Penn State’s Problems: Recruiting or Development?

Nothing sets off a college football fan like an argument about the value of recruiting stars. An admittedly arbitrary standard that all major high school recruits are measured on but a standard that has never the less fixated thousands and thousands of college football junkies. A recruit can watch expectations rise as his career leads him to a higher star rating. Or he can watch them fall as a difficult season brings him down to 2 or 3 stars. Predetermined “saviors” can see their heroes welcome disappear if a 5 star rating doesn’t lead to a National Title, and unknown names can become the most popular jersey on campus. That isn’t to suggest that the star system is unimportant, but rather it is an imperfect system with plenty of outliers.

Ultimately the value of recruiting stars is two-fold. While a recruit’s given potential is (for the most part) accurately depicted by a star rating, it doesn’t account for execution or coaching. In the end, stars are only a part of the puzzle when it comes to how a recruit will preform at the next level. Nothing can truly predict with 100% accuracy the future and success of any given recruit. It can only give coaches and players the benefit of organizing the talent pool.

But what about Penn State? Joe Paterno, in his 756th year of coaching has gotten a bad rap when it comes to recruiting. No in-house visits, less certainty regarding his health, and questions about his future have all played a role in the past decade. There is no doubt Penn State has suffered some from these issues. With no a true salesman at the helm of the program, Penn State is limited to marketing Penn State football as it’s own entity, one that Joe Paterno is part of. It is a limiting factor, but not one that has prevented Penn State from fielding competitive ranking recruiting classes. The question remains however how do stars play into all of this, and should Penn State fans be more worried about something else?

The chart above represents the total number of players since 2002 that have gone to Penn State, OSU, or Iowa and their star rankings at enrollment. As most would expect, a highly successful program such as Ohio State has benefited from it’s on field successes having picked up 25, 5 star recruits to Penn States 7. In some regards these numbers are skewed, being that the Dark Years of Penn State football do not represent the “average” football season for the program. There is nothing to suggest that Ohio State has always out-recruited Penn State, rather that Penn State is still working itself back into relevant platform on the recruiting stage after a few losing seasons.

Iowa however provides us with an interesting perspective of one of the points mentioned earlier. Coaching and Development. Picking up almost 200, 2 and 3 star recruits since 2002 Iowa has still been fielding a very strong talented team for the better part of a decade. Certainly Iowa had a few years of uninspiring play, but the Hawkeyes for the most part have continued to bring in the same talent level and have continually coached it up. While this may speak more to Penn State’s staff than Iowa’s, it is interesting to note how Penn State has struggled to defeat Iowa, while still theoretically maintaining a recruiting edge.

                      

This trend continues in the chart above. ASPN, or Aggregate Star Power Number, represents the total number of stars on a team as if all four classes, freshman through senior, were still represented by their rating on a 5 star scale. While this doesn’t account for a 4 star transfer or a 5 star injury, the deviations that would occur by subtracting these players would not change the general pattern as shown above.

The graph suggests that Iowa fields a team that in theory is worse than Penn State or Ohio State, but manages to continually put together talented teams. Penn State on the other hand is an obvious click down from Ohio State. While Penn State might beat OSU in any given year, the generally trajectory of the two programs are not similar. This is not a shocking disovery just an anticipated result.

Also interestingly but not displayed, is the fact that Penn State’s highest ASPN team had a comparably worse record (9-4) but also had the 3rd lowest average deficit in loss (9 points) in the past 11 years suggesting that while the talent was on the field it couldn’t quite get it together. Certainly numbers can only speak to so much. A poorly called penalty or a wild play can swing a game in a way numbers cannot represent, but as a whole Penn State has played better with less, and has struggled to win with more.

  • Three seasons of 9-4 or worse: 260.3 ASPN
  • Three seasons of 11-2 or better: 245 ASPN

What these trends lead us to question is not who is coming to Penn State, but what is being once they are here. Iowa has provided a solid blue-print as of late for putting together Top 10 teams without Top 10 recruiting classes. Ohio State has shown the obvious correlation between skill and performance, and Penn State has shown no pattern whatsoever between talent on the team, and results. Certainly six years of ASPN numbers are not enough to calculate long term patterns nor are they the only factor in how a season plays out. They are however enough points of data to being to draw a picture, one that suggests that stars indicate potential, but that stars do not guarantee success.

*There was no way to fit this into the article so consider this an afterward: The point of this article is not to bring down Penn State’s coaching staff. Plenty of unknown, unranked players have come to Penn State and have left as a household name. That is to the credit of the staff in Happy Valley. The point of this article was mainly to show three programs with three different recruiting patterns and what the “Star talent” led to in three different situations*

Topics: Joe Paterno, Penn State Football, Recruiting Stars

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  • Kyle

    If anything, I think this serves as validation for stargazers. It’s understandably easy for a Penn Stater to overrate Iowa’s program, but take the wide view from 2005-2010:

    OSU: 66-11, 43-5 B1G, 6 titles
    PSU: 58-19, 33-15 B1G, 2 titles
    Iowa: 47-29, 26-22 B1G, 0 titles

    The gap between PSU and Iowa is almost identical to the gap between OSU and PSU – just as the recruiting data seems to indicate. Iowa’s probably getting too much credit for coaching players up, just like PSU’s probably getting too much blame for coaching them down. Each of the three programs is more or less what their incoming product says they should be.

  • http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/ mdahmus

    Not surprising at all. Iowa pretty clearly outcoaches us every time we play them; and Ohio State was at least as well-coached with more talent most of the times we played them under Tressel.

    I’d like to see a couple more teams though – although I understand it’d be a lot of work – because it’d be too easy for the “I blindly trust the staff” people to handwave this away by saying “well, of course OHIO STATE outrecruited us”.