For decades, the Great Plains represented fertile recruiting ground for Tom Osborne's football program. Restoring that lost tradition won't be easy.
Opinion column by Dirk Chatelain / World-Herald staff writer
he letters of intent arrived from Larchwood, Iowa, and Webb City, Mo., from Battle Creek and Tecumseh, from Omaha and Lincoln.
Signing day 1997 was Tom Osborne’s last as Nebraska’s head coach. That afternoon — Feb. 6 — we didn’t know Osborne’s retirement plans. Only that he’d compiled another class relatively unheralded by the experts.
"We’re not necessarily recruiting in densely populated areas," Osborne said then. "A guy in Gregory, S.D., is not going to have as many people recruiting him as somebody out of Fort Lauderdale or Houston."
Over the years, Osborne had landed his share of recruits from Fort Lauderdale and Houston. But he focused much closer to home. The 500-mile radius, he called it.
The theory went like this: The farther you go to recruit, the harder it is to sign a top prospect — and to keep him happy. If a prep All-American from Louisiana rates Nebraska equal to Texas A&M, he’s probably going to A&M. But if that same kid is from Kansas City, the Huskers could get him.
The state of Nebraska didn’t have nearly enough talent to supply a powerhouse program. But if NU could expand its borders and create a level playing field in Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, St. Louis and hundreds of small towns in between, well, suddenly the Huskers had the population base to win big.
= 2013 = 1997
Osborne had mastered the blueprint. On signing day ’97, he signed a vintage NU class. Fifteen of the 22 players came from inside the circle:
Eric Crouch, Omaha. Matt Davison, Tecumseh. Dave Volk, Battle Creek. Kyle Vanden Bosch, Larchwood. Tracey Wistrom, Webb City. Erwin Swiney, Lincoln. Jon Rutherford, Midwest City, Okla. Mark Vedral, Gregory, S.D.
Sprinkle in a few outsiders — notably Correll Buckhalter, Bobby Newcombe and Dominic Raiola — and Osborne felt good enough to call the ’97 class "solid."
Sixteen years later, the blueprint has dramatically changed.
Osborne, from 1984 to 1997, signed 56 percent of his players from the 500-mile radius. Under Bo Pelini, that number is 31 percent. The four lowest percentages on record came in the past five recruiting classes.
The coaching staff is finding fewer and fewer players close to home, a fact that complicates Nebraska’s pursuit of a Big Ten championship.
What’s going on? Is the talent drying up? Is Bo bucking tradition? The answers aren’t simple. Before making conclusions, consider a little more background.
Nebraska recruiting over the past decade has focused outside the 500-mile radius. Under Tom Osborne and Frank Solich, NU signed about 55 percent of its prospects from the 500-mile radius. Since 2004, it's only 36 percent. In-state numbers have taken the biggest hit.
Historically, few schools cover as much ground on the recruiting trail as Nebraska. Memorial Stadium has always been a melting pot of geographic diversity. But the Great Plains served as the foundation. There’s a reason beyond convenience.
From 1989 to 2009, NU signed nearly an equal number of scholarship recruits from inside and outside the circle — 232 inside, 235 outside.
Of those inside 500 miles, 168 earned at least two letters — that’s 72 percent of recruits. Thirty-one players earned first-team all-conference honors. Eight were All-Americans.
Of those outside 500 miles, 135 earned at least two letters — 57 percent. Twenty-seven were first-team all-conference. Fourteen were All-Americans.
The chances of finding a star were slightly higher outside the 500-mile radius. But prospects closer to home were far more likely to make a contribution.
The data isn’t perfect. NU had far more standouts in Osborne’s day. And letters and honors don’t necessarily reflect a player’s impact. But the information reinforces why every coaching staff since Osborne’s has emphasized local recruits.
In 2006, Steve Pederson, Bill Callahan and new recruiting coordinator Shawn Watson got together and embraced the Big Red circle. Watson called it "the state of Nebraska football."
