Why Oregon Doesn’t Want Top Recruiting Classes


Mike Merrell’s Three and Out

It stands to reason that the top football recruits will inevitably make for the best teams. Three of the four teams playing in the 2014-15 National Championship Playoffs — Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State — habitually have top-five recruiting classes. But the fourth — yes, our Oregon Ducks — don’t even come close. In fact, if you take Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State and throw in USC and UCLA, the last time Oregon out-recruited a single one of them was 2011.

Yet when you take a look at which team has won the most games in the past five years, it is the seemingly recruiting-impaired Ducks that come out on top with a total of 60 wins against only 8 losses. Alabama is second-best at 58-9. Ohio State is 56-11. USC and UCLA are a ho-hum 44-21 and 39-27, respectively.

There are those who lament that Oregon doesn’t do better on the recruiting trail with such a record of success, but why the Ducks don’t even want top recruiting classes is the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out — and here are the reasons.

1.  The Ducks don’t NEED top recruiting classes.

A recruiting class is scored upon the perceived quality of all of its recruits added together. So, larger classes naturally have an advantage over smaller classes. The kicker here, though, is that a larger class means that a team had more openings to fill — and is this a good thing?

Heisman quarterback or one more recruit is not a tough call.

Craig Strobeck

Heisman quarterback or one more recruit is not a tough call.

Had Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu opted for the NFL draft a year ago — as they could have — Oregon would have had three more openings, which when filled would have upped the value of the 2014 recruiting class. So — which three of all the freshmen in the country would have added more value to the team than those three returning Ducks?

Each school is allowed to extend scholarships to 25 incoming football athletes each year, and by stretching the rules through early enrollments, many schools push the number up to 30 and beyond.  They can only do this because they have holes to fill.

Oregon’s 2015 recruiting class of 22 athletes is about par for the Ducks, because they simply do too good of a job of retention to have room for 25 to 30 incoming each year — and this is not a bad thing.

 2.  Top high school athletes are not necessarily desirable.

Some of the top high school athletes are great individuals who have great work ethic, do well in school, and are the sort who will always put the team first. Others — not so much. In fact, a top athlete has a much greater opportunity to destroy a locker room than one who doesn’t have quite the natural ability on the gridiron. Athletes expect to look up to those with superior skills, but when the personal traits don’t measure up, team leadership suffers, and as a result the team will under-perform.

Early success in life does not always wear well.


Early success in life does not always wear well.

Being a national center of attention at a young age does not wear well on many. Child movie stars — who tend to end up messy — are a prime example.  The worshiped high school athlete carries a high risk of “full of himself,” a quality that doesn’t fly with the Ducks and has resulted in the early departure of more than one top recruit. And the “Which hat will I put on in front of an audience?” thing is a bit of warning sign of “It’s all about me.”

Beyond that, too much success at a young age can lead to a loss of hunger, which can manifest itself in not wanting to work as hard as the Ducks’ coaches promise. It can also result in a desire to be in a city with more diversions than Eugene has to offer.

In commenting on Charles Fischer’s Friday recruiting article, Michael Rand (meaning this as a put-down on the Ducks, I surmise) wrote:

“Let’s see. I’m 18 and I have to chose between Eugene, San Francisco or LA. Does anyone really think Eugene has a chance?”

Royce Freeman chose the school with the best coaches over the school closest to Hollywood.

David Pyles

Royce Freeman chose the school with the best coaches over the school closest to Hollywood.

Well Michael, that depends. For the athlete seeking diversion, Frisco and LA have more to offer. But if you’re focused on wanting to do your best and play for a perennial top five team, the answer lies somewhere north of California.

Fortunately for Oregon, it is focus — not diversion — that creates success in just about anything. In fact, Michael, you may have just hit the target on why USC and UCLA recruiting classes habitually under-perform. They make their choices for the wrong reasons.

There’s also something to be said for the athlete for who is emotionally prepared to step out in the world, spend four years in a new environment and let some distance creep in between himself and the adulation of family and friends. It’s called maturity, and it makes for a more balanced athlete than the guy who isn’t ready to stray from mama’s apron strings.

