Stanfordâ€™s big recruiting class was years in the makingBy Mark Soltau February 6, 2012, 7:16 pm
Three years of hard work—in some cases more—culminated on Wednesday in what many are calling the best recruiting class in Stanford football history. The Cardinal landed 22 prospects and the group has been ranked among the Top 10 in the country by several national recruiting services.
It was no accident.
Lance Anderson addresses team members after the Cardinal defeats Colorado 48-7 at Stanford Stadium. Photo credit: Don Feria
Led by Lance Anderson, who doubles as outside linebackers coach, Stanford scoured the country for the brightest and most talented athletes they could find. This year’s class came from 14 states and netted 13 high school All-Americans.
“It’s very satisfying,” said David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. “The coaches did so much work. We built relationships with these kids over time. It wasn’t just in the last month. These kids were sold on Stanford University.”
For most signees, the recruiting process started in their sophomore or junior years in high school, when they were first identified by former Cardinal head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff. When Harbaugh left last January to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Shaw took over and didn’t miss a beat.
A former Stanford player who spent the previous four years working under Harbaugh as offensive coordinator, Shaw was well-versed in the intricacies of recruiting. He hit the ground running after his hiring on January 13 and helped the Cardinal secure a Top 20 class.
“Stanford people can identify Stanford people pretty quickly,” Shaw said. “I understand this place and I know guys I was in the locker room with and went to class with. I can honestly explain what we’re looking for to high school coaches, counselors, and sometimes, parents.”
In a word, excellence. Stanford is searching for over-achievers who make others around them better.
Coach David Shaw the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. Photo credit: Don Feria
“It becomes a complete educational process of letting them know what it’s going to take to get here,” said Shaw. “The AP courses and test scores they’re going to need and have them take and re-take. You’re not just trying to hit a score and say I’m good. You’re trying to get the highest score you can get, which means taking it multiple times. That shows Stanford University that you’re serious about trying to achieve.”
Although recruiting good football players to Stanford might seem like a no-brainer, in actuality, it is anything but. Due to stringent admissions requirements, which are not compromised for any prospective student-athlete, the pool of eligible applicants is small and the margin for error slim.
“If you go through all the transcripts, it’s thousands and thousands of kids that we’ve reviewed before we get to that point where we’ve identified the ones we feel best about, academically and athletically,” Anderson said. “It’s quite a process.”
Once a potential recruit is determined, usually in his sophomore year of high school, he is added to a master board in the football office and entered in a database. From there, Shaw and his staff of nine assistant coaches evaluate film, invite kids to attend one- and two-day Stanford football camps in June, which are open to anyone, and begin the arduous process of finding the right fits for the program.
“As these coaches, especially in December and January, are going around the country to high schools to see our senior recruits, sometimes they go to other schools where they’ve seen or heard about kids, and will evaluate sophomores and juniors,” said Mike Eubanks, Assistant Athletic Director/Director of Football Administration. “That’s the first time a significant number of kids will come onto our radar. That’s also academically the first time kids can make an impression on us.”
Half of last week’s signees attended Stanford football camps, including cornerback Alex Carter, wide receiver Conner Crane, offensive lineman Nick Davidson, offensive lineman Brandon Fanaika, safety Drew Madhu, inside linebacker Blake Martinez, defensive tackle Ikenna Nwafor, wide receiver Michael Rector, defensive end Aziz Shittu, offensive lineman Graham Schuler, and wide receiver Kodi Whitfield. However, of the hundreds of kids who participate, just a few wind up at Stanford.
“A lot of it is one way,” Eubanks said. “They sort of get to take our coaches for a test drive. They will feel the style of personality that each coach brings and whether it’s comfortable to them, but they can also find out very quickly how much this coach can make them better. That’s an opportunity for an already talented kid to make a positive impression.”
If Stanford requests a transcript, the number of potential applicants is reduced dramatically.
“We can’t do football evaluations on every one of those kids because that’s just an unmanageable amount of film,” said Eubanks. “Usually there is some other key—a coach who recruits that geographic region or a coach who coaches that position.
“About 300 to 400 players are evaluated by the entire coaching staff. Those are the guys that are interesting enough that defensive coaches watch film together or offensive coaches watch film together. The whole coaching staff will watch film together of maybe 200 players.”
During the Harbaugh era, he increased the offer pool and was aggressive reaching out to promising kids with scholarship offers because he was trying to rebuild the program. Some recruits will decline campus visits without a firm offer.
“What he learned is when you start with a small pool, the pool is only going to get smaller as time goes on,” said Eubanks, referring to offers from other schools and the strict academic requirements.
Given the team’s success the last two years with consecutive 11-win seasons and BCS appearances, Stanford is attracting more attention from marquee players.
“The No. 1 selling point is the academics and the kind of education you’re going to get,” Anderson said. “It is second to none. You couple that with everything else, the kind of football you’re going to play—Pac-12/BCS football—there is no other place where you get that combination.”
Once recruits visit campus and experience the weather, and meet the professors and other student-athletes, they are seldom disappointed. Most have been in the limelight and enjoy blending in with the student body at a place where everyone excels at something.
