Mac Engel

Colleges catching up to Gary Patterson’s ‘Moneyball’ methods

Gary Patterson’s ability to see a college safety in a high school receiver is one reason TCU has been so successful.
Gary Patterson’s ability to see a college safety in a high school receiver is one reason TCU has been so successful. AP

A longtime, active NFL player personnel director told me, “Coaches have caught up to your guy in Fort Worth.”

Pretty sure he wasn’t talking about Pat Green but rather TCU football coach Gary Patterson.

These are not alternative facts, either. (BTW: I am thrilled with a Trump presidency because of the endless material).

The personnel director was paying GP a compliment, and assessing a change in the landscape of high school football player acquisition ... sorry, student-athlete acquisition. It’s a testament to the man’s ability to maximize talent, but the increase of “player personnel” jobs on college football staffs is a worrisome trend for GP and every single TCU fan.

Alabama has four positions titled “player personnel director.” Ohio State has one, and you can bet more are coming. Texas doesn’t have one, yet. TCU has one, with another position titled “recruiting.”

Even Kansas has a director of personnel.

Gary’s ability to function as his own director of player personnel and take a 2A high school quarterback and convert him to a college linebacker was a big reason TCU has been one of the most successful programs this century.

Running backs became wide receivers, wide receivers were moved to safety, while the other safety went to linebacker, etc. It was Gary’s way of creating an advantage against the programs that could dump one player because there was another guy coming in.

It was a lighter version of Moneyball, the glorified economics model of finding holes in a system by turning ignored value into high-yield return on small cost. It was made popular by Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and internationally famous because of the bestselling book by Michael Lewis.

It has been copied by all of baseball’s big-money clubs, from Boston to the Chicago Cubs to the LA Dodgers.

The same thing has happened to GP.

The trick to player development is to determine and assess where the player is on his trajectory — has he hit his ceiling, or where is that ceiling? What made Gary so special was his ability to recognize that a player who was a good wide receiver in high school could be an outstanding safety in college.

There was a reason Trevone Boykin was used as running back and wide receiver before he settled in as a star quarterback. A young man of his ability had to be on the field.

The previous methods of recruiting relied heavily on the star-ranking system recorded by Rivals and other websites that have become wildly lucrative, despite their consistent inaccuracies.

The guys at these websites have no clue what they are doing when they put a five-star label on a 17-year-old kid. They normally rely on height and weight, a rough estimate of speed and some bloated statistics. More often than not the rankings come down to what schools are recruiting the player.

If Alabama is recruiting a kid, he’s a good bet to be a four- or a five-star. Same for the University of Texas.

If it’s TCU or Texas Tech, the same player is more apt to be a three- or maybe a four-star.

Coming out of high school Patrick Mahomes Jr. was a three-star recruit. How could any recruiting service analyst rank that kid as a three-star is insulting and yet another blow in a series of body shots to the credibility of these rankings services.

Neither DeMarcus Ware nor Tony Romo was even ranked by a recruiting service. NFL Pro Bowler Aqib Talib was a two-star recruit by Rivals, and Texans defensive end J.J. Watt was a two-star guy.

Meanwhile, our football-crazed culture consumes the latest recruiting reports as if they are gospel, when they are about as accurate as a Sean Spicer press briefing (sorry, this is too much fun).

And when National Signing Day comes Feb. 1, programs will celebrate their “incredible” recruiting classes, which, in reality, absolutely no one has any idea if those classes will be any good.

Take these rankings as nothing more than a fun way to continue the conversation about college football. We are talking about teenagers, where everything is still in play that can derail or propel a kid.

In an effort to be more exact in the inexact science that is high school recruiting, college football teams have added even more jobs to their ever-expanding staffs with the titles of “player personnel director.” NFL staffs have had these positions for years.

With even more cash coming into college football programs, and winning (education?) the priority, teams are doing their best to eliminate the use of scouting services and rank kids with their own eyes and experiences.

This trend is not apt to go the way of your pager, either. This is merely the latest new reality in which TCU and GP must compete. While it’s a compliment to his methods, it takes away an advantage.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

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