The Tale of Rich Rodriguez and the Miraculous 3-Stars

A popular meme over the past year plus, on the occasion that Michigan ropes in a seemingly underwhelming three-star recruit, is to point to Coach Rodriguez’s success at West Virginia with lower-ranked players. In Morgantown, Rodriguez fashioned a perrenial national-championship team out of an assortment of recruits that Michigan, largely, would have ignored. Lower-ranked recruits such as Pat White at Steve Slaton became elite, Heisman-level performers as the Moutaineers dominated the Big East and posted impressive victories in nationally televised stompings of Oklahoma and Georgia.

On the face of things, this seems like it makes sense. Scrolling through the six Rivals-ranked classes that Rodriguez brought to West Virginia, he managed only the 37th, 46th, 47th, 31st, 52nd, and 23rd ranked classes in the nation. In these classes, he pulled in a total of six 4-star recruits and two 5-star recruits – and four of those six players came in his final class – of those, Noel Devinewas the only to garner actual playing time. Of the remaining four, Broderic Jones never saw the football field,  both Jason Gwaltney and Brandon Barrett were kicked off of the team, and Raymond Williams committed involuntary manslaughter prior to arriving on campus. In other words, Rodriguez recruited a marginal number of top players, and virtually all of those he recruited either failed to produce or were too young to have the opportunity. Rodriguez’s elite WVU teams were, indeed, built on the shoulders of two and three star players.

However, this tells only part of the equation. Let’s look at how WVU recruited compared to their primary competition: fellow teams in the Big East:

2002: #2 class in the Big East (includes Miami, VT, and BC)

2003: #5

2004: #2

2005: #1

2006: #4

2007: #1

Looking at those results, it’s difficult to argue that West Virginia suffered any tangible talent deficit to it’s fellow Big East teams. The only team in the conference that existed during White and Slaton’s run of success which comparable recruiting results was Pitt. So, while WVU’s classes full of two andthree-star talent seems poor when put into the context of major college football, it was actually an above-average result when put into the context of their conference. One can cast aside the recruiting rankings on the strength of the aforementioned attrition among the elite recruits, but that poses another problem – what happened to the elite recruits of the only other school with comparable recruiting results?

Pitt landed 13 four or five-starred recruits in the time period, but only received a contribution from 3 – Tyler Palko was a mediocre starting QB, Larry Fitzgerald was amazing, and LeSean McCoy became an extremely good tailback. Unquestionably, this is more production than WVU netted from it’s better recruits (Noel Devine being the one success), but still far from compellingly different.

What’s the point of all this, you may ask? That, while it’s true that Rich Rodriguez succeeded with lower-tiered recruits, his teams were not particularly out-manned in the Big East. Rather, WVU was, after the departure of Miami, BC, and Virginia Tech, doubtlessly one of the two most talented teams in the Big East and possbily the most talented. Quick scans of the classes landed by contemporary rivals for the Big East crown such as Rutgers, Southern Florida, UConn, and Cincinatti reveals classes comprises often solely of two-star players. “Stars” such as Mike Teel, Ray Rice, Matt Grothe, George Selvie, and Donald Brown never warranted a third star.

Well, how does the Big East compare with the Big 10 in terms of talent? In the six years between 2002 (the first year Rivals ranked classes) and 2007 (Rodriguez’s last class at WVU), the Big East has been responsible for 6 top-25 recruiting classes – and four of those (two from Miami and two from BC) ended up vacating the conference. The Big Ten, in the same time span, had 20 top-25 classes – which Michigan and OSU making annual appearances, Penn State frequent appearance, and occasional visits from MSU, Purdue, Illinois, and Iowa. In short, the Big 10 has far, far, more talent.

So what does this mean for Michigan? Simply, it means that, if you believe in recruiting rankings in a macro sense (ie, that in general, a four or five star players is better than a two or three star player) there is no indication that Rodriguez can dominate the Big Ten with sub-par talent. Rodriguez’s success with three-star talent in the Big East is not a predictor of success in the Big 10 with three-star talent, because the two just are not comparable competitive environments. Even in the last two years, withthe “balance of power” shifting out of the Big 10, the conference has still posted 8 top-25 recruiting classes while the Big East has had a grand total of zero. There are numerous explanations for why this year’s class is off to a slower start in terms of prestige than previous classes (“3-9” comes to mind). It does not change the fact we cannot, realistically, expect Rodriguez to consistently churn out over-acheiving teams with pedestrian recruiting, as, no matter how we wish it weren’t true, he’s never actually done that.