Monday, January 17, 2011

Much Ado About Recruiting: Taking a Hard Look at Vanderbilt's Admissions Standards

When James Franklin unveiled his offensive coaching staff last Thursday, it became clear that all of his talk about improving the quality of players that Vanderbilt recruits should not be chalked up to mere lip service.  Himself a Rivals Top 25 recruiter, CJF brings in Chris Beatty, also a Rivals Top 25er, as his recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach.  CJF also hired (and wants to make "very clear" that he did not "retain") Herb Hand, in part because, as he put it, "it was very obvious to me when I was calling recruits that Herb returning to this program was very important to them."

Propounding on Prospects

The discussion about recruiting sparked a few strands of debate in the comments section of Thursday's post.  One camp questions the wisdom of placing too much emphasis on recruiting at a school where what's more important to winning is Xs and Os, because (so the argument goes) you'll never be able to out-recruit your SEC foes.  Another camp questions whether it makes sense to begin focusing our recruiting efforts on places such as Maryland and Kansas, where the new coaches have most of their ties but which are outside of the traditional SEC battlegrounds.  There is undoubtedly some merit to the viewpoint that Vandy should focus its recruitment efforts closer to home, as studies suggest that proximity to one's hometown is the most important factor in BCS-level recruits' choice of college, and that the winningest programs in recent years have tended to recruit more than half of their rosters from within 200 miles of campus.  Economists have found that factors such as US News ranking, final poll ranking from the previous season, depth chart, number of national titles, and number of NFL players from the school matter little, if at all, to prospective athletes.

I think these are all interesting and important discussions to be had, and I suspect they will continue throughout the offseason, but today I'd like to focus on a particularly thorny issue: admissions standards.  It's an obvious fact that the less stringent a school's admissions policy, the wider the pool of talent from which a coaching staff can draw.  (By the sheer fact of roster sizes, this makes a much bigger difference in football than in basketball.)  All else being equal, when it's easier to get kids in the door, you're more likely to sign a better crop of players.

Case In Point

To take the most glaring example of what this can do for a school, let's look at Stanford.  Yes, the Cardinal finished this season at #4 in large part because Jim Harbaugh is an absolute stud, but you might be interested to know that in order to rescue a program that was a disaster only a few short years ago, Stanford has reportedly "created the most favorable admissions environment in eons."  This would help to explain why Stanford was able to bring in the nation's no. 20 recruiting class in 2009, the no. 26 class in 2010, and -- even with Harbaugh's departure -- is on pace for the no. 14 class of 2011 (all according to Rivals; Scout ranks them even higher (15, 24, 8) in all three years).

Naga, Naga, Naganna Happen

Intrigued by the thought of what Vandy could do if the powers that be exercised a bit more generosity in their gatekeeping?  If so, sorry to burst your bubble my friend: ain't gonna happen, at least not according to a December article by Bryan Mullen of the Tennessean.  In fact, to hear Mullen tell it, lowering standards is about the only thing the administration will not agree to in terms of supporting Franklin:
"We don't need to make any academic concessions to be successful," said David Williams, Vanderbilt's vice chancellor of university affairs and athletics.

What Vanderbilt has promised Franklin is a new -- and perhaps more costly -- approach to on-the-road recruiting. Vanderbilt Chancellor Nick Zeppos said if Franklin needs to go to the moon to land a big recruit, then Vanderbilt will provide the rocket.

"Are we going to recruit the same athletes as some other institutions? Maybe not," Franklin said. "But we can go nationally and we can recruit the top eight to 12 players from every state."

I'm not sure how CJF plans to recruit the top 8 to 12 players from every state without at least some commitment to easing admissions standards (unless, that is, the easing already took place prior to Franklin's arrival, in which case it (a) happened in stealth mode, (b) hasn't yet made much of a difference in our recruiting, and (c) renders disingenuous DW's and NZ's remarks to the contrary).  Franklin and Beatty have certainly had some success in the past, but they did it at Maryland and West Virginia, not exactly renowned bastions of academic rigor for student-athletes.  See, e.g., my comment here.

State of our Union

If Jimmy's going to hop on that "moon rocket" that Zeppos promised him, he might want to hustle.  Signing day is February 2nd, just two weeks away, and currently Vanderbilt has only 11 players committed, 6 to 8 of whom are three-stars depending on which evaluators you ask.  By contrast, Stanford has 8 or 9 four-star commits and 10 to 13 three-stars in its current class of 21.  Northwestern and Duke each have 12 three-stars.

I know, I know.  Ratings by recruiting services only tell you so much, and as a corollary you can only put so much stock in them.  But there's no disputing the way Stanford has been able to turn their program around, doing so at a time when the Pac-10 hasn't been the joke of a conference that it once might have been.

Whither Vander?

The preceding observations are offered as context for a question that I think all fans and alumni should ask themselves from time to time: What is the right balance for a school like Vanderbilt between maintaining academic standards and committing to success on the field? 

To put the matter in more stark (and poll-friendly) relief, what do you think Vanderbilt should do?


Bobby O'Shea said...

