There are a lot of songs about love won and love lost, but it always seems to be the ballads about the ones that got away that stick in your head (and heart) the most. If you were to put the feelings of how Washington fans felt about in-state recruiting in the class of 2012 into a song, they would probably be singing something off that Adele album that won the Grammy in pretty much every category other than Best New Barbershop Quartet.
Husky fans took to message boards, sports radio, the comment sections of newspaper articles, high school kids' social media accounts and good old fashioned dinner tables to vent their frustration when four out of five elite prospects in the state of Washington signed at out-of-state schools. The fact that each held a press conference at their high schools with the rapidly losing its charm hat routine helped stoke a fire which led to football recruits and Husky fans throwing jabs at each other.
What exactly caused this mass exodus of four and five star talent from the evergreen state can't really be pinned down to one thing and really isn't important. History rarely repeats itself in recruiting, so it is pointless to try to figure out why something happened and it is more important to figure out if it really matters and how it can be corrected.
The question here is does it really matter if Washington is regularly unable to keep in-state blue chippers at home?
It does, at least if Washington hopes to return to the success that they enjoyed in the past. The Huskies will simply never be able to consistently pull the elite athletes it takes to win on a consistent basis out of the West Coast's talent hubs outside of their own borders. Sure, they will be able to occasionally steal a Shaquille Thompson or Chris Polk out of California, but their only real shot at consistently bolstering their team with the stars that they need to get back on top and stay there will always lie primarily in Washington.
To cope, many fans will resort to clichés along the lines of "Don James lost a lot of talent from the state of Washington" or "(insert two star recruit) will end up being better than (insert five star recruit) anyway" or (my personal favorite non-statement) "We only want guys who want to go to be Huskies." The truth is that almost any success Washington has had in the past has a lot to do with the elite players who decided to stay home and Washington's struggles during the 2000's took place during a time when blue chip athletes regularly left town.
While it is logistically impossible for a coach to keep every in-state recruit home, I'm sure that there was never as much talent from the state of Washington regularly suiting up for other schools (let alone conference rivals) around the country during the Don James era and that had a lot to do with them winning. If you don't think that having Jonathan Stewart, Steve Schilling, Taylor Mays and David DeCastro among others would have won Washington quite a few games in the last few years, then I don't know what to tell you.
Think about how many games five star recruits Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams will win Washington over the course of the next two to three years, I would say probably close to 10. These kind of recruits are the guys who put wins on your schedule. People will rationalize and say that it doesn't matter where you get the players from, that Washington can land a guy from California who is just as good, but the thing is they can't, and unfortunately the three star player who is praised for staying at home is actually the guy who could have been easily replaced with an out of state player, not the five star guys like Seferian-Jenkins and Williams.
What chance do the Huskies have of landing Seferian-Jenkins and Williams if they are in the LA area and go to say San Clemente and Oaks Christian? Five percent tops maybe. Having these guys in the backyard gets them in the game and it is a game that the coaching staff of the Washington Huskies need to win. You can usually pick up your depth guys from California, but prying the stars away from USC and the other California schools is nearly impossible and the Huskies have traditionally made up for this by mining their star power from nearby reserves (Jake Locker, Reggie Williams, Marques Tuiasosopo).
The Huskies also have a great advantage in that the state of Washington has a lot more local pride and history than similar metro areas like Phoenix and Denver. A lot of families have deep roots in the area that are a lot tougher to dig up, and there is a natural pressure to stay home and represent for your state that just doesn't exist in areas that have similar populations but less regional pride tied to the local university. This has always played a huge factor in helping the head coach at Washington keep local talent home. Colorado has a similar level of football program as Washington during the last 25 years and the Denver area produces a similar amount of talent each year, but look at how many of the elite Denver area athletes sign with Colorado, it is a much lower percentage than elite Seattle area athletes who usually sign with Washington.
While the animosity that the local fans spew on the guys who leave town can be truly ugly, that same energy can be a very positive thing for those that choose to stay. Taylor Mays technically had a more successful college career than Jake Locker but the level of support that Locker holds in the region is much larger than any support that Mays could have ever gained in Los Angeles.
There is a story that floats around Washington fan circles claiming that when talking about going out of state for college, Jason Terry told Paul Arnold (A 5-star RB recruit in the late 90's) something along the lines of, "You have a big game, you are excited, but then you walk out of the gym and you are in Tucson, miles away from all of your family and friends who you want to celebrate with." Whether or not this actually took place, it is very sound advice for someone who is thinking about leaving the friendly confines of a tight knit sports community like Seattle for a far away destination.
Granted, it is much more difficult to maintain this isolated pride with 100 sports channels, the internet and social media making the world a much smaller place and the state of Washington much less like "South Alaska" than it used to be. In a very short amount of time, it has become incredibly easy to communicate with people all across the country and exposure to programs outside of your region is constant. National programs have very much used this to their advantage and have begun descending upon Washington each year, each offering their own unique advantage but particularly weather, recent success or simply just getting away from home. This has made keeping players at home infinitely more difficult for every coach around the country.
The problem with recruiting though is that excuses like this can't really be used because it is such an inexact science, following the logic of 18-year-old kids is a very tough task and much of the time, logic is thrown out the window. The head coach of Washington needs to use this to their advantage and get kids to stay home even if it makes more conventional sense for the guy to leave.
If the kid wants to go to Stanford you need to sell him that with the current economy, local connections are much more valuable than a piece of paper, there are a lot of unemployed Ivy Leaguers out there. If the kid falls in love with the prestige of everything USC you need to convince him that he can truly be part of the Washington culture in a way that he never will be at a school in a city that where college football plays second billing to about 5 million different things.
So what can Washington do to turn the tide and stop the exodus other than simply winning more games?
First thing first (literally), offer in-state guys first. There was a lot of made of the Huskies taking too long to offer local offensive lineman Walker Williams and how it may have affected his friends in the class of 2012 (Williams' workout partners are Josh Garnett and Zach Banner). Williams is far from a slam dunk as far as a college player, but if the two-time defending Big Ten champs come in and offer a guy down the road from you before you do, you probably messed up. If there are two to three prospects you are after of about the same level and two are from California and one is from Washington, the Washington guy needs to get offered first. You might swing and miss sometimes with a prospect who doesn't pan out but it will be easily forgiven by fans.
The hiring of new, young assistants with great recruiting reputations is clearly an enormous step in the right direction that already paid fantastic dividends in 2012. However, one more thing needs to be added to the staff, an assistant who is from the state of Washington who went to Washington, who can sell local kids on why they should go there. Marques Tuisasopo or Lawyer Milloy would be great options, or simply a graduate assistant who can grow with the program.
Schedule a yearly high school showcase at the new Husky Stadium once it opens, or better yet, the state championships. Make the new Husky Stadium a place that high school kids already want to play in and familiarize them with the program, facilities and staff. The state championship would also be right when recruiting is starting to kick into full gear.
Also, embrace the state image. Last year for 9/11 the W on the Husky helmets was red, white and blue for a game. Maybe for a marquee game, make the helmet sticker simply the state of Washington.
Overall, I firmly believe that Washington and Steve Sarkisian are on the right track to make sure that the Class of 2012 in Washington is an aberration and not the start of a trend. The base problem though is that it shouldn't have happened in the first place. Washington had the chance to add some local talent that could have been integral in getting the program back to where it strives to be and to keep the local fans from singing the same sad song. Hopefully they will be changing their tune soon.