Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The King knew that great inputs were essential

Barry Switzer was one of the greatest college football coaches ever because, among other qualities, he was one of the greatest college football recruiters ever. Great talent building is a necessary component for success in any team sport be it through recruiting, drafting, or trading. The league structure will dictate the form the talent building takes. It is up to the management to maximize the opportunities given constraints. That sounds a lot like choice under scarcity, and it is, and that sounds a lot like something economics can help shine light on, and it is as well.

Obviously, a college football team would ideally be composed of the top 25 players by position to be drafted by the NFL each and every successive year. Well, that isn't actually obvious. Many of those players don't work out so well for reasons including the NFL isn't perfect in drafting the top performers in order. Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick in 2000 and was the sixth quarterback selected that year. Already we have a knowledge problem, and that is before we get to competition for resources and other factors driving scarcity. It is important to note at this time that the knowledge problem has two dimensions: (1) how well a player can play, and (2) how well a player will play. Neither is fully knowable even by the player himself. The player may think he coulda been a contender, but believing that does not prove it to be so.

Here is how I break the two dimensions down. The first I generalize under the heading "athletic talent". The second I generalize under the heading "grit". Each encompass many components.

Athletic Talent would include:
  • Athletic skills within the sport
  • Athletic skills in general
  • Intelligence
Grit would include:
  • Ability to be motivated
  • Ability to motivate
  • Desire
  • Work ethic
  • Attitude
Notice that a basic level of both groups of attributes are necessary. Notice also that each should complement the qualities of teammates and the team where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but grit probably plays a bigger role here than does athletic talent. This gets us to the tradeoff aspect. Here is where economics comes in.

The first dimension is higher profile and more easily observable, albeit with a significantly large standard deviation. The recruiting services don't give stars for determination to succeed. Their recognition is much more closely aligned with record-setting stats. From the start coaches will be biased toward recruiting with a heavy emphasis on the first dimension. The fan, donor, administration, and peer group will expect it up through accepting it as an excuse when a player under performs.

The best examples I have where a player exhibits the extreme case of having a lot of one dimension and a little of the other are Marcus Dupree with extremely high athletic talent but little grit and Wes Welker with slightly above average athletic talent and extremely high grit. A better example than Wes Welker would be a player with the grit but who failed because of a lack of talent. But that player doesn't exist because of the factors mentioned in the prior paragraph. In recent years Boise State had a lot more grit but probably one level less athletic talent than did Texas. The players recruited into each program most likely had a lot to do with this. Of course there were other contributing factors, but the point remains.

My simplistic approach to recruiting for the realistic ideal college football team is a great quarterback (extremely high levels of both dimensions) surrounded by above average athletic talent and highly above average grit. Yes, I said it was simplistic--probably should have said obvious too. But I don't think the process employed by many or any college football programs actually works this way. I think the process is actually a great or above average quarterback surrounded by highly above average athletic talent and average grit. And these are in all cases the goals of which a program will fall short in varying degrees of magnitude. Categorize this under the heading educated conjecture. I am sketching out an argument and theory not finalizing a thesis.

If we were to approach college football recruiting for a Moneyball angle, I believe this would be it. Athletic talent is the expensive input; grit is much less well paid. Where possible, trade athletic talent for grit at the margin. What this would mean in practice is being not very choosy when looking at players high in athletic talent--a three-star and a five-star might be nearly equivalent. You'd be looking for indications of grit where a little goes a long way to make up for relative athletic talent shortcomings. The first and most basic filter would be athletic talent. Get that out of the way quickly, and then focus the majority of your resources filtering on the dimension of grit.