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Tuesday, April 23, 2013
New NCAA rules: The coaches' take

By Myron Medcalf

Editor's Note: New NCAA rules allow unlimited contact by coaches via calls, texts and social media to recruits who have completed their sophomore year. On Monday, we looked at how players and families are responding. Today, we hear from the coaches.

MINNETONKA, Minn. -- On Saturday afternoon, Bo Ryan sat with his peers on the baseline of a gymnasium in the Minneapolis suburbs and reflected on the changes in recruiting he has witnessed in recent years.

They've all come in bursts.

In the 1970s, he'd contact highly touted recruits on Sunday night. That was the best day to catch them at home, he said. Ryan, then an assistant under Bill Cofield, drove to the basketball offices, because long-distance phone calls were too expensive to make from home.

He employed the same strategy each weekend, too. He would track down a top recruit and then filibuster the conversation so that his rivals couldn't get to him.

Bo Ryan
Bo Ryan has learned to adapt to changes in the recruiting landscape.

"The key was getting the kid on the phone on a Sunday night and never letting him off, because there was no call waiting and every other coach that was calling him kept getting a busy signal," Ryan said. "It's changed an awful lot."

The young players he tracked at the NY2LA grassroots tournament over the weekend, however, are far more accessible now -- an about-face attributed to modern technology and recent rule changes. Last summer, the NCAA gave college basketball coaches the green light to call, text and message (via social media) -- without limitation -- all prospects who've completed their sophomore year in high school.

The change would create chaos, critics feared. What if coaches bombard kids with text messages all day and night? What if the athletes can't focus in school because they're too busy communicating with coaches?

Per Ryan and other head coaches who attended the weekend's event, those concerns were unrealistic. Today, coaches are mostly worried about finding the balance between conveying interest and demonstrating obsession, because they don't want to overwhelm the young men they covet.

They do, however, want to impress them. And the only way to do that is to enter their world, a tactic that often involves a smartphone and a Twitter feed.

Coaches seem to enjoy the new rules that have allowed them to diversify the way they connect with players, but they've also tried to take precautions to avoid abusing the rules and harassing players with phone calls, text messages and tweets.

"Originally, I thought it was going to be so intrusive for the kids and their families, and I know that was a lot of the conversation as to whether that rule should go in or not with the unlimited texting and calling," said Northern Iowa's Ben Jacobson. "After having it now, I think it's a real benefit for everybody involved. For us as coaches, for players we're recruiting, for their families. The bottom line is over the course of some time, if they don't want to text you back, if they don't want to take your phone call, they don't have to. So on their end, they don't have to let it be all-consuming."

In less than a year since the rules on unlimited communication were approved by the NCAA, coaches at all levels have reconsidered their recruiting strategies to ensure that their internal measures match modern technology and a mobile culture that emphasizes text messaging, especially among teenagers.

"I'm probably a little slow," John Thompson III sad. "I'm not into tweeting, but I think the ability to communicate via text helps simply because that's how they communicate. You sit here and you go through most of these kids, they probably have email, but they don't really check them. I know that applies to guys on our team. You're taking a step toward communicating with them the way that they communicate."

Added Pepperdine assistant Bryant Moore: "A lot of kids don't talk on the phone today. I know out in California, some of the kids, they don't even have voicemail set up. Texting is the only way you're going to get to them."

The altered culture has prompted some coaches to question the value of traditional tools such as in-home visits and handwritten letters. Official, signed mailings from head coaches are still popular in college basketball. But they're not necessarily as impactful as they once were.

"Mail, obviously, we still send it out," Ryan said. "When we did in-home visits, we'd go in there and we'd see these letters stacked up. They were unopened. But Wisconsin ones were always open, because I was in the house. So probably, if Michigan comes in the house, those are going to be open. But I saw a lot of unopened envelopes in student-athletes' houses."

So how can coaches reach recruits? That's the constant question facing staffers at all levels. There's no foolproof response, because every prospect is different. Some crave a stream of communication from coaches who are chasing them, while others prefer less interaction.

Although the word "unlimited" suggested that coaches would flood the inboxes of recruits, the efforts are customized and distinct in practice.

"Really, it all depends on the individual kid," said Duke assistant Nate James. "You don't want to overdo it, so we ask kids, 'Is it OK for us to text you as much as you would like?' because it can get overbearing for kids."

Chris Collins
The ability to text freely allows new coaches like Chris Collins to connect quickly with recruits.

It's a less staggering experience for young players when college coaches know if players are serious about their programs early in the recruiting process. For coaches, the unscientific gauge to determine that is based on the speed of a player's response to text messages and social media memos. An athlete who likes a coach and his program will respond quickly, while a player who's not interested will respond only sporadically or not at all.

"The one thing I like about [unlimited contact] is that you know if the kid likes you," said South Dakota State assistant Austin Hansen.

So instead of wasting time with a recruit who's not interested, coaches now have a better sense of when they should move on or stop the pursuit.

"If we see that they're not interested, then let it go," Ryan said. "There are more players out there."

But messaging through texts and tweets also gives coaches tools to develop stronger bonds with players before they enter college. Improved relationships could help fortify programs in the future, says UW-Green Bay assistant Jimmie Foster.

"The [text messages and phone call rules] allow us to have a little more contact and let those guys get more familiar with us so we can build a better relationship so we won't have those guys, at the end of the year, transferring at a high level," he said.

Overall, coaches are content with the unlimited contact allocations granted by the NCAA last summer but admit they're still not sure what do with them. Concerns about overuse that preceded the change seem exaggerated in hindsight, yet coaches admit the potential for abuse remains.

Northwestern assistant Patrick Baldwin, who recently joined new head coach Chris Collins' staff, has used text messaging and social media to reach out to recruits in the Chicago area and beyond. Baldwin said unlimited contact has helped Collins' staff introduce itself to available players throughout the country in recent weeks.

Baldwin, a former Missouri State assistant who joined Collins' staff last week, hit the road as soon as he accepted the job. If he wasn't monitoring the action on the floor at Hopkins High School in Minnetonka, he was using his smartphone.

Baldwin recognizes that the new recruiting rules could overwhelm players, but he also understands that they can complicate coaches' lives, too. For Baldwin and his peers, disseminating messages to recruits at a reasonable rate is equally significant for the targets and staffers.

"No. 1, you've got to do your job," he said. "[But] I have to report to my family, my wife. I think that's the way that I stop from overusing it. She comes from a sports background, so she understands what I'm up against and what I have to do. But at the same time, she can put the foot down if she wants to."

Sounds as though Mrs. Baldwin's rules will always supersede the NCAA's.