This is not to say that Oregon doesn’t want the five-star recruits — but they need to be the right five start recruits and it needs to be on Oregon’s terms.

 3.  The best salesmen don’t necessarily make the best coaches or have the highest ethics.

In fact, high ethical values frequently result in lost sales on and off the field. What people want to hear is so often more appealing than the truth. But it sometimes leaves them disappointed when the truth comes out. And this is nowhere that we would ever want to see Oregon coaches go.

But telling recruits what they want to hear doesn’t just net that deceived, soon-to-be-disappointed recruit. It also has the questionable advantage of creating more openings on future years’ recruiting classes when the recruits leave early after learning the truth.

UCLA Coach Jim Mora has had better success recruiting against the Ducks than coaching against them.

Kevin Cline

UCLA Coach Jim Mora has had better success recruiting against the Ducks than coaching against them.

But speaking of truth, it is a universal truth that we all have qualities that are stronger than our other qualities — and salesmanship and coaching ability are traits that have a strong chance of going in different directions. The salesmen have great success selling the ideas of movie stars, palm trees, sunny weather and family and friends in the back yard, especially when they don’t mind bending facts. So, more often than not, they win the recruiting battles.

But when it comes to the war — the numbers on the scoreboard at the end of a game — it is the coaches who win. And it is Oregon, led by Mark Helfrich, that has the coaches.

Top photo by David Pyles



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Mike Merrell

Mike Merrell

Mike (Editor-in-Chief) is a 1970 graduate of the University of Oregon where he attended the Honors College and received all-conference honors as a swimmer. After college, Mike ran for the Oregon Track Club and narrowly missed qualifying for the US Olympic Trials in the marathon. He continues his involvement in sports with near-daily swimming or running workouts, occasional masters swim competition (where he has received two Top-10 World rankings), providing volunteer coaching to local triathletes and helping out with FishDuck.com. Mike lives on 28 acres in the forest near Sandpoint, Idaho, where he has served as a certified public accountant for most of his working career. His current night job is writing novels about Abby Westminster, the only known illegitimate daughter of Britain's finest secret agent who has to bring down arch-villains plotting dastardly deeds. And, yes, Abby is also a DUCK!

  • Jerry C

    Let’s get real here. The Ducks lost a number of 5 stars who all of us Ducks would have been thrilled to have in Eugene. The coaches obviously do not want a class of only 3 stars because they do offer to a huge number of fives. Oregon has won with the guys we have but that is not to say the coaches do not want 5 star kids.
    My theory is that some kids are early bloomers and they get the 5 stars. They may have already peaked athletically. The Trojans have more fives on their roster than the Ducks have in a decade. But how many just seem to disappear? Even a 5 star needs to make progress in college to be a great player. If they have already peaked they will get passed by a late blooming kid without the 5 stars.

    • john fairplay

      Well, this is exactly right. A 5* in high school is a great high school player. A great college player is on a completely different level. A 5* without a work ethic or desire to compete is useless, as USC has proven time and again.

      LA is a great City, certainly more interesting and diverse than Eugene. But the very things that make it exciting and wonderful have also claimed their share of Trojans and Bruins and ruined their chance at greatness.

    • Mike Merrell

      Jerry (and John) —

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I think we’re pretty much on the same page. Yes, the coaches would have been thrilled to pick up some of those 5-stars — if they had the values that Oregon values. And if they choose USC or UCLA over Oregon, chances are that they don’t share those values. For the early bloomers, it is a sad fact that the flowers that bloom in April aren’t always the prettiest come September.

      Early physical (athletic development) is a strong factor, and the distractions that come with being in a large community of young adults is another. Personally, I think possibly the biggest issue is the effect that early adulation has on the head. I’ve seen this factor at work for many years — and no team needs more 18-year-olds who are full of themselves.

