Column by Ken Cohen
The scene was some meeting room inside the University of Mississippi's athletic facility. The entire football coaching staff was assembled as well as other athletic department personnel. They were watching ESPN to see where highly-touted high school recruit Laremy Tunsil would be playing his college ball next year.
It was national signing day and Ole Miss was in the hunt for Tunsil. When the offensive tackle from Lake City, Florida said he would become a Rebel in 2013, that meeting room in Hattiesburg erupted in celebration. Along with the commitments from other top recruits, Ole Miss seemingly had improved their football team by adding talented players.
But did it warrant all-out revelry? You would have thought Ole Miss won the national championship by their exuberant reaction. Nothing in sports is more predictable than its unpredictability, especially when 17 and 18-year olds are concerned.
ESPN has built, or should I say hyped, an entire business around colleges signing high school recruits in virtually every sport, but mainly football and basketball. They have devised their own rating system to assess all top high school athletes so, like everything else they do, it can be marketed statistically. They have ranked Mississippi's 2013 class as No. 5 in the nation which probably explains the joy in Hattiesburg.
In addition to turning 17 and 18-year old kids into larger-than-life celebrities, ESPN is also inflating the hopes of entire cities and communities. Sadly, the reality is that ESPN's sacred statistics and ratings simply do not add up here. Since ESPN started its rating of high school players seven years ago, only twice has a college team ranked as having the number one recruiting class gone on to win the national championship in subsequent years: Florida and LSU.
It's generally agreed that a recruiting class does not really make an impact until its second year on campus. Using that time equation, the ESPN recruiting ratings are not very good predictors of future outcomes. Check out some of these numbers:
• In 2007, ESPN tabbed USC as the top recruiting class in the nation. Two years later, the Trojans finished the season ranked 20th in the country. That same year, 2007, South Carolina and Tennessee were rated No. 4 and 5 as far as top recruiting classes. In 2009, both teams ended the season unranked.
• In 2008, ESPN rated Alabama, Florida and Georgia as the third, fourth and fifth best recruiting classes. In 2010, Alabama finished the season ranked 10th while Florida and Georgia were unranked.
• In 2010, TCU, Oregon and Stanford finished the season ranked No. 2, 3 and 4 respectively. None of those teams ranked in the top 15 in any previous year of ESPN's recruiting poll.
• The same could be said for the 2012 season just completed. Oregon, Notre Dame and Texas A&M ended the season ranked No. 2, 4 and 5. Again, none of these teams cracked the top 10 in ESPN's recruiting poll in either of the previous two years.
• Since 2009, Texas has been ranked in the top five of ESPN's recruiting standings every year, yet the Longhorns have not been ranked higher than 19th in any season-ending poll in that time.
You get the point? ESPN's recruit-ranking business is just that a business. It is designed to attract advertisers, sponsors and fans to the promise of college athletics. And while successful as a multi-million dollar enterprise, it's glaringly deficient in reliability. That's what distorted statistics based on subjectivity and inferior competition will produce. Does anyone recall how Tom Brady, Colin Kaerpernick, Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers rated coming out of high school and even college for that matter? Enough said.
Ken Cohen brings 30 years of publishing experience, many covering sports and working for sports companies, His column, “Further Review” will appear every Friday.