Friday, November 23, 2012

College Recruiting and the Pretty Girl Paradox

Glenn Reynolds linked to this post by Auren Hoffman in which he discusses the 'Pretty Girl Paradox':
The “pretty girl” is the object of desire, rare and easy to spot. For our purposes, the “pretty girl” (gender neutral here) can be a potential mate, a company where you may want to work, someone you may want to hire, or an entrepreneur in whose start-up you may want to invest.
For purposes of this post, the obvious object of desire is the stud recruit. Hoffman makes this interesting observation:

When looking for a mate, everyone wants that “pretty girl.” For some, that means good looks, for others it might mean wealth, and still for others, an Ivy League education. Most people looking for a mate are influenced by one overriding and particular trait over the rest. In fact, even if the other traits are negative, a person will likely go on at least one date with someone if that key trait is positive. And so, perhaps fairly or unfairly, these Pretty Girls have opportunities not available to the rest waiting behind the red velvet ropes.
But as experience dictates, not all “pretty girls” are created equal. Some beautiful people are ugly on the inside. Some rich people are vapid. Some erudites are emotionally stunted and Ivy League schools have their share of the lazy and entitled.
Uncovering those deal-breaking faults takes time and effort.
Closer to the recruiting meme:
Hiring, like dating, is fraught with (frequently costly) errors. Depending on their culture, companies over-optimize one single trait: intelligence, hard work, hustle, experience, friendliness, pedigree, etc.  And that trait, like all pretty girls, is usually easy to spot. But, of course, you don’t wait to hire someone that only has that trait and miss major flaws.
Here's an example of falling in love with a single trait.  When I played pro baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates system, Chuck Tanner was the manager of the Pirates.  Reportedly, he had an extraordinary belief in the value of speed when evaluating position players.  It was said by coaches in the system that he believed that he could take a fast athlete who'd never played baseball and turn him into a major league quality outfielder.  Uhhh, wrong.

Speed is an object of worship by a lot of football coaches as well.  Note -- I am big believer is speed.  Given a choice between two defensive players where one lacks size and the other lacks speed, I'm generally inclined to go with the smaller, faster player.  Speed kills.  But I've seen lots and lots of examples where coaches fall in love with speed where it is obvious that a player simply can't play.

When I was coaching there in 1989, we had an incredibly deep roster of talent at wide receiver at Tennessee.  We had several backups who would go on to be starters in the NFL. But I was shocked when a 5th team receiver that year was chosen by an NFL team a year later in the spring of 1991 in the 5th round as a projected defensive back despite never playing a down on offense or defense in college.  Simply because he had blazing track speed and a football body. 

I've seen coaches fall in love with single traits -- toughness, smarts, hustle, size, strength -- and play (or recruit) players who weren't the best available.  Always a good reminder not to fall in love with simple metrics or single traits.  The answer is never as simple as we want to believe.

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