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Why Recruiting The Queen City Is So Hard For The Cincinnati Bearcats

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With the 2014 season behind us, and signing day almost upon us, it is time to think about recruiting. The Bearcats recruiting yes, but also of the concept in more general terms. In a lot of ways what follows below is a tangent from another post from the Virginia Tech post game. At issue, where the Bearcats get their players.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The current issue is slightly different from the longest term nitpick about the Bearcats recruiting, namely that UC can't get top players from the city to stay in the city and go to UC. That problem is so old, and so pervasive that it is creating a new problem for some fans. The new problem for them is that UC isn't recruiting nearly enough players from southwestern Ohio and the Greater Cincinnati area in particular. I can see the genesis of that complaint. Combining the 2014 and 2015 classes UC has signed or secured commitments from 5 players from the Dayton and Cincinnati areas. Those five are; Tyrell Gilbert (Princeton), Landon Brazile (Dayton Thurgood Marshall), Bryce Jenkinson (Greenville), Braxton Neal (Lakota West), and Doug Bates (Moeller). For comparisons sake the last class that Butch Jones recruited and signed, the 2012 class, had 8 guys from southwestern Ohio alone.

What Tubs is doing is a change in philosophy, but jumping to the conclusion that the Bearcats need to recruit Ohio better to win big is a problematic logical leap. UC could certainly be a year in year out challenger for the AAC just by recruiting Cincinnati in particular, and Ohio in general. But that is not the standard for this program, the standard is 10 wins, a conference title, constantly flirting with the polls and being in the conversation for an access bowl spot at the end of every season. The Bearcats won't be able to reach that standard if they set aside some arbitrary number of scholarships for local Ohio based products.

Yes Brian Kelly and Butch Jones did sign a ton of local guys, but they also chronically favored local talent by simple virtue of being local. Sometimes that worked out (J.K. Schaffer, Austen Bujnoch, Zach Edwards etc.), sometimes the results were mixed (Chris Williams, Evan Davis, Danny Milligan, Brandon Mitchell etc.) and sometimes it did not  work out at all (Nick Truesdale, Patrick Coyne, Caleb Stacey, Rasheen Jones etc).

Over the last three or four years the Bearcats biggest deficiency has been along the line of scrimmage, the defensive side of it in particular. Contrary to what everyone tends to think about the Midwest being a haven for good linemen, it is very difficult to find difference making defensive linemen in Ohio. It is also very difficult to secure the signature of such a lineman with so many programs actively engaged in recruiting the state. Even then the UC offensive lines haven't exactly been overpowering groups. Don't get me wrong, they have been on the whole very good and technically excellent. At the same time the sense that they have been getting by on technique and a favorable scheme rather than simply mowing people over has been palpable in all of the Bearcats match ups with power 5 teams over the last two seasons.

That is where the Bearcats need help, and that is what Tubs and his staff have been looking for. If the Bearcats restrict themselves to Cincinnati and Ohio in general, as some would have them do, It would make fixing the problem infinitesimally harder. The harsh truth is that Ohio in general doesn't produce the quantity of high caliber talent that they did 20 years ago. The state probably doesn't produce as much talent as it did 10 years ago.

Part of that is demographics; Ohio's population has been essentially static since the 1970 census while sun belt states like Florida, Georgia, Texas, Arizona and California have seen immense increases in their population over the same period, many of them being transplants from the Midwest.

The other part of it, and in my opinion the more important bit, is that is about development. Kids in the sun belt, and the deep south in particular, have the ability to play the game year round, and many do so. There are organized seven on seven competitions from February through July when their seasons at their high schools start. For most there is also a period of spring football with their coaches at said school. All told those kids in the south are getting hundreds, if not thousands, of structured practice and competition reps outside of normal football season. Those reps are geographically specific, meaning that they are not available to kids who live in other parts of the country, including Ohio and the Midwest.

On an individual by individual basis those disadvantages can be overcome. A guy like J.K. Schaffer can go from being a two star talent to a consistent all league performer and one of the best middle linebackers in school history and an NFL player by virtue of being willing to work harder than his peers. That and being one of the smartest and instinctual players I have ever seen wearing Red and Black helps.

That doesn't mean that the built in advantages the south has in developing don't have an impact, they certainly do.

The above is a map showing every four and five star recruit from the 2002 through the 2014 recruiting class. Two main points from me. One, It is impossible to discern where the states of the south even are under all those logo's. The south, as defined by the census bureau, comprises about a third of the American population, and about two thirds of the nations elite football recruits over the last dozen years. In that light is the eight year reign of the SEC atop the college football world even a little bit surprising? They usually win in January, and they always win BIG in February.

