When one of the nation's top high school recruits committed to Vanderbilt on Wednesday, he said he chose Vanderbilt because the school's educational opportunities would open more doors for him in the future and serve as an insurance policy in case he got hurt and did not make it to the NFL.
Jordan Cunningham, one of the top wide receiver prospects who chose Vanderbilt over Miami, Stanford, and Florida State, said he picked Vanderbilt because of a "a 50-year career plan that includes becoming a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) football player, a degree as a professional engineer and an entrepreneur once his football career is done."
"The academics, that was a big deal to me," Cunningham said on ESPN. "Football is going to end at some point. You have to have a backup plan. You have to have a degree to fall back on. You can get hurt at any moment, and you could decide that you don't want to play anymore."
Six years ago, it was a foregone conclusion that schools known for great academics - like Stanford and Vanderbilt - would never be able to compete with college football's powerhouses on National Signing Day, which meant they would perpetually be at a disadvantage on the gridiron.
After Jim Harbaugh took over Stanford in 2007, which was the same year Nick Saban took over Alabama, Stanford aggressively used the school's academic reputation, once thought to be a detriment in recruiting, to lure tough football players who may not have been as highly rated as the nation's top prospects but made up for it with heart and grit. Stanford recruiters told parents of high school recruits that a Stanford degree would help them in life and open doors for them, especially if the player got hurt or did not make it to the NFL.
The pitches worked. Stanford has gone to three straight BCS bowls, including winning the most recent Rose Bowl, and will have a top-5 ranking to open next year.
When James Franklin took over at Vanderbilt in 2010, he copied Stanford's model. While Vanderbilt does not have Stanford's academic standards, Franklin had just a tough a sell because the Pac-12 pales in comparison to the SEC when it comes to football. Last year, Franklin led Vanderbilt to the school's first nine-win season since women received the right to vote and the program in 2013 fielded the best recruiting class in the school's history that was also among the top in the nation.
On Wednesday, Franklin said he had an "unbelievable product to sell" that includes a "world class education" and the opportunity to get "early playing time" in the "greatest football conference in America," the SEC Conference, which has won the last seven BCS national titles. He also mentioned how great of a town Nashville, TN is and how much the town appealed to recruits.
Vanderbilt is the only private school in the SEC and has the toughest academic standards in the SEC. These standards used to hinder previous coaches at Vanderbilt. But not Franklin. He is using those standards to differentiate Vanderbilt from other schools, and it has been working.
Stanford, which had the top-rated recruiting class in the Pac-12 that ranked fifth nationally last year under head coach David Shaw, is so stocked with talent they did not have as many scholarships to offer this year.
Stanford was only able to recruit 12 players this year. Wide receiver Francis Owusu and quarterback Ryan Burns highlight the class.
In an age when student-athlete is becoming more of an oxymoron, that is not the case at places like Stanford and Vanderbilt.