Commentary

Recruiting season is one that never lets up for coaches

Updated: August 4, 2007, 1:27 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

They're burying Skip Prosser this Saturday in Cincinnati.

He died on an office couch a week ago. Of all the places the incandescently nice Prosser shouldn't have died, alone in his Wake Forest basketball office on a weekday morning would have been right up there.

Remembering Prosser

Former Wake Forest guard Chris Paul, at Skip Prosser's funeral, said: "...I never knew this man would change my life forever. He gave us a chance. He cared about us, and he helped us not only grow as basketball players but also as men. Story

Maybe it was simply his time. Maybe he was supposed to live until he was 56 and then check out. Or maybe, just maybe, the heart attack got an assist from the cruelest month in college basketball.

You know all about March Madness. Insanity with a capital I, right?

Not even close. The real madness comes in July, the most brutal recruiting month in college sports. It's so brutal that when the numbing news about Prosser swept through the profession, there were more than a few Division I basketball head coaches who surely thought it could have been them slumped lifeless on a couch, or against the steering wheel of a rental car, or in Economy Plus seating during yet another red-eye flight.

Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins, 44, suffered a seizure June 29 in his own office that doctors later said was likely the result of work-related exhaustion and sleep-deprivation. He's better now. In fact, shortly after he began recruiting again, a coach stopped him at a recent tournament in North Augusta, S.C., and asked, "Hawk, how you feeling?"

It was Prosser.

So you can imagine how Hawkins felt when one of his Western Michigan assistant coaches called him at Chicago's O'Hare Airport last Thursday and said, "Did you hear about Skip Prosser?"

"Oh, please, don't tell me," Hawkins said.

The memory of the moment still unsettles him.

"I was by myself in the airport," he said. "I hung up the phone and ..."

There is a long silence.

"Excuse me," he said, his voice now shaky. "You realize what you put your wife through, what you put your family through. It scares the bejesus out of them.

A lot of coaches are on the road, and it's the last place they want to be right now. A lot of us coaches go through life with almost total disregard for our health, for our lives because of what's at stake in our careers.

Steve Hawkins

"A lot of coaches are on the road, and it's the last place they want to be right now. A lot of us coaches go through life with almost total disregard for our health, for our lives because of what's at stake in our careers."

Prosser had taken a red-eye from Las Vegas, where he had watched prospects in AAU basketball tournaments, to Orlando, where he could watch more prospects in more AAU tournaments. Then he got up early the next morning so he could catch a flight back to Winston-Salem, N.C., and work his own camp. It happens all the time -- coaches trying to squeeze 48 hours into 24-hour days.

And then he died.

"I think we really have to look at our profession," said Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg. "And it isn't just July. We literally do not have any down time. We don't have a time where you can step back and be a human being."

Greenberg, 51, said this while talking on his cell phone, driving his rental car and double-checking his directions to another gym in Orlando. These guys can't help themselves, especially in July.

July is the final month of the long, hyper-intense recruiting season. Out of the month's 31 days, the NCAA allows coaches to be on the road and evaluating prospects for 20 of them, during July 6-15 and July 22-31. In between there is a mandatory "dead period," during which coaches can only phone or e-mail potential recruits.

"But you know what the dead period has turned into?" Hawkins said. "You might be working even harder, even though you're not traveling."

It used to be worse. Until NCAA legislation included the July dead period (the most recent changes were passed in 2004), coaches were on the road almost the entire month. Now they get five more nights in their own beds, though some coaches would argue that the revised calendar simply means they have to cram the same number of trips in fewer days.

So few kids can change the complexion of a program, so it's hard to justify getting away, taking a few days off. But without [down time], you're going to have tragedies. The pressures are so intense. They eat at you. In our business, winning is relief, losing is agony.

Seth Greenberg

"It's so competitive," Greenberg said. "So few kids can change the complexion of a program, so it's hard to justify getting away, taking a few days off. But without [down time], you're going to have tragedies. The pressures are so intense. They eat at you. In our business, winning is relief, losing is agony."

Like most coaches, Greenberg flies commercial. During the first 10-day July recruiting block, he never had a wake-up call later than 5:30 a.m. Akron. New Jersey. Akron again. New Jersey again. Later it was Vegas. New York. Charlotte. Fort Walton Beach. Orlando. It never seems to end.

"You're not eating right," he said. "You're not sleeping right. Your body gets overwhelmed.

"Now more than ever we've got to find a way to take a step back."

Hawkins was hospitalized for three days following his seizure. He was back on the recruiting road when I talked to him, but he isn't allowed to drive for another five months.

"The head coach, that's who the AAU coaches want to see at the games," he said. "That's who the players want to see at the games. That's who the parents want to see at the games. Certainly with my situation, and maybe with Skip's situation, if you're not out there those full 20 days, you feel guilty. You feel guilty that somebody else is out there outworking you."

So you ignore the fatigue. You trudge down to the hotel workout room, where you usually find other coaches, and try to sweat away the lack of sleep and crummy meals. You tell your body to gut it out through July 31. Get through the 31st, and you're done. Until next year.

"Fans tell me, 'Coach, slow down,'" Hawkins said. "But if we have three last-place finishes in a row, those same people will say, 'Get him outta here.'"

Some job this is. But Hawkins and Greenberg aren't complaining. None of them are. If Prosser were alive today, he'd tell you coaching ball is the best job in the world. After all, this is the guy who once said, "I don't have a career record. The players won those games."

For a lot of these D-I head coaches the money is good, even great. For a few of them, it's obscenely great. And never underestimate the lure of the game, the practices, the building of a basketball family.

There's something terribly wrong when the college football recruiting calendar looks sane compared to the college hoops recruiting schedules. That's why Greenberg proposes a two-week recruiting period in May (right now, May is a "quiet" period in which only on-campus recruiting visits are allowed), and the elimination of the July recruiting dates. Meanwhile, Alabama's Mark Gottfried has floated the idea of a 10-day dead period in May and August.

You get the idea. They want to be human again.

"We'll be better coaches, better mentors, better husbands, better fathers," Greenberg said.

He said this as he got out of the rental car and walked toward the gym. I could hear Greenberg as he made his way into the place. He had another game to see, another game to be seen at.

The things coaches do to recruit. Nowhere will they seem more meaningless than on a Saturday in Cincinnati.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter