The Business of Recruiting Student Athletes
| 2015 Q3 | story by BOB LUDER | photos by JEFF JACOBSEN, Kansas Athletics
More than 15,000 people poured into Allen Fieldhouse on a mild Oct. 9 evening for the annual celebratory kickoff to the college basketball season known as “Late Night in the Phog,” an impressive turnout considering the University of Kansas was on fall break, and most students had gone home for the long weekend. Of the thousands in the venerable old barn that evening, the ones garnering the most attention from Jayhawks fans, other than the players on Naismith Court, were five lanky young men seated directly behind the Jayhawks bench.
The immediate future of Kansas basketball might have been on display during the short scrimmage that was the centerpiece of “Late Night,” but what the Jayhawk faithful hope is a bright future down the road was of the utmost importance, as well. Five high school athletes, each in the top 35 of the national talent rankings as rated by high school recruiting website Rivals.com, chose to make their official recruiting visits to the KU campus during “Late Night.”
That’s not an unusual phenomenon, KU assistant basketball coach Kurtis Townsend explains.
“It’s a big night,” Townsend says. “It’s the kickoff of the basketball season. It’s the first introduction to our players, as well as the first look at new players.
“Most important, it shows the passion of our fan base. Not only are these [recruits] getting to see how much the fans love the program, but it shows a side of personality that you usually don’t see. It’s usually a good, fun weekend,” he says.
According to NCAA rules, the KU men’s basketball program is allowed to host 12 official visits by recruits each year, and typically about half of those occur during the “Late Night” weekend in early October. A number of recruits also make unofficial campus visits—where the recruits and their families pay their own way—that weekend.
“We’ve had a lot of kids that have committed on their official visit during Late Night,” Townsend says. “I remember one time Coach [Bill] Self standing up in front of the team and asking how many committed then, and at least a third raised their hands.”
Damitria Buchanan, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator of the women’s basketball team, says “Late Night” shows recruits that, at KU, basketball is king.
“A lot of schools we recruit against are football schools,” Buchanan says. “We have a new staff here this year, and this was our first Late Night. But the kids we had in here loved it. I know a lot of them moved us to No. 1 on their lists after their visit.”
The recruiting opportunities that come with events like “Late Night in the Phog” don’t stop at just basketball. Other programs, such as the top-10 nationally ranked KU volleyball program, also use the event as a key recruiting date.
“Anytime we can get kids around an exciting athletic event like that … ,” says KU volleyball coach Ray Bechard, whose team was 21-1, atop the Big 12 Conference standings and ranked eighth in the NCAA Division national poll as of Nov. 4. “It really gives them a feeling and passion for the Crimson and Blue. You always try to take advantage of those situations.”
Veteran Jayhawks softball coach Megan Smith explains, “That’s a huge event for us each and every year. It’s tradition at its finest. It’s an exciting night when all athletes from all the different sports come together. They take time out to recognize all the other sports.”
At KU and other big-time universities around the country, the only sport that might matter even more than the actual sports themselves is the sport of recruiting. It’s largely what separates successful programs from the also-rans. Jim Marchiony, associate athletics director-public affairs at KU, says 2 percent of the university’s $90-million athletics budget goes toward recruiting. Two percent might not sound like much, but $18 million is an impressive amount.
The science of recruiting has changed during the past 10 years or so as quickly as the technological advances that have accompanied it. No longer is it a matter of writing letters, making phone calls and knocking on doors, though all of that still takes place. Today, social media has become a heavily used tool.
“This generation is more 140 characters or less,” Buchanan says, laughing. “Tell me what you have to tell me and then let me go so I can Snapchat or Instagram my friends.”
Even Facebook has become somewhat obsolete, she says.
“Facebook we may use for internationals, because they still use that,” she says.
“Kids don’t want to talk to you on the phone anymore,” he says. “They ask you to hit them up on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat. And, they like to text back and forth.”
Starting Sept. 1 of an athlete’s junior year in high school, a college recruiter can send private messages over social media, but no public messages.
Many parents of promising high school athletes now actually hire film companies to shoot video of their kids’ exploits and accomplishments, and ship tapes or digital files of those videos to schools of their choosing.
It’s a whirlwind of change that’s challenged the best of college recruiters, such as Townsend and Buchanan, to keep up with the times … and the Joneses.
Townsend says he receives too many tapes to count each and every year. Of course, any coach watching these tapes realizes he’s seeing only the made shots, the extraordinary and spectacular plays, not the misses and mistakes. Still, he and Buchanan watch. It’s part of the job.
“I prefer to watch full games,” Buchanan says. “But, as recruiting coordinator, I also watch [videos], because it’s my job to follow up.
“It’s hard for us to see every kid around the country,” he continues. “There’s also online research and recruiting services.”
Recruiting is a little different animal for Bechard and his volleyball program, where different positions are very specific, even more so than basketball. He needs to know where and how to find the exact positions he needs, be it outside hitters, setters or liberos.
“We need to fill all those on a regular basis,” he says. “Our league is a very physical league. We have to recruit both talent and size.”
