When Stars Collide

Decades ago when I was in junior high school, I would retreat to my bedroom to listen to the radio on weeknights for a local show called, “Stars Collide.”

The evening DJ would pit a popular hit song against an up and coming record.  He would play each song back to back and then give the listeners the next 20 minutes to call the radio station to vote for their favorite song.

The winning song would be announced and played once again as a victory celebration.  The next hour, another record would be introduced in an effort to knock-off last hour’s winner.

It was brilliant marketing!  It kept a younger audience intently listening and returning nightly.

Somehow, my grades didn’t seem to suffer (well, not too much) during my weeknight distraction.

Why do so many people feel like the sky is falling in Alabama? 

Returning to 2024, I listened to a few hours of a show from the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum radio podcast last week.  On that particular day, he interviewed the new football coach at the University of Alabama, Kalen DeBoer.

The former head coach for the University of Washington is the lucky (?) gentleman tasked with following in the footsteps of America’s football coaching legend, Nick Saban.  When your predecessor owns the record of seven national championships (one at LSU and six at Alabama), it is imperative that the new coach exhibit a strong belief in his own coaching abilities.

During this ten minute discussion, the new football coach came across as relaxed and confident.  He assured Bama fans that the program will continue to strive to win the national championship each season just like it did under Coach Saban.

Kalen DeBoer checked all of my boxes.  I was impressed.

The former Huskies coach, whose team went 13-1 and lost in the national championship game to Michigan, was as cool as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character sitting down for a cup of coffee at a San Francisco corner café.

The new head football coach cannot project that he has any fear of failure.  Alabama football fans don’t want to hear excuses, either.  They want to compete for the national championship trophy every season.

Of course, Bama fans have become spoiled and are rather intense.  They are also incredibly loyal to their school.

As soon as the radio interview ended with Coach Kalen DeBoer, a legion of Alabama fans started to call the Paul Finebaum show to express their concerns about the new coach.

Why are they worried?  This man has been on the job in Tuscaloosa for little more than a week.

That’s because the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide football team had lost three of their so-called 5-star football players into the NCAA’s evil Transfer Portal after Nick Saban’s retirement announcement.

One caller after another lamented the loss of these three players as if the world was coming to an end.  Why would the loss of three football players cause such panic for Bama fans?

What determines a 5-star high school football player?

First, let’s go inside the numbers.  Here is the breakdown for high school football recruits:

5 Stars – considered to be one of the top 25-30 high school football players nationwide

4 Stars – one of the top 250-300 high school players nationwide

3 Stars – one of the top 750 high school players in the US

2 Stars – considered to be a “mid-major” prospect (smaller conference schools love him)

1 Star – not on the national radar but a good enough prospect for some schools to sign

It’s math time!  (Check my work as I may have been listening to the radio too much that particular night)

133 (FCS upper division college football teams)

X 85 (football scholarships per school)

= 11,305 total football scholarship athletes in the NCAA’s upper division

/4 (years of scholarships per school)

= 2,826 football scholarships are (theoretically) awarded every year by the 133 FCS teams

5 Stars = 1% of the players signed to a scholarship in each year

4 Stars = 11% of the players signed each year

3 Stars = 27% of the players signed each year

2 Stars = ??? of players signed every year (no reliable data is available)

1 Star = the remaining players signed to a scholarship each year

One recruiting evaluator described the top two recruiting levels for high school athletes.

A five-star is someone we project to be an immediate contributor in college and a potential first round NFL draft pick.  A four-star will be an immediate contributor and big-time player in the program and will be between a second- and fifth-round draft pick.”

By the way, these talent evaluators are strictly looking at the player’s athletic talent and physical attributes as they progress through the high school ranks.  Grades, attitude, and other personal red flags are not part of their evaluations.

Did you know that some recruiting services are now scouting football prospects in middle school?

Summer Camps for Stars 

To have the best chance to shine and improve your college scholarship opportunities, a high school prospect should try to attend one or more football summer camps.  If the player doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to attend one of these camps, it becomes harder to receive a top rating from the talent scouts.  These evaluators convene on most of the summer camps to help identify and assign a “star” ranking to the top high school athletes.

