Commentary

Recruiting trail dos and don'ts

Originally Published: January 30, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

You're a 25-year-old graduate assistant who's just gotten your first full-time college coaching gig. You're given a car, an expense account, some snappy golf shirts with the team logo and a territory to recruit. The head coach sends you out the door and into the high school world and wishes you good luck.

Oh, and one more thing: Don't come back without players who will win a conference championship.

What do you do?

With the arrival of signing day looming, we presented that scenario to several head coaches, active, retired and between jobs. What's the first thing you teach a new recruiter?

Because UConn head coach Randy Edsall responded with 10 rules, a form of wisdom first found in the Book of Exodus, we took his rules, consolidated them with what we learned from the other coaches, and developed the Ten Commandments for learning how to recruit.

If it sounds too biblical, don't forget: You have to read only as far as Chapter 3 in Genesis before you witness the world's first recruiting violation.

According to the text, the serpent, which offered improper inducements to Eve, remains on probation.

1. Be yourself. Don't try to be somebody you're not. Develop your own style.
Easy to say, hard for a young coach to do. Nobody did it better than former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer. In his book "Bootlegger's Boy," the Arkansas native stole future All-America tight end Keith Jackson out of Little Rock because, as Jackson said, "My mother said you were the only coach that made her feel comfortable in her own home."

[+] EnlargeMack Brown
AP Photo/Donna McWilliamMack Brown and his staff emphasize recruiting prospects with character and leadership.

2. Recruit intelligence. Recruit work ethic. Recruit character.
"He has to have the ability to start at Texas and win the Big 12 championship," Longhorn coach Mack Brown said. "Then you want a guy from a winning program. You want a guy from a family with values. We used to say with two parents. With families the way they are now, we say one really strong parent or two strong parents that don't live together. We'd look for him to have a 3.0 [grade-point average] in the core [classes]. We want a leader on the team and in the school and in the community. And look for him to be a captain.

"We've found in my 26 years that if you get the large majority of those values, he has a high-percentage chance to make it.

3. Be thorough.
"Cover all your bases," Edsall said. "Be thorough with everything you do. Don't shortchange the process. … Have a plan with each phone call, e-mail or visit. Don't go in there without having a game plan. You got to make sure you're going to hit on the point you want to make."

And not one game plan, either.

"It's different for every kid," North Carolina head coach Butch Davis said. "They're all going to be different."

Davis insists that his assistants visit every high school in the state of North Carolina every year.

"The first thing that all young coaches must do is build relationships with the high school coaches in your area," Davis said. "You have to build credibility with them. They have to know you're going to come there whether they have a player or not. Coaches will say, 'School such-and-such, I'm not going to go out of my way to help them because they only show up when I have a superstar.' … They may never have a player. We're going to make sure the coaches feel like we're there to help them."

[+] EnlargeButch Davis
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesButch Davis warns his staff to stay away from negative recruiting.

4. Gather information. Don't give it.
"Very, very important," Edsall said. "When young people get into the profession, they want to be around more experienced coaches. Don't tell people who you're recruiting. Don't give secrets away. … As a young guy, you've got to be a sponge. Keep your mouth shut and absorb as much as you can and not think you know it all.

Above all, listen.

"Talk to as many people in the school as possible," Edsall said. "Talk to counselors. Talk to coaches. Talk to janitors so that you can find out everything you might find out. … I tell my coaches, if you're going down the hallway, just ask a student what they think of him."

When you're through listening, figure out how to value what you've learned. This coach gives you the straight dope. That coach is dead-on about opposing players but oversells his own.

All of which leads to one of the most important lessons to be learned:

5. Make your own evaluation.
The ability to see a skinny 16-year-old for what he could be at 21 is, as Davis put it, "the craft and the art of evaluation." The trick is to learn what to value and what to ignore.

Tommy Tuberville, looking for work after 14 years at Ole Miss and Auburn, described an evaluator as part geneticist.

"How much weight can he gain?" Tuberville asked. "You're looking at his parents, looking at his brothers and sisters."

Davis said the facilities that the player has available to him in high school can lay a trap for a recruiter.

"You may be buying the finished product," Davis said. "There's a little bit of that in Texas. Those schools have got more money than God. They have a strength coach, 15 high school coaches. The players have been in the same program since sixth or seventh grade. You get them and four years later they are the exact same player.

