July Recruiting Approach

Recruiting approach is always an interesting discussion.  There are so many factors to consider – need, fit, culture, talent, character, etc… so there is no one path that works best.  Every year, every team, every school, every coach may necessitate a different approach.

In my first years as an assistant at Providence College – before I was allowed out on the road per NCAA rules – I took note of the results of our recruiting.  I couldn’t really evaluate recruiting on the front end because I wasn’t out on the road, so I evaluated it on the back end.  I was evaluating the results of our recruiting in February and March by looking at the shortcomings of our team and making note of our best approach.

Take a look at the things you are not in February and March, and recruit those things in July.  Whatever your team is missing during the season, those are the things you should be looking for on the road.  At Providence we would almost always talk about how our team wasn’t tough enough come February and March – so one approach I developed was to recruit toughness.  Coach Welsh was also very demanding on his point guards at Providence, and I noticed the ones that made it were pretty special – John Linehan, Donnie McGrath.  Many of the point guards we recruited ended up not being point guards for us at Providence, so I made note of the value of recruiting true point guards.  I don’t think you can ever have too many.  Since I took over at Rhode Island College I’ve tried to recruit a point guard in every recruiting class.

Joe Wootten, the great high school coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Virginia and the son of legendary high school coach Morgan Wootten of Dematha, said this to me in one of my first years on the road – “The things that coaches recruit in July are not the same things that win them games in March.”  Avoid falling into that trap.  If there are things that you are constantly talking about with your staff that your team doesn’t have during the season, those are the things you need to find on the recruiting trail.  So it’s not as simple as just going out and getting the best players you see.  It’s finding the guys with the right level of talent, but also those that fill those gaps.  Every head coach has certain things they really value, and that is what should be valued on the road in recruiting.

There is a well-known political quote made popular by Mario Cuomo  in the mid-80s that politicians “campaign in poetry, but govern in prose.”  The idea is that campaigning is about selling a vision, the great ideas and inspiring quotes that get you elected.  But governing is more about tough decisions and what is best for the masses.  In a lot of ways we recruit in “poetry” but we coach in “prose.”  The things we look for on the road are often the flashy, athletic, natural talent characteristics that we feel we can’t teach.  The things we say to recruits are all about on selling our program and making what we have to offer look as appealing as possible.  But when we run our programs we are not selling, we are much more direct with the message.  The sole concern is what is best for the program, and individual feelings aren’t as important.  We recruit in poetry, but we coach in prose.  We don’t always see in July the things we need to win in March.

Taking stock of what is keeping your program short of winning a championship is where recruiting should start.  Evaluating the talent and character of 17 and 18 year-olds is a difficult task, so having a clear vision of exactly what you need is crucial.  The things you don’t have enough of in February and March are the things you should be looking for in July.



Principle of Legitimacy

Able to catch up on some reading on my flight to Louisville to during the second July recruiting period.  Loved this bit from Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” about the “Principle of Legitimacy.  Three great concepts that relate directly to teaching and coaching.

“When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters – first and foremost – how they behave.

This is called the “principle of legitimacy,” and legitimacy is based on three things.  First of all, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice  - that if they speak up, they will be heard.  Second, the law has to be predictable.  There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today.  And third, the authority has to be fair.  It can’t treat one group differently from another.”

Relatively simple stuff, but think about it and relate it to your team.  Do your players feel like they have a voice?  Is your “law” predictable?  And do you treat one group (or player) differently from another?

The answers probably go a long way towards whether or not they consider your authority legitimate.


Had a great lunch on the road recently with Josh Schertz, the highly successful head coach at Lincoln Memorial University, a Division II school in Tennessee.  One of the great things about being on the road is the different people you get to spend time with and learn from through conversation.

We were talking about recruiting at the different levels – having been a Big East assistant and a D3 head coach, and Josh having been a lower D1 assistant and a D2 head coach.  Josh made a great point about the importance of evaluation at the D2 and lower D1 levels.

At the D3 level evaluation really wasn’t as important.  Most of the evaluations were done for me.  We had to wait until the D2 and lower D1 schools made their evaluations, deciding who was a scholarship player and who was not.  Essentially they were deciding who was a scholarship player and who wasn’t.   We had to have a presence with those kids that we thought might slip through the cracks so that we could get involved when they realized they weren’t getting a scholarship.  We also didn’t really have to make decisions on kids.  If we were recruiting 3 point guards who we liked, we would just continue to recruit them all.  We weren’t offering them a scholarship or getting them to sign anything, so we didn’t really have to declare in any way who we thought was better.  We just recruited a lot of good players and by the end of the spring we could usually form that into a solid recruiting class.

