In the world of FCS, we do our own bit of snickering when we see web sites like Rivals.com venture into a realm they have little understanding of and attempt to rank recruiting classes. If you believed Rivals, you would have expected to see Tennessee-Chattanooga with several national championship banners flying from the site of the NCAA Division I Football Championship, Finley Stadium. Year in and year out, Chattanooga is ranked among the top teams in FCS for recruiting. Instead, the Mocs seldom climb out of the second division in the Southern Conference and are again rebuilding their program with a new coach, following this year's 2-10 season...Coulson goes on to point out that perennial top FCS programs like Montana often don't show up at the top of FCS recruiting rankings, yet still manage to find themselves in play for the National Title each year. The reason?
It is easy to recruit at a school like USC. Pete Carroll can practically let his Trojan program sell itself and reap the benefits year in and year out. But the coaches I respect are the ones at the FCS programs that are mining kids that the FBS schools overlook and are developing the talents of players that the big programs didn't think were good enough.
While Coulson's point is well taken (and I've argued something very similar in the past), I think there is another reason for the ability of a school like Montana to consistently compete at the top of its subdivision. It's the same reason that has allowed Boise State or BYU to compete not only within the top of their conferences in the FBS, but to really represent themselves well when it comes to playing a national slate. It all goes back to value, and how we perceive it in recruiting.
While there is a good deal of validity in Andy Staples' claim that the best programs recruit the likes of Texas, Florida, and California hard (and this line of thinking extends to FCS programs) there is also an equal amount of truth that to win, you need to control your own territory. Take a look at the incoming Montana class for example. The one consistency you'll find is the high degree of players from both California and Montana. The former represents Coulson's line of thinking; that is to say you recruit perceived talent-rich areas for the recruits who just didn't quite find a way to earn a scholarship to a BCS or FBS school. The latter point, however, seems to speak to a separate conclusion, one that almost defies traditional college football recruiting wisdom. And what is that point exactly? Well, the simple truth is that there are better high school football players in the long thought of 'backwaters' of the interior and northwest than people may want to admit to.
The fact that the University of Montana can attract local athletes to play for them is not too radical a concept - after all, there are what, six universities total in the state? And last I checked only the University of Montana and Montana State were playing FCS football. What is the more radical for concept for some people to grasp is that these homegrown young men are, for the most part, competing stride for stride with the best talent at the FCS level that the more traditionally "talent-rich" states have to offer. After all, to explain the programs success away to "better coaching" or out-of-state recruits isn't complete; and the fact is that anyone who saw Havre native Marc Mariani or Drummond native Chase Reynolds put up insane numbers or dominate opposing defenses this past year will tell you that.
Yet because of the relative out-of-the-way state of a state like Montana (pun INTENDED) few programs outside of the two major programs in the area are willing to look for talent within the state, and because of the perception that states with low populations are so talent deprived even fewer programs bother to waste the money to recruit these areas. Of course there are other approaches to recruiting at the FCS level, and some no less effective than this synthesis of breeding and developing homegrown talent while also identifying under-the-radar prospects in areas which have an excess supply of capable recruits.
The most obvious of these is the KC Keeler approach, which, if you didn't know, hopes to strike gold once again with the recent transfer of Penn State backup Pat Devlin. The effectiveness of this sort of approach to FCS football notwithstanding, the examples of FCS schools like Montana is intriguing. I've found, through absolutely no scientific research of my own, that some of the best FCS schools arise in areas where there are no intermediary FBS or non-BCS programs. In other words, unless you've got a sure-fire, can't-miss five star prospect on your hands, chances are nobody is coming to call to old Butte, MT the Thursday before signing day. What does this mean?
Well, among other things it means that the value of those players capable of playing maybe a lower level of FBS football (say non BCS conference football) is lowered even further, because the standard for evaluating and exposing them is much lower. While there are not many of these players to begin with because of population density, the fact of the matter is that they do exist, and often times end up committing and forming the backbone of the success at schools like Montana. In other words it's not just that these schools get good FCS caliber football players, but that they're in fact getting good, otherwise FBS-caliber players who suffer from an inability of mid-range FBS schools to find and recruit them. And you know what? I'm sure coaches like Bobby Hauck would not have it any other way. Want to learn more about FCS schools and the politics of recruiting? Why not check out ITB's own interview with incoming James Madison ATH Renard Robinson.