Eden Prairie’s Carter Coughlin is one of the top football recruits in the state. The junior linebacker holds scholarship offers from Ohio State, Oregon and the Gophers and plans to pick one of those schools by the end of February.
Two prominent websites devoted to recruiting labeled Coughlin a “four-star” prospect. Rivals.com, perhaps the most popular recruiting website, gave him three stars.
Coughlin is keenly aware of his star ratings, even as he professes “no idea whatsoever” how those websites arrived at their conclusion.
“It’s like getting an A on a test, or a B,” he said. “You kind of wonder where the grading scale is for these stars.”
The star system has become so ingrained in the business of college recruiting over the past decade that it’s gained mainstream acceptance among fans and media. Diehard fans devour recruiting news year-round, and the star system helps feed that machine.
But as recruits revel in their ratings and fans obsess about the quality of teams’ recruiting classes, others, including some who feed the rankings, dismiss them as marketing tools devised from nebulous processes that are subject to influence even by coaches who publicly disavow the ratings.
Recruiting analysts categorize recruits on their potential as college players and assign them stars — two through five (elite). Recruiting websites rank the top players by state and also nationally. College teams then are ranked based on the combined star power of their signees.
All of it is shared against the backdrop of nonstop bantering on Twitter and other social media sites, where even athletes themselves sometimes take part in drawing attention to their status.
“It’s like being fascinated by the red carpet,” said Randy Taylor, a longtime talent evaluator.
College coaches typically scoff at star ratings publicly, though one analyst said many coaches privately are very aware and have a “vested interest” in the star system.
“I’m going to make my own assessment of who I think is good and not good,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said before signing his 2012 recruiting class. “Some people say, ‘Well, that guy is a five-star guy.’ Well, who’s rating that five-star guy?”
Critics argue that assigning stars is primarily done to sell subscriptions to recruiting websites such as Rivals, Scout and 247Sports.
Fans of the system note that those recruiting analysts spend months evaluating prospects on video and at elite camps and all-star games and that their rankings provide a reasonable indication of how individual players — and teams, as a result — will perform.
For instance, Alabama has finished No. 1 nationally in Rivals’ national rankings four times since 2010. The Crimson Tide won three national championships in that span.
The SEC has dominated national recruiting rankings since the mid-2000s. The conference won seven consecutive national titles during that time and has had more players on NFL rosters in the past nine seasons than any other conference.
There also are myriad examples of five-star prospects who became busts in college and two-star recruits who developed into, well, stars. Projections prove difficult when dealing with teenage athletes who aren’t fully developed.
Consider: The first-team AP All-America team in college football this season featured the same number of two-star recruits (three) as five-star players, based on Rivals’ ratings. Granted, there are far more two-star recruits than five stars overall, but it shows that recruiting remains an inexact process.
Tom Lemming is considered the godfather of recruiting analysts. Whenever a recruit or parent calls to complain about a low star rating — which happens often — Lemming tells them, “Believe me, these stars mean nothing [in the big picture].”
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Eric Decker signed with the Gophers as a two-star recruit out of Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minn. He knew about his low rating but said, “I knew I was as good as some other Minnesota recruits getting three or four [stars].”
Decker, now a wide receiver for the New York Jets, said he’s become friends with one of the founders of Rivals.com.
“Which is funny now,” Decker wrote in a text message, also indicating he still brings up that two-star rating.
Former Gophers running back Laurence Maroney earned four stars from Rivals, but he also remembers someone rating him five stars. Maroney believes the star system is a valuable part of recruiting, especially for prospects who don’t hail from high-profile successful programs.
“It’s something for you to strive for, to get more stars,” he said. “It’s a cool system.”
Maroney, who became a first-round NFL draft pick, also wondered about the basis for those ratings.
“Is it yards [rushing]? Paper stats like a 40 [-yard dash]?” he asked. “I don’t know how they do it.”
Lemming has assigned stars for decades based on his video evaluation and in-person visits with recruits. He began traveling the country in 1978 to interview prospects and compile data.
He also brought home highlight VHS tapes of recruits, which made him a valuable resource for college coaches in those pre-Internet days. Lemming had two TVs in the basement of his suburban Chicago home. College coaches flocked to his home to watch video.
“During May, I’d have 15 to 20 coaches in my basement watching film,” he said.
Today, recruits often tweet their highlight videos to Lemming. Social media allows athletes to share and promote their talent to a wider audience.
Lemming still spends five months a year on the road meeting with players. He publishes his own recruiting magazine and hosts the “Lemming Report” on CBS Sports Network. The Internet and star system have transformed the recruiting business.
“It’s ego for the players,” Lemming said. “For the fans, it’s hope. If your team had a lousy year, it gives you hope.”
Lemming said he believes some recruiting websites assign stars based primarily on the number of scholarship offers a recruit holds. Josh Helmholdt, the Midwest analyst for Rivals, said his company’s formula is much more detailed and complex than that.
Helmholdt said he studies video and spends up to 100 days a year on the road evaluating recruits. Rivals partnered with Under Armour to host 18 elite camps last year, according to Helmholdt.
But those elite showcases draw skepticism from critics who question why a recruit should pay to attend an event with the hope of improving his star rating if those ratings mean little to college coaches.
Eden Prairie’s Coughlin elected not to attend any of those specialty camps. Why? He said his star rating is not that important to him.
“As long as colleges are interested in me, that’s all that matters,” he said.
Helmholdt said recruits don’t have to attend one of Rivals’ camps to get noticed or a more favorable star rating. He said Rivals employs eight regional or national analysts and also receives input from people who operate individual team/fan websites and have access to recruits.
Rivals’ staff generally updates and adjusts rankings every three months following seasonal evaluation periods. Helmholdt said the staff considers regular-season statistics and performance, but the caliber of talent is different around the country, so it’s difficult to draw comparisons.
Analysts rely on video, input from coaches and their own evaluations from camps and all-star games, according to Helmholdt.
“There’s value to camps, there’s value to games,” he said.
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But do college coaches even care? Experts disagree.
“In my experience, coaches definitely look at our rankings, but our rankings don’t dictate their own recruiting board,” Helmholdt said. “They’re recruiting to a specific scheme, to a specific roster where they have different needs. They use our rankings as a resource.”
Helmholdt noted that “the higher their recruiting class is ranked, the better it looks upon them.” Which raises a question: Do coaches ever attempt to sway recruiting websites to change a recruit’s star rating?
“If a college coach or high school coach says, ‘Hey, I think that so-and-so is not rated high enough,’ we don’t dismiss it,” Helmholdt said. “We go back and re-watch some film or re-evaluate. A high school coach or college coach knows the game of football. It would be very shortsighted to not listen to what they have to say.”
Taylor, the veteran talent scout, provides college coaches with his evaluations. He said he never mentions star ratings around coaches.
“If I went into a meeting and said, ‘Hey, this guy is five stars,’ I’d be fired,” Taylor said. “In the football world, it’s about grades. In the media and marketing world and the promotion world, it’s stars.”
Inevitably, recruits turn out better, or worse, than projected.
For instance, the Gophers’ 2002 recruiting class included two-star prospects Bryan Cupito, Greg Eslinger and Matt Spaeth. Cupito ended his career as the school’s all-time leading passer; Eslinger became an All-America center and Outland Trophy winner; Spaeth won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end.
“You see they weren’t any good [as recruits],” former Gophers coach Glen Mason said sarcastically with a laugh. “I was just a good coach.”
Every coach or recruiting analyst has similar tales. The star system only magnifies them.
“Take everything with a grain of salt and just enjoy it,’’ Lemming said. “It’s not an exact science.”