Dan Earl received his first letter from a college basketball recruiter more than 25 years ago, so it is understandable that he doesn’t recall which school it came from. But somewhere in the South Jersey home he grew up in, there sits a collection of memories from that hectic time in his life.
“I probably have a box at my mother’s house in Medford Lakes with a bunch of letters in it,” says Earl, a star point guard at Shawnee High School in the early 1990s who went on to play at Penn State. “I don’t remember who the first one was from, but I do remember getting a lot of them. Some schools would literally send a letter every single day, just to stay in touch.”
These days, Earl is the one on the lookout for the next great point guard as the head men’s basketball coach at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), a Division I program. But instead of mailing out personal notes or literature about his school, he just fires off a text message to a 16-year-old kid.
Welcome to athletic recruiting in the 21st century, where texts and private messages on social media have become the norm for coaches and players trying to communicate on a daily basis.
“They still send letters, but they mainly contact you on Twitter,” says Harrison Hand, who graduated from Cherry Hill West in June and will play college football at Baylor this fall.
“They called and texted me a lot too, or [sent me direct messages]. You just learn to deal with it. If you’re a person who doesn’t like to be bothered, it does get to be a little too much, depending on how much your phone is blowing up. But you get used to it.”
High school students and their parents must figure out how to handle the non-stop attention and adoration and discover the college that is the right fit for their academic and athletic future. Coaches, on the other hand, have to determine which recruits will not only help them win games, but represent their programs in the best light.
In that regard, college recruiting is the same as it’s always been. Of course, other factors make it a completely different ballgame.
THE IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY
Brian Earl, Dan’s younger brother, has also been on both sides of the recruiting process. After a standout basketball career at Shawnee, he went on to become Ivy League Player of the Year at Princeton under legendary coach Pete Carril. Today he is still in the Ivy League as the head coach at Cornell, and he and Dan are one of only five sets of brothers leading Division I programs.
“I think the basic premise of recruiting is sort of the same; you’re trying to convince a family and a kid that your place is the right fit for them,” he says. “I think the means to do it is different, but it’s all sort of persuasion. It used to be they were calling you at your home, and a lot of times no one would pick up and they’d leave a message. Now, there’s obviously text messaging and getting a message out through social media. So that’s changed things a lot.
“I remember you could do a lot more in person back when Dan and I were being recruited; I think coaches could come to see you whenever they wanted to. The NCAA has made rules where that’s not allowable anymore, which is probably better. The guys who worked as hard as they could and were never home were constantly in contact with recruits, and the NCAA has kind of curtailed that a little bit.”
Lamont Robinson, a football star at Salem before graduating in 2005, was recruited by a number of major college programs. He ended up choosing Oklahoma over schools like Ohio State and Georgia, played linebacker for Bob Stoops and was part of the Sooners team that reached the national championship game in 2008.
Now preparing for his first season as the head football coach at Washington Township, Robinson believes recruiting has a much different look even in the 12 or 13 years since he was going through it as a player.
“I was on the back end of the old days, before Facebook, Twitter and text messages opened everything up,” he says. “I missed out on that a little bit; phone calls were the main forms of communication and stops by the school were a big deal. The information age or technology age has really changed the game. In the last 10 to 12 years, some people have really benefitted from it. Technology might not necessarily be their deal, but there aren’t many coaches who haven’t made it their deal if they want to stay competitive.”
Brian Earl admits that his staff does a lot of the texting with recruits, especially in the early stages. But when they hone in on somebody they really want, he’ll be in constant communication himself.
“You’re texting every day to a guy you really like,” he says. “You’re just staying in contact, so text messaging makes it easier and fits in with the times. When I was [being recruited], I would have a forced conversation with my college coach, who was 60-something at the time. Pete Carril was a Hall of Fame coach, but we didn’t have a ton in common. So text messaging in some respects makes it hard, because you’re constantly available, but it also cuts down on some awkward silences.”
