That ranking, regardless of what the coach-in-waiting may say, had to be a beautiful sight for Huskies fans. To see 247Sports.com dub Washington’s recruiting class as the 14th-best in the country must have been as sweet as it was satisfying.
But if they looked down the list — and I mean way down the list — those same fans would also have seen a warning. The mighty Trojans of USC, after all, were ranked 78th —sandwiched between Bowling Green and Louisiana.
The message here is that, in the recruiting world, gold can become goop in one season flat. In the three previous years, USC had two top-five classes and another top-20 class but never saw that potential fulfilled.
What does this mean for defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, the soon-to-be successor of Huskies coach Chris Petersen? That he better deliver results quickly. Or else that train of high-quality recruits coming in could become nothing more than a caboose.
Lake seemed stoked when talking to reporters about this latest class Wednesday. The Huskies were able to keep every one of the 20-plus recruits who committed to Petersen before he announced his pending resignation.
That speaks 1,000 decibels about Lake and how he can connect to young men. But will that connection matter if there is doubt as to whether he can win?
Sure, the Huskies (7-5) were down this year, but these recruits knew they were committing to a program had won two of the previous four Pac-12 championships while going to three consecutive New Year’s Six bowls. And given how much of that success was the result of a defense that led the conference in points allowed four consecutive years, there was little reason for this year’s class to steer clear of Lake.
That’s why you get players such as Sav’ell Smalls, the five-star linebacker who is one of the most-heralded recruits to ever sign with the Huskies. It’s why you see nine other players with four stars by their names.
But nobody has actually seen this team play with Lake at the helm. And if we’re talking American sports, I’m not sure there’s a more vital position to a team’s success than head college football coach.
As colleague Larry Stone wrote, whether it was Oregon’s Mike Bellotti handing the program off to Chip Kelly, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops handing it to Lincoln Riley, or Ohio State’s Urban Meyer handing it to Ryan Day, there are many examples of seamless transitions that can keep Huskies fans optimistic. But you can also look at Florida after Steve Spurrier and/or Urban Meyer, or Notre Dame after Lou Holtz, or pretty much everybody at USC after Pete Carroll, and see that programs can sputter. And once you’re seen nationally as a sputterer, it’s hard to recover.
Petersen and UW athletic director Jen Cohen have shown consistently good judgment during their time on Montlake. They were confident that Lake was the man for the job, as are players who have gushed about his “genius.”
But that headset is a lot heavier when you’re the man in charge, and that first year — fair or not — is the audition potential recruits look upon before making a decision.
On Wednesday Lake was asked if he cared at all about how high his recruiting class was ranked — a question Petersen used to swat away like a nagging fly. Jimmy was no different.
“I don’t pay attention to any of those stars or whatever,” said Lake, emphasizing that it’s all about what he and the other coaches see on film. “I’ll be impressed when we’re lifting up the Pac-12 championship trophy.”
Recruits will be, too. And at this point, those are the ones he needs to impress.