With only one season of high school competition under his belt, Trae Golden knew all he needed to know about the recruiting process and where he wanted to play college basketball. By October of his sophomore year, Golden committed to Ohio State.
Some say the 6-1 combo guard from Powder Springs, Ga. was crazy for making such an abrupt decision (after just one unofficial college visit). Some suggest Golden was wise to circumvent the phone calls, letters and emails. Others simply shake their heads in amazement at the landscape of major college recruiting and how it could become common place for 14 and 15-year old kids are making college choices so soon.
But as long as kids continue making verbal commitments, don’t expect the process to change for the better.
Coaches simply cannot afford to act righteous in the name of integrity. Taking a stand, i.e. drawing a line in the sand as to when a coach feels comfortable initiating the recruiting process, will allow the competition to get the necessary head start in landing a said prospect.
It’s a risk coaches don’t want to take.
“You’ve got to learn everything you can as soon as possible about a kid,” said Bowling Green assistant basketball coach and former Michigan assistant Andy Moore. “Coaches are looking for anything they can to get an edge.”
Usually, that starts off with a recruiting questionnaire and a few phone calls to a kid’s high school coach. It’s the first step in a long, tedious adventure.
IDENTIFY AND EVALUATE
Just like New York, recruiting never sleeps. It’s a year-long cycle. The names and faces may change, but the daily routine does not.
Wash, rinse and repeat.
Much like Orlando (Fla.) Edgewater center Michael Brewster, coaches call attention to kids as early as following their freshmen seasons. By May after Brewster’s rookie season, the 14-year old had verbal offers from Miami, Tennessee and Ohio State. But even Brewster is the exception in football, where most verbal offers typically roll in after sophomore or junior seasons.
The recruiting process differs by sport, naturally. Getting a leg up in football requires hours of film study, sometimes having to evaluate against suspect high school competition, a ton of projection, the word of (potentially) bias high school coaches and a gut instinct. Basketball, meanwhile, allows coaches a summer evaluation period to watch developing stars in-person at AAU tournaments and skills camps.
For purposes of example, the typical recruiting cycle may begin in college basketball during the summer after many prospects’ freshmen years, whereas football begins in April of their sophomore years.
With most programs, there’s no real magical date where coaches may begin zeroing in on prospects of a certain class. But as a rule of thumb, there’s a time to begin identifying possible targets.
According to NCAA rules, prospects may not begin receiving recruiting materials, defined as any printed or written correspondence, until September 1 of the junior year (football) or June 15 following their sophomore year (basketball). And since phone calls to prospects are not allowed until later down the line, coaches must take advantage of one notable key exception: recruiting questionnaires.
Recruiting questionnaires are an allowed exception to prospects receiving mail. As freshmen or sophomores, prospects may receive questionnaires from college coaches. Most of these forms will ask information about personal information (such as contact information, phone numbers, etc.), parents or guardians (alma maters, living arrangements, siblings, employment, etc.), academic achievements (GPA, test scores, class rank, interests, principals & counselors, etc.) and athletics information (stats, coaches, height, weight, measurements, favorite colleges, injuries, things you’re looking for in a school, favorite athletes, position, ideal position in college, etc.).
These inquisitive, yet informative pieces are returned back to college coaches – giving them a plethora of recruiting angles to follow-up on. Since contacting the prospect at this juncture is a no-no, the ideal next step is to call the high school (or additionally AAU in basketball) coach to learn more about a prospect.
“It gives you so much information on the kid,” Moore said of these questionnaires. “You get all that personal information on a kid. I think it’s important to get that back so you can start having more personal phone conversations.
“When you’re first starting to get to know a kid, he might be impressed if you know he’s got a sister in college wherever,” Moore added, “and then you start asking ‘how’s your sister doing at school?’ They maybe don’t realize you’re looking at the questionnaire and I think often times it impresses the kid that you’re showing you care – and you hope coaches really do care about the kid.”
In basketball, freshmen and sophomore classes may yield as many as 80-200 initial targets that coaches will inquire about and begin evaluating, before ultimately paring down a list to 50-75 practical targets. For football, it’s not uncommon for coaches to send out as many as 800-1,000 questionnaires to kids around the country.
“I think at a Michigan or Ohio State, you’re going to have access to a lot of the top kids,” Moore said. “Early, we’re going to be able to get in touch with a high school coach or AAU coach, and with a name like Michigan, Ohio State, North Carolina or whoever, most kids are typically going to at least have an interest. They’re going to fill out that questionnaire, and they’re going to, at least initially, have an interest in your program and see what you have to offer.”
Through the high school coach, programs begin to forge a relationship with prospects. Since college coaches cannot yet call these recruits, it’s important to engage in dialogue with their coaches and pass along contact information.