Joe Crispin agrees that texting is the easiest way to get a hold of kids he is recruiting. A star basketball player at Pitman in the mid-1990s, Crispin had a memorable career at Penn State and played in the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns. He spent many professional seasons overseas as well.
Now Crispin is the head men’s basketball coach at Division III Rowan. While he does utilize social media to some degree, he doesn’t overdo it, either.
“Social media, for us, is a distant third or fourth,” he says. “We’re texting with kids that we really want—text is probably the biggest thing right now. I’ll write an extended email with my vision or something, but text is a more personal way for them.
“I take the philosophy that if I have to shower you with praise and attention [on social media] for two or three years of your life to get you, then you might be tough to coach when I do get you. We communicate with our kids and we develop a relationship with them, but if they’re the kind of kid that needs to be showered with attention and praise for two years, I don’t know if that’s my kind of guy.”
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU POST
While Facebook and Twitter can be effective forms of communication in today’s recruiting battles, young athletes should also be aware that coaches are watching their social media activity to make sure they’re worthy of a scholarship offer.
“Usually, the types of kids we’re recruiting, you know they’re going to make good decisions on social media,” Dan Earl says. “But you hear stories and it would change my opinion of somebody if they’re putting up alcohol or [bad] language or something like that. You learn a lot about a kid from how they use social media.
“You’re trying to learn as much as you can about this person. We certainly want to win games, but we want high-character guys. We’re giving an out-of-state kid $54,000 a year for tuition, so it’s a big investment. You want to do the best research on the kind of guy you’re getting.”
Isabella Therien, a recent Cherokee graduate who was the South Jersey Player of the Year this past winter in girls basketball, will continue her career at Loyola University. She thinks athletes have to be extra cautious on social media during the recruiting process, not just with their own posts but if a friend tries to tag them on a post that can be considered offensive.
“Absolutely, that’s a big thing,” she says. “I know as high schoolers and teenagers we just look right over that, but coaches do look at it. When they email or send letters to you in the mail, they ask for your Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, all of that.
“It’s really important to be careful about what you post, because you never know who’s out to get you or who’s trying to get you in trouble. Coaches see that, and they don’t know you. They just see a picture and automatically assumptions are going to be made. That’s the last thing you want, because you’re probably a great kid and you don’t want a coach to see something you didn’t mean or your friends posted.”
Crispin says there are certain red flags to look for on social media, but advises that an unfavorable tweet here or there doesn’t necessarily indicate the athlete is a bad kid.
“It has to be something significant,” he says. “One of the things I’m looking for is a kid who’s going to be team oriented. So it’s tough, because it’s very easy to be self-consumed on social media. But I don’t think any of us want to be overly judged on how we thought at 16 or 17.”
THE AGGRESSIVE APPROACH
In addition to avoiding troublesome situations, Robinson’s advice for athletes in the recruiting process is to do anything in their power to get their names out there. For football players, that might include attending a high-profile camp or playing in a 7-on-7 setting in the off-season.
“I was very active in my recruiting experience,” he says. “Being a South Jersey, Group I guy from all the way down in Salem County, a lot of my initiative was based on trying to get my name out there on the national scene and taking full advantage of some of the lanes that could help me do that.
“When I was coming through, it was kind of the early days of [recruiting services] Rivals and Scout.com. [I made sure I was] getting in touch with those people and doing all of the interviews I could possibly do, and also hitting up some of the combines, hitting up some of the college camps and just trying to be strategic about where I went, so I was in front of people who were making the decisions and could help me get scholarships and the notoriety I was seeking.”
Now as a head coach, Robinson plans on taking the same approach to get his players recognition. He expects to utilize the many relationships he forged as a player and assistant coach to make sure his kids end up at the level they belong.
“It’s vital to taking an active role in your players’ recruitment,” he says. “That was one of the best things about my high school coach [Dave Lindenmuth]; he took an active role and no matter who you were or where you were trying to go, he did a phenomenal job of getting his guys into schools.
