Yay College Football! Is your program heading in the right direction?

Thank goodness the season has started, and in robust fashion for Ohio State! The program is in great hands and great things are expected. How about your program? This time of year everyone is always filled with great hope for their team, but dreams will soon be dashed (in WSU’s case, horribly so). Unfortunately, some programs are destined for disappointment because they are fundamentally on the wrong strategy, mostly because demographics have passed them by.

I’ve been trading some notes with my other college football buddies, and we’ve articulated the 5 ways that a program can succeed in the modern era:

  1. Be in a region with a large natural talent base. Southern regions are best for this — Florida, Texas, Southern California — and US demographics continue to flow this way. Neighboring schools in Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Arizona can get in on this too. There are a few northern regions that also qualify — Ohio & environs, Northern California (not well exploited), Chicago, Boston-Washington corridor (not well exploited). This strategy works because most players like to stay somewhat close to home — because they are young, because they want family to see them. The best schools following this strategy also generate enough of a profile to allow them to recruit nationally for top talent. Schools in any other region cannot follow this strategy.
  2. the sugar daddy approach. This is the Oregon strategy — make an insane investment in the program so that you can draw kids from anywhere who are wowed by your staff and facilities. Oklahoma State is trying this with T Boone. Maryland may try this with UnderArmour. Any school can try this if they have a sugar daddy. (I am sure Nebraska has tried this, but they should be groveling at Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger’s feet).
  3. the system approach. Focus on a particular type of 3 star talent that is available near you and nationally, and build a system to optimize that talent. This is the Tom Osborne era Nebraska strategy, the RichRod/WVU strategy, the Chris Peterson/Boise strategy. This can be very successful but requires a strong individual and strong culture. It is fragile and tends not to survive coaching changes. Any school can try it.
  4. the academic excellence approach. Be a top 5-10 institution but leave an admissions door open for athletics. This is the Stanford, Northwestern approach. Your typical school cannot follow this approach.
  5. The Notre Dame strategy. To a lesser extent the BYU strategy. Be the favorite choice for a particular demographic segment. Not generally available to other schools.

Those are the options. Nothing else seems terribly viable. Now it is interesting to look at various schools that I follow and see how they line up against that:

  • USC, Ohio State are on strategy 1 and generally executing well. USC was better in the last decade at it, OSU may be better this decade.
  • Michigan. A confused program. They are trying strategy 1 but the demographics have run away from them. Is Harbaugh the guy to build a system approach? He doesn’t think that way and he is a demonstrated mercenary. Hmm.
  • Washington. Perhaps also confused. While the Northwest has had great population growth, I don’t think it has translated into great high school football growth. Yet Washington is trying strategy 1, tho they hired a strategy 3 coach. An interesting experiment.
  • Nebraska. Years of coaching changes have left them adrift, the Osborne era system has been torn down. They need to figure out how to recommit to that strategy.
  • It is interesting that Cal has never been able to capitalize on the bay area talent base.
  • It is interesting that no one has capitalized on the Northeast talent base. It will be very interesting to follow Maryland with their Underarmour ties, a potential double whammy strategy.

Enough meandering, Go Bucks!

Sep 7, 2015; Blacksburg, VA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Braxton Miller (1) runs for a touchdown during the third quarter against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Lane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 7, 2015; Blacksburg, VA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Braxton Miller (1) runs for a touchdown during the third quarter against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Lane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports