by Paul Nemetz-Carlson, Tudor Collegiate Strategies
Campus restrictions and nationwide travel limitations won’t allow them to visit. You need them to visit to see how perfect your campus is.
Opportunities to evaluate them continue to disappear in response to an extended dead period and safety concerns. You need to see them play to understand where they fit.
The postponement or cancellation of your season doesn’t allow recruits to see you play. You need them to see you play to get why you’re better.
Some of them, plagued by fear and anxiety about the next steps, won’t even answer emails or the phone. You need them to engage to be able to tell them what makes you unique.
There are SO many challenges to the ’21 and ’22 recruiting cycle. But, one of the biggest at all levels will be attacking the extra-year waivers, roster size, and its impact on all student-athletes, current and future.
With the NCAA recently approving a blanket eligibility waiver for fall and winter athletes, after a previous approval for the spring athletes, coaches are looking at current rosters and recruiting differently than they ever have before. The waiver answers immediate concerns and gives anxious student-athletes some clarity by providing all athletes with an extra year of eligibility, an additional year to complete it, and flexibility at the scholarship level exempting returning players from counting against equivalency limits.
However, for coaches it has sparked uncomfortable conversations and lots of questions. There are small ones about team size, functional spaces, and budgets. There are larger ones affecting long-held beliefs on building and managing teams.
And yet, the biggest question being asked by almost everyone is simply, what do we do?
First of all, coaches have always had roster change – both expected and unexpected. The path through has been preparation and planning that allowed them to react quickly to the moment. This situation is the same, but just with many additional moving parts.
So, before you go answering all the questions from 8th grade parents about whether it makes sense to hold their child back a year to avoid a prospect back-log or the 2021 graduate panicked there won’t be any room for them – let’s step back and see this for what it is, two separate challenges.
There is a coaching challenge where coaches anticipate difficult conversations about playing time and money, uprooting team dynamics, and budget impacts.
The other is a recruiting challenge – centered on evaluation, messaging to guide unfamiliar conversations, and coaches’ responsibility to put together the most talented roster possible.
Because you’re reading this article to understand the impact on recruiting, let’s look at the way it affects your plan, your current team, and your future team.
YOUR PLAN IS YOUR PLAN
Instead of viewing this as a challenge, view it as an opportunity to re-imagine your team and its fullest potential. Coaches who are excited about the current version of their team and those who are not BOTH have the ability to take a different approach to recruiting and improve their programs.
While many coaches will pause, uncertain of what comes next, it will be the coaches who move forward that will take advantage of this tremendous opportunity to reshape their team. Because movement – and particularly movement toward a decision – is the foundation of the most successful recruiting plans.
You will need information and to ask the right questions to move forward. Make sure you clearly communicate with your administration on their approach to scholarship, admissions support, and roster expectations. Just because the NCAA says it’s possible, your own administration makes the decision about what happens at your school.
With those limits and a commitment to re-evaluate all elements of your program, you need to develop a plan for what to do next. A plan allows for clarity in thought, action, and communication. It will be a plan that gets you past being comfortable with your roster – thinking your best approach is keeping the status quo for another year – and take action to re-imagine a new, better one.
One of the keys to sustainable success has always been a consistent annual approach to recruiting that helps create a balance of classes, each one with stars and impact athletes. Think about that balance – how you can change it or re-set it – as you envision what makes the most sense on your ideal roster.
Lastly, one of my guiding principles in recruiting continues to be “there’s always room for another good kid” and I find it to be a helpful reminder in this situation. If it was my team, I’d be ready for a lot of change in prospect mindsets and the future pool of available graduate transfers, players caught in a crowded line-up, and verbal commitments rethinking their decisions. I’d identify my greatest area of need and create an opportunity – playing time, financial help, reallocating admissions capital – to fill it. I’d welcome a much larger roster of returners and incoming prospects, but also have clear conversations about how the shifting dynamics will force the program to do more with fewer resources and how that affects each individual.
But remember, with everything, your plan is your plan. You don’t have to do what your peers or competitors are doing. Your only responsibility is to share it and explain why it’s the best plan for your program.
