Commentary

Yes, recruiting changes are here again

Originally Published: May 4, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The uncomfortable bleachers. The tiny outposts of North Augusta and, back in the day, Teaneck. The misguided Garmins that wind up dazed and confused in Las Vegas. Lunch at 4 p.m. and dinner at midnight.

These are the summer survival stories college basketball coaches tote around like badges of honor.

And it is during that July grind -- knee-deep in the oppressive heat of Vegas, the humidity of South Carolina and stuck in sweaty gyms everywhere -- that most of this country's college basketball talent has been unearthed.

[+] EnlargeDixon/Howland
Liam Foley/Icon SMIUnlike in pro sports, the job of a college coach is truly year-round.

College basketball games are won and lost from November to April.

College basketball programs are made in July.

So when the Conference Commissioners Association voted unanimously in October to eliminate the July recruiting period, the news was greeted much as you'd expect. Apoplectic and stunned, coaches reacted as if someone had stolen their lunch money, birthday cake and holiday presents all at once.

"This makes zero sense,'' Xavier coach Chris Mack told me on Oct. 21, 2010, when news of the CCA's vote first broke during Atlantic 10 media days.

Turns out that brouhaha was merely the beginning, not the apocalyptic end many had envisioned. The CCA's recommendation was never formally endorsed, but emboldened by the commissioners, the NCAA decided it was time to revisit and re-examine the college basketball recruiting calendar and the way college coaches do their recruiting business.

Embarrassed by annual transfer lists that roll on for miles and chronically looking for ways to cut out the nefarious third parties that skulk along the edges of the sport, the NCAA invited any and every suggestion to the table.

Exactly how things will change remains to be seen, but change certainly seems to be coming. The NCAA leadership council is in the process of fielding proposals from any and all parties. There have been two in-person meetings as well as conference calls involving every level of interested parties -- commissioners, presidents, coaches, iHoops members, AAU tournament directors, student-athletes and the national high school federation all are in the discussion -- with the intent on formulating one proposal to bring before the NCAA Board of Directors in October.

Pending board approval, the recruiting calendar could change as quickly as 2012.

"This topic has come up several times. Summer recruiting, third-party involvement and concerns with that environment has been an issue the NCAA has tried to address for the last decade,'' said Missouri athletic director Mike Alden, who serves as the leadership council chair. "I think the reason this got more legs than in the past is because of what the CCA did, but also because it used to just be discussions with the NCAA and a few other people. Now everyone's involved and that's really driven the conversation forward.''

Currently two proposals have gained steam -- one from the SEC, the other from the five other power conferences -- but nothing is sacrosanct. Tweaks, additions, subtractions and even alternative suggestions are still possible, but there is at least consensus on one thing: change needs to happen and regardless of what ultimately is decided, nothing will be perfect.

"This can't be the same for everyone and the challenge is people have to accept that it's not going to be,'' said Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, the chair of the NCAA basketball ethics committee whose opinion has been sought on this topic. "But I can't overemphasize how healthy the exchanges have been. Is it going to be perfect? No. Is it going to need tweaks? Yeah, probably. But we're saying this is a clean board and let's make it better.''

The question is how? Knowing full well that there is no magic remedy to serve everyone, what can the NCAA do to make necessary and significant improvements?

"The devil may be in the details, but I think the hope is that we can have a situation where everyone gets something,'' said Ivy League director Robin Harris, who serves as the chair for one of the leadership council subcommittees directing the discussion. "Some things may benefit the big schools going after the top recruits and others might be more for the so-called mid-majors and really be of no interest to the other schools.''

It's no surprise that coaches have opinions on the matter and most agree that there are a few key issues that need to be addressed:

[+] EnlargeCJ Ford
Marc J Sanchez/Icon SMIThe bleachers at April tournaments used to be crowded with college coaches. Not anymore.

The return of April

Pick a gym and pick a coach and you're bound to hear the same chorus: Please give us back April.

Two years ago, while coaches drug their feet and didn't put up a vehement argument, university presidents elected to prohibit coaches from attending any and all non-scholastic (read: AAU) events in the month of April.

The idea was to shorten the AAU circuit and also prevent high school students from spending extended weekends out of town and consequently, missing school.

The result? The events played on even without the coaches as spectators.

"They haven't stopped,'' said Harris. "Instead, since our coaches can't attend, we're forcing them to get their information on these events elsewhere.''

That, of course, goes directly to the third-party intervention that the NCAA is trying to erase.

But to coaches, the removal of the April period has even more immediate consequences. It is one less opportunity for them to evaluate prospects at top-level competition and makes organizing their July recruiting plan even more difficult.

Ever since the NCAA took it away, there isn't one coach who hasn't longed to have it back.

