How to win without blue-chip recruits

TCU's Gary Patterson is much more interested in winning in November, December and January than he is in February.

His track record is proof. The Horned Frogs have posted four top-5 finishes in the final polls over the past seven years and one other top-15 finish.

Now, go back and find a top-10 signing class TCU has reeled in during that period.

You won't.

In fact, good luck in finding a top-20 signing class.

In the past four classes, the Horned Frogs' highest finish in the recruiting rankings was 37th. Not bad for a team on the cusp of making the inaugural College Football Playoff this past season and a one that's already showing up near the top of all the early preseason polls for 2015.

"I tell people all the time, 'Yeah, we'd love to recruit a four- or five-star player, but we want him to have a two-star mentality or even a walk-on mentality, somebody that's going to keep rolling up his sleeves and not be happy with where he is,'" Patterson said. "Those kids have a chance to be a lot more successful if they approach it that way, and we have a lot better chance to develop them and fit them into our system."

Gary Pinkel and Missouri have followed a similar plan. So have Michigan State and Mark Dantonio. Stanford and Wisconsin have also outperformed their recent recruiting rankings.

And, yes, one of only two FBS teams over the past five years to finish in the top 10 in the final polls all five years, Oregon, hasn't exactly been a recruiting darling. The Ducks' signing class rank over the past four years has averaged 21.5.

Granted, the other team finishing in the top 10 of the polls each of the past five years is Alabama, and the Crimson Tide have had four straight No. 1-ranked signing classes.

Recruiting great players has been and always will be a prerequisite to winning championships, but so much more goes into evaluating those players and turning them into great players at the college level than merely counting stars.

At Missouri, they have a name for their developmental program. It's called "Mizzou Made," which was coined by former Missouri safety and graduate assistant Kenji Jackson, who's now on Dave Steckel's staff at Missouri State.

"Over the years, people would look at us in recruiting and say, 'Well, these aren't the four- and five-star players that some of the other schools are getting, but a bunch are getting drafted and we're winning at a pretty high level,'" said Pinkel, who's entering his 14th season at Missouri. "'Mizzou Made' is something we sell, something we believe in. In the last eight years, we might have ranked 34th or something like that in recruiting, but winning-wise, we're in the top five as far as championships and winning 10 or more games. So you say, 'Shoot, you didn't recruit very well or your evaluations didn't come out very well as far as some of the services.' But the service that's important to us is ours, and we're pretty good at what we do in identifying players and pretty good at what we do in developing them."

Missouri, entering its fourth season in the SEC, has played in the past two SEC championship games. The Tigers have won 10 or more games in five of the past eight seasons. And since 2009, Missouri has produced 17 NFL draft picks, which includes nine players selected in the first and second rounds.

That list will only grow in the 2015 draft. Defensive end Shane Ray is being projected as a top-five pick, while fellow defensive end Markus Golden could go as early as the second round.

The vast majority of the Missouri players being drafted weren't highly rated players coming out of high school. The Tigers finished 18th in the recruiting rankings this year, their highest finish since joining the SEC, but were perched in the 30s the previous three years.

"I heard we were top 20 in recruiting in one thing this year and top 25 in another," Pinkel said. "For me, it doesn't really matter. That's no disrespect to anybody who analyzes these players and classes, and I know people go crazy over that stuff. The alumni and fans love it. I get all that. But we just do what we do and believe in it."

Projecting where a player is going to play in college can be tricky and factors heavily into some of these schools taking a prospect who maybe didn't have all the measureables and fanfare coming out of high school and making him a top college player.

"Here's the thing: Just because you're a great player in high school doesn't make you a great player in college," Patterson said. "I always tell them, 'You can't have a ceiling when it comes to work ethic.'"

Some of Patterson's best players at TCU played an entirely different position in high school than they did in college, and his preference is to find kids who played several different sports in high school.

"Those kids a lot of times have an upper level," Patterson explained. "Maybe they haven't been in the weight room or trained to be solely a football player 12 months out of the year. That's a big deal. We've had guys who were great baseball players who had great hand-eye coordination and really good basketball players whose strength was going up and getting the ball.