YOUR CURRENT TEAM
In my conversations with coaches, the most pressing decisions revolve around the best course of action to take with the current team. For some it’s the question of who stays or who goes. For others it’s the anticipation of difficult conversations and conflict. And for others still it’s the overwhelming desire to create the perfect plan to meet everyone’s educational, financial, and personal needs. There are no easy answers.
I’ve found that most coaches want to do right by their current student-athletes and follow through on the promises made in the recruiting process. They worry about being forced to choose between players – who planned to replace each other – for the same financial or playing opportunities.
Saying that, I’ve also found that many of these coaches haven’t yet asked their players the right questions, or any questions for that matter. Do that immediately because whether you’re a part of the conversation or not, they’re already having it. Like in your initial recruiting of them you can’t assume you know the answers.
You need to ask questions about the financial and academic viability of another year. What is to say everyone wants to come back? What factors are involved? Is there actual value in the academic programs you offer at their expected cost? When you do ask, be prepared for the inevitable emotional shifts that have them leaning to return one day and ready to leave another.
Only then can you begin to develop a plan to evaluate the best path forward. One where you can present the realistic options of how each individual fits your adapted version of the future. One based on your program’s needs and the honest evaluation that you’re currently undertaking this year without the pressure of results. One that allows you to answer the questions they’re having amongst themselves.
A reminder as you create this plan is that recruiting your own team is a lot like recruiting transfers. Things happen faster because they already have so much information. They’ll expect you to have answers – or at least guidance – on financial questions, academic options, and playing roles/opportunity up front at the beginning of the process. They’ve eliminated the feeling out process – Do I like the coach? Do they like me? – and expect decisions and decisiveness on a faster timeline as you share your plan with them.
YOUR FUTURE TEAM
The pandemic has added a new layer of fear, confusion, and anxiety to the process. It’s the reason recruits are deciding earlier and jumping at offers when they might traditionally have waited. It’s also why concerns about cost, value of a degree, and student outcomes have passed connections to coaches and team members as the leading factors influencing decisions.
When you speak to committed prospects or new recruits, acknowledging these changes in your approach is vital. Be prepared to go faster, talk more about financial aid and scholarships, and have stories that highlight educational outcomes of your program’s alumni.
Coaches who provide clarity and consistently show up will win more recruiting battles. Consistently showing up also builds trust in you as their guide and in the options you can realistically present.
If you have any intention of changing your original plan – and will now be asking them to redshirt, take an extra year, or even compete for playing time with previously non-existent teammate – trusting you have their best interest in mind is what allows you collectively to adapt. It allows you space to explain WHY it will be better and how it will benefit them.
You might want to change your plan for a number of reasons. It could be the fact experienced players are more ready to impact your team than the new ones. It could be that the pandemic has also disrupted your recruits’ current development plan. With fewer opportunities to train and compete – or at least compete against the highest level – they might not be as prepared for the transition as in past years. Another year, assuming a reasonable development climate returns, might be in their best interest. Whatever it is, if you provide assurance that you still want them and there is still a similar role in the future of your program, they’ll most likely take it.
Ultimately, as you manage both the coaching and recruiting elements of this fluid situation this will challenge your ability to plan, communicate, and the quality of your relationships. But, it’s also a great reminder that the best approaches to recruiting are centered around relationships, not transactions. It’s a reminder that relationships connect the recruiting process and the coaching experience to follow. It’s a reminder that those that see it this way will reap benefits that extend for years beyond the initial commitment.
So I’ll share some simple advice as you develop and execute your plan. Be sure to continue to show all those involved in your program – and all those you hope to join your program – that value them as part of your team MORE than your competitors. Engage parents EARLY in the process with conversations about money, distance, and the factors driving decisions. Be open to difficult conversations because you believe in the value of relationships, clarity, and consistently showing up. This is what makes you better than their other options.
Know who you are, share who you’re going to be, and tell everyone involved how they’re going to help the group get there. You will succeed by doing what is right for your program and for the people in it. That’s what you should do.
Be Distinct. Be Different.
Paul Nemetz-Carlson is a former Division I college coach and Director of Operations, and one of the team of experts that works with coaching staffs around the country for Tudor Collegiate Strategies. For information on how we work one-on-one with colleges around the country to perfect their recruiting messaging approach based on customized data and feedback, click here.