Though coaches can’t call the prospects, the prospects can call the coaches.
“I probably kept in touch with 10-15 coaches,” Golden said of the early portion of his sophomore year before committing to Ohio State, “usually once or twice week whenever I had time.”
Kids could call coaches from cell phones or home phones at their own leisure and on their own dime. In basketball, schools can also set up a 1-800 number for prospects to call following the completion of their sophomore seasons. This allows calls from landlines for the kids (or their parents) that don’t own cellular phones.
As simplistic and easy as this process sounds, it’s not without potential complications.
Schools are at the mercy of high school coaches. Some coaches are bad about giving messages to kids. Other coaches don’t often pass along mail or information about schools. And some simply, for whatever selfish reasons, will not let a kid know a certain school is recruiting him.
It’s not a common problem, but it does happen.
“It’s really hard (if that happens),” said Akron football recruiting coordinator Reno Ferri. “As a sophomore or junior, you can make a trip to the kid’s school, but you can’t talk to the kid so that really doesn’t help.
“If you don’t know the kid before the first day of his junior year and you don’t have a great relationship with a coach, that’s going to have an effect on you,” Ferri added.
At least in basketball, there’s an added layer of protection: Amateur Athletic Union.
The Amateur Athletic Union, otherwise known as AAU basketball, is defined by the NCAA as a non-scholastic sport. There are no rules prohibiting college coaches from having contact with scholastic or non-scholastic coaches, except for during days of competition until the events are completed.
There are only a few other exceptions.
“There are no restrictions on coaches contacting non-scholastic coaches or high school coaches,” explained Ohio State associate athletic director and compliance official Chris Rogers, “except for at certain athletic events during which it is not permissible for institutional staff members to be present at all.”
Should a college basketball coach run into an obstacle (uncooperative high school coach), he may find life less difficult by going through an AAU coach. Some kids, in fact, might have a better relationship with their summer coach, though there are equally many that have a worse (or nearly non-existent) relationship.
There are challenges to AAU recruiting too. AAU coaches only have 3-4 months with their players and there are far fewer recruiting opportunities for college coaches to pursue that route.
Coaches in both basketball and football thrive on evaluating a prospect’s athletic ability in-person, as opposed to on film. While football coaches have far fewer opportunities to do so, basketball coaches have all summer.
Because of AAU tournaments, which run from early April until August, basketball coaches have ample opportunity to watch freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior-to-be prospects during the summer. Tournaments typically begin on a Friday evening, and pool play runs until mid-afternoon Saturday (pools typically are three or four teams), and end following the conclusion of bracket competition late Sunday afternoon. Competition is split into 17-under, 16-under, 15-under, 14-under, etc., with most coaches spending their time and resources watching the former three.
During the summer contact and evaluation periods, basketball coaches are not bound by restrictions on how many times an institution can watch a kid play. The only restrictions are:
A) Only three coaches on a staff can be out evaluating at one time
B) Coaches must only attend NCAA-certified summer events
C) Coaches cannot evaluate prospects during dead periods
D) If coaches watch a prospect away from a tournament, it cannot be organized (i.e., pick-up games) and score cannot be kept
“This period is probably more important than high school basketball because it’s an opportunity to play with and against better competition,” said Scout Hoops recruiting analyst Evan Daniels, “and in some cases in front of hundreds of college coaches.”
During the academic year, coaches are limited to seven total evaluations of an individual prospect, with a maximum of three in-person, off-campus recruiting contacts with that individual. That, of course, would only matter with senior prospects as there is no in-person, off-campus contact allowed with a prospect until that time. Further, each program is allowed a total of 130 evaluations during the course of an academic year. For each day any of the four coaches are out evaluating, that number counts toward the 130 allowed.
The typical AAU season starts with eight consecutive weekends in April and May. However, college coaches are typically only allowed three weekends in April and the first week of May because of quiet & dead periods as well as having to respect national ACT and SAT testing dates by avoiding evaluations.
In April, prospects practice with their AAU teams sometimes 2-3 times a week before leaving Thursday or Friday for a tournament. It’s often Sunday evening before they get home, where homework and sometimes phone calls from reporters await them.
“For me, it’s probably worse than some people because I played for a team that’s not within driving distance of where I lived,” said 6-8 senior Luke Babbitt, who will attend Nevada next season after earlier issuing a verbal commitment to Ohio State. “I had to take a one-hour flight to (Las) Vegas just to practice.”
June is typically full of high school-oriented activities by way of team camps, as well as a time for prospects to visit college campuses with some basketball prospects attending the NBA Players Association top 100 camp and/or the USA Youth Basketball Festival.
Most of July (with the exception of a one-week dead period in the middle of the month) is an evaluation period for college coaches to watch skill camps and AAU Tournaments. At the end of the month, several major tournaments (sponsored by shoe companies) are hosted in Las Vegas, which is followed by the AAU Nationals held annually in Orlando.