Bechard says he loves to recruit the Lawrence area and region, but will extend his talent searches nationally, if need be. Four of the 16 players on his roster hail within 30 miles or so from campus.
Softball coach Smith relies even more on area talent to fill the roster of her team, which has advanced to the NCAA tournament each of the last two years. Nine of her 25 current players are from the region.
“I remember when I was coming in to interview here,” says Smith, in her seventh year as head softball coach. “I remember what it was that caught my eye. It seems everyone in Lawrence loves KU athletics. The players know that what they’re doing is going to be celebrated, not just by the university but by the community.
“When you walk down Massachusetts Street, you feel that,” she says. “It’s just a great family atmosphere.”
Several coaches say they also highlight logistics when recruiting athletes, especially those prospects from large cities who might otherwise think of Lawrence as a small town.
“We’re close enough to Kansas City without being in the city,” Buchanan says. “They get the college feel in Lawrence but still are close enough—35 miles—to do things in a city, like go to a professional game or a concert or play.
“There also are a lot of direct flights in and out of Kansas City [International Airport],” she continues. “We tell recruits three hours will get you anywhere. I was at Texas Tech before I came here, and it was hard to get East Coast kids, because it took forever to get there.”
Townsend says many athletes he recruits from large cities might have trepidations about Lawrence until they arrive for their visits and see for themselves the charm of the town and university.
“Lawrence is a great place if a kid wants to focus on academics and athletics,” he says.
Of course, Townsend also is in the enviable position of recruiting to a program considered one of the top five men’s basketball programs in the country. The inventor of the game, James Naismith, was the first coach at KU and has his name on the floor in Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks have won five national championships—the most recent being in 2008 under current coach Bill Self—and countless conference titles, including the last 11 Big 12 championships.
“We sell tradition, from Wilt Chamberlain, Clyde Lovellette, on down,” he says. “The Fieldhouse is old, but part of that is why it’s great. We never want to lose that heritage.
“And then, Coach Self is a hall-of-fame coach,” he explains. “He gets to the tournament every year. He’s won or taken second in the league every year he’s been there. And, he’s just a great person who promotes families.”
Then, of course, there are the facilities which, to a bright-eyed high school recruit, might be the greatest recruiting tool of all. In this area, the university has made several significant upgrades, some as recent as this fall.
The opening of McCarthy Hall in early October gives KU one of the most impressive and modern men’s basketball residence halls in the country, on par with other traditional college basketball blue bloods like Kentucky and Duke.
“That will have a huge impact for us,” Townsend says. “Kids are impressed by that stuff. Kentucky, Louisville have places that house players. Right now, we have as good a place as anyone in the country.”
Less than two years ago, Rock Chalk Park opened in northeast Lawrence, a complex of track-and-field facilities, softball and soccer fields, not to mention a public recreation center, all world class in quality.
“Rock Chalk Park is state of the art and rivals any softball facility in the U.S.,” Smith says. “It’s been huge in recruiting. It’s a great place to train and play, a place to become an elite softball player.”
Not only does track-and-field/cross-country coach Stanley Redwine have the track-and-field facility at Rock Chalk Park to sell recruits, there also is Rim Rock Farm, north of Lawrence, which has hosted an NCAA championship meet as well as top high school talent at several meets each fall.
Redwine likes to make a car analogy when describing his facilities, comparing them to driving a Lamborghini.
“Everything there is good, everything is what a recruit wants to see,” says Redwine, who led the KU women’s track-and-field team to an NCAA national title in 2013. “It compares with the best tracks in the world. There’s a real ‘wow’ factor there. In fact, we’ve had people that have come to the Kansas Relays, see the area, and then come to KU even if they’re not a track athlete.”
Another major recruiting advantage Rock Chalk Park and Rim Rock Farm provide is that they give the city of Lawrence opportunities to host regional and national class sporting events, such as the AAU Youth Cross Country National Championships, which were held at Rim Rock last December. Those events bring many of the nation’s best athletes to the city to see and experience the facilities for themselves.
This summer, Rock Chalk Park will play host to the AAU Region 16 Track and Field Championships, hosting athletes from Arkansas, Kansas, western Missouri and Oklahoma. The park also is in the running to host the 2017 AAU Junior Olympic National Track and Field meet.
“We can now promote Lawrence as a destination for nonuniversity sports events,” says Bob Sanner, sports markets and special events with eXplore Lawrence. “We look for events that would have a good impact on the city and that could help economically. Now, we have the facilities and manpower to put on these events.
“What better exposure for Stanley Redwine’s track program than exposing thousands of young athletes to KU track-and-field?” he asks.
Evidence is clear that the “sport” of recruiting has undergone many changes during the years. But, while there might be different play calls—different forms of communication—brought about by the age of smartphones and social media, when it comes down to it, the basic strategies are, and will always remain, the same.
“It’s all of these different things,” Redwine says, “but in the end, it’s still about personal communication. I believe in creating personal relationships with the athletes and their families so that they know just what they’ll be getting at the University of Kansas.”