Hokie Auld Lang Sine
The talent chase; it’s all about the talent chase. I was watching the 2007 ACC Championship game, where the Hokies of that season had nearly broken the pattern to get close to the national championship hunt, again. That team was truly special, and if it wasn’t for two injured quarterbacks in the pouring rain of a Thursday night Lane stadium game, and the ‘Matty Ice’ comeback, the Hokies were riding high in the polls and stood a chance for a shot at the crystal football (the trophy at the time). We knew the outcome of the Championship game. Tech pulled off a nice feat of revenge with their own comeback and pull away. That was known, and I watched the game on TV at the time. Now, in retrospect I also noted something deeply interesting about that 2007 squad: They were nearly all seniors in major positions. Here is a list of the players that would go on to Hokie fame, and often NFL greatness:
Tyrod Taylor (Still playing expected to start for the Chargers)
Sean Glennon (never made it as a pro, but 2007 capped his best effort and the ACC Championship crowned it – his 2008 effort wasn’t as good but we did win the ACC and the Orange Bowl, too.)
Eddie Royal (Long NFL career, just retired recently)
Sergio Render (Hokie Great)
Duane Brown (One of the best Left OT’s in pro football for years – still playing)
Ed Wang (Hokie Great)
Josh Morgan (long NFL career as a wide receiver)
Greg Boone (Hokie Great – first utility H-Back and Wild Turkey QB)
Defense: (This is where the squad shined)
Kam Chancellor (Legion of Boom)
Brandon Flowers (Long career with the Chiefs, mostly)
Vince Hall (1st half – Hokies’ greatest linebacker combo)
Xavier Adibi (2nd half – Hokies greatest linebacker combo)
Macho Harris (Hokie Great played some pro ball but never stuck)
Cody Grimm (Played for Tampa until injuries forced retirement – was a Hokie Assistant on his way to coaching elsewhere.)
The list is longer but the team was special, and attracted some first-rate attention. The reality is, though that these names came from a recruiting pool that began to dry up soon after the 2008 season. #5 Tech lost the critical Orange Bowl to #8 Kansas. That put a big damper on an 11-2 season when the only two losses came from #2 ranked LSU, early in the season, and that rain-soaked slug out in Lane to #2 ranked BC. It’s really unfortunate, but those top end losses still plague the Hokies. We did win the Orange Bowl after winning the ACC title in 2008, but the truth is that the entire conference was a mess and the Hokies sort of stumbled in through the back door to drop Boston College, again, after losing to them in the regular season.
It’s All About a Steady Stream of Talent
From that time on, Tech has bubbled up at a lower and lower level, with less attractive recruiting response, and results. Imagine being Purdue or Missouri… how about our old nemesis Boston College – their bright days of the aughts have been left far behind them. NC State struggles. No one big wanted to play for Georgia Tech – and now that Paul Johnson’s goofy hard to defend option is gone with him, the Jackets don’t manage many premium recruits.
The common denominator of all of the above is recruiting talent. Johnson’s triple option was designed to compensate for the lack of talent and size in the offensive line. There are only a few schools that still run that offense since Johnson’s retirement; Army and Navy. Interestingly enough both academies are related to Paul Johnson, directly since he coached at Navy and Army’s head coach was a Navy assistant.
But interesting notes aside, the reality is that high powered pro-style and read-option offenses require some serious talent to pull off. The R-O is particularly talent dependent because so much of the play style is dynamic and dependent on a dual-threat quarterback. When a coaching staff picks an offensive style or “system” there is the relentless need to fill those positions with the best available players. The second impulse is that from year to year that quality level of player must be replaced, regularly.
The replacement reality is why the 2007 Hokies were mentioned. Those teams were some of the best that Tech has ever fielded, across the depth chart. The fact is that during the 2007-2012 recruiting cycles Tech routinely failed to net enough high-quality players to fill out complete depth charts. One need only look back at the last 4 years of roster reviews to see the problem writ large. It’s not about getting one or two four-star recruits. It’s about getting them, plus promising three-star backups that can be built into four-star talent. It also means having a rolling replacement of four-star talent at critical positions like quarterback, wide receiver, and running back. Well, we just aren’t hitting enough of those recruiting taters to make a huge dent in the skill talent requirement.
