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UMass Football To The FBS, Part II: Can The Minutemen Recruit?

In Part 1, I discussed the recent history of UMass' football program and what it'll mean for them at the next level. In sum, UMass is no I-AA pushover and should be ready for the jump. Now to discuss what their prospects are in light of their location in the Northeast.

My interest in the numbers side of recruiting all started from a simple conversation regarding the high number of I-A programs in certain states (Texas, for example, has ten) and what the various ratios of population versus number of I-A teams are for different states. I quickly realized that with their ratios of infinity, Alaska and Montana must have some pretty incredible teams. 

This just got the ball rolling for me in terms of looking at different factors -- geographic and otherwise -- that drive recruiting. I thought it’d be interesting to see how far recruits live from their schools and then be able to say "X% of recruits go to a school within 150 miles." For those interested, an impressive 19 percent of recruits (using 2010 I-A rosters—over 12,000 players) go to college within 50 miles of their hometown, and half are within 200 miles (i.e. the median travel distance for players is just about 200 miles).

This on the surface just tells us what recruits end up doing, but there is another way to interpret this data. It is not surprising that football players, like most college students, prefer to stay close to home (of course others, a minority I would posit, like to go as far away as possible) and so the reduced number of players going to schools far from home is a function of a reduced willingness to travel and the simple fact that the farther away you get, the more options there are to go somewhere closer. But this distance traveled data also tells us something else: it is a lower bound on the percentage of recruits willing to travel a certain distance to play football. That is, if 19 percent of recruits go to a school less than 50 miles away, then 81% of recruits (at least) are willing to travel more than 50 miles. Using this metric, we then have a way of quantifying the effective access a school has to a stockpile of recruits X miles away.

Before I get into all the numbers (coming Friday), it’s helpful to show where players at UMass and their regional rivals in the Northeast (Connecticut, Boston College, Syracuse, Buffalo, Army) are from.  The top map below shows players on the 2010 rosters of the rival schools and the bottom map shows UMass players.  Also note the table which indicates the median distance between players and college for each team.

Note: the player lookup script I use to obtain latitude and longitude coordinates for players fails to find ~4% of players’ hometowns and I’ve therefore excluded them for simplicity.


Median Distance Between School and Recruit

Program Miles
Massachusetts Minutemen 132
Syracuse Orange 238
Buffalo Bulls 288
Connecticut Huskies 316
Boston College Eagles 366
Army Black Knights 771

Looking at the table, Army is, not surprisingly, an outlier due to the nature of the institution, which is truly national. Army, like the other service academies, also has a very large roster which skews the sense of the map a bit.  Boston College, which also has more of a national reach as a prestigious private school is second on the list, although it is worth noting that BC has a large number of players from the Boston area.  But even the three other I-A schools on the list -- two public, one private -- have a median travel distance well above the median for all I-A teams (~200 miles). UMass’s median, on the other hand, is well below the national level, and the maps corroborate the more local flavor of the team. Excluding Army, 37 percent of players on Northeast I-A teams are from the Northeast; in contrast, 56 percent of UMass players are from the Northeast.

In sum, the tables and map indicate that despite the region having about the largest population density in the country, the I-A football programs therein need to cast a wider geographic net than the rest of the country. There are three possible contributions to the much higher Northeast presence on UMass compared to the I-A schools:

  1. the I-AA scholarship cap (63 versus 85 for I-A) means that UMass fills its roster in part through non-scholarship players from the area who would likely go to UMass even without playing football;
  2. UMass has many players who are not I-A talents and are more plentiful in the Northeast;
  3. UMass recruits the Northeast better / more heavily due to the budgetary constraints of a I-AA program. All three probably play a role, but it is likely that the roster composition will become more geographically disperse as UMass transitions to the I-A level.

From the maps and numbers it should be clear that UMass’s roster will be an outlier when it first moves up to I-A, but expect it to change rather rapidly as it offers more scholarships and access to top tier competition. From an optimist’s perspective, the maps also tell two stories: there are a lot of football players from the Northeast but teams in the Northeast have also had success attracting plenty of players from outside the region.

In Part 3 I’ll get into the meat of the modeling algorithm and look at this more quantitatively. I’ll also offer some thoughts on the longer term implications for UMass.