"You're looking and trying to find an upside that's high in different areas that can make them what they need to be. We try to make it a very scientific type of situation, to be honest, but sometimes it can be a crap shoot."

Pinkel has a similar philosophy. He's looking for athletes rather than polished football players.

"A guy doesn't have to be a great football player," Pinkel said. "I'm interested in having an athletic player, a player who can run and a player who's physical. We can teach them how to play football and develop them. You're looking at their vertical jump, standing long jump, speed potential. In our evaluation system, those are the things we're looking for."

Case in point: Sean Weatherspoon was a little-known player out of East Texas who Pinkel said looked better as a receiver than a linebacker in high school. He went on to be a three-time All-Big 12 player at Missouri and was drafted in the first round.

Patterson keeps a tape of every signing class, and then on signing day when everybody has sent in his paperwork, he goes back and watches all of the tapes and compares his most recent signing class to the others.

He's quick to note two of the most productive defensive ends he ever coached, Jerry Hughes and Tommy Blake, were guys he never saw play the position in high school.

"They were both running backs," Patterson said. "The Schobel brothers were wide receivers and quarterbacks before they became defensive ends and tight ends. You go out and find athletes that have the football sense to become all those other things, but you also have to have enough confidence in yourself that you can change them, and you have to have some success doing it."

At Michigan State, Missouri and TCU, one of the common denominators is that the same head coach has been in place for at least eight seasons and has been able to maintain a level of staff continuity.

"I made a decision to bring in people who were good teachers," said Dantonio, who's entering his ninth season at Michigan State. "I knew if we brought in the right people that there would be an opportunity to remain consistent and keep continuity, and that's what has happened here.

"We've tried to create a situation where we have a person of impact at every position, whether it's our trainer, strength coach, position coach or academic adviser. I think our program has grown, and I continually say that we win here because of chemistry. Guys overachieve, and we've won."

Indeed, the Spartans haven't had a signing class in the past four years ranked higher than 29th nationally, but have finished in the top five of the polls each of past two years and won the Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships in 2013.

"Coach D goes for the guys who are Michigan State-quality guys," said Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, who elected to return for his senior season. "How many five-star guys do we have on our team? Not many. How many four-star guys do we have? Not many. But how many good football players do we have? A lot.

"They know what they want in players here and how to develop those players, and when you're a part of this program, it becomes ingrained in you to push yourself and each other."

Finding that right fit may be the most important component of all for those programs not loading up on four- and five-star players ever year.

"I've always said that you're going to get X amount of the top 100, but really where you make your class is from 100 to 200, outside that next group," Patterson said. "The biggest thing is to find kids who want to win championships and want to get an education.

"That's got to be important to the kids we bring in. If they come here to school and like it for everything it has besides football, then you're going to have a kid who's going to flourish."

Missouri and TCU are each three years into their new conference affiliations, the Tigers in the SEC and the Horned Frogs in the Big 12. So there were obvious questions about whether their recruiting approaches would change in their new digs. Missouri has won 23 games over the past two years, and TCU won 12 last year, including a share of the Big 12 title, after not having as much success the first two years.

"They ask now, 'Are you recruiting differently?'" Pinkel said. "No, we're not recruiting differently. We've always recruited to have the very best team we could have. We understand it's a line of scrimmage league. Everybody's good up front in the SEC. We get that. We've always had standards for a high level of recruiting.

"I just know we're going to continue building our program. We didn't play well enough against Auburn and Alabama in the [SEC] championship games, so we still have a ways to go. But we believe in what we believe, and it seems to be hard for anybody to argue that it's not working reasonably well."

There haven't been any revolutionary changes in Fort Worth, either.

"If you have a great program, you're always going to have to be able to find the diamond in the rough," Patterson said. "But for us to get to where we need to get to and what we need to do, we have to keep climbing the ladder of getting some of those guys everybody's recruiting, but not at the expense of our program."

Patterson reminds himself frequently of something he read concerning Bill Belichick's management style.

"Late in the year, the teams based on individuals die out, and the teams based on team keep growing and getting stronger," Patterson said. "You only need X amount of difference-makers. Then you need guys who are going to outlast their opponents.

"That's half the battle, that everybody's all-in."