Recruiting students is not a problem for Rice University. Rice is one of the top academic institutions in the nation and boasts some of the best resources and facilities of any school in the country. Recruiting student-athletes, however, has not been as easy. This year, according to Rivals.com, Rice ranks outside the top 100 football recruiting classes of 2016 after national signing day. It is the second straight year Rice has not been ranked on the list.
At first, it is easy to look at the Rice football team and wonder why it cannot seem to secure highly touted high school athletes. After all, the baseball team seems to succeed at recruiting All-American-level talent on a regular basis. Unfortunately, this comparison is unfair. The football program at Rice faces recruiting challenges in 2016 that are based in the structure of modern day NCAA Division I football.
Back in 1991, the baseball program was in a similar place as the football program is today. The team was consistently average, their winning percentage oscillating above and below .500 on a year-to-year basis. In 1992, however, the Owls hired manager Wayne Graham and saw an immediate 13-win improvement. In 1994, after two straight winning seasons, the Owls had an All-American in Jose Cruz, Jr. Finally, in 1996, the Owls won their first conference championship. They have now won 20 consecutive conference titles thanks in large part to their ability to sustain success by recruiting talented players.
The problem with the baseball team’s success is that it relies on a cycle of positive reinforcement. The baseball team wins, which impresses recruits, and these recruits join the baseball team to help it win even more.
More troublingly, however, the baseball team had an advantage in 1991 that the football team does not have in 2016. In 1991, Rice competed in the Southwest Conference, one of the top athletic conferences in the country. It could sell recruits on the opportunity to prove themselves by winning conference championships against such schools as the University of Texas, Austin, Baylor University and Oklahoma University, to name a few. Today, however, Rice’s conference, Conference USA, is considered a less talented league and its champion usually plays in a bowl game that may not be recognizable to recruits.
For these reasons, Rice is not alone in its recruiting struggles. No Conference USA football team is ranked above 69th on the top 100 recruiting classes in the country. There is little the school or coaching staff can do to attract more football players because the current structure of NCAA Division I football restricts upward mobility. Once a team is in a lowly conference, there is little it can do to impress recruits and therefore little it can do to compete with major conference teams.
If Rice can change anything to attract more high-profile recruits, it is the culture surrounding athletics at the university. While the current marketing strategies have at times been strange, they project the right message. If the university can create a culture that promotes athletics, more student-athletes will be likely to want to come to Rice. Through this strategy, the Owls can improve their ranking as No. 11 out of 14 recruiting classes in Conference USA this season.
This ranking, however, is only mildly noteworthy compared to the grander imbalance evident in NCAA football. The poor ranking this year is likely partially due to the success of the University of Houston football team, which propelled its recruiting class from No. 89 last year to No. 44 this year after winning the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Since both Rice and Houston vie for recruits from a similar area, Rice likely lost some recruits because of the Cougars’ success, not because Rice was unattractive.
Instead of looking at this year’s rankings alone, we must focus on the larger issue at hand. As of now, there is virtually nothing Rice can do to earn one of the top 50 recruiting classes in the country. For this reason, we should not place blame on Coach David Bailiff or Rice for a poorly ranked recruiting class. Instead, when searching for reasons highly touted student-athletes do not choose to come to Rice, we need to look no further than the NCAA.