Recruiters Scramble To Stay Ahead Of Recruiting Revolution
If you look around at the chain-link perimeter of any major high school baseball showcase, you're bound to see coaches wearing college caps and polo shirts, clipboards under arm, stopwatches in fingertips. That's been the scene for years, but it's starting to shift in subtle ways.
Nowadays, coaches peer down at their BlackBerrys between each pitch and instead of writing on their clipboards, they'll fire off one text message after another to potential recruits.
That's recruiting in the modern, technology-obsessed age. Coaches have to keep in constant contact with the players they're targeting so they don't fall behind. It's a never-ending battle to stay one step ahead--to be the first to find that special player, to be the first to establish a relationship with the player, and then to be the first to get the player to commit.
"Maybe years ago, there might have been a lull during the year at some point--you sign your class, rest a little bit, focus on what you've got signed before you go out and attack the next group," Georgia Tech recruiting coordinator Josh Holliday said. "But now, it forces you to stay on the ball virtually 12 months a year, in some regard, whether just writing recruits and staying fresh on their minds, or having them on campus for basketball games or football games in the fall of their junior year. Coaches are trying to find advantages and get a lead on a kid, and it probably has made our calendar a little busier, but that's just how it is."
Just three years ago, college baseball adopted a recruiting calendar to "put some sanity back into the recruiting process," as American Baseball Coaches Association president Dave Keilitz put it. Before that, recruiters could be on the road 365 days a year, which often prevented them from spending much time working with the players who were already in their programs--not to mention spending time with their own families. So the coaches agreed to institute "quiet periods" in September and over the winter, during which coaches could only have in-person meetings with recruits on campus. The goal was to reduce travel expenses and time commitments.
Coaches are split on whether or not the calendar has been beneficial. Some like it, but others complain that the quiet period lasts too long, preventing coaches from getting a chance to evaluate prospects from mid-November through the end of February. That forces coaches to redouble their efforts starting in March, often causing them to miss their own midweek or Friday games. One coach estimated that he misses between five and 15 games per year while on the recruiting trail.
Recruiting coordinators now find themselves working harder than ever in a rapidly changing recruiting landscape. By the time the early signing period rolls around in November, most coaches have long since evaluated high school juniors and even sophomores. In fact, one coach said he already has secured a commitment from a 2009 graduate.
"A lot of schools now basically have their recruiting done in November," Keilitz said. "You're signing a kid before he even starts practice for his senior year of baseball. That's the direction it's gone in, and everybody now feels they've got to do it or there won't be anybody left in April or May. It does get earlier and earlier."All About Organization
As a result, coaches have more to keep track of than they ever did in the past. UCLA coach John Savage summed up the hectic nature of the recruiting beast:
"You really just have to have a bunch of organization on each class. You've got to know who signed early, and who's still available. In southern California, there are so many good seniors that pop up in April and May, you've got to know who those guys are. Then you get hit again in June with the draft--you've got to know who's still available. Then you've got to be ahead of the game and bear down on the junior class, then here comes the sophomore class, and you've got to have a hot list on each class. We have a bunch of different lists now, a lot more than we used to have. It's almost like we're seeing who's going to become available--we may not want to recruit this one guy this year, because we know we've got this other guy coming up. And you've got to balance your classes--we're top-heavy with freshmen and sophomores. You've got to make sure you don't have all your money tied up in one class.
"Your head's on a swivel. You're not even looking at the classes that are eligible to sign, you're looking two or three years down the road."
Coaches aren't allowed to write letters to recruits until Sept. 1 of their junior year, and they can't call or visit recruits until July 1 of the following year. Recruiting coordinators still use letters and e-mails to get in touch with prospects during their junior years, but by far the most popular method of contact has become the text message via cell phones or other devices. While a player might not check his e-mail for weeks, no teenager is ever without his cell phone for any extended period, and coaches can send a text message asking the player to give him a call--there's no rule against that. Long before coaches and players have their first face-time, they're virtual pen pals.
Of course, relationships aren't built solely on text messages and e-mails.
"What I think has created a lot of this is the summer camps," Keilitz said. "Everybody has summer camps now. A kid comes to your summer camp as a ninth- or 10th-grader and knocks your eyes out, the kid likes the school and is willing to make a commitment. That seems kind of strange for the college and the kid, three years away from school--who knows what's going to happen?"
It used to be that most recruits wouldn't make their decision until they made their official visits to campus after their junior years. Savage said that even as recently as 2005, his first year in Westwood, the Bruins locked up the lion's share of their commitments during official visits. "Now all the players have already made their decisions (before they make their official visit)," Savage said. "There are so many unofficial visits, it's so easy for a student athlete to come for the day, stay the day, meet with counselors--a lot of players are making up their minds after unofficial visits."Information Overload
That is a crucial factor driving the acceleration of the recruiting process--access to information. Recruits are now able to learn whatever they want about any school through the Internet, messages with coaches or unofficial visits. They believe they can gather enough information to make their decisions as sophomores or juniors, thus alleviating the pressure of choosing a school early on and stemming the tide of correspondence from recruiters. Of course, there are risks for both players and coaches to locking in so far in advance.
"While it may be exciting and thrilling to get a commitment that far in advance from someone who's a special player, there's (the) risk that kid peaks out physically and doesn't continue to grow, or maybe he gets injured, or players in your own program mature at that position," Holliday said. "There are some unknowns, risks, but in most cases, when schools go after a kid that young, it's usually a kid they feel is a can't-miss prospect.
"I think maybe you're seeing our sport start to catch up a little bit with football and basketball. For a long time players in those sports have gained notoriety and prestige as early as freshmen or sophomores in high school. Maybe as our sport is becoming more and more publicized, prospects are known more at an early age."
But there are drawbacks to that development, as well. Savage said he hasn't had any problems with players backing out of their early commitments, and he said there is a gentleman's agreement between schools that they won't try to recruit a kid who has made a commitment. "When that starts happening, it will get crazy," he said. "It'll be like football or basketball."
Some coaches say that sort of thing is already happening.
"I've noticed this year there was more negative recruiting than ever before, and it hurt people," Arizona State coach Pat Murphy said. "It was sad. People are behind and feel like they can't catch up, they get frustrated, so they bad-mouth teams."
Still, coaches don't seem to believe the recent trends in recruiting are necessarily bad for college baseball. Keilitz said there is no legislation on the horizon to change the way things are done, and the recruiting calendar doesn't figure to change in the near future. When it comes right down to it, highly motivated coaches will always look for any edge they can get.
"I think just as in any walk of life, people that go about their jobs most efficiently are the ones getting ahead," Evansville coach David Seifert said. "The great recruiters, those are the ones that are getting the early commitments."