Recruiting road trips evolve over time
Leon Rice heard the thump as he drove down a California highway with head coach Mark Few on one of his first recruiting trips as a Gonzaga assistant.
At that time, the mid-major powerhouse lacked the resources to fly around the country to scout talent. So coaches borrowed a sedan from a Bulldogs booster for road trips.
When Rice and Few realized the bumper had fallen off their loaner vehicle on Interstate 405 -- it was a car from the booster's California dealership -- they decided to retrieve it.
But they weren't sure how to proceed once they'd grabbed it from the road.
"Neither of us knew what to do with it," said Rice, now head coach at Boise State. "We went from L.A. to Vegas to Phoenix in a car with no bumper."
This week, many of the country's premier coaches will travel the AAU circuit on private jets as the first evaluation period of the summer begins Wednesday. Others will fly commercial. When they land, they'll hop into rental cars and dart to various blue-chip AAU tournaments throughout the country. Many will keep an eye on their programs from afar with the assistance of tablets and smartphones.
"You're never away from it all because of email and cell phones," Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said.
The same folks who've taken advantage of new resources and technology also remember the struggles they encountered when they hit the road for the first time as young coaches -- a period that didn't involve texting and tweeting.
Coaches carried calling cards back then, not cell phones. And fewer restrictions meant longer stretches on the road.
"I don't know what the stats were on the assistant coaches who stayed married. It was hard, I know, for a lot of guys we knew," Wisconsin's Bo Ryan said. "Now it's more manageable."
Most of their recruiting lessons were gleaned from trial and error.
As a young assistant at Valparaiso, Scott Drew was so anxious to find new players at a Kentucky AAU tournament that he forgot to book a room in advance. Once he arrived, he couldn't find any reasonably priced hotels within a 45-minute drive of the event. And he didn't have the budget to stay at a five-star spot with vacancy.
"So I had to sleep in the car and do the shower at the truck stop the next morning," Drew recalled. "I felt like I was indoctrinated into coaching that day."
I don't know what the stats were on the assistant coaches who stayed married. It was hard, I know, for a lot of guys we knew.” -- Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan
But at least he stayed dry.
Frank Haith once "graduated" to a satellite phone -- complete with a suitcase and antennas -- on cross-country road trips as a young assistant coach. To make calls, he had to put the antennas on top of his car and connect it to the phone.
"If it was rainy and cold -- your window [had to stay] open -- you got wet," said Haith, currently the head coach at Missouri. "It was in a suitcase. You only got that on road trips."
They were all ambitious, eager to prove they belonged with the veteran coaches who frequented the circuit. The long road trips that lacked the conveniences they enjoy today, however, were worth the hassle and crucial for their career paths.
Shaka Smart's coaching career began at California University of Pennsylvania, a Division II school. During his first road trip to a major AAU tournament in Philadelphia, he spotted a lanky kid with potential.
"The kid was about 6-6, maybe 6-7, really skinny. He didn't seem like he had a whole lot of offensive game," Smart said. "I thought he was a guy that maybe could play for us. He really needed to get stronger."
Smart tracked the young athlete all day and then he called his AAU coach and expressed his interest. The coach told Smart that he'd relay the message but added that he expected his pupil to attend a high-major Division I program.
"Needless to say, [former Syracuse star] Hakim Warrick decided against going to California University of Pennsylvania," Smart said about the Big East standout who helped the Orange win a national title in 2003 and was a first-round pick in the 2005 NBA draft.
Craig Robinson spent more than a decade in the corporate world before he joined Northwestern's staff. He arrived early on the day he attended his first major AAU event for the program. But once he entered the building, he realized he was alone.
When he finally found the tournament's operator, he asked him for the coveted packets that contain information about the AAU coaches and players participating in the event. Sure, the man told him. But it would cost him $350. Cash.
"I almost wet my pants. And he wouldn't take a credit card," Robinson said. "I was like, 'Oh my god. Who carries around all that cash anymore?' Of course, all the coaches who'd been doing this knew this."
Recruiting has undergone dramatic changes over the years.
The budgets are bigger, so it's easier for coaches to acquire comfortable accommodations on the road. And they're strapped with detailed information about every player on the floor when they attend events now. But that makes it more difficult to find a gem.
"A lot of times, what recruiting has turned into now isn't about discovering, it's about making sure everybody knows you're there," Ryan said.
Plus, the camaraderie has shifted, some veteran coaches said.
"All the assistants knew each other. We were all friends," Monson said. "After the games, we'd go out and have a drink together. It's not that way anymore. If someone heard that you were sleeping on a floor recruiting or couldn't afford to have your own hotel, they would just kill you recruiting with that information."
During one July recruiting period, Rice said he survived on $150 for the entire month. He caught rides. He slept on coaches' floors.
He'd just lost his job as a graduate assistant at Oregon, but he wanted to stay on the recruiting trail to interact with the coaches who could help him find another prospect.
Rice said he doesn't regret one thing about the grind.
"Those were good times," he said. "It was a struggle, but it was a lot of fun. We all enjoyed it."
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