She sits in the stands in a high school gym with no air conditioning on a scorching summer day. While the rest of the people in the stands are cheering for their daughter or classmate, she doesn’t clap but only observes the game, occasionally scribbling notes into her folder.
Such is the life of a college coach, traveling hundreds of miles every available weekend to see prospective collegiate athletes play, hoping those athletes notice her in the stands, and knowing that her appearance might mean the difference between recruiting a future CUA Cardinal or losing out to some other college.
It’s a tough time-management assignment because most coaches must do the bulk of their recruiting in-season to coincide with high school sports schedules. So, after a big win or a tough loss by their own team, coaches must immediately switch gears and get out there to promote their squad to high school athletes and their parents.
“A few seasons back, after losing an awful game that night, my assistant Jimmy Black left to see a high school player at a practice the next day in northwest Pennsylvania,” recalls men’s basketball coach Steve Howes. “As we were driving back to campus in a snowstorm, Jimmy was trying to get to his hotel in the whiteout. All of a sudden I get a phone call from him telling me he can’t get to the hotel because there is an elk blocking the road. He honked and yelled but that elk wouldn’t move and I didn’t know what to tell him to do.
“Well, after about 20 minutes the elk just walked off and he made it. That next day he went to the practice, and here we are two years later with the student he visited — Ryan Jones — on our team. I truly believe Ryan would have gone somewhere else if it hadn’t been for that visit.”
“Basketball was one of the biggest reasons I came here,” says Jones, now a sophomore. He adds that he remembers the assistant coach’s trek well. “Coach Black was the only coach that came to a practice to watch me play. I have a filing cabinet full of letters from tons of schools, but he was the only one that ever made the trip to watch a practice.”
“Most of the athletes here on campus would not have attended CUA if their sport was not offered,” says junior baseball player Bobby Picardo. “And most wouldn’t have come to this university unless they were actively recruited.”
Catholic University is a member of the NCAA’s Division III. While Division I schools such as Georgetown can lure athletes with scholarship money, NCAA rules forbid CUA from giving student
athletes any physical gifts or scholarships, making the recruiting process significantly harder.
The percentage of athletes that get onto Division I teams is so minute that most students decide early on to play in divisions II or III, say CUA coaches. The coaches look for those who may be on the bubble between divisions or those who have chosen to go to a division numerically higher so they can more easily concentrate on their studies.
“One of the best things we have to sell, because of CUA’s Division III philosophy, is a healthy balance between academics, athletics and student life,” says Athletic Director Mike Allen. “Our student athletes have the opportunity to excel academically in the most challenging majors, be part of highly competitive athletic programs, and still be normal college students. This balance isn’t always possible at the highest levels of college sports.”
To CUA coaches, recruiting is a science. It begins with sending thousands of letters to high school athletes around the country. The coaches find out about top prospects through such means as recruiting tournaments and basketball camps. A solid Division III prospect will likely be getting hundreds of letters from colleges during his or her junior or senior years. As the recruits reply to the letters, coaches narrow down the pool. The next step entails countless phone calls, attending the athletes’ games, inviting prospects to visit CUA’s campus and, hopefully, in the end, getting their verbal commitment to enroll at Catholic University.
The NCAA rule against giving athletic scholarships causes Division III coaches to spend more of the year recruiting than do coaches in the other divisions. Since there is no official signing date when a player has committed, a Division III coach must recruit year-round because, despite verbal commitments, one is never certain of getting an athlete until that athlete sets foot on campus in the fall.
The Winning Advantage
Without money to entice recruits, CUA coaches must use the program’s past success, the excellence of the university’s sports facilities or a promise of playing time as bargaining tools.
The university’s field hockey squad surged onto the national stage this past season, handing the reigning national champion its first home-field loss in 72 contests. “After making a name for ourselves, we not only got unsolicited interest from around the country but we got it from some of the best high school field hockey programs in the country,” says head coach Gia Cillizza. “The new recruits also happen to be great students.”
While a program’s success is one of the main recruiting tools, some coaches also use an overnight visit to campus as a way to garner top players.
“One of our top recruits, Kerri Doherty, had an offer from [Division I] American University but she really clicked with our players on her overnight visit,” says first-year lacrosse coach Meghan O’Connor McDonogh. “Now she has become one of our best recruiters, convincing another top player from her club team to choose CUA.”
Many young athletes dream about the glamour of playing in Division I but find that the commitment is too great, and opt for Division III. McDonogh has the program’s first high school All-American, Southern Californian Meghan Sabo, as a freshman this fall. “After seeing the leaves change colors [in D.C.] and having a great experience on campus, she realized her life would have greater balance at CUA [rather than at Division I University of Denver],” the coach says.
Convincing Prospects … and Their Parents
While keeping in contact with a prospective recruit is essential, the athlete’s parents are often a crucial part of the decisionmaking process. The college decision is one that every father and mother labors over with their child, but in an athlete’s case the considerations become even more complex. In college athletics, coaches are viewed as pseudo-parents to their players. Therefore parents must be comfortable leaving their son or daughter under the coach’s watch. Winning over the parents is one of the initial steps in the recruiting process and often the deciding factor.
As the recruiting process winds down, high school seniors — with their parents’ help — focus on comparing each college and university as a whole instead of just concentrating on their opportunities on the field. Coaches respond by pointing out outstanding academic programs, opportunities in an urban environment or other advantages of coming to CUA.
“I think that one of our biggest draws in recruiting is the tightknit team and supportive atmosphere,” says men’s cross country and track and field coach Mark Robinson, who is also an alumnus. “In addition to our team dynamics, the opportunity to attend college in a city as interesting and diverse as Washington, D.C., gives us an advantage that many schools are not able to counter.” — Barbara Jonas
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