“It’s extremely hectic,” Moore said. “Coaches and recruits don’t get much of a break.”
By the time August rolls around, coaches, scouts, players, parents and everyone involved are living off caffeine and running on fumes.
“I’m sure the kids are tired,” Daniels added, “but some are trying to play their way into a college scholarship, so some will give it all they have.”
For football, the key is camp season.
Camps are limited to two separate 15-day consecutive periods in June or July (or May/August if any days fall in the same calendar week as days from June or July). Camps are often the best ways to evaluate performance, test ability, speed and strength as well as get an idea of a prospect’s intellectual capacity and feel for the game.
According to Ferri, nearly 80 percent of the players signed by Akron have participated in Akron’s football camp. That percentage is likely similar at many programs nationally.
The reason is simple: you can see things in-person that often is not apparent on film.
For instance, if a coach is evaluating a defensive back, he may not see how quick a prospect’s hips are on film, but there are plenty of drills to measure that during a football camp.
“It’s simply a huge part of our evaluation,” Ferri said. “As a coach, you really want to get a kid in your camp if you’re interested in them.”
There’s an often overlooked aspect of evaluation. It’s the mental side.
Most coaches put a high emphasis on critiquing a prospect’s character, emotional stability and mental understanding of the game. It’s not an easy task.
“This is easily the hardest thing to try and quantify with a prospect,” Ferri said. “I always give the example of the NFL. They spend millions and millions of dollars looking at the guys coming into the NFL. They have probably 12 scouts for each team, who each have their own area of the country, watch four game tapes and do interviews, obviously they have the Wonderlic test, and even they still screw up.
“So when you think about the resources they have available to them and it’s so much more than we have,” he added. “To be honest, unless we get them in a camp or get them on our campus and meet with the position coach, it’s really hard to do that.”
For football prospects, the camping experience is arguably more chaotic than the AAU scene. The bright side is the camping marathon lasts just two months.
It’s not uncommon, however, for kids to attend as many as 7-10 camps in one summer. Most camps last 3-4 days, and some kids will often stay for only a day or two and move on to the next stop on their itinerary.
Camps take place on college campuses, where prospects and any other player willing to pay the fee (anywhere from $25 to $500 per camp depending on the program) stay in the dorms and are provided t-shirts, meals and recreation during their stay. Often there are speakers which may include notable alums or other persons of interest.
There usually is a general population camp and an advanced camp, mostly for invited athletes (i.e. recruiting targets) with each camp breaking up into positions and having special drills, workouts and instructions led by that particular position coach.
“It’s great getting to go up against other guys at your position,” Brewster said. “The camps are really a fun time.”
It’s not permissible for coaches to use camps as a direct recruiting tool. Therefore, coaches cannot spend time discussing recruiting and cannot extend scholarship offers (verbal or written) during the camp. However, if a prospect does well, an offer might be extended immediately after the camp ends to his high school coach or, by mail, email or any other form of allowed communication (if the prospect is between his junior and senior seasons).
While programs try hard to get prospects on their own campus, if they swing and miss because of scheduling conflicts or some other reason, all hope is not necessarily lost.
Often times, camps are used not only to evaluate your own prospects but other teams’ as well. For instance, if Ohio State hosts a summer camp, coaches from Michigan, Notre Dame, Akron or Florida could attend and do their own evaluating.
This is an acceptable (and legal) practice that occurs quite often. As long as it’s an evaluation period and visiting coaches do not poach (i.e. have conversation with prospects while they’re there), it’s an opportunity to see kids that perhaps couldn’t make their own camps.
“For us, it’s a great opportunity,” Ferri said. “We had maybe 350 kids total in our three camps where in one camp alone Ohio State might get 500 kids.”
Naturally, the level of accommodation might differ from a lower-tier Division I school in the same state to a rival in your own conference. Nonetheless, it’s an additional chance to view prospects in-person.
Much like football, basketball programs also conduct camps.
Typically, most camps are used as a tool for younger kids. Often, however, colleges will conduct team-oriented camps where high school programs will stay for 2-3 days and participate in pool play and a tournament against one another.
It’s permissible, according to NCAA rules, for college coaches to have contact with prospects if their teams are participating. However, coaches cannot recruit during this contact. Further, by rule, though there are teams that are invited, these team camps must be open for registration to all teams and they cannot be advertised by the university as a place where recruited prospects are participating.
There are other methods for evaluating if coaches don’t see enough in person to satisfy their cravings.
Learn more about the (surprising) methods coaches sometimes use for evaluating kids in Part Three of “The Recruiting Game.” Plus, find out more on unofficial visits, the effect of the internet on recruiting and much, much more.
For Part One: