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The NFL's Farm System

Major NCAA colleges provide the training ground for future pro football stars
| By Kenneth Shouler | From Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

Let me come clean right from the start. I only get excited about college players once they make it to the pros. This is roughly equivalent to saying I care little about them in college. Oh, once a year people like me might sit down to watch for about 10 minutes when a national championship is on the line. But generally speaking, my type wouldn't miss raking wet leaves on a rainy day to stay home and catch the Boilermakers duel the Fighting Irish. The Sooners versus the Cornhuskers? I'm outta here smoking an Astral on a walk. Why? For the same reason that I don't get crazy about minor league baseball. To me it's a junior circuit, a conduit for the pros, a lesser station toward a greater destination. College football is just a means to an end. I prefer the end.

The pro game is the proving ground. You want to know the best college teams? You need to wait and see how many players they put on pro rosters. College players -- like college writers, biology majors or pre-law students -- are in a state of becoming, but not a state of being. I don't want to see Meredith Willson's The Music Man in rehearsals. Just bring on the opening night.

The pro enthusiast with little use for college ball is easy to spot. He makes remarks like, "I think Joe Montana is one of the three greatest QBs of all-time -- and he played for Notre Dame, right?" Or, "Man, what a linebacker that Ray Lewis is! And I hear he was great at Florida State, or was it Florida? No, Miami." When it comes to college players, I only learn about them after the fact. I remember when I read that Tony Dorsett had set the all-time rushing college record with 6,082 yards. I learned about it years after he left Pitt and played for Dallas. Collegiate achievements lack intrinsic value; it was as if I came at his college career through the back door. And I didn't know that Rickey Williams broke Dorsett's record with 6,279 yards in 1998 until 2000, when he was a latter-day Saint.

To me, neither Dorsett's nor Williams's records would stick unless they backed them up with great pro careers. Dorsett already has, making it to the Hall of Fame, but the jury is out on Williams. The pro test isn't some three- or four-year test. It's more enduring. And much more demanding.

"The pro game is so much faster. Every guy has speed and quickness. A defensive lineman that runs a five flat (40-yard dash) is considered fast in college. Here he's a slowpoke," says New York Giants coah Jim Fassell. "The bottom line is the game is just so much faster -- referees and coaches see it and players know it." And size? "I remember ten years ago when I broke into the league, there wasn't a single NFL team that averaged 300 pounds on the offensive line. Only a few teams had 300-pound linemen. Now everyone does. Denver is the only team that doesn't average 300 pounds. The pro game is just dramatically different; they're just bigger, faster, stronger." The difference between football in the NCAA and the National Football League is like the difference between a motor scooter and a Harley.

I know this attitude sounds vaguely elitist. Some of you are cussing, "What an idiot," while others think I'm callous. Still others think I'm all three. I understand. College football zealots are always trying to reason me out of my "pro position" and get me to see why the college game is so passionate, so pure. I intellectually recognize there are near-great players in college who just aren't able to ascend that last step of the talent pyramid. Others miss their big chance because of injury. I know that my lack of interest in college games means I miss the pageantry of the college sport -- the cheerleaders, the bands, and all those brassy marching songs I don't recognize. I miss out on being a spectator for those special clap-clap (pause) clap-clap-clap Kodak moments.

Guys like me take the most recent date and work backwards. So when I find out that the champion Baltimore Ravens have four players from the University of Miami, I suddenly think more highly of Miami. A great linebacker, Ray Lewis, was one of them. Now I'm hooked. I start wondering what college has put together the best active pro all-star team? Which college would put out the best all-time All-Star team? This is a fun exercise.

But before some of you puff out your chests with alumni spirit, know that it isn't Nebraska or Miami or Michigan or Oklahoma that sets the pace in putting players in the pros. The top pro-producing colleges are Florida State and Notre Dame, both of which have 41 active players in NFL uniforms. Florida State? I'm not too surprised. The Seminoles ranked in the top 20 this season. But Notre Dame? The Irish were so far down in the rankings that you'd need the Hubble telescope to spot them. But facts are facts, and Florida State and Notre Dame have bragging rights among active NFL players.