“I’ve seen guys with more talent than me not go to schools anywhere near their level of talent. I’ve seen guys have great high school careers and not have things work out where they get a shot at the next level. I’ve also seen guys have less than stellar high school careers, but because of different things they were able to go on to the better programs. There’s so much more to the process than simply being good enough. If that was the case, we would see a lot more kids from our area going to the top programs, and that just isn’t the case because of some of the things working against our kids in South Jersey.”
Crispin sees a similar situation in basketball, where personal relationships play such an important role. When he gets a tip about a recruit from someone who understands his coaching style, he obviously pays more attention to that player. His own recruitment back at Pitman made a turn for the better when legendary high school coach Bob Hurley endorsed him.
“I always tell the story that I went to Penn State because Coach [Jerry] Dunn heard from Coach Hurley, who saw me play and said, ‘You should recruit this kid,’” Crispin says. “When Coach Hurley says that, there’s not much else that coaches need to hear. That’s how a lot of recruiting works. You have your networks and your relationships, and in that respect, recruiting is a lot like it always was.”
Of course, AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball was not the behemoth it is today during Crispin’s playing days. AAU tournaments and other showcases give players plenty of opportunities to be seen by college coaches, more so than 20 years ago.
Crispin or his assistants will attend local events like the City of Basketball Love camps, and July is a crucial month for Division I coaches because of the three “live periods”—times when recruits can be evaluated in person. Both Earl brothers attended events throughout the country during the live periods this summer.
However, Crispin cautions that the AAU atmosphere will not always display how well a player can fit in with the team concept, and he believes that the rush to get seen by college recruiters often overshadows the most important step a player can take.
“My dad would kind of slyly drum this into me, and this is the advice I give to kids anytime I talk recruiting: The No. 1 thing is to get better,” Crispin says. “For a lot of kids, it’s get seen, be known, get contacts. No—if you get good enough and become great, you’re not going to have a problem. People will find you. That was true 20 years ago and that was my focus. … I think a lot of times, kids and parents and AAU coaches are so worried about being seen and there’s not enough focus on just getting better so a lot of people are going to want you.”
ENJOY THE RIDE
Therien’s father Chris played college hockey at Providence before a long career with the Philadelphia Flyers, but she was the first of his four children to go through the recruiting process and called herself “the guinea pig” for the family. Now that she’s been through it, she is encouraging her siblings—especially sister Ava, a junior this fall at Cherokee—to be aggressive with their recruitment, and above all, to enjoy the experience.
“You get to go to these colleges and see these beautiful campuses, but forming a strong relationship with the coach was probably the best part of the recruiting process for me,” Therien says. “You keep those connections even if you don’t end up attending those schools. I stay in touch with a lot of the coaches even though I’m not going to their schools. It was really fun for me and playing in front of those coaches meant a lot. You kind of just have to absorb it, because in the blink of an eye, it’s over.”
Hand also looks back fondly at his recruitment, which included trips to Temple, Rutgers, Virginia Tech and Massachusetts, along with Baylor.
“I definitely enjoyed it,” he says. “There were parts I really loved, like going to games, talking to different coaches, visiting different facilities and universities, and meeting people. You develop a lot of great relationships through the process.”
Dan Earl can remember times during his recruitment when he just felt like being a kid, but even back then he realized the importance of his decision. That’s a point he tries to make with the teenagers he’s constantly talking to now.
“Initially, you get a couple of phone calls and you’re thinking, ‘This is awesome.’ You might watch the guy on TV or know a lot about his program. But after a while, some of these kids are just being inundated with phone calls or texts or whatever,” Earl says.
“I can remember wanting to go out and shoot hoops or wanting to hang out with my friends, but instead being on the phone with another college coach having a similar conversation. It was getting old a little bit, and I don’t mean that to sound bad. I tell guys now, ‘I can remember being in your shoes, and you may not want to have another conversation. But at the same time, it’s important because it’s the next four years of your life, it’s an awesome situation to be in and you can get college paid for, which is a real expense.’ Hopefully, they’re thankful to be in that situation.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 5 (August, 2017).
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