      The athletes who are married to the glory they have known are less likely to bolt SoCal for Oregon, and the Ducks — loaded with late bloomers, as you point out — have passed them by. Attitude is the key and at the college level, it begins with choice of school.

    • Anthony Joseph Gomes

      thrilled is too strong of a word. if they want to go to USC and lose rather than come here and win that is certainly their prerogative. the better question is why do they want to do that? well there is more sunshine down in LA, there is sark…but they didnt want to come there when he was up north so they dont come for sark. so why do they come? the money? can you still get the girl the car and the apartment in LA? personally i dont care. ….you cant win with those kinds of prima donnas and we have consistently proved that for the last half dozen years.


    Good example using Mora and you should of put Sarkisian in there to. That guy alone was a NEGATIVE Recruiter against Oregon when he coached the MUTTS and I’m sure he still is down South, but look at the results because if he thinks now that we have Adams at QB that USC has a chance against the Ducks this year he’s nuts because Sark is just not a good HC period. Kids eventually see through this crap the smart ones that is. I will take Oregon’s ranking at 15 every year because what your saying is they have the 15th best class out of how many D-1 Schools over 100. Look at TCU for instance they under recruit Oregon way down in NO’s yet they seem to play pretty good Football too! Coaching does matter and Oregon’s Coach’s should be in the TOP 5 of any staff around the Nation. Lets just put it this way they are far above any PAC 12 School! Look at the 5 Star Cowart and how that all ended with his THEATRICAL signing day as in that kid is a PREMODONNA and he’s Auburns HA now. Canton to me shouldn’t of dropped from NO.1 because he’s the best D Lineman at any position on the D Line and he will show it this year and beyond.

  • Duckville

    You guys are going way too far with this recruiting stuff. There is no reason to hang our heads, make excuses, or play Husky and say we didn’t want players we didn’t get. We want the best recruits. We get some of the best recruits, but we don’t get them all. Our coaches take pride in being excellent recruiters, and most of them are. We have lots of competition in recruiting and on the field. We beat almost all of our competitors on and off the field, and we continue to progress as a program. Our coaches and players will work hard to do better in both categories next year, despite their outstanding performances this year. And they will never think they did pretty well for little old Oregon.

    • Anthony Joseph Gomes

      a recruit is nothing but a piece of unmolded clay. unmolded clay in the hands of a master will always turn out better than unmolded clay in the hands of a tyro or an apprentice. size and speed you cant teach. good attitude should come free of charge with the package. given that the rest can be taught.

  • MattD

    Recruiting top talent is very important across all sports. If it weren’t, why would UCLA, USC, and Stanford (all strong recruiting universities) have over 100 team national championships each, across multiple athletics, while Oregon has 24.

    Oregon has been a strong football team for a good stretch now. They have truly built a program and not just a team. But, until they close out with a championship in one of the major sports (football, basketball, maybe something else…); you will be hard pressed to sell that top 15 is good enough.

    The foundation is in place. Go get some more 4 and 5 star athletes and take it over the top.

    I am a USC fan and would love the PAC-12 championship to be seen as the defacto national championship for football much like the SEC game was for many years. Remember, SEC teams typically beings in a haul of 5 star recruits each year.

    Oregon vs. USC would be a tremendous matchup to watch for a championship. Especially if both teams were at the top of their games. I am looking forward to the regular season matchup in November and hope they meet again shortly thereafter.

    Fight On!

  • Anthony Joseph Gomes

    this article states “top high school athletes are not necessarily desirable” but then fails to define what makes someone a top athlete. this article leaves it to the readers imagination to assume that what the scouting services think a top athlete is is what a top athlete is in fact.

    if you look at testing numbers oregon athletes are A+ to B+ quality. if you look at scouting service opinions of oregon athletes they are B+ to B- quality.

    if you ask me scouting services tend to bump up athletes who end up at schools who have a high subscription rate to their service. remember how oregon got in trouble for paying what the media said was too much money to willie lyles?

    the lesson here is simple. pay willie lyles a lot of money and you get busted. pay rivals and scout a lot of money and your players get more stars.