For the last three months, I’ve been crisscrossing Texas meeting with people in the college recruiting, personnel, operations and analytics community (which I’ll call the recruiting community in today’s post). It’s been a pleasure getting to know them.

To a man, they are impressive and knowledgeable. Many have been receptive to the ITL Recruiting Symposium that’s ahead in Fort Worth Jan. 3-4, and others haven’t (for good reasons). Either way, it’s been very educational. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.

  • They are smart, hard-working, passionate and love football: But you already knew that.
  • Most people at the “executive level” of college football operations are in their late 30s and 40s: This was a real revelation to me. I guess I’ve gotten used to the idea of these departments being populated by young grinders, and to some extent, that’s true. But the ones driving them are often approaching middle age.
  • Evaluation has been devalued: Maybe one or two of the schools I’ve met with have a formal evaluation training protocol. The lion’s share do not. Some just try to identify volunteers who played in high school. Some have monthly scouting sessions where a coach tries to impart wisdom. Others just figure they’ll take whatever they get from their volunteers and low-level employees. The thing is, in college, at least, there’s a long bridge between identifying good players and actually signing them.
  • They are intimately aware of the value of “sex appeal:” These people know that flash sells. They know young people prize this. In fact, you could almost draw a line between the schools that have multiple employees on the graphic design side and those who have volunteers, or just one designer. Those who’ve fully committed to the Photoshop and social media artisans are having more success. This lesson was ingrained in me even more after I asked people in the industry whether they’d rather hire an ex-NFL scout or a bullet-proof graphic designer. The results were unanimous and one-sided.
  • They aren’t as awed by the NFL as I thought they would be: There are a lot of reasons for that. One, I think most realize that if they aren’t scouting assistants by the time they’re 26-27, it’s probably too late. Two, they realize their skillsets are not really in evaluation, and they are loathe to start over. Three, their salaries are creeping up, and they’re starting families. Four, they know that getting NFL opportunities is often as much about who you know as it is how good you are.
  • They are not as beholden to scouts as I expected: Most of the people I’ve spoken to see the NFL as something that happens or doesn’t, and it matters little to them if it does. It’s not that they’re insensitive. It’s just that they are so overworked that they don’t have time to set aside to truly promote their kids (outside of the specific NFL liaisons, of course).
  • They are very beholden to their head coaches: NFL scouts often travel in packs and get to know scouts with other teams; they develop a heavy sense of fraternity. Not so in the recruiting community. They work extremely hard and most are very gifted, but they know that their fates are essentially tied to what happens on Saturdays. If their head coach goes, they go, too. And they might not ever resurface unless he gets another chance.
  • They’ve paid a heavy price to work in football: They start in early August. They’re working long days and every weekend all the way until Thanksgiving. Then, while most students are focused on finals and vacation, they are in overdrive until the week before Christmas. Next up for many/most is bowl play, so they’re out with the team until Christmas (some until New Year’s). They get a little time off until the AFCA convention starts in early January, but then it’s back to work for February signing day. Then spring ball begins, and the rush of spring and summer recruiting, when prospective players are visiting. And remember, most of these people are volunteers, part-timers, or making less than $30,000 annually while working 60-70 hours per week. They are essentially putting their social and personal lives on hold to chase a dream. No one’s putting a gun to their heads, but it’s still a lot to process.

If you’re interested in learning more about college football behind the scenes — or any other part of the football business — make sure to register for our weekly Friday Wrap. It comes out tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. CST. Sign up here.