Penn State has to pull off the crazy balancing act practically every weekend at this time of year. The dilemma: How to cover every point you must to football recruits during their one official on-campus visit? And do it without making the athletes and their families feel like they are being rushed.
The visits typically start at 5 p.m. on a Friday, when the families check into a local hotel and the athletes check in with their player-hosts. They end at about 11 a.m. Sunday, after brunch at the local hotel. Thats 42 hours. Take away anywhere from 10 to 20 hours to allow the visitors a little shuteye, and the challenge becomes clear.
Which is why Penn State recruiting coordinator Mike McQueary holes up with athletic marketing man Guido DElia in a team meeting room at the Nittany Lion football complex a few days before every recruiting weekend. The visit schedule is always similar to the one Penn States been using for decades. But every week, there are a few tweaks here, a few tweaks there.
The attention to detail is meticulous, everything scratched out on a long white board covering one of the rooms four walls.
Among the myriad topics covered at the meeting last week: What kind of welcome gift can be left in the hotel rooms of the parents? What upcoming acts at the Jordan Center should be mentioned to the recruits? How many seats will be needed when the recruits check out the Penn State basketball game? What kind of transportation will be needed to take the visitors from a local restaurant to the hoop game? And is Sue Paterno, the wife of Penn States well-known head coach, flexible with the customary 9 p.m. Saturday start time of the social at the Paterno home?
The answers, respectively: A cheese basket, B.B. King and Nelly, 50, a large bus, and a definitive no.
They talked about where drinks should be set up for a reception at Beaver Stadium. They talked about what kind of logo magnets should be used on the white vans that carry the visitors around campus, and which side of the vans the parents should enter. They talked about what promotional videos to play at various points of the visit. They talked about the young women who serve as hostesses during the recruiting weekends.
If theyre talking among themselves, DElia cautioned, they are doing something wrong.
All of this while knowing the key to closing the deal is not cheese baskets, Nelly, logo magnets, promotional video or chatty hostesses.
We can do all this stuff, McQueary said with a smile. But just getting to be around the players, you cant replace that.
As hectic as the visit is for the 100 or so people at Penn State who pitch in to the process, they attempt to make it that relaxed for the visitors.
Youll find little conversations going on over here, over there, DElia said. A coach will take a family and go sit in the locker room and talk a little bit. Some of them stop in the media room and sit there a little bit. The other places are like, Mush, you huskies. Head em up, move em out. Now were going over here, now were going over there. Its like they need a bullhorn.
Ours is more designed to allow them to get to know the people, he added.
If youd like to get to know a little more about Penn States recruiting weekends, read on for part two of our Q&A with McQueary. Youll also see (below) a graphic breaking down a recent Nittany Lion recruiting weekend.
MB: How has the format of the recruiting weekend changed from when you were recruited by Penn State in the early 1990s?
MM: Its very much the same. I think at times, to be frank with you, were spoiled at Penn State. Joe came in here in the 50s or in the 60s when he was the head coach and said this is the way were going to run it, Im going to establish it, and now it speaks for itself. And so we can get them to Todd Kulka and Wally Richardson and make sure we go over academics and study hall and how we correspond with and interrelate with their advisors in their specific colleges and how our academic counselors within our football program oversee what they do in the classroom. We get them with [strength coach John Thomas] and say, hey this is our high-intensity strength training program and this is how you do it. And its three times [per week] offseason, its two times in season. You get with [trainer] George Salvaterra and say this is how our medical insurance works. This is what happens if you get hurt. You get them with Bill Kenney if its an offensive lineman and Bill Kenney goes over, this is how I coach, this is my style, this is where I have come from.
[You highlight] all of those parts of the program, all of those spokes of the wheel. This is Nittany Apartments, which is 50 feet away from our facility. This is the training table, which is 100 yards down the road. And youre not going back and forth from campus all day long. And I think all of those spokes, its up to me to orchestrate, to make sure we show it to them. But I think once you do, theyre saying, Gosh, theres nothing that youre missing here. Youre not missing any part of the equation at Penn State. And I think that goes back, like I said, 30 years ago, Joe had this thought in his head, thats where its at. It speaks for itself.
MB: How does what you do with visits differ from other schools?
