This issue also includes interviews with Husker softball legend Peaches James Keaton and freshman soccer player Eleanor Dale, who has nine international caps with the U17 and U18 England National Teams. Staff photographer John Peterson offers a photo essay on the instant-classic Class A state boys basketball championship game between Millard West and Bellevue West.
Our cover story this month offers a close look at attrition and Nebraska football. Since 2000, nearly 40% of the Huskers’ scholarship signees have left without finishing their careers at Nebraska. That number doesn’t include early departures to the NFL Draft, only those that chose to play elsewhere or not play at all. It is a rate that holds steady year after year, so much so that it might just be the cost of doing business at a power program that isn’t very close to the major talent centers of the sport.
But if Nebraska wanted to recruit to reduce attrition––after all of the resources spent to get a player to Lincoln, it would be nice to keep more than six out of every 10 players the staff hand-selected––could the Huskers do it? What would it take? Would it be worth it, or is the standard way with a consistent attrition rate of 40% the best path?
The March cover story, “Drawn to Depart,” explores those questions. Here’s an excerpt:
Attrition is not solely Nebraska’s problem. Every program has its own breakage rate, so to speak, but it’s likely the Huskers’ is higher than most. It would be nice to answer that question definitively, but tracking attrition on a national level is very much a by-hand process and not all that practical.
In 2016, for a story in our January issue, I did track attrition rate for the Big Ten West schools over the previous four classes which provides something of a direct comparison. Nebraska’s attrition rate for the 2011–14 classes was a division-high 34.1%. (As that included some in-progress classes at the time, it was a little lower than Nebraska’s overall average of the past 10 years. In total, now that the book is closed on that group, the attrition between 2011–14 was 39.1%. It always ends up close to 40%.) Iowa had a similar attrition rate to Nebraska’s, while Northwestern fared the best in the West at 11.1%.
I also checked the attrition rate of the 2015 Power 5 conference champions for that story. Four of the five rates were lower than Nebraska’s, with Oklahoma virtually the same at 34.4%. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that past and current rivals, Oklahoma and Iowa, were the two programs of this small sample that were most like the Huskers. Like Nebraska, neither of those two schools has enough in-state talent to draw upon to fuel a successful Power 5 football program on its own. They also must cast a pretty wide net in recruiting.
Having explored this topic over multiple years now, I decided to take the next logical step and model Nebraska’s attrition rate. If we know a lot about the players who have left and those that have remained with the Huskers, what might that information tell us about how Nebraska recruits and the players it hopes to sign? Are there players that start out as a high attrition risk? Are there comparatively safe bets out there?
Let’s break this into three parts.
There may be no bigger factor when it comes to attrition than distance from home. Between 2011 and 2020, Nebraska’s entire time in the Big Ten (all of the numbers that follow refer to this time span), the average Husker football signee grew up 702 miles from Lincoln. Roughly speaking, a 700-mile radius from Lincoln gets nearly to the Colorado-Utah border to the west; Austin, Texas, to the south; Birmingham, Alabama, to the southeast and Toledo, Ohio, to the east. If you can picture that circle, the average Nebraska signee over the past decade is somewhere on the edge of it.
That’s a bit broader than the target multiple Husker coaches have mentioned over the years, that of the “500-mile radius.” That is still a massive area to emphasize, but Nebraska has signed about a third of its players from within that circle and the data shows that more players from “close by” might be even better.
When you look at attrition as a function of distance from Lincoln, a very clear picture emerges—the farther a player has to travel to get to Lincoln the more likely he is to leave. This is probably what most diehard fans would’ve assumed, but the numbers are pretty stark.
|DISTANCE FROM LINCOLN||ATTRITION RATE||PERCENT OF SIGNEES|
|250 miles or less||18.6%||21.5%|
|751 miles or more||51.0%||49.0%|
Nebraska’s attrition rate for players from less than 250 miles from Lincoln was 18.6%. Its rate with players more than 750 miles from Lincoln was 51% and that rate increased the farther from Lincoln you moved.
While the Huskers have been able to get about 35% of their players within the 500-mile radius, those with the lowest likelihood of leaving, nearly half of their signees come from more than 750 miles away, the group with the highest attrition rate. More than a quarter of Nebraska’s signees come from more than 1,000 miles away—which gets you to traditional recruiting hotbeds like California and Florida—and 58.2% of those signees left before exhausting their eligibility.
We’ve always known that location matters in recruiting and we’ve also known Nebraska’s location is not ideal for that purpose. Viewing attrition through that lens offers the evidence.
Move from Des Moines, Iowa, to Lincoln to play college football and things should feel mostly the same. The weather’s the same. You can get home to see family and friends in the little time off a major college football player is afforded. You can eat at Taco John’s, just like you did back home.
Jump from California or Florida to Nebraska and little probably feels the same. The weather will be a shock. Most of the time, family and friends will have to come you. If you want In-N-Out or Bojangles for a taste of home, too bad. Have you tried Runza?
Some players are up for that challenge and some aren’t. It’s a hard thing to know before you’ve experienced it, and that’s as true for the coaches selecting the players as it is for the players selecting the school. Nebraska has had plenty of great 1,000-milers this century, including all-time greats like Ndamukong Suh and Lavonte David, but it has to spend a lot of scholarships to find them. Its signees from that far away in the Big Ten era have been less definitive cases.
Thirty-two of the 55 players from more than 1,000 miles away that Nebraska signed since 2011 left the program. Of the remaining 23, the biggest successes—according to my informal and individual straw poll—includes wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El, defensive backs Chris Jones and Dicaprio Bootle and current quarterback Adrian Martinez.
Nebraska has to go out in search of the best players it can find. A steadily increasing attrition rate the farther you get from Lincoln is what that costs.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.