In addition to simply selling the merits of their programs, recruiters have to be able to relate to the players they are trying to sign. There's no better way of doing that, or of building those relationships, than to "keep it real". That simple phrase covers a wide swath of territory, from avoiding doubletalk to laying out the facts to relating to recruits on levels other than their fields of athletic endeavor. Different recruiters use different paths to achieve the same results, but in the end they all share a couple of commonalities, with one of the biggest being the ability to communicate with today's high schoolers on their own terms.
That task isn't overly difficult for a young coach in his late twenties or early thirties, but as time marches on the age gap between the coach and the players he recruits advances as well. Pretty soon, you're talking age differences of twenty-five or thirty years, and with it comes the generation gap that proves so difficult to bridge in so many situations.
The most successful recruiters, however are able to bridge that gap. In doing so, "keeping it real" becomes one of the foundations on which those gulfs are crossed. One of the most successful in the country with that approach is WVU assistant basketball coach Billy Hahn.
Spend just a few minutes around Hahn, and you'll be completely at ease. The Indiana native has the gift of gab, and excels and including everyone in conversation. Before long, he'll have told a story, shared a belly laugh, and you think you've known him for twenty years.
Hahn knows the importance of finding a commonality with the players he recruits, and views the ability to forge those bonds within the player's fram of reference.
"I think it's really important," he said of keeping up with the culture of today's high schoolers. "Being around the kids, you have to stay alert to what they are talking about. The slang they are using -- well, the slang I grew up using in the 70s obviously isn't the slang they are using now. You have to keep up with the music they are listening to. I just think you have to keep up with what's going on with them in general. "
Hahn realizes, however, that if he weren't genuinely interested in the players, in coaching them, and helping them reach their goals, then he could be perceived as just another snake-oil salesman. Therefore, he's careful not just to drop in a reference to Usher or Chris Brown just to show that he's up on the music scene.
"The first thing is thing, kids have an amazing way if knowing you are for real or not," Hahn emphasized. "I think it all depends on how you use it and when you use it. They figure out real quick if you are phony or just trying to act like them . I think it's a personality thing, too. It's a blend of things. But they'll know if you are faking it."
So, while Hahn does strive to keep up and use the language and cultural references his players and recruiting targets use, he doesn't wield it as a weapon. He's not looking to drop names. He simply looks for any way in which he can build the trust and relationships that are vital to success, and communicating in a manner that is comfortable to the players is one of the best ways of doing so.
Over the past year, Hahn has finally gotten to work with Bob Huggins, one of his good friends in the game, and he remains in awe of the way in which Huggins communicates with those same players.
"Huggs just tells it like it is. He is a straight shooter," said Hahn, who shakes his head as he tries to find the right words to convey the way in which WVU's head coach slips right into easy relationships. He brings a sense of trust and a sense of security with him. He's not going to tell them what they want to hear. He's going to tell them exactly what he feels, and I think that's what makes him so successful."
It's obvious that the vast majority of players that Huggins comes in contact with perceive him the same way. Using Hahn's first rule, it would be easy to see if players thought that Huggins was simply feeding them a line. That's obviously not the case, because the results Huggins has produced on the floor with those players speak for themselves. Six hundred plus wins, 15 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, five (soon to be six) NBA first round choices -- the evidence is all over the map as the the ability of the veteran coach to communicate with recruits and players.
Thus, as the seasons roll by, there doesn't appear to be any danger of Huggins, Hahn or the rest of the WVU coaching staff falling by the wayside of the recruiting trail. While some coaches struggle as the age difference increases, West Virginia's staff appears poised to keep it momentum rolling.
"That's the thing about our business," Hahn noted with his ever-present twinkle in his eye. "It keeps you young, even though I'm a little bit older now. It keeps you young, because you have to be on top of it all."
Just by keeping it real.