Recruiting in the Recession

With the United States finding itself in arguably the greatest economic recession since the Great Depression, the value of a football scholarship has become much more than a luxury for hundreds of American families; it has become a necessity. Yet for a university like the Naval Academy, does the country's economic downturn hold previously unforeseen recruiting benefits?

According to some it does, as both the prospect of a free college education and post graduate job security have attracted more high school football recruits to consider taking their skills to the likes of Army, Navy, and Air Force. Count Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo amongst those who say they have seen an upturn in interest for the three programs since the economy went south last year, as the second year headman recently testified to his belief that the poor economy had "opened up doors" for his own team in recruiting bigger, faster, and stronger athletes.

"I think the economy has helped us," said Niumatalolo during a recent interview. "Before [the economy went south] there were people who would not even talk to us. There were some parents who would say ‘my son is not going to a military school' but now they are like ‘hey this might not be a bad option.' I think that has opened up other doors that in prior years were closed."

While recruiting experts aren't certain of the exact level of increased interest on the part of recruits in attending service academies, they do admit that Niumatalolo's assessment stands to reason given the country's current economic circumstances. Not only does the incentive of a free education make sense in winning parents over to the idea of sending their sons to a service academy, but the recruiting "sells" commonly associated with schools like Army and Navy take on increased significance given the prevailing job market for college graduates. This dynamic, say experts, gives schools like Army and Navy a "leg up" in recruiting forward thinking young men to the gridiron, as more recruits realize that a degree from similar academic institutions may not automatically assure them of immediate post graduate employment.

"Poor times and poor job prospects will always send more people to the service and service academies," said Alan Zepeda, who serves as the managing editor for the popular recruiting website TexasPrepInsider.com. Zepeda went on to say that while recruits may not always be aware of the economy in the recruiting process, their parents certainly are, echoing Niumatalolo's belief that one on the traditional barriers to recruiting at a service academy may be waning.

"I don't think the players themselves consider such things for the most part, but the parents certainly do," said Zepeda.

The economy may also be playing an indirect role in forcing some local mid-Atlantic recruits to consider the Naval Academy. Matt Bracken, who covers recruiting for the Baltimore Sun, said that while it's still too early to make any direct correlations, he can foresee the possibility that economic factors such as the cost of travel will help Navy in recruiting local players this summer.

"During summers' past kids and their families would drive all over the country to visit schools, but it would make sense if that wasn't the case as much anymore," said Bracken. "I could see how this would benefit Navy with regard to local players."

While the recruiting process at service academies is more complicated and drawn out than at many other FBS institutions, recent findings seem to suggest that overall interest level has increased, although not in terms of overall quality of applicants. Gene McIntyre, who serves as the Associate AD for Recruiting at West Point, said that while his office has seen the volume of "initial" recruiting questionnaires received increase over the past year, the number of recruits who make it past the first step in becoming a potential Army football player has not changed.

"I think you can say there has been an increase in applications, but I don't know that there has been an increase in qualified applications," said McIntyre in a recent phone interview. "What we have seen is almost a ‘panic level' response in which people who would not have normally considered us are now considering us and then are looking at the standards and going ‘oh well, never mind.' So the volume of files from the initial process has gone up, but the number of qualified files has stayed about the same."

While he admitted that the number of qualified applicants has stayed consistent with what his office has seen over recent years, McIntyre did admit that of those qualified applicants, more were taking the process of following through and actually applying to West Point seriously. This notion would support the premise that while Army and Navy may not be "stealing" recruits from BCS conference schools because of the economy, they may be making headway against traditional recruiting foes from the Ivy League and similar academic institutions.

"The ones who get through the initial screening - the ones who actually get through their initial paperwork – has increased," said McIntyre. "Of those who are qualified, more are finishing the file and more are active and serious about [attending West Point.]"

As for the chief reason behind such an increase, McIntyre says he can see no other explanation than the economy in playing a role in shaping the decisions of potential cadets-to-be.

"I think it is mostly the economy," offered McIntyre, who went on to say that he thought "politics has little to do with it" when asked if the change in the White House could also be playing a role. McIntyre further explained that while the presence of new Army head coach Rich Ellerson may have had a slight effect on the increase in initial recruiting applications, the hiring of Ellerson this past December does not support the notion based off of the overall increase in interest level during Army's 3-9 season a year ago.

Despite these findings, experts like Zepeda claim that the idea that the economy alone has played a role in increased interest to service academies from Division I football recruits may be unrealistic. The more likely explanation comes from a variety of factors, among them the change in Presidential administrations and de-escalation of overseas US military involvement that McIntyre deemphasized.

"I think that having a new President in [Washington] who has promised to bring the troops home also helps [a school like Navy or Army]" said Zepeda. "I know several players who told me a few years ago they would not consider the academies because they did not want to end up in Iraq when they graduated."

While not mentioning the change in US military policy specifically, even Navy's Niumatalolo admits that a variety of other factors may be helping his school land more athletically gifted recruits as of late. While the program's recent on-field success must be counted as chief among those factors, Niumatalolo credits other products of the program's success (such as an increased television presence and recent NFL attention given to alums like Eric Kettani) in helping with recruiting.

"I think the visibility of us being on TV definitely helps," said the second year head coach when asked whether or not Navy's television contract with CBS College Sports has paid dividends on the recruiting tail. "People see us play, and our Athletic Director has done a great job of getting us on television, and we have had some exciting games on television. Also, [Navy SID Scott Strassmeier] has done a great job of marketing us…it's just all gotten us out in the market and into the mainstream."

And while no one disputes Niumatalolo's assessment that the economy may be getting Navy's "foot into the door" of new households around the country, those involved in the recruiting process caution in putting too much emphasis on the country's current economic climate when it comes to prospects actually committing to a service academy. That decision, says both prospects and their parents, is ultimately up to the recruit in question, and hinges on much more than economic uncertainty in the home.

"I think that the job benefits that the academies offer are a huge attraction for recruits," said Park City (UT) running back Dylan Cynoweth, who is currently being recruited by the Midshipmen. "In economically hard times athletes want to feel like they have a sound future once sports are finished...but I feel that recruits ultimately choose their college based on football. [It is] the combination of great football and future job success which makes the academies a top choice for me personally."

Parents agree as well, saying that while Niumatalolo's assessment of the poor economic climate as being a factor in increased recruiting interest may help Navy "get a foot into the door" of some recruits by way of their parents, the ultimate decision to commit to a Service Academy still resides with the prospect. .

Mr. and Mrs. Brad Stein, who have the unique perspective of having one son currently at Navy and another being recruited by the Midshipmen, say that knowing their sons will have jobs out of college takes on "added value" in the present economic climate, but say that their comfort level with potentially sending their youngest son to a service academy has been about "the same" despite the recent economic downturn. While the Stein's admit that the economy may play a role in garnering increased initial recruiting interest from previously uninterested recruits and parents, they caution in making the direct connection between the on-the-field quality of Navy players signed, and the failures of the economy. Above all, say the Stein's, the decision to attend a service academy or not to attend a service academy ultimately resides with the player, who more times that not will choose the school he feels most comfortable at.

"Under no circumstance would we ever push [our son] towards the Naval Academy if it meant he would have a bad college experience or if he was unsure about the military service commitment. If either one truly preferred a school offering a walk-on spot, and if either one of our sons felt he could thrive there both on and off the field, then we would want him to go there."

Adam Nettina can be reached at AdamNettina –at- gmail.com.


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