Here are some other facts. There are 1,729 active players in the NFL, representing 251 colleges and universities. There were 1,641 players on Opening Day rosters. But NFL rosters are very fluid due to the rate of injuries, and as of October 8, seven teams had open spots on their rosters and 93 players were on the injured reserve list, the physically unable to perform list, or otherwise inactive. If 1,729 players sounds like a large number, consider that approximately 56,500 "student athletes" played football in the 1998-99 season in Division I, II and III NCAA football (the number doesn't even include players in junior colleges and community colleges). Of those, approximately 12,600 will still be playing as seniors. Of those, approximately 250 -- or about 1.9 percent -- will be drafted by a pro team. So as the talent pyramid narrows dramatically, college players fall by the wayside and look for work like other grads.

The final exam for college teams asks the same question as it does for college players: how did you do in the pros?

Since there are 41 pro players apiece from Florida State and Notre Dame, it means that there is an average of more than one player for each of those colleges for each of the NFL's 31 teams. Seven other schools own the same distinction: Miami (Florida) and Michigan with 37 each; Texas A&M, 34; Nebraska, 33; Ohio State, 32; and Florida and Penn State with 31 each. Tennessee rounds out the top 10 with 29.

Why are those schools leading the way?

The best explanations have to do with tradition, recruiting power and the pool of players available to different colleges. Bobby Bowden, the Florida State coach who won national championships in 1993 and 1999, doesn't see much mystery in it. "We're recruiting that kind of player," he says with that familiar Southern lilt. What does he mean by "that kind of player?" "A player that has the potential to play professional football. It's not that we look for that; we're looking for the guy who plays the best at our level." Indeed, the Seminoles, besides owning the dubious distinction of beating the Atlanta Braves to the "tomahawk chop," have set records that may remain unequaled. "But we're kind of messin' it up this year," Bowden said after his team lost two of its first seven games. Still, no other team in Division I history won 10 or more games in 14 consecutive seasons as the Seminoles did from 1987 through 2000. They ended each of those seasons ranked in the top five in the Associated Press poll -- another record. From 1987 through the first nine games of the 2001 season, they won 158 games and lost 21 (.883).

No wonder Florida State is at the top of the NFL ranks. Consider: it leads the NFL in linebackers with eight and is tied with Notre Dame with nine defensive backs and eight defensive linemen. The Seminoles also have nine Pro Bowl players in the NFL, which also ties Notre Dame. University of Southern California players lead with 32 overall Pro Bowl appearances, due mostly to two players, Bruce Matthews, the Tennessee Titans guard, with 13 Pro Bowl trips, and San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, with 10. The University of Washington leads the NFL in quarterbacks with five. Tennessee and Auburn lead with six running backs each. Michigan heads the class with five tight ends and is tied with Florida and Ohio State with seven wide receivers. Nebraska and Wisconsin set the pace with eight offensive linemen each.

Greg Mattison, the defensive coordinator and defensive line coach at Notre Dame, isn't surprised that Florida State and Notre Dame head the pro list. "The caliber of teams we play really gets our kids ready to be able to play pro football," he says. "At Notre Dame, more than anywhere else, the pro teams know they're going to get a disciplined classy young man and a very educated young man. You check out graduation rate, and you'll see it's higher than other schools, too." Mattison was right: of the top 10 listed schools here, Notre Dame graduated 85 percent of its students, far ahead of most of the others. This is worth mentioning, since some believe, as Bowden and Mattison do, that Notre Dame's football recruiting loses much of its power right off, due to its demanding academic standards. Adds Phil Savage, the director of college scouting for the Baltimore Ravens, "The big schools have the pick of the litter of high school players. Those players are attracted to the big-time, major college programs. A kid goes into the athletic department of those schools on a visit and thinks, ëI can become an All-American there in that tradition.'"