The second thing is that Ohio doesn't produce a ton of elite prospects in general, and they hardly produce the number of elite prospects you would expect of a football mad state that also happens to be the 7th largest in the union. There was once a time when Ohio could sustain two nationally elite programs in Ohio State and Michigan and the lions share of talent for one of the better small school leagues in the country, and don't laugh, the MAC was once the best small school league in the country. That time is over now.

Ohio still produces top talent, just not at the rate that it did two or three decades ago. The nationalization of football recruiting has brought more and more competition into the state from the SEC in particular, but from other conferences as well.  For example two crucial pieces of the Oregon offense this year Pharaoh Brown and Dwayne Stanford* are Ohio natives. USC has made consistent inroads into the state of Ohio for elite guys at positions of need. The effect of it all is having more and more dogs fighting over a perpetually shrinking bowl of food. Nowhere is that dynamic more active than it is in Cincinnati. All of the Big 10 recruits the area, as well as Notre Dame, Kentucky, Louisville, West Virginia and Tennessee.

Yet people still want to know, or can't figure out for themselves, why Tommy Tuberville is choosing to find his food somewhere else. If it was possible for Tubs to find the kind of players he needed to make UC better along the line of scrimmage without leaving the tri-state area he would do just that. However he can't do that because there are so many factors that are working against UC

For a start many, if not most, coaches at the power programs in the Cincinnati area take a very dim view of the University of Cincinnati in general, and the football program in particular. The anecdotes supporting that theory are legion. The Monty Madaris saga has become something of an urban legend among Cincinnati recruitnik's. This summer Larry Cox asked/begged Braxton Neal to call Kentucky as soon as he heard that Neal accepted his UC offer. Steve Specht hasn't been actively hostile to UC in the way that other local coaches are, but the fact that the last Bomber to accept a UC offer was Danny Milligan in the class of 2008. If it was just the coaches who were at the center of the problem it would be more manageable.

But there is a bigger problem, and it's a slightly more general problem. Stated as plainly as possible a large percentage of people from Cincinnati, in particular those who have spent their entire lives in the area, have a perception of the University of Cincinnati that stopped updating round about 1985. To those people UC is still synonymous with crime, blight, darkness and concrete. To them UC is still the commuter school with a parking lot for a campus where no one stuck around at night let alone the weekends.

Now anyone who has stepped foot on campus in the last 5 years knows in an instant just how wrong that perception is. The degree of change that has gone on in recent years is staggering. I graduated in 2010, I moved to my current home in Norwalk, Ohio not long after. I just got back to Campus for the first time in four years in November. Even as someone who has stayed generally up to date on development in Cincinnati through Urban Cincy and other like minded sites seeing the transformation of the areas around campus was amazing.

The physical changes are the most visible manifestation of how UC has changed over time, but it’s not the only thing that has changed. What has once a commuter school with lax admission standards and a minimal academic reputation is now one of the most widely respected research institutions in the country. It has a billion dollar endowment, one of the most robust co-op programs in the country, rising admission standards and the biggest enrollment of students in it's history. UC has world class programs at CCM, DAAP and the College of Engineering. The University of Cincinnati is, in every sense of the phrase, a world class institution.

But if you drive 20 miles north of campus to Mason, or West Chester; or drive six miles down MLK and Madison to Hyde Park. If you go to those kind of places and stop 10 people at a bar or at the grocery store and try to have a conversation about the University of Cincinnati you would be amazed by what you hear back. Chances are two or three will be able to talk with lucidity about how much UC has changed, two will ask you what you think of Huggins and the rest of them will be stunned when you tell them in the course of conversation that you went to UC for four years and managed to not get robbed even once. That's a joke, but the disconnect between what UC actually is at this moment and what Cincinnatian's think of it is very real.

When I was in Cincinnati in mid November I stopped at Penn Station in Mason to get a meal in me before I commenced the three and a half hour drive home. In the course of my stay at PS I struck up a conversation with a nice lady in her mid 40's. Mainly we bitched about the weather to start,  and in doing so I expressed my wish for clear weather for my drive home. Which led her to ask where home was for me. I dutifully explained using the method frequently employed while I lived in Cincinnati; relative positioning of Norwalk to Cedar Point. At this point we had our food and she and her husband took a seat at the booth across the aisle from my table. I thought the conversation was over, but apparently her curiosity had been piqued. She asked what I was doing in town and so I told her; I went to the football game Thursday, the basketball game Friday, saw some old friends and got down to campus to check it out that morning. She asked me if I graduated from UC, to which I enthusiastically replied yeah. Before I even finished with the 'eh' sound in yeah she spit out "why?"

