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Coaches earn keep in July recruiting blitz

7/6/2011

By 3 p.m., I broke down. I had tried to be a good soldier, to prove that I had the stuff to make it as a pseudo Division I basketball coach. But after seven hours of crisscrossing the highways of Las Vegas and hustling in and out of gyms, I buckled.

“Any chance,’’ I sheepishly asked Brett Gunning, then the associate head coach at Villanova, “that we could go to the In-N-Out drive-thru for lunch?’’

Four years ago, Gunning good-naturedly agreed to let me shadow him for his entire swing through the summer-league camps in Las Vegas. I spent five days with him and in the article I wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News, I logged my agony: 34 games, 552 miles, 11 gyms.

In those five days, I discovered a newfound respect for college basketball coaches. They do not earn their keep in the high-profile glory that is the season; they earn it in the misery that is July, plane-hopping from one side of the country to the next, logging endless hours in nondescript gyms on hard bleachers in the hopes of luring the next great thing that will change their program and secure their livelihood.

In that workweek in Vegas and in subsequent visits to the desert in July (yes, it’s a dry heat but so is sticking your head in an oven), as well as other recruiting outposts, I’ve gleaned quite a few insights to the art of July:

The size of your logo is directly proportional to the size of your popularity. Most folks believe it is the athletes on the court who are desperate to be noticed. Au contraire: The coaches want to make sure the players know they’re in the building just as badly. And so they advertise, pulling out every emblem-embossed piece of clothing in their closets.

What I’ve discovered, though, is this is no different than the hierarchy of high school. The cool kids need no introduction.

Relatively anonymous assistants or head coaches from small Division I programs wear shirts with their school name’s in font size that is roughly the same as the Hollywood sign.

If you’re Roy Williams, you wear a yellow golf shirt.

And if you’re clever, you work your famous gear. In Tom Crean’s first year at Indiana, his assistant, Bennie Seltzer, sported the Hoosiers candy-striped warm-ups. Hard not to notice a man in striped pants.

Rental cars look alike in the parking lot. Imagine racing to the mall at Christmas with little time to spare before closing, scoring a parking space and two hours later emerging from the mall. Now imagine that you have no idea what your car looks like. Congratulations -- you are now a college basketball coach in July.

With so many games to see and often so much real estate between gyms, coaches pile out of their cars in a hurry only to return to the parking lot two hours later with no idea where they parked or what kind of car they’re driving.

Which leads to one of the greatest scenes in July recruiting -- big-name head coaches wandering aimlessly while pointing their car remotes in the general direction of the parking lot, hoping desperately their car’s headlights wink back.

The cost of misinformation

Every recruiting camp produces a book of rosters, phone numbers and home addresses for each of the athletes competing. Such valuable information, naturally, comes at a steep price. Most camps charge between $200 and $300 per book.

I’ve glanced through some of those books. On some rosters, every player is listed with the same address and home phone number -- typically belonging to his coach -- and more than one had no information whatsoever.

Gunning told me the players often are listed with the wrong jersey number and he has wasted plenty of time trying to figure out if the player he is watching is actually the player he means to be recruiting.

It’s a hefty price to pay for bad info.

The art of clandestine photocopying

Needless to say, the cost of those pricey typo-filled books add up over a summer. Consider every school has three coaches on the road and there are myriad tournaments to visit and you’ve got a potential budget-breaker.

The savvy and thrifty thing to do is to make a photocopy of the information and share it with your staff or with some of your lesser-budgeted peers.

Except when I was in Vegas, Gunning explained that tournament organizers literally stalked area Kinko’s to make sure coaches weren’t making contraband photocopies.

I thought he was kidding until other coaches told me stories about an out-of-the-way 24-hour copy store, where coaches gathered in the wee hours to copy their books.

Peach Jam is heaven

The humidity is approximately 800 percent in South Carolina in July. North Augusta is only genuinely appealing one weekend of the year -- in April when the city hosts a nice little golf tourney across the Georgia border. Compared to Las Vegas, this is like visiting Amish country.

Yet as far as I can tell, there is no greater place for summer recruiting than the tiny little gym stuck on the backside of a neighborhood.

One building. Four gyms. No traffic. Every top player. Every top coach.

I’ll be there on July 12. I just hope the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the hospitality room are as good as they were last year.