The Man Behind the Scenes

In each of his previous three stops as an assistant coach, Kevin Nickelberry was responsible for bringing in top talent, which ultimately led to great success on the court. <BR><BR> The only thing is he never stayed around long enough to share in the accomplishments. <BR>

That's because there was always another school looking to hire him away and hopefully get the same results, which is why Nickelberry, who is routinely named as one of the top 20 recruiters in the country, hadn't stay at a school longer than two years.

In his stint at Clemson as recruiting coordinator, Nickelberry, 40, has landed the Tigers seven top 100 ranked players that are either playing for the Tigers or committed to do so. The question is, now that he's in his second year, will history repeat itself and see him bolt for another program?

Word is that he's already turned down several big-time programs that have offered much bigger salaries.

"Never say never, but I intend on staying at Clemson," Nickelberry said. "We've got a great recruiting class coming in and we've got great freshmen already here. My goal is to become a head coach and if that opportunity comes, that's the only thing I can see in the immediate future that I would leave for."

If that is indeed the case, there's no doubt the Tigers will be better off for it.

Nickelberry beat the bushes for a long time and developed the contacts in the worlds of high school and AAU basketball that have rewarded his school with top recruits.

"Luckily I have a public relations background, so I learned early on how to form relationships; how to develop relationships," Nickelberry said. "And recruiting is about relationships. If you look at the great recruiters out there, and it doesn't matter what schools they're at, they can walk into a gym and everybody knows who they are because they've developed the contacts."

What makes Nickelberry different than most successful coaches at the level of the ACC is that by his own admittance, he wasn't exactly a top-flight player.

"I was a bad high school player (at Central High in Seat Pleasant, Md.) and an even worse college player," he said. "Thank God my college coach felt sorry for me. If you read the bio (in the media guide), it's kind of embarrassing. … All the other coaches have big bios with their playing career. Then it says, ‘Kevin Nickelberry, played from 1982-1984 Virginia Wesleyan.'

"That's why I am thankful to be in the ACC. I've constantly had to prove myself and do a lot of hard work. I've been at every level you can be at, but at the same time, at every level I've been at, I've been able to recruit and been able to win."

Because he wasn't a basketball star, Nickelberry focused his efforts on doing well in school and earned his degree in Communications. He then got involved in many successful entrepreneur ventures, where he was the president of two public relation firms and founded an at-risk youth non-profit organization in the Washington, D.C. area.

Little did he know at the time, but his background in public relations as well as dealing with youth would go on to help him immeasurably in his basketball career to become one of the best recruiters in the business.

But there is a science to the madness.

"The Dukes and the North Carolinas of the world recruit themselves, but the top recruiters have enough moxie to get the guys that they want," Nickelberry said. "And that's really what it's about. First, you have to have a great personality or the have the right people know you and respect you. Relationships are the most important thing.

"But the second most important thing is identifying who you can and cannot get. I try not to waste time recruiting guys we have no shot at getting. I don't have time to deal with a high school coach that's not calling me back or an AAU coach that's not calling me back. I know that if a high school coach or an AAU coach is a quality guy and runs a quality program that at some point he's going to have a guy that I can recruit.

"It's no different than a car salesman philosophy. If you do a good job the first time, you can get that person to come back and buy a car from you for the next 20 years. And I try to do that with the high school coaches and AAU coaches that I deal with. If I do right by one of the guys, then five years down the road they have another one, I have a shot at getting that next player as well.

"And the last thing, you've got to have a great product to sell. And there's no better product than Oliver Purnell and Clemson being the sleeping giant. If I didn't have a product, it would be tough for me to do it."

Those practices have helped him land the freshmen that have helped Clemson become eligible for postseason play for the first time since 1999.

"I don't recruit kids I don't feel I have a chance of I'm not able to get their ear eventually," he said. "These kids were kids that I fostered relations with. Recruiting starts five years before you get a kid; 10 years before you get a kid. That's the bottom line. It's very difficult to get involved with a senior for the first time and have a chance at getting him unless you're Duke or North Carolina or some of the other top programs.

"Those top programs can do that. We have to have relationships with those kids before that. That's the only way we're going to get a kid like that. You have to identify him as a target and build a relationship with that coach years before he's eligible to sign. You're not going to beat me and the other top recruiters by just writing a letter every day to a kid or calling the high school coach every day."

It takes a keen eye to be able to determine whether or not a kid who is in middle school might have the talent in years down the line to be an ACC-type player. And Nickelberry has demonstrated that vision.

"We try to identify guys as early as possible so when it's time for them to be juniors and seniors that we'll be in a position where he knows about our program and he knows who I am so that when I get on the phone with him we have an opportunity to close the deal," he said. "I try to pick situations where we have a chance to recruit players who can come in and play right away and who can win. At Holy Cross, they weren't winning before and we got good players in and we won. Good players make great coaches."

But without the support of Purnell, Nickelberry said he wouldn't be nearly as successful. It's a tandem that seems to have found the perfect rhythm and teamwork at being able to get the most out of what they have.

"Coach Purnell believes recruiting is the lifeblood of a program," Nickelberry said. "He's allowed me to come in and do my thing."

And that has obviously been the smart thing.

Editor's Note: This story appeared in the April edition of CUTigers The Magazine, the largest independent publication dedicated to covering the Clemson Tigers. Top Stories