Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Slow Rebirth of the Cardinals, Recruitniks be Damned

Ask any real football fan, especially one who has long suffered through futility or mediocrity from his or her team, and they will tell you that the long winding road to relevancy is a marathon and not a sprint. It isn't a quick-fix solution, at least not any solution with any longevity, and the future of the program may indeed look darkest before the dawn.

Such was the case with Ball State football in the early 00's. The program was mired in a coaching regime change, just several years removed from the nation's longest losing streak, with substandard facilities, little community support, and a general sense of student apathy. The Cardinals had eeked out a .500 record in 02, but most everyone will tell you that was a dead cat bounce from an outgoing coach whose players played their tails off for a last minute stay of execution, one that would never come.

Enter Brady Hoke, the BSU alum who had no misgivings about the state of the program, the issues at hand, and the sheer tonnage of work that it would take to get BSU even remotely relevant in only the MidAmerican Conference, as it seemed at the time that relevance on any sort of national stage was a pipe dream best left to other programs. Programs with history. Programs with deep pocketed alumni. Programs that had stadiums that were not dilapidated, small, and severely lacking any sort of recruiting draw at all.

That's the part of the story that most in the national media, the talking heads on Gameday, the print journalists who cover college ball will miss. They don't see the steady progression. And if you listen to the talking heads it's easy to overlook. It's easy to write off Ball State's 12-0 start last season, their Top 15 ranking, their new found success as a simple flash in the pan once-in-a-lifetime type season. A fluke. But there's much more to it than that, despite what people at the ESPNs, Rivals, and Scouts of the World would have you believe.

The most basic of corollaries in college football is that success in the recruiting game will yield wins on the field. There are of course issues with that in terms of depth, positional needs, and attrition to transfers, injuries, etc. but for the most part, show me a consistent winner on Signing Day, and I'll show you a winner come fall.

Take a look at BSU's recruiting rankings over the last half-dozen years or so...

The best they ever managed was #76 in the country in 2006. For many schools in the Big Six BCS conferences, a recruiting year of #76 would be grounds for dismissal for the head coach. Yet, in Muncie that's the pinnacle of success over nearly a decade.

Now take a look at Ball State's wins over the same half-dozen year period...

What you'll notice most of all is that Ball State began winning games out of their conference. Could be a result of a weakened schedule. Could be a result of parity across the board in college ball. Could be a lot of things. But ultimately, it set the tone for success throughout the season. Success that continued to grow year after year after year, each year better than the one before. That, and only that, is the definition of a successful program. Teams are successful unto themselves, independent of other years. Players are successful on a micro level, sometimes game to game. But for a program to be considered successful, truly successful, victories should pile onto one another until that program is a national player on a consistent basis.

The odd thing about the above graphs is that BSU's wins kept growing and growing, and yet, their recruiting numbers stayed wholly consistent, if not taking a step backwards. Why? Is it because Ball State recruits poor athletes and simply coaches them up? Getting more out of them than their conference brethren with similar athletes? Perhaps.

What is probably more likely is that recruiting services, like those at Scout and Rivals, have an overwhelmingly tough task of rating and evaluating a crop of high school seniors that is virtually impossible to do completely, thoroughly, and accurately. Player A is being recruited by the likes of Florida, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma, while Player B is being recruited by Ball State, Indiana, and Miami. You tell me who is more likely to receive some attention from the recruitniks across the country?

The above two charts should serve as a reminder to any and all who find themselves in a situation where their chosen team has fallen on some hard times of two things...

1.) Climbing back to relevancy and becoming a program that is successful takes time, patience, support, and the right fit of coaches, administrators, and student athletes.

2.) Recruiting and the subsequent rankings of classes is an exercise in futility at best and a total and complete crapshoot at best. Take them with a giant, megasized grain of salt.

For all the Ball State administration has had to endure over the last several months from this blog, from fan sites, from internet messageboards, etc. it is hard to deny that this is an administration that gave Coach Hoke and company the time needed to build a winner. They made improvements to a stadium and football complex that were needed. They gave the players a chance to succeed.

So now we find ourselves months away from the 09 football season. We find ourselves looking to the future with a guarded eye on the past and the great successes of 08 behind us, yet optimistic for the potential to continue. We find ourselves with more questions than answers on a whole host of topics, from QB, to O line, to coaching. But we also find ourselves in rare possession of a program, a team, a family, that has been rebuilt and reborn, through the hard work, sacrifice, and the efforts of many, paying no attention to what those outside the program thought or evaluated. It is the only path to success and one these Cardinals must continue to walk.

1 comment:

Papa Lou BSU said...

This post is outstanding, sir. Well done with the voluminous research.

My one quibble: 2002 was less of a dead-cat bounce and more of a wind-blown pop fly that lands on the warning track for a double. As I've documented elsewhere, our six wins that year were against the ass-end of the MAC, a lousy I-AA Indiana State team and a UConn team that was one year removed from I-AA and still two years away from joining the Big East. We were uncompetitive with every BCS non-conference opponent and decent MAC team we played.

Still, great piece you wrote here.