In 2006, Shawn Watson, then Nebraska's recruiting coordinator, sat down with Bill Callahan and Steve Pederson and came with a notion of a "state of Nebraska football". It wasn't a traditional state with borders along rivers and straight lines, but rather a circle that covers a 500 mile radius around Lincoln. The idea focused around the idea of bringing metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and St. Louis into the Husker realm.
"We want to create a state of Nebraska football within a 500-mile radius. We think it's a great idea. We've got to get the players within that radius. That's the core of your class. And it represents a little bit of a new direction for us."
And like nearly everything else that was attempted during the Steve Pederson Error, what sounded good at the time turned to be a mistake. Unlike a lot of Pederson's mistakes, this one really started off with the best of intentions. A relatively low population state has to supplement the in-state talent with players outside, so why not focus next on players in the region. Paul Dalen, CornNation's Senior Statistics Correspondent, found that in 2013, the average distance between a recruit's home town and the school they selected was 512 miles. It makes sense as proximity between home and school makes it easier for prospects to visit campus more often, makes it easier for coaches to visit schools more often, and once they enroll, makes it easier for family and friends.
The problem with the 500 mile radius is that it's not exclusive gerrymandering, as Peter Bean tried to paint it. Chicago may be part of this "state of Nebraska football", but it's also part of the "state of Wisconsin football", the "state of Michigan football", and the "state of Ohio State football" as well. If anything, when you consider 500 mile radii around each campus, Nebraska's situation gets even worse. How bad?
Take this year's recruiting class as an example. Dalen tallied up the number of Rivals three, four, and five star high school players within 500 miles of each division 1-A campus, and the numbers will shock you. The "five star" recruiting targets within 500 miles of Lincoln ranked 95th out of 122 campuses. 104th out of 122 campuses when you look at "Four Star" recruits. And 102nd when you look at all potential recruits within 500 miles of campus. In other words, over 75% of division 1-A schools had more potential recruits within 500 miles of campus than Nebraska.
So while it's a noble idea to focus on that 500 mile radius, the fact is these players are also being recruited by other Big Ten and Big XII teams. And the higher the star rating, the higher the probability is that the SEC and Pac-12 schools are getting into the game as well. So Nebraska has to work that much harder to find recruits...and look everywhere because there simply aren't as many targets in that 500 mile zone as most other schools.
Dalen compares the quantity of recruiting targets in a region to the final Rivals recruiting ranking, and came up with some surprising comparisons. In the lower right, you see the SEC powers like Alabama, Georgia, and Florida that can load their shopping cart with as many nearby recruits as they can possibly get the NCAA to let them sign. In the upper left, you see schools like Minnesota and Iowa. Not as many recruits in the region, and obviously, they aren't getting highly ranked recruiting classes. In the lower left, you see schools in talent rich regions yet have lower ranked recruiting classes. And in the upper right, there are schools in areas without as many recruits that still manage to sign decent recruiting classes.
Schools like Nebraska, for example. Dalen describes it as the relationship as signifying the degree to which a school overcomes distance and population barriers to pull in talented recruits. Starting from lower left to upper right, moving up and to the right implies that a school is doing better at overcoming these barriers.
And that's where Nebraska is. Geography and the demographics of American society are working against Nebraska football when it comes to recruiting. Nebraska has to work harder out of necessity. In an ideal world, Nebraska could focus their recruiting regionally. We don't live in an ideal world. Nebraska always had to recruit nationally in places like California, Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. And based on the trends in American society, that need is only going to grow. It's not a choice; if anything, it's an obligation for Nebraska to look nationally.