According to a recent study by Forbes, College football is a multi-billion dollar industry. Not really a big surprise. It’s always been a giant money maker but only recently has it started to act like one.
It started with the facilities arms race that rivaled the Cold War. Universities scrambled to build massive "athletic training centers" and plush indoor practice facilities. Then came the inflated salaries of head coaches followed by the most recent conference realignment mess. As much as university presidents want to claim that all of this is for the benefit of their student athletes, we all know it’s a money grab.
This isn’t the first time that I have seen money destroy a sport that I hold near and dear to my heart, that being baseball. I remember watching games when contract disputes we’re virtually unheard of and no one knew who Scott Boras was. It was a simpler time.
Now, college football is just like baseball (and every professional sport for that matter), heavily influenced by the almighty dollar. High school prospects, much like free agents, are lured to campuses by more than just beautiful coeds. Apparently high tech uniforms (Oregon) and the number of Chick-Fil-A’s on campus (Auburn) are high priorities. Big name schools like Texas and Florida have the magnetism of the Yankees and Red Sox.
So where does BYU fit into all of this? After looking at their recruiting classes of the past few year and the players who end up playing on the field in the fall, I have come to the conclusion that BYU is college football’s version of the Moneyball principled Oakland Athletics.
BYU might not being as tight financially as the A’s but the way that both organizations acquire talents is very similar. For one, both have a hard time getting marque players to come play for their team. (This is NOT me saying that BYU doesn’t have elite talent. They do, but it has been developed.) Oakland doesn’t have the money to pay big name stars and BYU has a strict academic and moral standard that limits their recruiting pool.
The largest similarity that I see between the two is the type of players that each team plays with. The novel and motion picture "Moneyball" illustrate how the A’s pieced together a team with players that might seem unattractive to other organizations but work for Oakland because they have specific skills that allow them to contribute. If you look closely at BYU’s recruiting classes you will see the same thing.
Let’s look at Dylan Collie, the product of the 2012 recruiting class and younger brother of the legendary Austin and serviceable Scott. Coming out of fall camp last year it sounded like Dylan was going to see some serious playing time but that never materialized and he ended up redshirting. Dylan reminds people a lot of Austin in that he runs crisp routes and is able to get good separation from defenders. He is however, three inches shorter than Austin and slower. He doesn’t have the speed or quickness that most other big time recruits have. He’s not going to wow anyone, but he fills a need in the BYU offense
Then there is Dallin Leavitt, a safety from Portland, Oregon from this year’s class. Leavitt looks like the prototypical Bronco Mendenhall safety in that he’s not the greatest physical specimen but he is a legitimate run stopper that has great instincts. His coverage skills might need some work at the next level but the same was said of Craig Bills and Daniel Sorensen. Other BCS schools probably thought that he would be a nice special teams player but BYU sees him as a future starter.
Most of the PAC-12 had their doubts about BYU’s budding start Jamal Williams. There were worries about his top end speed with his 40 time being listed at 4.9. To put that in perspective, Manti Te’o was blasted for his slow 40 time at the NFL combine and he ran a 4.8. Obviously it’s not the fairest of comparisons but you get the picture. Jamal was labeled as a nice shifty back that could run hard but just not fast enough to get past the second level.
This comparison goes beyond recruiting and into personnel pairings. Look at running backs BYU ran with in 2011. They had one that was quick (DiLuigi), one that was a strong downhill runner (Alisa) and one that could block (Kariya), none of them that was the complete package. The secondary might be the strongest evidence of Moneyball at BYU. While other schools didn’t look twice at guys like Scott Johnson, Andrew Rich, Ben Criddle, Justin Robinson, Corby Eason and Bryan Logan, they were serviceable for the Cougars.
Almost every player that BYU recruits will have some kind of flaw. Cody Hoffman was too slow. Kyle Van Noy played too stiff. Sure there are great talents like Tanner Mangum, Troy Hinds and Brayden Kearsley that don’t have many weaknesses but there are 22 starting spots to fill. Just like the 2002 Athletics who had to build around Miguel Tejada and Barry Zito, the BYU coaching staff will have to recruit some Scott Hatterburg and David Justice type players.
So does this Moneyball recruiting model work for BYU? Well we know that it wins games. In the same way that Oakland averaged 94 wins a year for seven seasons including a division championship in 2012, BYU has reached the 10 win pinnacle five times in the past seven seasons including a 6-1 bowl record. Similarly, the Cougars haven’t played in a BCS bowl game and Oakland has yet to advance past the ALCS in the Moneyball generation. What it comes down to is how you gauge success.
There are two key factors to BYU’s improvement in the Moneyball system, one is for them to remain highly relevant. Going independent and playing night games on ESPN helps, but getting big wins against elite programs makes a world of difference. Just ask Boise State. Once you start collecting big wins, players have more interest and you don’t have to recruit the J.J. DiLuigi’s and Corby Eason’s.
The second is to make sure that they are smart with their recruiting classes. And when I say smart, I mean they can’t miss on anyone. When Oklahoma recruits a big time prospect that turns out to be a bust, it doesn’t matter because the kid playing behind him was probably an All-American as well. When BYU misses on a three star recruit, they have to turn to a 25-year-old who just transferred from Snow College who doesn’t have any talent but has grit. BYU must make the most out of each roster spot.
There will never be an equal playing field in college football and baseball. The Goliaths will always be bigger than the David’s but there is always a fighting chance for the little guy. They just have to be smarter and more resourceful. They also have to be incredibly lucky.
So, can BYU scrap their way to the top using the Moneyball mentality? We’ll just have to wait and see.