I think this is a great piece, Seamus. With that said, I think something needs to be made clear: scholarship athletes (especially athletes competing in the "major" sports, i.e., football, basketball, and baseball) are not evaluated the same way when being considered for admission as "regular" students are. Assuming a prospective student athlete meets the minimum threshold set in terms of GPA and SAT/ACT score (a number which I'm sure exists even if university officials would deny its existence), the question is whether the student would be able to do the work. Put another way: if there a reasonable expectation this student will be able to graduate from Vanderbilt in 4 or 5 years? If the answer is "yes," that student is accepted; if the answer is "no," they're not. (For more on this, see the conversation I had with VC David Williams in August of 2007). Reading between the lines, when Vanderbilt says they won't lower their academic or admission standards, what they are really saying is they won't take students they don't think can grad

Seamus O'Toole said...

Your comment would indicate that they are actually saying more than that. They're saying (1) they won't lower the numerical threshold, and (2) regardless of the threshold, they won't admit anyone they think won't graduate. So maybe the question I'm posing has two parts: (1) whether the score-based threshold should be lowered, and (2) whether the nebulous standard for being "able to do the work" should be more flexible. If you're a "yes" to either, then you're in favor of relaxing standards.

Anonymous said...

i think you guys are both missing the bigger impediment. it's not so much a question of "getting them in," as it is a question of getting them interested in a school that takes hard work to "stay in."

MOST (and i say most because of course for every 99 future NFL players there is Stanford's Andrew Luck) highly recruited high school athletes have as their first goal to play professional sports. they literally see college as a chance to enhance their game en route the the nfl. no more, no less. so as much as we might think its the admissions committee that is standing in the way of 5 star recruits, it's probably just as likely, if not more likely that these 5 star recruits are self-selecting OUT of places like VU. If your number 1 goal is to spend your time getting ready for the next level athletically, you'd be much more wise to go to florida state, or miami, or some other party school where you can slack academically and focus on the football field. hell you may already know you plan to leave early. that's the problem, kids don't want to do the tough work. and as a business decision (its risky cuz of injury) many times it pays off and makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Leave the standards where they are. They already offer jocks who wouldn't sniff admission to VU as regular students in a million years anyway.

Why make bigger exceptions than the ones already being made? CJF can get better players than his hayseed predecessor got anyway with no trashing of academics needed.

The standards of american idol are what needs an upgrade. They still suck and never seem to not suck.

Anonymous said...

Just because CJF can get better talent than Bobby J or Robbie doesn't mean he will close the gap ENOUGH with the rest of the SEC to get us toward the top of the conference on a regular basis. Something more needs to be done. you can't just say that if he gets more talent that his predecessor that will be enough. BY HOW MUCH MORE will the talent exceed the previous staff's recruitment? Are we going to break into the top 30 recruiting classes in the nation? If we want to compete in the SEC we better. Or we better out-scheme em.

what i wanna know is if CJF's "out recruit em" strategy fails, will VCDW admit it was a bad hire and go get us an Xs and Os guy even if it costs him a pyramid of gold bars? By then we'll deserve it as VU Fans.

Anonymous said...

Lowering academic admission standards would hurt Vandy. A Vandy athlete has to be smart and a hard worker academically or they will flunk out of school. How does it help to get a great athlete admitted that is ineligible to play because of academics. It would be a waste. Why not actually spend the scholarship on a player that will be able to eligible to play? Vandy wasted a scholarship on Terrence Jeffers. Obviously a great talent who couldn't make the grade. Did you see his ESPN highlight catch in the CFL??? Didn't help us much. Also see James Williams. Vandy developed Williams only to see him help the Matadors. See If you want more proof of this, see

Anonymous said...

i can't stop thinking about basketball. we keep falling short this year and maybe we turn it up and maybe we don't. what's depressing is, no one that contributes on this team currently HAS to leave next year.

we could have this same team contribution wise (outside of duffy - you'll be missed my friend), plus the additions of johnson & parker. another year under everyone's belt and potentially contributions from henderson and siakam as they sat this year and only were able to practice. even if they couldn't i imagine johnson & parker play about like odom & fuller are this year. and potentially even moats.

if walker & taylor both stayed (and might even have to start grouping, gulp, ezeli in that mix) we could be the favorite next year in the SEC. i really hope ezeli doesn't leave, that'd be just awful.

if all this is the case, this team needs to show it's potential. taylor & ezeli need to up draft status and go deep in the tourney. and we need to send walker out on a high note. it's just frustrating to see 12-4 and know we could be 16-0. no one has flat out beat us yet which is good, but also not a fun stat.

Greg M said...

The one sure fire way to get more wins and possibly help recruiting is to schedule 4 non-conference cupcakes. We need to stsrt doing this RIGHT NO,ASAP!!

Greg M said...

meant to say:
"start doing this RIGHT NOW"

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that entrance requirements or "lowering" is an issue here.. Vandy graduation rates are always leading the sec and near the top in the country for football among D1 schools. My thought is that if Stanford, Northwestern, Wake, and others can compete on a regular basis; then there is no reason that we can't. Vandy will never be "Alabama" or "UGA" on Saturday's but that does not mean that we should not be able to compete on a consistent basis even in the SEC. The SEC East will be down again next year. I hope that cjf can steal a few wins early in the schedule and make it exciting down the stretch to get bowl eligible. There is much more talent here (and stability) than when Caldwell was hired. I agree that we can not really evaluate the coaching staff until 2-4 games into next season.