaching" are other terms that have been added to our lexicons, and not in reference to pancakes and eggs. Who among us can forget the saga of Jordan Payton, the star UCLA receiver who was ostensibly committed to playing his college ball at three different Pac-12 schools in the space of 48 hours?
Chris Petersen refused to play this absurd game at Boise State, and has not changed that stance since joining Washington in late 2013. His way of recruiting players is not without its occasional costs (see Eason, Jacob), but there is good reason to believe that its benefits will far outweigh them in the long run.
The first of those benefits concerns the coaching staff's reputation. As someone who was a fairly casual observer of Petersen during his time at Boise State, I had heard about the way his teams fostered a family atmosphere, but it was not until he arrived at Washington that I realized how big of a change his way of doing things was from that of Steve Sarkisian. For example, in an interview with Chantel Jennings, Danny Shelton called Petersen a "life-changer," which is no small compliment to pay a man whom the star nose tackle had known for less than one year in any considerable capacity.
As impressed as you might be with that statement, remember that it is not just fans who read those articles: In that Shelton interview, star recruits in the classes of 2016, 2017 and beyond see a first-round NFL Draft selection pay heartfelt compliments to the man who could be their coach. If you are a next-level recruit considering Washington such as Foster Sarell or Tyler Vaughns, that has to resonate with you on levels that include and transcend football.
The other major benefit of Petersen's approach is that it attracts men who want to make their mark on something greater than themselves. By working to recruit players who buy into his vision of creating the kind of environment that embodies the "Built for Life" and "OKG" philosophies, Petersen ensures that the roster is stocked with players who understand that there is more to life than football—in other words, the kind of players who will not become bitter and immediately think to transfer if they do not start every game of their redshirt freshman year. If Pete's tenure at Boise State is any indication, this will yield starting lineups of more fourth- and fifth-year players down the road who understand and believe in his way of building a program.
Petersen's vision for the team will not become reality overnight. (Count me among those who will consider 2015 successful if the Dawgs are not home for the holidays.) But based on nothing more than the past success of his system at Boise and the early returns of his time on Montlake, I expect Washington's stock to soar in the years to come, and Coach Pete's quote-unquote "antiquated" recruitment methods are no small part why.
The Con: It's Time to Evolve (Chris)
The sad part of these "The Pro and The Con" pieces is that it is a sure bet that one of our lucky contributors is going to draw the short straw and have to take on the unpopular point of view in the debate. Someone has to be the Joker to the other's Batman. Someone has to be Pippen to the other's Jordan. Someone has to be Khloe to the other's Kim. Someone has to be Kirk to the other's Brad (uhhh, whoops, Freudian slip). I guess today is the day I get to piss off the Husky faithful. Again.
As an alumnus and as a proud supporter of the UW football brand, I couldn't be more pleased with Petersen's old-school philosophy. He strives to restore integrity into a process that has become polluted with corruption. He chooses to focus on the quality of the relationship over the persuasiveness of the pitch. He wants to look a recruit in the eye and know that a handshake means something more than a "yah, sure, ya' betcha." He wants to shine the light of day on the sausage-making factory that has flourished under the cloaks of shadowy figures and seedy caitiffs.
Kudos to him. "Here, here," I say!
UW, maybe more so than most schools, needs to occupy that rarefied air where institutions who recruit prospective student athletes care more for the impact the school can have on the athlete than what the athlete can have on "the program."
But, let's be honest, this is a niche strategy that very few programs—even those with deeper histories and greater value propositions—have been able to pull off.
Recruiting in this era isn't what it was like 20 or 30 years ago. The preparation of a prospective athlete for college is a sophisticated business. PSAs are no longer just developed and mentored by their own high school coach. There is a cadre of advisers hanging around every athlete who harbors a college dream. Through training programs, camps and networking, an expensive ecosystem of organized support is being established for those who have the greatest chance of moving on to the next level. Those who are making those investments expect a return.
Schools have caught on. The emergence of the "football village" supporting the PSA has had an impact on the demand-side of the equation. Flush with cash from media rights and spurred on by coaches who know that they have limited shelf lives, major college programs are investing themselves. Many are now paying full-time premium salaries to professional scouts whose job it is to create and track a pipeline of incoming talent. They are partnering with scouting services, training businesses and athletic apparel companies to gain an edge over other schools. They are pushing the envelopes of technology and business practices to build relationships and sell their programs.
It's so out of control that junior high kids are now getting football offers. We all thought it was nuts when Steve Sarkisian, then with UW, got a commitment from eighth-grade phenom Tate Martell. Eighth grade? The strategy is catching on. Alabama has done it. In fact, so has LSU. These coaches aren't out of their minds. To them, it isn't about what the player has done, it is about what he is likely to become after going through that program.
I bring these points up not to betray my inner cynic, but to remind us all that the battle for talent has reached new heights. Here in the Pac-12, that battle is playing out between very well organized recruiters at schools with much to offer in their own rights. While it is great that Chris Petersen wants to be able to take his time and "do it right", it would be pure hubris for us to proclaim that only our coach has the integrity required for a PSA and his family to form a trusting bond with a program. It's nonsense.
If Husky fans really want to see a winning product on the field—one that can compete with the USCs, Oregons and Stanfords of the world—Chris Petersen must adapt his recruiting style. This isn't to say that he has to sell out, but he must recognize that players like quarterback uber-prospect Skinny Eason are quite literally being bred to play at the next level, and that there is a marketing machine behind him making sure that every college out there knows it. If the Huskies are to get in on players of that caliber—even if all they have is unproven upside—then their approach to recruiting must evolve.
I'm not saying anything new. Chris Petersen already knows that he needs more talent. He admitted as much on his radio interview with Brock and Salk. Steve Sarkisian left behind several classes ranked in the top 30 and higher, and Petersen still laments (and appropriately so) the lack of depth he inherited. Competing in the Pac is a talent-first proposition.
The romantics among us want to argue that we can let the USCs, Oregons and Stanfords land all of the elite talent—guys who are raised in modern-day football "villages." They can have their Royce Freemans, their Adoree' Jacksons, their Josh Garnetts, their Foster Sarrells and their Jacob Easons. As long as we get our OKGs and time to develop them, we'll be fine. If you are among that crowd and you are happy taking five- or six-win conference seasons as a price to pay, I'm right there with you.
However, if you want a Don James-style team that is capable of taking a Pac-12 title once every three or four years, then there is simply no choice. Chris Petersen must continue to evolve. How, you may ask? I don't have that answer. But I know that innovative thinking is how it will get done. And, when it comes to that, UW has the right guy for the job.