The Realities of ‘Average’
The coaching staff has been chugging hard, but there are some serious changes to the way recruits and players respond to various programs. There are recruiting services, camps, seven-on-seven leagues, coaching pipelines, and a zillion other things that young and talented recruits have at their disposal. They are free agents and the best have large numbers of offers from which to choose. These days, players expect certain kinds of treatment that, even a decade ago, would never be tolerated by top rated programs. The old “hey, if you want to play, play for me… because you’ll ride the pine there” line is looked at as just a line, now. It’s all about the NFL and the promise of a big payoff in the near future. If you are a program like the Universities of Delaware and Buffalo, or Marshall, ECU, Coastal Carolina… Arkansas State, etc. You cannot compete with the likes of a B1G, SEC, or PAC12 program for pro exposure. Even within those conferences there are plenty of schools that remain in the twilight and will probably never see a conference championship on the gridiron. Maryland went from perennial anchor of the ACC Atlantic to Perennial Anchor of the B1G. Rutgers lurks down there with them as well.
In the ACC, every once in a while, Wake and Duke have a few seasons of praiseworthy performances, but for the most part they are basement dwellers. Even if the Coastal Division has dropped back in producing a Conference Champion, at least the teams have some level of parity that there is serious competition for the Coastal crown. Right now, the Atlantic is a straight write off and other than the money flow coming in from the television broadcasts, I’d bet that most teams would like to see Clemson depart for other waters. The Tigers have managed to suck the oxygen out of the ACC talent pool. The big stars who want to play ACC football and want to go pro, want to go to Clemson.
More Money More Woes
Let’s add the new pressure to the old stack of laments. There is going to be a new pressure on players coming into the college ranks; money for image and promotion. Lots of folks will think that this is just a no-brainer, and the California state legislature enacted a law that actually nearly requires it. And “IT” is a monster. There are huge numbers of questions that need to be answered in this mess, and the legalities are just beginning to dawn on people. Questions like who represents the player? They can’t have agents, now. Does that change? What percentage of the player’s compensation is part of the deal? The program gets some portion, too. Some players will have free flowing cash coming from everywhere… sneakers, jerseys, pictures, autographs, etc. What happens to game events where photographers take pictures of players during particular plays? Who gets compensated and how? Who owes and what? What happens at fan Appreciation Day (we aren’t the only program to have the event) where the kids sign posters, footballs, helmets and mini-helmets… and pose for pictures? Do the fans have to suddenly cough up big bucks to attend? How long do the rights last? There are lots of folks still sporting Super 5 tee-shirts (Tyrod) and #4 Wilson home jerseys. They won’t get cuts but new players will, but for how long? How much? There is already an NCAA license fee tacked on, do the players get a percentage of that or does the fee go up?
There are sticky legal questions that are not being publicly aired for discussion in the fanbase. The NCAA meets in secret and mumbles like they are going to do this but there have been no substantive suggestions laid on the table for anyone to digest or debate. The resulting mess is likely to look like more diktat from the powers that don’t want to share the wealth in the NCAA FBS programs. We’ll be keeping track of this issue because it’s actually functionally huge and could lead to serious repercussions in the next decade or two.
Again, if this remains on track, the better money is going to be the bigger attractant for the better players. Joe SuperQB is going to want to play for a team that makes him a prominent product to market. A quarterback from Alabama or LSU is more likely to draw big image money than a star QB from South Dakota State. Solving that is not going to be easy.
The next few essays will be of unpredictable length. Each one will contain a proposed solution to a particular problem in the recruiting game. There may even be a couple of them if they are short. Each essay will have a poll, and you will be encouraged to comment. This is important. College football is hugely popular and now makes more money that it probably should. As fans we have an opportunity to be constructive. I was reminded by a mentor that if you don’t offer viable solutions to a problem; all you have is a complaint.