“When we get them around our players they start to see, okay, here’s a team full of guys like me, instead of being one of the few guys on the team that are like me,” said Shaw. “They interact with our faculty and see that they’re not going to be looked at differently than the regular students on campus. They’re going to have gone through the same hoops that everybody else on campus went through to get admitted.”
From September 1 through Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, coaches are permitted an evaluation period to attend high school games or gather academic information about prospects. Stanford coaches often fan out during away games to watch high school games.
Mike Eubanks, Assistant Athletic Director/Director of Football Administration. Photo credit: Kyle Terada
“It’s mission critical to recruiting for us,” said Eubanks. “The recruits may have no contact with you, but they see the coach and they see the Block S in their school or at their game and that means a lot to them. They’ll remember that Stanford went out of their way to come see them during the season.”
The player contact period for coaches is the first three weeks of December and three weeks in January. It is the only time a coach can meet a prospect at his high school and have face-to-face interaction. The latter is allowed once per week, although head coaches are restricted to one visit during this period.
Spring evaluations are permitted from April 15 to May 30. During this time, coaches cannot meet with players, but can talk to high school coaches, counselors, and teachers. Head coaches are prohibited from visiting schools because it has proven too disruptive and distracting.
“We re-draw the map every year after our coaching staff is settled,” Eubanks said. “Every coach has a different story in his background and may have established relationships with high school coaches. Recruiting is about relationships. You don’t want to start all over again and send a coach into a foreign environment. You’d like them to go somewhere where they know the lay of the land.”
Cardinal coaches cover a lot of territory. Rarely are there more than one or two qualified recruits in the same area.
“It’s so different for us because we can’t recruit by flying to an area and then drive around going school to school,” said Shaw. “We might go to two schools that day or either drive or fly to another. We only have time to see the guys that are important to us and that we have a chance to get. That’s trying and taxing for our coaches because they get a lot of frequent flyer miles.”
The week before the February 1 signing date, Coach Shaw visited recruits in Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Minnesota in a five-day span.
“That’s what it takes for us,” he said.
With success comes attrition. Second-year coach Brian Polian, who oversaw special teams and recruiting, left following the Fiesta Bowl to coach at Texas A&M.
“It’s the nature of what happens every year,” said Eubanks. “If you have a great staff, your coaches are going to be coveted. It doesn’t mean you want attrition, but it should be part of the business. You just have to cover the map.”
Just what is the Stanford admissions office looking for in a recruit?
For starters, a high school transcript, standardized SAT or ACT scores, five college essays, and letters of recommendation. The tougher the courses—Honors or AP classes—the better. However, extracurricular activities like sports, student government, and tutoring are also factors.
“Stanford essentially calculates its own GPA,” Eubanks said. “It is oftentimes lower, based on the classes you took.”
For that reason, there is no magic number for admittance.
“We don’t try to talk to kids about certain thresholds that they need to meet because we’ve seen kids on both sides that didn’t get in and kids that didn’t meet a certain number and did get in,” said Eubanks.
This much is certain: there were 37,000 freshman applications for next fall and approximately 2,000 will be accepted.
Anderson personally sits down with every top recruit to explain the application and admissions process.
“I love the challenge of recruiting and getting the chance to meet those kids,” he said. “It’s great being at a place like Stanford where this can be a life-changing opportunity for them.”
Not that there aren’t disappointments.
“It does become frustrating at times when a kid works hard and doesn’t get into school or he works hard and gets into school and decides to go elsewhere,” said Anderson. “Not everyone that we recruit is going to get into school because it’s tough here, no question. It’s very selective.
“You can’t get upset by it. When they deny someone, we understand they’ve got a reason. We’ve got to trust them. They want us to be successful. They love coming to football games and cheering us on.”
Eubanks said the biggest misconception about Stanford recruiting is that the athletic department has influence over the admissions office.
“What makes Stanford 'Stanford' is there is complete independence of the admissions office,” he said. “We don’t read the applications; we’re not in the room when people are making decisions about the application; we don’t get a vote. Once the application is complete, we wait for their answer.”
Those who find the process too demanding or don’t want to do the legwork drop out.
“Sometimes they do, which for us, we say great,” said Shaw. “We know who we can continue to recruit and who we don’t. So now when a kid will go through all those steps, it’s very rare that we lose them late. The ones that finish the process are the ones that have the drive we’re looking for. Those end up being our best players.”
Admittedly, Stanford’s process is tough and thorough.
“We are the unique program in FBS (football bowl subdivision/120schools) that requires a complete admissions application to be filled out and completed by anybody who hopes to attend,” Eubanks said. “That entire application will be reviewed thoroughly by multiple officers in the office of admissions and will be rendered an admissions decision before they can ever get a national letter of intent to sign on signing day. There is nobody else in college football at our FBS level that has that. We don’t say that to brag, but it is what it is. We have the highest standards of any FBS program, by far, in the country.”
Once accepted, Stanford does everything in its power to help a student-athlete succeed on and off the field.
“There is a deep, deep commitment from Coach Shaw and Bob Bowlsby (The Jaquish & Kenninger Director of Athletics) that every kid we bring in through the front door should come out at the end with a Stanford degree and graduate,” Eubanks said. “No matter the ups and downs that happen. It’s our job as mentors and leaders of the young men to bring them all the way through and have them reach their maximum potential beyond their wildest dreams.”