The talent evaluators for a ratings service will pass around the video tape of each player to each other afterward.  They will receive input from others in their organization prior to assigning any of the coveted star ratings for an athlete.

By the way, the competition between these rating/recruiting services is quite keen.  To get more business, your service must be the one which most accurately predicts the future results for high school talent.  Reminder – these “star” ratings do not include an evaluation of the character and scholastic issues for each football player.

Here’s another important factor to consider.  The number of stars awarded to a high school sophomore might dramatically change by the time the person graduates in two years.  An overweight defensive lineman as a sophomore may slim down as a senior and become a J.J. Watt type of wrecking ball entering his senior year in high school.

These talent evaluators hold a lot of sway, but they make a lot of mistakes, too.

Does the number of 5-star recruits predict a college’s national championship chances?

No, but having the most physically talented players on your squad doesn’t hurt.

These top high school players (the 1%) earning the coveted 5-star rating have a lot of raw talent.   It also doesn’t mean that the player will work hard to improve every year while attending college, though.  Just like high school players change from year to year, so do college athletes.

Time out!  It’s story time.

I remember hearing Nick Saban tell a recruiting story while he was the head coach at LSU.

When asked at a press conference about losing a particular 5-star prospect, he shrugged the question off and said that the young man may not have been a good fit for his college football program anyway.  Coach Saban’s teams were notorious for featuring strict discipline and focus on the smallest details.   Some football players were simply not a good fit for his program.

The moral of this story?  Sometimes, it’s better to let another team take chances in developing some of the most highly recruited high school athletes.

If these top-rated athletes will accept coaching instruction in college and work hard each season, they do have a better than average chance of becoming a top NFL prospect in a few years, too.

Should Alabama football fans panic after losing a few 5-star recruits?

Bama fans know how hard it was to get some of these players to come to Tuscaloosa in the first place.  From a statistical viewpoint, the loss of these top 1% players is worse than having your lower-rated players opt out and leave the school.

However, there will be another crop of top players available next year for Alabama to recruit.  If the school continues to lose its top recruiting prospects over multiple years, then it’s time to become concerned.  That’s the spot Alabama was in prior to Nick Saban arriving as the school’s new head football coach in 2007.

Don’t forget that college athletics recently became more complicated due to the NCAA transfer portal rules allowing players to jump to other schools nearly every season.  The Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) money being offered to transfers is growing weekly.

In the not-too-distant past, the University of Alabama (and other top schools) could sign a top-ranked player and allow him time to learn the ropes from the sidelines during the first year or two.

The NCAA’s transfer portal and NIL monetary enticements will motivate some players to bolt for another school after just one year on the bench.

Ohio State has already signed two of the three 5-star former Alabama football players.  They opted-out after the announcement of Coach Nick Saban’s retirement.  The players didn’t even give Alabama’s new football coach a chance.

As one of my favorite 1970’s rock and roll songs advises you, “Don’t let the screen door hit you…on your way out!” 

One source indicated that Ohio State has spent about $10 million to sign several transfer portal players.  After several disappointing seasons in Columbus, Buckeyes football coach Ryan Day desperately wants to make a run for the 2024 national championship.

The growing number of college players willing to jump from school to school in pursuit of NIL money and additional playing time sounds a lot like what former Alabama head coach Nick Saban feared years ago.

In defense of today’s college players, sitting on the bench at Alabama (or any other major school) and waiting for multiple years for your turn to play is very hard to accept for most top competitors.  They aren’t used to sitting down.  If another school comes along and waves money and additional playing time as an inducement to transfer, it is understandable why some of these highly recruited high school players are willing to make the change.

Remember, nothing prohibits Alabama or any other college football team from doing the same thing in order to fill the holes left by the exiting players.

This current “Wild West” environment in college athletics may have swayed one of college football’s greatest coaches to cash in his chips and retire a few weeks ago.

Nick Saban is a very smart man.