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Tipping A Program: The Law of Few

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When we last talked, I introduced the idea of tipping a program from a mid-tier program to a top tier program. This is part 2 of Tipping a Program, The Law of Few.

According to Gladwell, there are three types of people that are important in creating a social epidemic: Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. For definitions from the book, see the Introduction. We'll address each one of these types of people and try and relate them to how they might fit in a program or a university.

Connectors: Connectors are individuals who know more people than the average person. They are, simply, connected, more than you or I (so long as you are not one of these types of folks). We all probably know someone who seems to know everyone and this is the person that I'm talking about. As I think about this a little more, I think there are two ways that a person can become a connector. The first is that it just comes naturally. A person who is just naturally gregarious tends to know quite more people than the average-Joe. The other way to become a connector would be time. The longer a person is around the more likely they're going to know more people. Granted, a person has to have some of the first quality, naturally out-going, but certainly being around helps.

Every program needs a connector. Every sport or program needs a person like this. The guy that comes to mind immediately is John Blake, North Carolina's defensive line coach and recruiting genius. I'm not sure that there's any doubt that Blake can recruit and he's credited for recruiting the players that led to the OU's 2000 National Championship. I would imagine that Blake's rolodex of coaches that he knows, is in contact with, and has personal relationships is beyond what most of us would consider normal. He is connected and no matter where he is. It doesn't matter if he's at Oklahoma, Nebraska or North Carolina, he's done an amazing job of recruiting talent no matter where he goes. Quick fun-fact, North Carolina's 2008 recruit class was relatively small. Only 19 total recruits. Of those 19, a ridiculous 7 were 4 star recruits.

As I try to relate this back to Texas Tech, I'm starting to get the feeling that Texas Tech has at least one guy who is a connector, at least in limited circles, but those circles are growing and that's running backs coach Seth Littrell. Littrell is from Oklahoma and of the 16 commitments in the 2008 class, he was responsible for 5 of those. That's a pretty decent rate. The problem here is that Littrell's circle of individuals is limited to Oklahoma, at least right now. Give Littrell time and I think his scope will also widen.

The idea of every program having at least one connector is absolutely vital to becoming better. Coaches without connections spin their wheels with players, high school coaches and parents because they don't have any credibility. Time to recruit players and finding the ones that fit within your program is vital to maintaining a program's success. Having connections cuts down on the time needed to find the right guys to recruit.

Mavens: I would imagine that this person is typically not on the staff, but could be, and is quite simply a football maniac. A maven is the old head coach that knows about every kid in an area. A maven is the guy you can call to find out about who's really got the goods and who doesn't. A maven cuts down the time you spend on wild-goose chases and those players that you know can play. A maven is absolutely vital to the success of a program, although he's probably not officially associated with the school. But you can see where a guy like this is absolutely critical to the success of a program and how the role of a connector and a maven are so closely related. The success of a connector can sometimes be directly related to the information that a maven provides.

I can't tell you who is a maven for Texas Tech, but I'm not sure that knowing who the mavens are for a particular program are all that important.

One distinction here is that the difference between a maven and a connector is that mavens are the individuals who do the leg work for the connectors. They've already figured out who can play and who can't. The connectors get in touch with the right guys and makes identifying those players a school wants to recruit all that much easier. That's not to say that a connector can't identify talent on his own, but a maven cuts down on the time spent focusing and identifying talent.

Salesmen: As much as this pains me to say, I wonder if there is a better salesman than UT's Mack Brown? Brown certainly has his faults (what coach doesn't?) but I would be willing to bet there are few who are better salesmen for their programs than Brown. The fact that he can convince young men to come to their school when there are talented players in front of them for some foreseeable time is certainly a talent. A salesman has to differentiate between what one school offers over another and are incredibly important to creating a top tier program. Without the salesman, a program is essentially pitting whatever external assets it has (facilities, stadium, education, etc.) with another program who has a salesman and comparable facilities.

I've tried to consider who might be the salesman for Texas Tech and I think Leach tried to address this issue by hiring former cornerback Antonio Huffman as Director of Player Personnel. He is known as a closer when he was in school, a guy who would be able to sell recruits to Texas Tech. And despite my affinity for Leach, and all of his wonderful qualities, he is probably not a salesman. That's okay, I personally think he makes up for most of his shortcomings with his unconventional personality and solid grasp of the X's and O's. Realizing that he may not be adept at selling kids to Texas Tech, he hired a young guy who can relate and make it his sole job to sell Texas Tech to recruits.

As we talk about selling a program, I've given quite a bit of thought of what kids want when it comes to picking a school. Having never gone through the process it's tough for me to even speculate as to what that might be. Luckily, Mercer University created a model for predicting how an athlete will choose a school. They fully admit that they aren't 100% accurate, but they do state that they have a 73% accuracy rate. Perhaps the most interesting bit of information is what high school athletes don't consider in their decision in choosing a school:

. . . factors like the school's graduation rate, the number of Bowl Championship Series (BCS) bowl appearances, the current roster depth at the recruited player's position, the number of players from a specific college drafted by the NFL, and even the number of national championships won by a particular program don't systematically influence the decisions of high school athletes.

That goes against everything that I've ever thought about what high school athletes think. Here are the factors that goes into the prediction model:

  1. Whether the athlete made an "official visit" to a specific college
  2. Whether the school is in a BCS conference
  3. The distance from the high school athlete's hometown to a specific school
  4. Whether the recruit is in the same state as a specific school
  5. The final AP Ranking of a specific school in the previous year of competition
  6. The number of conference titles a school has recorded in recent years
  7. Whether the school is currently under a "bowl ban" for violating NCAA rules
  8. The current number of scholarship reductions a school faces for violating NCAA rules
  9. The size of the team's stadium (measured in terms of seating capacity)
  10. Whether the school has an on-campus stadium
  11. The current age of the team's stadium

That's really intriguing.

Of course, there's not any description to the weight given to each of these factors, but they seem to be in order of importance. Getting an athlete to take an official visit, is probably the most important factor. Get them in the door to see the facilities, see the campus, meet the coaches and meet some of the players. That has to be an absolute priority.

What I'd love to know is whether or not a college athletics program is taking these variables or doing their own research to determine the factors that might convince an athlete to play for a particular school. I know that this falls under the heading of marketing, and we'll talk more about marketing to athletes and a fan base in the next series, Stickiness Factor, but targeting what's important to an potential recruit rather than assuming what's important certainly something to consider. If I had to guess, I think that coaches have recruited one way for a long time, and for some it's been pretty effective and for others it hasn't, but perhaps it's time for a change. If a school has had a tough time recruiting, then maybe its time to change the methodology a little bit. Perhaps its time to take a look at statistics and actually do a little research to find out what it is that sways an athlete to choose or not choose a particular school. We all think we know what high school athletes want, but are we sure we know? The above mentioned list seems really logical, it's the factors not on the list that surprises me the most.

Again, this little conversation in my head is more about considering a different way to tackle the problem of creating a top tier program, especially if a school has had limited success doing it the old way. If a school or a head coach can focus on finding guys who fit these roles, and there's a pretty good chance that they already do, but more than likely they aren't as clearly defined as Gladwell defines these roles, then I really think that you're one step closer to tipping a program in your favor.

A Series In Tipping A Program:

  • Introduction
  • The Law of Few
  • Stickiness Factor
  • Law of Context
  • Conclusion