At the highest levels of college basketball, and in some respects the mid-major level, relationships are probably more important than evaluating.  Everyone has a pretty good idea who the top 100 players in the country are, or at least who is in that mix.  A lot of the mid-majors are recruiting the guys who fall just below that line, and most of them get involved with the same kids.  Granted, you always have to evaluate and maybe find a kid who can play up a level or who fits your system.  There is great value in finding an overlooked kid who you know is good enough to help you.  But it’s more important to have the relationships with the players and the coaches involved with them, because most people agree on which kids have enough talent.  There seems to be a lot more congestion in recruiting at the higher levels.

At the D2 level you are deciding who a scholarship player is and who isn’t.  At the lower levels of D1, you are deciding who is a Division I player and who isn’t.  There generally isn’t as much consensus, and there is a very fine line between a good D2 player and a good D1 player.   That makes your ability to evaluate very important.  At the lower levels you are less likely to get someone who just steers a player your way because of a relationship.  If a kid can play at a higher level he’s likely going to play at that level.  It’s evaluating those kids to find the ones that you know can play at your level, or who the higher level schools might miss on, that really makes a difference.  The emphasis is more on evaluations than it is on relationships.

Relationships and evaluating are important components of recruiting at any level.  But if you think about it, relationships are probably more crucial at the higher levels.  Many coaches are simply out on the road to be seen by recruits, rather than to evaluate.  Evaluating is more important at the lower scholarship levels because you are determining who is a Division I or simply a scholarship player.  You can’t simply be a presence at the games of the guys you are recruiting.  You have to closely evaluate what they are capable of and at what level they can be successful.  Your ability to evaluate is extremely important.


Managing and Coaching

Some really great stuff here in a blog post from Monique Valcour on the importance of coaching as a manager in the business world.

“The most important thing you can do each day is help your team members experience progress at meaningful work.”

“Regular communication around development – having coaching conversations – is essential.”

“The single most important managerial competency that separates highly effective managers from average ones is coaching.”

I love the stuff about “Ask, don’t tell.”

“But in a coaching conversation, it’s essential to restrain your impulse to provide the answers… Open-ended questions, not answers, are the tools of coaching. You succeed as a coach by helping your team members articulate their goals and challenges and find their own answers.”



Bigs Who Can Catch It

I’ve been watching a lot of post players over the last two weeks during the live recruiting period.  One subtle thing that I love to see that will tell you more about a post player than you think is whether or not he can catch a bad pass.  A big kid who can go get a bad pass saves  a lot of turnovers and will give his guards confidence to throw it inside.

You see a lot of post feeds that become turnovers when the big is moving one way while the ball is going the other.  More often than not that is a reflection of the bigs inability to move his feet properly and not a reflection of the pass being thrown.  My assistant Matt O’Brien made a great point while we were watching games last week in Springfield.  He said when you have a mismatch in the post, with a big on a guard, you have to throw the ball up in the air.  So many people make the mistake of trying to bounce it in to that guy and allow the guard to use his quickness to reach in and get a piece of it, rather than throwing it up where only the big is going to get it.

The second part of that is the big being able to go get it.  It’s a frustrating turnover when a guard tries to throw it up to a big and he’s moving the wrong way when the ball is coming in.  Sure, there is a timing element to that pass, but usually a good big can move his feet in the right direction when the ball is coming to him.  If he’s stuck moving the wrong way that’s probably on the big.  It tells you more about the big than it does about the guard making the pass.

When I see a big who can go and get a tough pass, or even a bad pass, that tells me two things – he has good feel and he has a natural ability to move his feet and change direction quickly.  If a big can’t go get those passes, I’m not sure he ever will.  The way he moves his feet when the ball is in the air is a reflection of his natural ability, and a good sign of how good he can be.

On The Road

The first week of recruiting is in the books, and we were able to get out to tournaments in different areas of the country to see a lot of teams and players.  All 4 members of our coaching staff were somewhere in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Reading  and Springfield within the first 5 day period the NCAA allows you out to recruit.

Recruiting is an art, not a science.  In a lot of ways it’s a beauty contest, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  There are a lot of things that I see and like that another coach may not value, and vice-versa.  In July we are taking snapshots of these kids playing 2-3 games per day over a 4-day period and trying to determine talent, competitiveness, character, coach-ability and so many other elements that may or may not fit into our program.  Recruiting is hard.  Coaches are presenting their schools in the best possible light, and the kids are trying to show the coaches the best of what they have to offer.  Getting to know the kids, their situations and learning what is real is a challenge.

