Breaking down college recruitment

A complex process made even more complicated due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Artwork by Leah Gelick

The lights, the cameras, the attention. Everyone wants to be on the big stage, the shining star, experience the Cinderella story. However, not everyone is cut out for the life of a NCAA student-athlete. 

Under 7% of high school athletes play a varsity sport in college — less than 2% go Division 1. The road to becoming an NCAA student-athlete is filled with ups and downs.

“In my experiences, it is ultimately the ability and work ethic of the athlete that will get them recruited at the next level. It is important to note that recruitment and eventual scholarships are earned and not given,” Oak Park Head Athletic Director Tim Chevalier wrote to the Talon.

Obviously, with the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic, recruiting has become a bit more challenging. Gone are the times of in-person scouting trips for coaches, visits to schools for the prospects and most importantly, no games, thus preventing players from giving scouts a taste of their abilities.

Initially, after the NCAA canceled its annual March Madness tournament on March 17, there was a recruiting “dead period.” According to the NCAA, college coaches “may not have face-to-face contact with college-bound student-athletes or their parents, and may not watch student-athletes compete or visit their high schools.” After this period ended in mid-May, players and coaches alike were forced to adapt to the new recruiting norm.

The recruiting process has changed in two ways. First and foremost, the evaluation and scouting process has become nonexistent. In a world where camps, summer tournaments and in-person scouting cease to exist, players can only present themselves through a compilation of highlight clips. These events are crucial for players, as it shows a coach the player’s offseason improvements. With no events or showcases, coaches are left with only one main determinant, highlight tapes from the previous season. 

Sports for the 2020-2021 season are in jeopardy at both levels — college and high school — due to the virus. This has dramatically affected the recruiting process for high school athletes. Instead of game film, players have resorted to sending tapes to coaches of virtual workouts. Additionally, the interaction between players and coaches at all levels — via zoom, phone or social media — has become more important than ever.

Whether it is at a Division I university or a junior college, pursuing one’s dream to play sports on a bigger stage is a goal for many. Knowing the ins and outs of recruiting is vital for prospective college athletes.

Recruitment of an athlete occurs when a college coach or scout reaches out to a student-athlete with an offer to play sports for them. For college teams and coaching staff, recruiting is a skill

In the college sports community, it is well-known which coaches are good at recruiting and which are not. For example, Alabama football coach Nick Saban consistently brings in great recruiting classes for the Crimson Tide and is known as one of the greatest recruiters in college football history. Some coaches go to extreme lengths to secure highly-touted recruits. Jim Harbaugh, head football coach at the University of Michigan, even went as far as sleeping over at a recruit’s house to secure the commitment, says BleacherReport.

In an interview with USA Today’s “For the Win,” Quinn Nordin, the recruit who Harbaugh successfully secured said, “[Harbaugh] said we can watch a movie, see how well we gel and he said he would sleep over after that. … He told me if I had a six-foot-three piece of carpet for him to sleep on, that would be enough. I said we have guest rooms, and he said ‘tell you what, I’ll just sleep on the floor in your room.’”

College coaches are not allowed to make direct contact with potential recruits until their sophomore year. 

“Before then, all communication with coaches recruiting me would be through either my travel ball coach or my high school coach” current University of Pennsylvania and former Oak Park basketball player, Clark Slajchert, wrote to the Talon. “By the start of my sophomore year, I would get texts and calls from coaches on all levels … Coaches that were serious about offering you or had already offered you would usually reach out as much as possible, even texting or calling once a day.” 

An important factor in choosing prospective colleges is the college itself, so student-athletes need to visit the schools recruiting them. There are two types of college visits: unofficial visits, visits the school does not pay for, and official visits, which are visits expensed by the school. Players, however, are only allowed to take five official visits, according to NCAA rules. 

These visits go more in-depth, often including tours of the locker room, stadium, practice facilities, meeting players, etc. In some instances, players also receive gear. Although he took many unofficial visits, Slajchert took only two official — Penn and Dartmouth. 

“All of the visits were really fun. I think getting to see and envision yourself in the facilities and environment every day is really important when making a decision,” Slajchert wrote.

“The typical wave of official and unofficial visits in the spring and summer is gone, so we’ve seen a lot of prospects staying close to home and committing to programs in their backyard because those are the programs that they have the most exposure to and comfort level with,” 247 Sports Director of Scouting Barton Simmons wrote to the Talon.

In the past 5-10 years, the industry of college recruiting has rapidly developed. Big business and profits are made off of player rankings, team recruitment class rankings, analysts’ predictions, highlight reels and more. Hudl is a website designed for players to stitch together highlight clips to send to schools, coaches, etc. It is also a place for coaches to virtually discover talent. Business for content producers such as Rivals or 247 Sports is booming; these websites produce rankings, articles, expert analysis and predictions and more. Both of these websites have been bought by Yahoo and CBS, respectively, with Yahoo paying over $100 million for Rivals in 2007. 

“The recruiting world has changed dramatically because of the availability of information. Films are readily available, athleticism and combine info is readily available, offers and commitments are all publicly available — it has all created much more transparency throughout the entire process, allowing prospects to be better informed and colleges to find those prospects in a much more accessible way,” Simmons wrote. “Every year, it gets harder and harder for a talented player to slip through the cracks.” 

The role of the high school coach is a crucial part of recruiting. College coaches ask high school —or in some cases, travel team coaches questions about the possible prospect. According to Oak Park High School’s head basketball coach Aaron Shaw, some inquiries include questions such as, “What kind of student are they and what are their GPA/test scores? What kind of teammate and leader are they? What is their work ethic like?” These questions show character in an athlete and college recruiters look for specific intangibles to benefit their team.

Not only do college coaches reach out to high school and travel coaches, but high school coaches often reach out to college coaches to advocate for a player on their team. 

“It is part of my job to try and find a place for those wanting to play in college. Throughout the last 10+ years, I have been able to network and get to know a lot of coaches from all levels and I contact them regarding our players that I think may be a good fit,” Shaw wrote to the Talon. 

College recruiting is of great importance to a young athlete’s development and can be overwhelming and stressful at times. However, the future of recruiting looks bright. Despite challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, life will go on — and so will recruiting.