"We think it’s a great idea," Watson said. "It represents a little bit of a new direction for us."
Said Pederson: "I’ve always thought those states and areas within 500 miles of Lincoln should be treated and recruited like they’re in-state."
Like most plans in the Callahan/Pederson era, it didn’t pan out. Only nine of 28 signees in the ’07 class were from the radius — three were jucos.
The ’08 class was off to a great start — Blaine Gabbert, Dan Hoch, Riley Reiff and Trevor Robinson were among those committed within 500 miles — but all decommitted before signing day.
Pelini, like his predecessor, has stated his desire to sign more Midwestern kids.
"In the best-case scenario, we’d get 90 percent of our players from in-state and within 500 miles of this campus," Pelini said on signing day 2012.
One year later, NU signed just six of 26 players from the 500-mile radius — 23 percent. That’s the second-lowest mark on record.
The demise of the Big Red circle has multiple potential causes, some of which are based in fact, some of which are speculation. According to research and interviews, here are five factors worth chewing on:
A supply slump
The number of Midwestern prospects signing BCS-level scholarships has dropped over the past decade. From 2002 to 2007, about 200 players per year within the 500-mile radius signed with BCS schools. Since 2008, the average is approximately 150.
Look at the state of Oklahoma. Five years ago, it was churning out 20 to 30 BCS-level prospects per year. Last year, according to Rivals.com, it produced just 16. This year, only 10.
Other Plains states are experiencing similar slumps. Minnesota. Kansas. Colorado. From 2005 to 2010, Colorado produced an average of 16 BCS signees per year. The past three recruiting cycles, the average was nine.
In Nebraska, the story is the same. The state has produced just three BCS signees the past two years — and one of those, Christian Lacouture, moved to Lincoln Southwest for only his senior season.
Those are the lowest in-state totals during the scholarship limit era.
Meanwhile, the Sun Belt booms. Population in southern states grew 14 percent from 2000 to 2010, compared with just 4 percent in the Midwest. Per capita, they produce more than twice as many BCS recruits.
Fueled by SEC dominance, there’s a growing perception that southern football is superior. College coaches are flooding the region.
Look at Georgia. From 2004 to 2008, it produced an average of 90 BCS recruits per year. Pretty incredible for a state of 9 million. But that was nothing. The past five years, the average is more than 115.
That’s 25 fewer scholarships available to kids from the Midwest and other areas.
Track on grass
The downturn in Plains talent parallels a shift in offensive philosophy at the college level.
The spread has put a premium on skill. Footwork. Moving in open spaces. Twenty years ago, a linebacker from South Dakota entered college relatively on par with his southern counterparts.
That was before 7-on-7 became more popular in Texas than most prep sports. Before coaches split wide receivers across the field and turned a power game into a speed game.
Football now is predominantly a warm-weather sport. And kids in Southern football factories are running college offenses and defenses.
"I go down and recruit Houston," said NU recruiting coordinator Ross Els. "I go there in January and they have a couple hundred kids at 11 o’clock in the morning having an athletic period. They’re out there practicing or conditioning.
"Then I come back at 3:30 and they’re really having their practice. They’ve got 200 guys that are basically working out twice a day."
And that’s before official spring practices start.
Els says there’s still an attraction to a raw, cold-weather prospect who plays football only three or four months of the year, especially from a small high school. His growth potential is higher.
That may be true, but Nebraska doesn’t have the depth it did in the championship era. Even if it could develop talent as effectively as Osborne’s staff, it doesn’t have the luxury of waiting three years for a kid to play.
Abandoning Osborne’s option offense had its merits. But there’s no doubt NU relinquished a recruiting advantage. A generation ago, Nebraska could sign a lineman from the down the road, beef him up and let him bulldoze 70 snaps a game.
Now the same lineman needs to protect the pocket as effectively as he pulls on a counter sweep. Receivers need to catch as well as they block.
