Ghosts of Recruiting Past: Virginia and Michigan State Round Things Out
Completing Part I of our Ghosts of Recruiting series, we discuss the changed recruiting fortunes of Virginia and Michigan State. Like several schools mentioned here, both have been at various times elite programs but certainly not of the level achieved by an Oklahoma or a USC or a Michigan, the so-called traditional powers. Prospects aren't quite Syracuse-level glum for both, but they aren't exactly their old selves either.
Before going a moment further, I want to clarify something. We've paired teams in this series not so much to link their fates, but simply for organization's sake. Naturally some were conference peers and could go side-by-side like Pitt and Syracuse (Big East) or Washington and UCLA (Pac-10). Michigan State and Virginia are what is leftover, there's no effort here to draw a direct link between them.
Virginia's a bit of an interesting story. For all intents and purposes, Virginia's success in the post-1950 modern college football game begins and ends with one George Welsh. Hired from Navy in 1982 to take over for 1-10 Dick Bestwick, Welsh rapidly became the stoic face of Virginia football for nearly two decades before his retirement in 2000. His breakthrough years were 1984 and 1999, going 8-2-2 -- yes, Virginia, college football used to have tie games -- and then 10-3.
Nothing spectacular, but nothing remotely shameful either in avoiding a losing record from 1987 until his retirement at 6-6.
Slowly then steadily, Welsh found and molded excellent talent, with the program spinning out names like Jeff Lageman, Shawn Moore, Herman Moore, Ray Roberts, Chris Slade, Terry Kirby, James Farrior, Jon Harris, Jamie Sharper, Tiki and Ronde Barber, Anthony Poindexter (who would have been an all-timer before an unfortunate leg injury), Aaron Brooks, Patrick Kerney and Thomas Jones.
Successor Al Groh, hired from the New York Jets and bringing an NFL approach, started out hot. He won nine games in his second season and eight the following two. Along the way he brought in guys like Heath Miller, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Ahmad Brooks and Darryl Blackstock. For whatever reason, he's whiffed lately including one attrition-heavy class a few years ago. Defensive end Chris Long, son of NFL great Howie Long, did go second in last year's NFL draft but that's about it for the last two years, first-round guard Branden Albert aside. Just a sixth rounder and a pair of seventh rounders are all he has to show for two senior classes at a place quietly used to producing some very, very good football players.
Its odd too, because Groh has been blessed with some quality quarterbacks in Matt Schaub and Marques Hagans. Only last year did the quarterback situation fall apart after Jameel Sewell fell out with academic woes and highly regarded Peter Lalich left school. Groh has also pulled in some excellent offensive linemen and linebackers, but he hasn't quite found that impact back or receiver or some more skilled defensive linemen.
Virginia's recruiting did show up on the Phil Steele consensus top 25 recruiting rankings for a while under coach Groh. They were not in the top 25 from 1999-2001, but had the 11th best class in 2002, followed by a No. 12, No. 24 and No. 17 class before going unranked again the last two years.
If Groh can recapture some of that magic from early in his tenure, Virginia will be fine and maybe break through that 8/9 win barrier that's haunted Groh. If not, Virginia will be looking for just its seventh coach since 1960.
Out in East Lansing, Sparty -- like Virginia -- hasn't exactly been left in college football's wake. Coach Mark Dantonio won nine games last year, and as recent as 1999, Nick Saban was putting together a 10-win effort. Problem is Michigan State's glory years really point to "Duffy" Daugherty, who coached from 1954 to 1972.
Daugherty positioned Michigan State among the greats, famously playing Notre Dame to a 10-10 tie in a 1966 season that saw the Spartans finsh 9-0-1. A huge part of Daugherty's success came from bringing in black athletes in an era where it was still uncommon at many college football programs, particularly in the south and SEC.
In a feat likely to never be repeated, four Michigan State players were taken in the first eight picks of the 1967 NFL draft. Defensive lineman Bubba Smith, plucked out of Texas, went first, followed by tailback Clint Jones at No. 2, linebacker George Webster at No. 5 and the late receiver Gene Washington at No. 8.
Eventually a more uniform integration swept college football -- HBO did a great special on this recently -- and Michigan State found itself fighting harder for great players locally as their national efforts slowed.
If you look at the Spartans' draft history, it isn't exactly like they've been hurting for players, but their lowered national profile and a flurry of coaching changes have diluted the overall talent level. Playing second-fiddle in an already so-so talent state like Michigan doesn't help things either. Whatever the reason, they haven't had a first-round pick since massive flop Charles Rogers in 2003.
Oddly, coach Mark Dantonio -- who I hunch will pan out and stabilize things after the exciting if erratic close of the John L. Smith era -- has been a player in Michigan State's recruiting drop. Michigan State did appear in the top 25 of Phil Steele's consensus recruiting rankings four times in a six-year period from 1999 to 2004 (13th, 10th, unranked, 15th, unranked, 16th) before dropping out completely the last two years. The coach those two years? Dantonio.
Things are looking up for 2009, with an impressive ten Rivals.com four-star recruits pledged but unsigned. Among them are a pair of running backs, a quarterback and several offensive linemen. Great for the offense, but we'll see how things work out defensively. This year's class draws heavily from Michigan and more talent-rich Ohio, with a smattering of players from Iowa and Indiana and one from Florida. Not exactly how Daugherty might've done it, but its a different era now.
With a little more like that and more struggles from in-state rival Michigan, perhaps the Spartans can reclaim some of that past recruiting and on-field glory.
Be sure to check out the entire Ghosts of Recruiting series leading up to college football's national letter of intent day
Previously in Ghosts of Recruiting
Ghosts of Recruiting Past: Pac-10 Also-Rans Washington and UCLA
Ghosts of Recruiting Past: Big 12 Slumpers Colorado and Texas A&M
Ghosts of Recruiting Past: Former Masters Miami and Florida State
Ghosts of Recruiting Past: Aging, Embattled Warriors Pitt and Syracuse