How do you recruit during a global pandemic?
With NCAA coaches unable to visit recruits across the country, how can a coach be that calming, reassuring voice in a living room? How can they speak directly to parents about how they’re going to take care of their young son or young daughter over FaceTime? Can you really look a mother or father in the eye on Zoom? Can you convince a young kid that your school is the one for them if they’ve never set foot on campus? What about the wining and dining that comes with being the commodity that could push their program into the national spotlight?
And how can coach gauge if the young kid they’re looking at is the right fit, has the right personality that’s going to help your program?
How will this all work?
It’s a problem coaching staffs around the country are faced with as coronavirus mandates sheltering in place across the country. But it’s a problem that hits less established coaches’ programs harder than the name brands like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams.
It’s not as easy if your name is Martin Ingelsby.
“I do think guys will fall through the cracks,” said Delaware head coach Martin Inglesby. “I do think recruiting gets pushed back and players won’t make decisions as early as they used to. We’re just going to have to be more aggressive when things do open up.”
Coaching staff like South Carolina’s Frank Martin’s have similar issues.
Any other April, the Gamecock’s men’s basketball head coach and his staff would likely be loading up their trucks and making their way down Interstate 20 to an AAU tournament. As they step into the gyms, they would be greeted by fellow D1 and AAU coaches with a smile and get to catch up on what life has brought them over the last year while spending some time pinpointing what 2021 players they want to carry the Gamecocks program forward.
But things are a bit different this spring.
Frank Martin and his staff — like all of us — are adapting to our new normal. No handshakes, no face-to-face conversations. It’s a lot harder to know if a player’s makeup is “the right fit” for your program.
Fixing their morning coffee, they make daily phone calls with AAU coaches — mirroring the conversations they would be having at those AAU tournaments — just now, Martin’s staff is relying on the eyes and ears of others to give honest feedback on the guys that are grabbing their attention on film.
“The coaches and the programs that can evaluate (film) will have an advantage because right now no one is allowed out,” Chuck Martin, one of Frank Martin’s (no relation) assistants told Deadspin. He has asked AAU coaches to set up a 10-day to two-week tournament at the end of the summer to provide the needed exposure for players.
Coaches can have no in-person contact with recruits, on or off-campus, officially or unofficially, as imposed by the NCAA until at least May 31.
Another temblor that colleges are trying to grapple with is preparing for the NCAA’s decision on if student-athletes in all sports can transfer and compete immediately — which would change how programs fill scholarships from year to year.
Rutgers associate women’s head coach Tim Eatman said the COVID-19 pandemic has put them at a “tremendous disadvantage” given the fact he and the rest of the coaching staff would be out on the road doing home visits for the class of 2021 right now. That has now turned into weekly social media DMs, Facetimes and Zoom calls from his couch in Northern New Jersey and a heftier transmission of mail.
Eatman says that Rutgers women’s head coach C. Vivian Stringer sent a proposal to the BIG10 last week asking if the allocated recruitment days for this spring could be stitched onto the fall calendar. She hasn’t heard back.
The BIG10 has not responded to Deadspin’s questions.
Communicating with families during this time has been even more challenging given the circumstances and the uncertainty of each player’s situation. Chuck Martin says he has become more sensitive to the potential losses each family has faced, be it a loved one or job. He has approached conversations delicately by speaking with them about their family and how they are doing during these times because he says basketball comes secondary.
“You have to be really really organized with the information,” said Chuck Martin.
While South Carolina has finished filling the program’s two open scholarships for 2020, Martin says some coaches he has spoken with are struggling to fill theirs given the circumstances.
Even though Rutgers women’s team has their recruiting class for 2020 locked down — ranking No.8 according to ESPN, the school is still working on uneven footing compared to other teams in the BIG10 because entering the 2019-20 season, the program had to fill six scholarships — many of which were filled by grad transfers.
The grad transfers makes for a bit a of a dilemma as coaches must decide if they want a player that is likely developed and ready to contribute immediately, i.e, a grad transfer, or do they want to wait a year or two for a player out of high school to reach their potential — which is a gamble.
During a generational pandemic, having more scholarships to fill because players have graduated or left after a year puts you in a tough spot as a program. Plus, this spring-summer is also the time many programs anticipated building their class for 2021. Trying to juggle all of that, anyone’s brain would explode.
“Everyone gets nervous. You can’t get too far ahead,” said Eatman. ”We’re trying to build a championship team, not sign the five best players.”
Similar to Rutgers, South Carolina will focus on one task: Winning next season. Their goal is to put together a roster that can deliver similar or better results than their 2016-2017 season, when they made it to the Final Four. Chuck Martin says he would like to find hidden talent like he did with that team, recruiting future NBA stars P.J. Dozier and Chris Silva.
The assistant coach suspects since recruits in the 2020-21 class will have to overcome a shortened recruitment period, and compete immediately with eligible transfers for scholarships, many kids will opt to attend prep school, similar to the decision Dwyane Wade’s eldest son, Zaire Wade, made this week in an effort to garner more offers.
The trickle down effect of this pandemic and the new NCAA rules allowing transfers to become immediately eligible upon entering the transfer portal will turn college basketball into a circus.
Every school only has 15 scholarships, though there’s no way of knowing what sort of lasting impact COVID-19 will have on the college game or recruits.
Said Ingelsby, “recruiting comes back to building a relationship and being relationships based.”