"You go to Pahokee, Fla., where a kid eats once a day, his parents may not be around," Davis said. "You get him in a weightlifting program. Two years later, he's three times better than the kid from Texas."

Jack Siedlecki just retired as a head coach with a record of 126-71-2 (.638) after 21 seasons in Division III and, for the last 12 seasons, at Yale.

"You've got to find the right guy for your program," said Siedlecki, now an assistant athletic director at Yale. "You can tell me you talk to every kid in the ESPN 150. Not a one is coming here, and not a one can get in here. Recruit the recruitable kid."

[+] EnlargeRandy Edsall
AP Photo/Mel EvansBeing thorough is one of Randy Edall's recruiting keys.

6. Be honest with the recruits, the parents and the high school coaches.
When every utterance a coach makes appears on a recruiting Web site before he finishes the sentence, the penalty for not being up-front can leave a mark.

"Making promises to kids will get you in trouble," Siedlecki said. "You say, 'I'm not sitting in your living room if I didn't think you were a great player. You have to come and compete. See what college football is all about.'"

Davis's voice rose as he described why he warns his staff not to engage in negative recruiting.

"Don't ever stoop to that level," Davis said. "There are things you'd love to say to parents or coaches who are naïve. It may help one year but it ends up developing [the reputation] that you don't have anything good enough to talk about at your place."

7. Zero in on the decision-maker.
It may be the dad. It may be the mom, or the girlfriend. Especially in Texas, where high school coaches often don't teach, it may be the coach. The recruiter must find out who has the ear of the recruit and how to get to that person.

Siedlecki recalled being an assistant at Lafayette College and getting a commitment from a recruit and his father on a weekend visit to campus. He made a home visit two nights later.

"I was in the house less than two minutes when I knew he wasn't signing with us," Siedlecki said. "The mom didn't want him at Lafayette. I had never met her. It was a lesson learned."

8. Don't fall in love with a recruit until he signs.
He's your recruit, and you want to sign prospects in your area. But if he's not right for the program, you have to be able to see that.

"This is tough for a young coach," Edsall said. "He likes the kid and everything is going well. Now all of a sudden, things change. If a red flag comes up, or something with character or work ethic, you can't be afraid to pull back. Sometimes with young people, hey, it's not how many you sign, it's the quality."

[+] EnlargeTommy Tuberville
John Reed/US PresswireFormer Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville stressed making your own evaluations.

9. Persist. Persevere. Make one more phone call. Watch one more video.
This may sound like "Be Thorough," but the coaches emphasized the amount of work involved over and over again.

"You've got to spend a lot of time," Tuberville said. "The time you're given on your schedule is not enough. You've got to make time."

There is an old joke among college coaches that you can look at a roster and judge how hard the staff recruits. If most of the players have last names at the beginning of the alphabet, the coaches didn't make all their calls.

"You know that's a guy that recruited from a list," Siedlecki said.

"You can't be a guy who's going to take a list from Rivals or Scouts," Edsall said. "You have to be ready to put in time and effort to study the film. … You can't watch a highlight film. You also want to see a game film. You have to see bad plays, too."

The story goes that Bill Walsh, when at Stanford, used to ask his assistants to show him a recruit's 10 best plays and his 10 worst ones.

10. You have to like kids, and you have to like the kids you sign.
Recruiting is not for everyone.

"Recruiting is what separates guys who are good high school coaches from being college coaches," Siedlecki said. "I know good high school coaches. Recruiting is why they are not college coaches. You don't have to love it. You have to feel comfortable with it. … You put in a tremendous amount of time to get a very few kids."

Brown said that in 1992, when he coached at North Carolina, former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler came in as part of the television crew for his game. They went to dinner Thursday night.

"I asked him," Brown said, "how do you decide whom to take at the end? We'd have 12 guys for four spots, and you're scared to death."

Schembechler, who died in 2006, said, "In the end, all of them are probably what you want athletically or you wouldn't have recruited them. I would take the ones I liked and not take the ones I don't like. If he likes you, he'll play hard. If you don't like him, he'll find that out and he won't play hard."

So there they are, the Ten Commandments. There is one more, derived from the original Ten: Do not covet thy neighbor's assets -- unless it's a 17-year-old prospect who can squat 600 pounds.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com