Recruiting reach and available money have a lot to do with getting pro-potential college players. "Money is the life blood of college recruiting," says Bobby Grier, the associate director of pro scouting for the Houston Texans, who will become the NFL's 32nd team this fall. "But the biggest thing is probably the tradition. If you're playing in Georgia and someone from Florida State is coming to recruit you, you know that Florida State has been in the top five for the last 14 years. Just stop and think about some of the players they've turned out. If you think you're a good player, you're going to go to that school."

Tradition also explains why some schools turn out more players at specific positions. "There was once a time when you would look at Penn State and say they were Linebacker U," says Grier, who has scouted and coached for various clubs since 1966. "They recruited kids who were excellent athletes and good linebackers. And so if you were a linebacker, you wanted to go to Penn State."

Fassell agrees that schools once had set identities. "It used to be that colleges played a certain style of football," he recalls. "It used to be that USC had the running backs, Notre Dame had the linemen, but it's changing. There was also a period of time when you could name Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska as running teams. They all ran the ball. But when I looked at the Texas-Oklahoma game about a year ago, Oklahoma was throwing it all over and Texas was throwing the hell out of the ball. The University of Washington getting [so many NFL] quarterbacks is just happenstance. I think it was just an oddity that they were with Washington."

Maybe. The highest-rated quarterbacks in the NFL in 2001 have included Kurt Warner (Northern Iowa) and Brett Favre (Southern Mississippi) in the National Football Conference, and Rich Gannon (Delaware) and Vinny Testaverde (Miami) in the American Football Conference. But the profusion of University of Washington quarterbacks in the NFL may not have resulted entirely by chance. Once Warren Moon and a number of other Huskies had established themselves in the pros, recruiting top quarterbacks became easier for Washington. As former Huskies coach Don James would say to prospects: "Young man, you come and play for us, and just look -- you'll get a chance to go into the NFL."

James, now retired, coached the Huskies for 18 years (1975-92) and watched many quarterbacks during that time. "In actual recruiting we just got lucky," concedes James, not claiming that coaching genius is responsible. "We got a couple of guys [like Moon] early in my career. It was interesting -- some high school coach was quoted as saying that with my offense, we'll never prepare a quarterback for the pros." He laughs.

During James's tenure, the Huskies were in the top 10 in the final polls just six times. But the list of quarterbacks is impressive. Moon, who finished his NFL pro career in 2000 with a record 70,553 combined NFL and Canadian Football League passing yards, finished at Washington in 1977 and spent the next six seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL. After Moon came Steve Pelleur (Dallas and Kansas City, 1984-91), Tom Flick (four teams, finished with San Diego, 1981-86), Hugh Millen (1986-95, four teams, finished with Denver), Gary Conklin (Washington and San Francisco, 1990-95), Mark Brunell (1993-present, now with Jacksonville), Chris Chandler (1988 to the present, now with Atlanta), Billy Joe Hobert (1995-present, now with Indianapolis), Brock Huard (1999-present, Seattle), Damon Huard (brother of Brock, 1997-present, now with New England), and rookie Marques Tuiasosopo (Oakland).

The Huskies' succession of quality quarterbacks was largely homegrown. "Most teams rate their recruits, let's say one to four at each position, like we do for quarterbacks," says James. "Then we try to give the priority to the Northwest kids first. In other words, we wouldn't try to go out and recruit a kid for Washington from California if our kid rated as high. I don't think we want to go play the University of Arizona, with a quarterback playing for them from our area and kicking our fanny. We got lucky with Flick, Pelluer, Chandler, Conklin and Billy Joe Hobert -- they were all in-state kids. We also had an excellent QB coach, Ray Dorr. Hugh Millen mentioned that he was better prepared for college games than he ever was for pro games."

Prior to coaching Washington, James had used recruiting successes at other schools as a selling tool. "I coached at Florida State [in the 1960s] when Fred Biletnikoff was there, and I can assure you when Freddie made All-American and went into the pros, we sold that for years. I sold it at Kent State [in the early 1970s] that I had coached Fred Biletnikoff, and then we got Jack Lambert at Kent State." Lambert went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. "We were telling linebackers that we could develop linebackers, too, saying, 'Just look at that skinny guy playing for Pittsburgh.'"