Polished skills are harder to find in the north.
Not walking the talk
Nebraska coaches say they’re committed to winning the 500-mile radius, but the results suggest otherwise.
From 2009 to 2013, the circle produced 99 recruits who made the Rivals Top 250. That’s 20 per year. Nebraska signed only five of those 99: in-state products Josh Banderas and Andrew Rodriguez; Colorado native Paul Thurston; Bubba Starling from Kansas; and Ryan Klachko from Illinois.
Who landed the other 94? Fourteen went to Oklahoma, including nine from the Sooner state. Iowa got eight, including three from its home state. Missouri grabbed seven, all from its home state. Those battles are hard to win — more on that in a moment.
But what’s discouraging is how often outsiders dropped into the 500-mile radius and took an elite prospect.
|Each year, Rivals.com names the top 250 recruits in the country. Under Bo Pelini, how many players on that list were from within Lincoln's 500-mile radius and how many did Nebraska sign?|
|NU SIGNED||NU SIGNED||NU SIGNED||NU SIGNED||NU SIGNED||NU SIGNED|
|(Baker Steinkuhler)||(Andrew Rodriguez)||(Bubba Starling and|
|(Paul Thurston)||(Josh Banderas)|
Colorado’s top two players in 2013 went to Michigan and Vanderbilt. A year earlier, the Wolverines grabbed the best player in Kansas City, defensive tackle Ondre Pipkins. In ’11, Oregon took the best player in Iowa, defensive end Christian French. Both are positions of need at NU.
In ’10, Minnesota’s best player — five-star offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson — went to Miami. In ’09, Wichita running back Bryce Brown, the No. 1 player in the country, signed with Tennessee.
Osborne’s and Frank Solich’s staffs knew the high schools within the radius better than anyone. Most of those assistants had spent more than a decade working for Nebraska. They knew every major prep coach from Cheyenne to Chicago.
Bo’s staff doesn’t have that experience here. So he’s less likely to get a recommendation from a prep coach. He’s also less likely to score a blue-chip recruit because of a longstanding relationship.
The ‘N’ has lost its allure
Consider the environment 20 years ago. Nebraska coaches could walk into any high school within 500 miles and puff out their chests. Nobody in the region came close to matching their success.
Now look at the landscape. Oklahoma, after slumping through Osborne’s last decade, is perennially strong. Wisconsin has won three straight Big Ten championships. Iowa, Kansas State, Kansas and Oklahoma State all have played in BCS games more recently than Nebraska. Missouri has spent more time in the Top 10.
A 16-year-old recruit in Chicago or Denver has never witnessed Nebraska win a championship. And without Osborne, the Husker staff doesn’t have the same celebrity status.
That makes a huge difference when you’re trying to steal the top prospect from a bordering state.
The recruiting world is smaller
Thanks to the Internet, a program with a small population base has more options. Nebraska can find kids all over the country with a click of a mouse.
Two decades ago, acquiring a VHS tape alone was tough, let alone accurately evaluating a kid’s character. Coaches didn’t feel as comfortable recruiting outside their region.
"The recruiting services weren’t big," Els said. "You really didn’t know what was out there. Now all you have to do is get on the computer and you can know as much about a kid 1,000 miles away as you do a kid 500 miles away."
Meanwhile, once you find a diamond in the rough in your region, it’s harder to keep other schools away. They have the same video of the quarterback in Goodland, Kan., that you do.
"A kid can’t be hidden geographically anymore," Els said.
That’s five factors, each potentially contributing to Nebraska’s regional slump.
In 1997, NU signed 22 players. The median distance between their hometowns and Memorial Stadium was 249 miles. In 2013, Nebraska signed 26. The median was 812 miles.
It doesn’t necessarily mean the Huskers are picking the wrong guys. It doesn’t mean they won’t develop their talent.
But the road to a championship feels a little bit longer.
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