What stuck with me wasn't that she asked why, why is a reasonable question to ask in almost any situation and certainly that one. It was the way it was asked, the way it was uttered with disdain and contempt, it was as if she slipped into a time machine, put on her finest 80's attire and adapted the most noxious valley girl accent she could muster to ask why I went to the University of Cincinnati. So I politely explained to her all the reasons why I was drawn to UC.

Because of the art and architecture of the place, because I really wanted to be a part of the Co-Op program, because I fell in love with the place the minute I stepped foot in the TUC atrium, because I couldn't imagine spending my college years anywhere else. She listened politely and responded by saying, and I am paraphrasing here, that she had never been able to think of UC in the terms that I could. Because the UC that I spoke of was not the UC that she remembered, and to be fair to her, it wouldn't have been the current UC for her at that point in time, and that is the crucial point.

To a lot of people in and around Cincinnati that outdated perspective is their default view of UC. It is not that way for everyone, obviously. However the 1980's stereotype of the University of Cincinnati is still out there in the Queen City, and it is incredibly pervasive. It is also an ongoing problem with the Bearcats attempts to recruit elite level local kids in basically every sport. Yancy Gates is the only exception to the rule in the last decade.

Every coach since Rick Minter took the UC job and said that one of their main objectives was to recruit better locally. Tuberville is no exception. What he found out is what everyone who has had this job since Tony Mason has found out; that for a couple of very complicated reasons starting with the divided loyalties of the area and ending with all the factors explained above recruiting locally is bloody difficult for UC. What's different about Tubs is that he doesn't waste time banging his head on a brick wall. Make no mistake, there is no more fitting a metaphor for trying to convince a local four star recruit to stay in town and play for the Bearcats.*

*This is your friendly reminder that in the history of the rivals database (which goes to the 2002 class) precisely 1 (one) four star recruit who has suited up for the Bearcats without starting somewhere else first, Chris Williams. That's the list.

Tubs offers all of the top players locally, and he tends to offer them early in the process. In the 2015 class they offered Justin Hilliard, Elijah Taylor, George Brown Jr., Noah Listerman, Jordan Thompson, C.J. Stalker and Geoerge Asafo-Adjei and they were among the first to offer all of them. Of those guys only Brown gave the Bearcats a semi-serious look. So when top local talent crosses the Bearcats off the list, and they always seem do Tubs and Co cast as wide a net as they can looking for their kind of guys. The real difference between Tubs and the guys who came before him is that his name allows him to case a much wider net than BK or Butch Jones could when they had this job.

That Tommy Tuberville can convincingly walk into a living room and sell UC in the deepest parts of Georgia or Arkansas is something that neither Jones nor Kelly could do while here. Given Tuberville's history, and most of his staff's as well, when the top local guys turn their eyes up at UC they should look south. That's what they know, that's where they are from and, most importantly of all, that's where the players they need are.The case study for this post really should be Cortez Broughton.

Broughton is a guy with a spectacular highlight film, who flew way under the radar for a couple of different reasons. He comes from a small town on the outskirts of Warner Robins, Georgia. The high school he attended opened in 2010 and has no history of producing high level talent, and thus falls well off the beaten path for recruiters in an otherwise extraordinarily heavily recruited state. Broughton was labeled a two star recruit and the Bearcats only other competition for his signature was Middle Tennessee State, from whom the Bearcats flipped him. There is absolutely no way that Brian Kelly or Butch Jones would even find Broughton, let alone convined him to come to school but Tuberville has a knack for finding these kind of guys and keeping them as under the radar as possible.

Guys like Cortez Broughton are what you can get if you don't insist on limiting yourself strictly to Cincinnati and Ohio for your recruiting. If Broughton was a local kid who attended a powerhouse like Moeller, St. X, or Colerain he would have been a national recruit with offers from everyone, and he never would have considered the Bearcats. The uncomfortable truth for those thumping the "Tubs needs to recruit the city better" bible is that the only people who can seem to see UC for what it is live outside the I 275 loop. That's the UC problem right now, and until it is remedied in some unforeseen way it is going to continue being a problem.