Decades later, recruiting success still breeds more success. "If you're a cornerback in the state of Florida, you're going to look at Florida State because they've had Deion Sanders, and every kid thinks he can be the next Deion," says Savage, the Ravens scout. Ike Reese, a fourth-year linebacker on the Philadelphia Eagles, agrees. "When I was 17 I was thinking, ëWhat teams do I always see playing on TV?' A lot of it has to do with exposure. I went to Michigan State because they normally breed linebackers. So that's where I wanted to go to get to the next level."

Even small colleges -- like Division I-AA schools Western Illinois and Hofstra, which often reach the top rankings, can boast of the players they put on pro rosters. Western Illinois has eight players in the NFL -- including Bryan Cox, the three-time All Pro linebacker with New England -- and Hofstra has five. "Our big kick in September was when the 49ers played the Jets on 'Monday Night Football,'" says Hofstra head coach Joe Gardi. "There were three starters introduced that were Hofstra grads, and Dennis Miller laughs, 'They've got more players in this game than Notre Dame and Penn State.' So that was great for recruiting for us." It's true: the three starters, 49ers safety Lance Schulters and tackle Dave Fiore and Jets end Wayne Chrebet, all attended the Long Island school. Throw in backup San Francisco quarterback Gio Carmazzi, and Hofstra had four players suit up for one game. DeMingo Graham, a guard with San Diego, is the fifth active Hofstra grad.

"I've been here since 1990," says Gardi. "That year we had a draft choice with the Seattle Seahawks, Eric Ringoen. But Wayne Chrebet was the bell cow and set the stage. The amazing thing is that Wayne Chrebet came here and never got a dime to go to Hofstra. He came from Garfield High in New Jersey and we were not scholarship at the time. We couldn't give scholarships. He paid his own way for four years."

Chrebet continued to do it the hard way, getting signed as an undrafted free agent by the Jets in 1995. In six years the diminutive wide receiver whose modus operandi is finding cracks across the middle has become a favorite in the Meadowlands. Chrebet has caught 400 passes for 5,085 yards.

"I'm sad to say, but I lose some players that go to I-A," Gardi says. "When I go around recruiting and speak at banquets, I tell the people, 'You're going to send your youngsters to I-A schools and they're going to have a tough time playing and they're going to lose for so many years, and if they came to us we'd make them pros.' People get ticked at that. It's cocky and arrogant but it's the way we feel."

Talk of the changing character of the college game leads invariably to talk about the state of Florida, where the talent pool is getting deeper and faster than in any other state. Of the top six high schools that have sent players to the NFL, four are in Florida. Glades Central High in Belle Glade, Florida, leads the way with seven NFL players. Among states, Florida ranks third, with 169 NFL players, behind California, with 198, and Texas, with 173, No wonder, then, that three of the top 10 teams at putting players in the pros are Florida State, Miami and the University of Florida.

If you piece together a pro fantasy team based on the colleges its players came from, the University of Miami would likely lead the way. Consider: Vinny Testaverde, one of the top-ranked quarterbacks in the NFC, would be its quarterback. Edgerrin James, the third-year Indianapolis back who led the league in rushing in 1999 and 2000, would start at running back. The defense would include linebacker standouts Jessie Armstead from the Giants and Ray Lewis from Baltimore. Other defensive stalwarts from Miami would be Cincinnati safety Darryl Williams and Tampa Bay's perennial Pro Bowler, Warren Sapp. With that kind of offensive and defensive firepower and balance, the team would fill in the rest of the 22 positions and it would be hard for anyone to beat it.

What college would field the best all-time team? Is it Ohio State? Notre Dame? Maybe Oklahoma?

Don't get me started. That's a subject for another day.


Kenneth Shouler is the author of The Major League Baseball Book of Fabulous Facts and Awesome Trivia (HarperCollins).