Last month I asked if the Coach matters when deciding where to take your tennis talents. This month I am turning my attention to college rankings, and asking if they should hold any relevance when making a final college decision.

Whenever I peek at Facebook, there is some coach posting their teams current ranking, and milking it for every bit of publicity they can get. Settle down Coaches, I did the same thing too! These posts get lots of those wide open mouthed emoji responses and will lead to a nice write up in their college newspaper, but what value do these rankings hold when it comes to deciding which college to choose?

I found that many college prospects not only pay too much attention to their I-phones, but also to the ITA college rankings! They often start and finish their college recruiting process based on these numbers, but what do these numbers mean?

I have no data to back this up, but my experience is that those players fortunate to visit several colleges and hold more than one offer at the same time will typically select the team that is ranked the highest when the signing period is bearing down upon them.

Rankings are an extremely poor indicator as to how a prospect’s experience is going to unfold over their four-year playing career. The rankings change constantly, especially over the course of a season. One team may possess a high ranking to start a season but have recently lost several key players to graduation. Their ranking is weighed heavily upon their previous year’s performance. I have witnessed teams, including my own, drop from a top 20 ranking in January to outside the top 75 by the end of February.

It is very natural to want to back the winning horse. Children grow up supporting the team that is dominating a sport they like during their formative years. Kids in New York are walking around in Golden State Warrior shirts, and children down in Southampton are wearing Leicester City Jerseys! It is nice to have bragging rights when it comes to supporting a team, but is not particularly important when it comes to playing for one.

There is more depth in the college game now more than ever before. Small margins separate teams from around #15 - #75. The ITA are publicly publishing the top 50 rankings rather than the top 75, which they have done in the past. I believe long term they will move to publishing just the top 25 (which they are doing at the commencement of the college tennis season) to fall in line with the ranking models of most other college sports. Personally, I believe this is a great initiative as every program ranked outside the top 25 can claim to be number 26! Every coach from number 26 to 247 will be telling you that they are knocking on the door of the top 25!

My personal hope is that this will allow prospects to focus less attention on the rankings, and get down to the details that are superior predictors for their future college tennis experience. Here is a scenario that occurs too often. Super future prospect, let’s call her Annie, has four scholarship offers. Annie has narrowed her decision down to two colleges. One is ranked # 23 while the other is ranked # 49. Deep down Annie knows that the team ranked # 49 is the better fit for her, but she wants to be able to tell her friends, family and peers that she is going to the # 23 college in the country. She would be a little embarrassed to tell people that she has accepted a scholarship offer to a program that is only ranked # 49, especially when she was perceived to have a “better offer.” Oh, the shame of it!

When I began my head coaching tenure at the University of Oklahoma, the team was not ranked, within three years we were in the top 25. A few of the recruits that would not come to OU when I first started were now on teams that we were beating, and ranked much lower than when they arrived at their college of choice. A lot can change in the time between your commitment to a program and your arrival there, and don’t forget that teams can be decimated by injuries, compliance issues, academic problems and many other uncontrollable issues that destroy their chances of having a good ranking in any given year.

There are more than a handful of Universities at the Division I level that are going to be in and around the top 20 in the national rankings every year despite who they have as their head coach. They have massive built-in advantages such as location, academic prestige, winning tradition and scholarship options. These coaches are selecting players rather than recruiting, and have a small, predetermined pool of players from which they will select each year. It is tremendous to see some interruption to this party in recent years, with the likes of Ohio State and Oklahoma State disrupting the status quo on the women’s side and Oklahoma mixing things up on the men’s side. I hope this trend endures, and there continues to be more homogeneity between teams, more potential for upsets and an even more exciting game. For right now, there are many fantastic programs, led by truly dynamic coaches, that are not able to get a foothold into the higher echelons of the rankings for any number of reasons.

Rankings are reasonably good indicators for recruits as to the likely future success and placement of a team. Similarly, rankings can be a good indicator for college coaches when selecting a recruit. It is not a terrible way to start your college recruitment process, but you need to give it a large scope and not allow it to be the final determining factor as to where you want to attend. You probably don’t want a coach offering a scholarship to some player that has a slightly higher ranking than yourself, even though you believe yourself to be a better player.  

Take some time to think about your college choices, what you want in a coach, a team, a location. Recognize that there is always more than what you see on the surface. Think deeply about what your daily life will look like in a college setting, and how YOU want it to look. Don’t get caught up in the hype or making a decision you are expected to make because of your ranking or success as a student or player. Do your homework and be true to yourself.