MM: At Penn State, we try to make it as realistic of the next four and a half years as it can be. Example: Do we put them up at the Nittany Lion Inn in a nice hotel room or do we throw them in with Michael Robinson [Robinson had just ducked his head into the room to say hello] over at Nittany Apartments? And the answer is we throw them in over at Nittany Apartments, and Michael can say this is where you live. This is where I live, this is where youll live. Do we take them downtown for a steak dinner? No, we eat both of our dinners on campus. We eat one at the training table, we eat the other one at the stadium. So you have those types of situations.
We show them the classrooms. We go over to the IST building and say, hey, Penn State has made a tremendous effort in terms of the new technological services available to you. Flat screen computers, and this is how we teach our classes, and this is a class setting. So I think we try to make it realistic. On the flip side of that, you better have a kid whos ready to handle that sort of challenge. You better have a kid who says, if I go to Penn State Im going to have to go to class. Im not getting a free ride.
MB: Can you see that attitude in their eyes?
MM: You can a little bit. Weve gotta sit down with a kid once in a while and say, hey, were going to challenge you. It is not going to be easy. And when you think about the freshman year, people dont realize, thats not fun and games. Thats a hard schedule. Being from State College, I can remember, I called my girlfriend at the time, about two weeks into it, class and lifting. And I said, gee, I dont know if I want to do this. This is tough because youre going from 7 in the morning until 11 at night with maybe an hour of free time in there. Between lifting and meals and breakdown meetings and practice and classes, mandatory breakfasts and stuff, its a tough schedule.
MB: How do you pick the players who serve as hosts?
MM: A lot of times its geographically. Other times its just a feel for chemistry. Those are two basic ways.
MB: And what about the hostesses?
MM: The NCAA has stepped into the recruiting host situation. It used to be that you could incorporate hostesses however you wanted to into a recruiting weekend or to hosting a recruit on campus. Whether it be a junior day, game day, unofficial visit. The new rule now is a recruiting host must be a part of a group on campus that is already determined as a recruiting body for the university. Lion Ambassadors, Lion Scouts. I cant speak for other programs and how they used them in the past or how they currently use them. I can say that we have used hosts, both men and women. Theyve helped us a significant amount. Weve had great luck with them. We try to get kids from all aspects of life. From all geographic backgrounds and from all socioeconomic backgrounds. I think the key to it, when youre talking to a mom and dad or a kid, youre not saying, hey, youre coming to Penn State to be a jock. Heres a person who is a student at Penn State, and like I said, weve used men. Hes from this background and hes an engineering major and these are some of the issues and things that he sees on campus and this is why he came to Penn State. So they get the overall perspective on Penn State.
MB: How do the academic people pitch in with the visits?
MM: Our faculty is awesome. They are truly awesome. They dont get enough appreciation. We use about 30 or 40 different people, faculty members, deans within our programs. They help us tremendously and we feel thats an important part. This weekend well have four kids [interested in business], and well take them to the business building and Randy Woolridge will sit them down in our stock [market] room and say hey, this is a live stock room. What you see in here is the same information on a Monday that youll see going across a ticker on Wall Street, and its unbelievable. This is our new business building thats being built. And that new business building will have this plus an upgraded type stock room. And when you walk in there youll literally feel like its on the New York Stock Exchange. Its unbelievable. So they go out of their way on Saturdays and Sundays to help us out and we appreciate it greatly.
MB: Who sets up all the travel plans for players to get to campus [parents must pay their own travel expenses]?
MM: Patty Shawley is our recruiting secretary and she does a great job and shell do everything from the NCAA forms with [assistant athletic director] Mark Sherburne over in the Bryce Jordan Center, to travel setup, Wendy Miller is our travel agent over in the Bryce Jordan Center who helps us. Theres a lot of spokes in the university that we call on. Admissions people, Jo Ann Shore. Guido in our marketing department, he helps us with a lot of different aspects. So a lot of things run through myself and through myself to Patty Shawley, who kind of coordinates a lot of those things. And sometimes she gets dumped on, but she does a great job of handling it.
MB: So what does all of this cost?
MM: I try to ignore that (laughing). I think other universities go out of their way to spend exorbitant amounts of money. I dont think Coach Paterno has put limits on us here at Penn State. But his bottom line is, make it realistic for the kid. Very, very seldom do we go above and beyond what we think is a realistic approach to recruiting.
Tomorrow: Closing the Deal. And watch for our profile of McQueary in the first issue of Fight On State the magazine, which mails in late February/early March.