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Boise State's 'Moneyball' success

9/23/2011

"I don't do stars."

Dan Hawkins says it with a laugh and with an intentional double meaning. Now an ESPN analyst, it was Hawkins who transformed the Boise State Broncos football program from a "Where?" program into its current position as America's favorite BCS buster. (Boise enters the weekend ranked fourth in the country.)

But how? How did a school in Idaho, in a non-BCS league, bordered by talent-sucking Pac-10, Big Ten and Big 12 programs figure out a way to build a roster that could compete on a national level?

"USC and Alabama and Ohio State are going to get the five-star guys just because they are USC and Alabama and Ohio State," said Jim Grobe, who led Wake Forest to an improbable ACC title and Orange Bowl berth in 2006. "They still have to work hard at recruiting, but from minute one they're starting on a different level than everyone else. They're in Neiman Marcus and we're at Sears."

As we learn from "Moneyball" -- the film version of which opens Friday -- Billy Beane built the Oakland A's and their light checkbook into an organization that could compete with the Yankees and Red Sox using new math, pushing the art of sabermetrics and bending backward a century of conventional baseball wisdom to find inefficiencies in the market for players. But for Hawkins, successor Chris Petersen, Grobe and their brethren at other decidedly non-superpower programs, the formula is not nearly as complicated as Beane's.

"We just looked for football players," explained Hawkins, who went 53-11 in five seasons, including four WAC championships and three final top-15 rankings. It was Hawkins who built the roster that shocked the world in the Fiesta Bowl the next year after he had left for Colorado. "I say I don't do stars because I don't get too caught up in how many stars a kid has tagged on him in high school," Hawkins said. (For a look at how Boise stacks up in the recruiting numbers compared to the other schools who rank in the nation's top 5, check out the chart below.) "I don't need five stars and I don't need a superstar. I just need a football player."

But what does that mean?

"It means the intangibles," said Fisher DeBerry, head coach at the Air Force Academy from 1984 to 1996 (and Grobe's longtime mentor). On his watch, the Falcons went 169-109-1 with 12 bowl bids and three WAC titles. "We had obvious limitations because of who we were and the kind of student the academy was looking for. But the kid that was two inches too short for Nebraska or Ohio State but is still racking up double-digit tackles every Friday night or finding ways to get the football in his hands on every play, I'll take that kid every time."

Kellen Moore was one of those kids. At Prosser High School, he destroyed nearly every Washington state passing record, was named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year and the Division 2A MVP by the Seattle Times. But the big schools labeled him as too short and weak-armed, and dismissed his ridiculously-good numbers as a by-product of 2A-level competition. In all, 118 FBS schools passed on Moore. Boise State was the only school to offer him a full football scholarship.

"Plain and simple, what we saw was a football player," Petersen said. "His father was his high school coach, so you knew he had the football smarts. His mechanics might not have been textbook, but he always found a way to get the ball into his receivers' hands. And we also knew he'd come in here with something to prove."

It's that last sentence that college football's "Moneyball" coaches live for. They love a kid who has been spurned, who walks onto the field every Saturday with a perpetual "I'll show them" mentality.

"A five-star guy who has been a five-star guy his whole life, there's a tendency to use that as a crutch," Hawkins said. "A three-star guy is hungrier. He's spent his whole life figuring out how to close that gap and how to prove people wrong. Give me 11 of those guys and we'll figure out a way to win more often than not."

Moore's 2007 class provides us with a great example of Boise's ability to mine for and develop talent. That year, the QB was part of a class that included running backs Doug Martin and D.J. Harper, wide receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young, defensive linemen Shea McClellin and Billy Winn and cornerback Brandyn Thompson.

Then, consider this: Moore, the No. 162 QB prospect that year, was the highest-rated player out of this group, a crew that includes three NFL draft picks (Pettis, Young, Thompson) and three more who could be drafted next April (Martin, McClellin, Winn). And it's easy to see why so many of them flew under the radar -- as an example, Harper, the Broncos' second-leading rusher, came out of high school as a 170-pound cornerback (he weighs 210 now).

Many of these players also possess another quality that Boise and schools like it are looking for: a willingness to buy into the long-term goals of the program over short-term personal goals. From Boise to Honolulu to Winston-Salem, every uphill-battling head coach sings the praises of the redshirting process as a means to that end. Grobe is considered the master of that process, so much so that we did a feature on it in ESPN The Magazine.

Redshirting keeps players in the program longer, giving them a full five years to practice, immerse themselves in the playbook and outpace opponents in terms of reps, experience and on-field knowledge. Kellen Moore is in the middle of his fourth season as Boise State's starting quarterback. But he agreed to redshirt his freshman season, which means he's been on campus, in the film room and at practice for five years, not four. The same can be said for fellow fifth-year guys Martin, Harper, Winn and McClellin (who was a grayshirt in 2007).

But selling redshirts means preaching patience. A lot of patience. The cyclical nature of the redshirting process means there will be occasional downward swings, those times when the roster has to be built back up. Wake Forest is coming out of one of those valleys right now.

And asking a player to watch his team play for a year without him is never an easy recruiting sell to a 17-year-old and his parents.

"Florida or USC might hand out a redshirt here and there because they have a half-dozen five-stars at one position and nowhere to put them all," Ray McCartney, Demon Deacons recruiting coordinator and defensive tackles coach, said to me for the magazine piece. "But here we're in the diamond-in-the-rough business. The guy I sign might be a step too slow or 20 pounds too light. After a year of work, he's ready to go. By the time he's a fifth-year senior, he should be a stud with a distinct advantage: He's making his 30th college start against a guy who might be making his third."

Across the board, all of the coaches say that finding a kid who agrees about the benefits of patience accomplishes two tasks at once. The first is obvious. A player who buys into a program-building mentality is, well, helping build the program. The second may be less obvious, but it's no less important.

"It reveals character," said TCU head coach Gary Patterson. "It tells you that you're dealing with a kid who can step back and see the big picture. It tells you that he can think three, four, even 20 years down the road. That's so uncommon in a teenager. It tells you that you're dealing with some maturity. I can't have enough maturity in my locker room."

"More often than not, maturity leads to winning," Petersen said. "I think the numbers, and not just here in Boise, prove that out."