Because of the way it is structured by the NCAA, July is essentially three 4-day sprints.  You really can’t afford to take any time off from the gym because you are so limited in the time you have to evaluate. Over a 4+ month period of time we essentially get just these 12 days to evaluate, so you don’t want to miss anything.  You are lucky if you can get to 2 different events in one of the 4-day periods, because you don’t want to waste too much time traveling.  Matt and I drove from Reading, PA on Friday up to Springfield.  Antone went from Reading to Philly, and Zak flew in to Springfield from Indianapolis to Springfield late Saturday night and got to the hotel at 2:30 in the morning.  The games on Sunday started at 8 AM, and we needed to be in the gym.  The travel isn’t easy, but the time in the gym is valuable.

Not that any of us are complaining.  One of the things I love about our staff is we all love being in the gym watching kids play.  It’s something that is fun and competitive – trying to find the guy that no one else notices, or trying to pick up one or two subtle things that tell you a certain player is the right fit for your program that no one else will catch.  It’s important to love recruiting, because it’s easy to make an excuse not to watch that last game or go somewhere to recruit.  Our staff loves watching the games because we love watching the games, not just because it’s an important part of the job.  That has me excited about the talent we can bring to Orono.

Recruiting is important, but there is a difference between recruiting and evaluating.  Most coaches know who the good players are and who they need to go see and get seen by.  But watching a kid play isn’t necessarily evaluating him.  There is a difference between how a kid played and how good he is.  If a kid has to play well for you to like him, I’m not sure you are doing a great job evaluating.  We watched some kids that we really liked that went 2-11 that night and turned the ball over a few too many times – but they showed the quickness, toughness and talent that will fit into the culture we are building at Maine.  How you play isn’t always a reflection of your natural ability.  But how you look is usually a good key for evaluation.  Likewise just because a kid goes off for 25 points doesn’t make them good enough to play for us.  Sometimes a kid has a great game and looks really good, but still may not have the natural ability to play at the division I level.  Production is very important, but evaluating is about how their ability will translate to the division I level and how it will fit into your culture and program.  That is the challenge when you are evaluating talent.

One difference that we have to adjust to has to do with the way we recruit.  At Rhode Island College we had a presence in the gym with a lot of great teams and players, and we had to wait until those players slipped through the cracks and realized they weren’t going to get the right scholarship.  When we saw players that we liked, we stayed in touch with them and tried to get as many talented players as we could interested in the school.  But with scholarships its a little bit different.  You only have so many spots you can offer with scholarships, and once you do, you have to be really prepared as to who you want in your program.   If you have 3 point guards that you like you probably can’t offer scholarships to all 3 without skewing the balance of your roster.  At Rhode Island College we didn’t have to make as many decisions in recruiting.  Here at Maine, we have to make those decisions.  If you offer a big kid a scholarship and he accepts it, you might not be able to take another big kid down the road who plays the same position.  So learning who you can get and going after them takes a little more sophistication than it did at Rhode Island College.  You don’t want to be stuck without a scholarship when you have the chance to get a great player.

I’ve learned, however, to not be overly concerned with position.  We want talented players who are tough, committed and smart and who we can build a championship program with.  We won a ton of games at RIC with guys who probably didn’t get scholarships because coaches didn’t really see what position they would play at that level.  When people ask me what we are looking for in this next class my answer is simple – “players.”  When they ask where we would play a certain kid who might not fit a natural position I say “On the floor.”  Put good players on the floor and they’ll figure it out.  It’s a mistake to turn down good players that you can get because you don’t know what position they play.  Versatility is something we really value.

It was exhilarating to be out on the road this week with the Black Bear logo on our chest (what a cool brand/logo to have for our school, no? – we need to get those things all over the place). It’s great to represent the state of Maine and so many people have congratulated us and told us they were rooting for us, and that feels great as well.  I’m thrilled about our staff and how much we all love what we do, and the fact that we are getting to do it for the University of Maine.  It strikes me all of the time how much people associated with the school love the place – there is a genuine passion for the school that is invigorating.  It is great fun to be a part of.

Our staff is having a blast out on the road trying to find the right core of guys we can build a championship culture with.  Getting paid to sit in the gym and watch basketball games all day?  We know how lucky we are.  But don’t get me wrong – it is work, it is tiring and it takes effort.  The ability to connect with players and to evaluate their ability to help you win championships is the challenge.  We can’t wait to get out there and get after it again.

Network of Conversations in Winning Cultures

Winning cultures and the types of conversations that make them up.

“Every culture is made up of a network of conversations… Regardless of what you wish the culture to be, what people say about a company determines what the culture is.”  

“If you are a leader/manager, it is not necessary to control your people. It is, however, imperative to create a network of conversations that will support the possibilities you invent.”