Hot Reads: Nebraska's New Football 'Factory' is Under Construction
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: Nebraska’s New Football ‘Factory’ is Under Construction

February 23, 2018

Let's take a trip to a hypothetical world where we can perfectly quantify football talent. In this world, the value of a team's talent – we'll use dollars, something people are used to quantifying, just to make things easier – determines which team wins most of the time. A team with $1,000 talent will beat a team with $800 talent 90 percent of the time. Chalk up the other 10 percent of the time to coaching, random bounces, injuries, weather, motivation, culture and so on, but when two teams with the same talent meet all of those things become the only things that determine the winner.

This isn't much different from the way college football actually operates. The winning percentage for the more-talented teams is a little bit higher, but the key difference in this example is that we know the exact "talent value" of each team. 

Now let's say your team hired a new coach, and that coach is formulating his talent acquisition philosophy. We already know talent matters. That alone determines the winner 90 percent of the time. The unknown here is how the new coach will maximize his team's talent value.

He could do what Team A does, which is annually recruit $200 classes, some of the best in the country year in and year out. Those classes will get a little better once they're in the program. Combine them over four years and Team A's talent value is $1,000 each season, which is good enough for it to annually be in the top 10 and in the discussion for conference championships.

The new coach could also try to replicate Team B's method. Team B also racks up top-10 finishes and competes for conference titles, but it gets there a different way. Most of the time Team B signs $75 worth of talent but those classes get a lot better once they're in the program. Team B's annual talent value is also $1,000.

In this hypothetical world the new coach has total freedom to choose one of those two paths. He isn't restricted by geography, money or prestige. Knowing that your team will end up with the exact same talent value no matter the choice, which path do you hope your coach chooses?

To cut right to the point: What is the real value of development?

I ask for a couple of reasons. In the real world team's don't have total freedom to choose how they reach their talent value (which is, of course, never quite as quantifiable as the example above). Nebraska, for example, is probably never going to be the team that maximizes its value primarily through recruiting. It would have to import a lot to do that and supply chains can be unreliable.

The good news for Husker fans, however, is that Scott Frost seems to value development quite a bit. Maybe it's a reflection of what he witnessed while at Nebraska. Maybe it's a reflection of recruiting realities. Probably, it's some of both. Whatever the specific blend, Frost made it pretty clear he's there in interviews with Steve Sipple and Tom Shatel on Thursday.

From the Lincoln Journal Star:

If you're going to build Nebraska the right way, it's not going to be by going out and recruiting six five-star kids and putting them on the field and thinking it's going to happen overnight. It's going to happen the Nebraska way. Through hard work, through team building, through development in the weight room. It's going to be a process to get it there. It'll take time. But in my opinion, that's the right way to do it here.

Frost said virtually the same thing to the Omaha World Herald, and offered an interesting comparison for the Nebraska football of Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne:

The factory was built, the right kids were brought in and they were developed the right way, gave them the right food, the right nutrition, the right support, and showed them the way. And every year, there were three or four or six kids who were in the program for four or five years (who) emerged and helped us in. That’s the right way to build it. That’s why it’s going to take us a while to put it in place.

"Factory" makes for an interesting comparison. What do factories do? If a factory is operating with efficiency it turns out replicable and reliable products. You know what you're getting.

In theoretical college football, a factory can produce similar products through the value of its raw materials or the quality of its craftsmanship. In reality it's always going to be some combination of both, but Nebraska at its best was always higher on the craftsmanship axis. It had to be.

And while I'm not a coach, I suspect the value in valuing that part of the equation comes in the form of culture. As new defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has said, "Culture beats scheme 100 out of 100 times."

How often does culture also beat talent? That's a question usually reserved for the upper reaches of the sport. Fresno State can have a better culture than Florida State, but the Seminoles are winning that game the vast majority of the time anyway. Close the talent gap enough, however, and eventually something else has to determine the winner. Based on my outside observations of teams – not just the great Nebraska teams of old, but more modern examples as well – there seems to be great value in not just the product but how it's crafted.

That's why my answer to the little story problem above is always Team B.

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