"April is really good,'' said Indiana coach Tom Crean. "The programs really have time to focus, the cost containment issue is addressed and you can see so many different kids in a short period of time. It makes so much sense to me.''

Of the two models currently receiving the most attention from the leadership council, only one -- proposed by the Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 -- includes April recruiting, allowing for two weekends out on the road.

The other, pitched by the SEC, does not.

Contact via phone calls, text messaging

Among the biggest concerns cited by administrators at the university and NCAA level is the number of players transferring each year. All sorts of issues come into play in those decisions -- playing time, coaching changes, personality conflicts -- but coaches and players agree that a big part of the problem is that coaches and prospects simply don't get enough time to know one another.

Under the rules as they are currently written, text messaging is prohibited entirely and phone calls to prospects or their families are strictly limited.

"Access, access, access,'' Martelli said. "There has to be access to the high school kids, their families and their high school coaches. But I also understand it needs to be respectable.''

[+] EnlargeTexting
Icon SMIThe NCAA has not exactly been ahead of the technological curve when it comes to recruiting.

Originally the NCAA feared an all-out technological assault, with coaches text messaging recruits ad nauseum and worse, costing prospects money. That, of course, was before the majority of people had some sort of smartphone and unlimited text messaging and caller ID became de rigueur.

Now the rules, as currently written, seem about as outdated as dial-up Internet or a rotary phone.

"You can email a kid, 'Hey give me a call,' and that's perfectly legal,'' Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "But if you accidentally roll down on your phone and hit SMS and say the same thing, now you're looking at a major violation.''

But the push to change the rule isn't simply because it's antiquated. It's because coaches feel like they don't have the opportunity to contact prospects that are going to spend as long as four years on their campuses.

"I don't care if you're talking about recruiting or a marriage, communication is the key to any relationship,'' Nebraska coach Doc Sadler said. "And we've more or less eliminated that.''

The logic once was to keep coaches an arm's length away, to stop them from inundating and even pressuring prospects. But in legislating against such behavior, the rulebook now -- even administrators agree -- has gone too far the other way.

"We've legislated how much contact a coach -- the best teacher and mentor we have for our student-athletes -- can have with a prospective [student-athlete],'' Alden said. "Yet we are allowing people who shouldn't be part of the process unlimited access. Why wouldn't we want Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or Paul Hewitt or whoever to have more contact? These are the best mentors these kids can have.''

In addition to literally opening the line of communications, there is a push to change when a coach can contact a prospect.

In an era when more and more players are making their college choices in their junior years, they still aren't permitted to make official visits to campus until the start of their senior seasons.

Both proposals would bump that date back until April 15 of a recruit's junior season.

July recruiting

This all started, of course, because of a threat -- and not at all a veiled one -- by conference commissioners to do away with July recruiting altogether.

"Sometimes you have to make a drastic statement to get some change,'' Harris said.

In all likelihood, coaches will still be packing their bags in July to head out on the recruiting trail. They just might not be gone so long. Currently, coaches are out for 20 days in the month. That may not sound like much, but consider in those 20 days, the first game generally tips off around 9 a.m. and the last around 9 p.m.

[+] EnlargeWilliams
Liam Foley/Icon SMIOn this, most college basketball coaches agree -- the month of July is one heck of a grind.

Even for die-hards, that's a lot of basketball.

"There's not a college coach out there who isn't ready to go home by July 31,'' Butler's Brad Stevens said. "Twenty days out of 25, that's just unhealthy for everyone involved.''

Odds are, July will be cut -- perhaps to as few as nine days, perhaps slightly more -- with the giveback coming in April, when a currently closed calendar will reopen slightly.

It's a compromise that has been met warmly by coaches.

Not only does it allow for a more manageable schedule, it allows them a few days on campus with their enrolled athletes in the month of July, a kickback coaches believe also will help to cut down the dissatisfaction that can lead to transfers.

"We'll have 13 players on campus during our Summer II session, which I believe begins around July 7,'' Miller said. "We have four freshmen coming to Arizona, so that will be their first real experience on campus as part of our program. Our whole staff leaves at the same time.''

No one is naive enough to think that the leadership council will offer and the board of directors will endorse a perfect remedy that stands the test of time. If the recruiting process has proved to be anything, it is constantly evolutionary.

But seven months after angry coaches felt like the sky was falling and their recruiting window was shutting without their say-so, it is remarkable to hear how engaged and eager they are about the potential changes.

"This has been great, really,'' Stevens said. "What I've come across is there are a lot of really good people in this business. We always hear about the stories that don't look so good, but this is one of the good things. This is about prioritizing what's best for kids, for helping them find the right fit and for doing what's best for our game.''

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball