Conflicts of Interest Litter Complex Recruiting Process
by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com
Langley (Va.) defenseman Brad Dotson committed to
Bucknell after a hot-and-cold recruiting saga starting his
On Thursday, US Lacrosse issued a statement expressing concern over the the complex nature of collegiate recruiting process for high school student-athletes. With this in mind, here is an article on the topic from the May issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription.
Brad Dotson was always one of the tall kids. A growth spurt before his freshman year at Langley (Va.) High School pushed him to 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds. Dotson grew up playing basketball and moved on the lacrosse field with the fluidity of someone half his size. He was so skilled a defenseman that his youth coaches put him on extra-man offense.
As a freshman in 2010, Dotson made Langley's varsity team. "He would've been such a dominant JV player," Saxons head coach Earl Brewer said. "But he would not have progressed."
Still, Langley returned a host of veteran long poles, and Dotson rarely got off the bench.
That summer, Dotson got his first taste of the recruiting circuit when he attended the Top 205 Rising Sophomores camp and other showcase events.
College coaches sat in folding chairs on the sideline and jotted down notes. A big, skilled long stick with a Seabiscuit-like stride will attract attention, and Dotson played well. Ink hit paper.
By the fall, several Atlantic Coast Conference schools expressed interest in Dotson. He may not have played a meaningful minute in a high school lacrosse game, taken the SAT or gotten a driver's license. But a rangy 6-foot-6 defenseman (he continued to grow) with soft hands is unlikely to regress. He dreamed of playing in warm weather for ACC teams that are always on TV.
They were interested in him. And he was interested in them too.
Recruiting is the lifeblood for most college lacrosse programs. Coaches spend most of their time, especially in the summer and fall, identifying and then convincing the players they want on their teams. Prospects and their parents also invest in the process — splicing highlight films, filling out questionnaires, faxing transcripts, calling and e-mailing coaches and paying a premium for camps and events that provide exposure.
It's a symbiotic relationship. Coaches want to recruit kids who will be a good fit and help the program win games. Players want to find a good match academically and athletically.
But high schoolers are not typical consumers. To protect them from a deluge of phone calls or coaches staking out their front lawns the NCAA has established guidelines. Nearly 60 pages of the 2011-2012 NCAA Division I compliance manual ensures that recruiting doesn't resemble Black Friday.
College coaches can't mail "printed recruiting materials" to prospects or their parents until Sept.1 at the start of an athlete's junior year. They can email or fax recruiting letters, questionnaires and media guides, but other forms of electronic communication (text messages, for instance) are prohibited. Coaches can't call a recruit before July 1 after his junior year or the opening day of senior year, whichever is earlier.
Lacrosse has historically followed this timeline. On Sept. 1, the best rising juniors received letters from programs and would often start a dialogue with coaches, attending "junior days" and taking unofficial visits to schools. Still, senior summer mattered. When coaches called July 1, recruits would narrow their choices, take as many as five overnight "official visits" and sign a National Letter of Intent in early November.
Rob Bordley, head coach of perennial national power Landon School outside D.C., pointed to his 2005 senior class. Ten players, including blue chippers like Princeton's Mark Kovler and Georgetown's Jake Samperton, committed to play at Division I schools.
"I vividly remember them making their decision in August going into their senior year," Bordley said.
NCAA guidelines run the gamut from protective to inane and bureaucratic (like the rule that prohibits a team's media guide from having more than one page of color inside the cover). Over the past few years, the Sept. 1 and July 1 dates have become mostly formalities. As in Dotson's case, college coaches can circumvent the no-contact dates by expressing interest to a club or high school coach. NCAA rules do not prevent a coach from talking to a recruit on the phone or hosting him on campus if the student initiated contact.
"It's all third-party communication," said Virginia assistant coach Marc Van Arsdale. "You call and write coaches to get the word out, not directly, for so-and-so to call. Usually, they're responding."
More than 50 current high school sophomores had verbally committed to colleges by the end of February, according to Inside Lacrosse. Virginia has finished recruiting its 2014 class.
Bordley noticed the shift last summer when coaches were asking not about juniors but rising sophomores. Jack Falk and Sam Lynch, reserve midfielders as freshmen in 2011, have already committed to Virginia and Johns Hopkins, respectively. Another sophomore who played JV for the Bears in 2011 committed to Georgetown.
Brett Manney, a top defensive midfielder for Delaware from 2005 to 2008 who signed in the spring of his senior year, coaches for the NXT Lacrosse Club in Philadelphia. At the Philly Showcase, Manney said college coaches took up an entire football sideline and trickled into the end zone during the sophomore all-star game. They dispersed when the juniors took the field.
"About a quarter of the college coaches left," Manney said.
College coaches worry that if they don't recruit sophomores, they'll be left behind.
"If a boy or his parents say they are ready to make a decision, and we say, 'Look we're not ready,' Carolina, Hopkins or someone else will offer him an opportunity," said Virginia head coach Dom Starsia. "We're forced to make a decision."
“High school coaches should be standing at the NCAA’s door with pitchforks. We are not going to stop ourselves.”
– Drexel men’s lacrosse coach Brian Voelker
When programs begin to fill their sophomore classes — Virginia, Johns Hopkins and North Carolina are generally viewed as the most aggressive — it has a domino effect. "If you want to play with those programs, you need to keep an open door," said Denver head coach Bill Tierney.
That programs looking for a leg up are competing to recruit 15- and 16-year-olds isn't particularly surprising. College coaches face an immense amount of pressure. Early in Starsia's career, he had a nine-month contract with summers off. Now, more games are televised, universities and athletic departments are more invested in the sport and coaches get paid more. Since 2010, Maryland's Dave Cottle, Rutgers' Jim Stagnitta, Towson's Tony Seaman and Navy's Richie Meade have all been fired at least in part because they did not win enough games.
Many of the kids and their parents also want to commit early. Just 61 schools sponsor NCAA Division I lacrosse, and even fewer could be characterized as BCS-type institutions with big-time athletic departments, strong academics and the maximum 12.6 scholarships. Like coaches, when recruits see their peers making verbal commitments and taking precious spots, they feel squeezed too.
Save a short stint as an assistant at Johns Hopkins in the 1970s, Jim Amen coached high school lacrosse on Long Island for nearly 30 years. Now the athletic director at Cold Spring Harbor (N.Y.) High School, Amen still tries to help kids and their families navigate the recruiting process.
Describing a current sophomore recruit, Amen said, "He was a second-line midfielder last year. He's athletic. He has all the tools. A couple great colleges want him to commit. Mom and Dad don't understand what the rush is. Coaches can go to the next kid by the time he decides. It's too late."
Drexel head coach Brian Voelker described the same process in less amicable terms. "I equate it to a used car salesman saying the car will be off the lot tomorrow," he said. "That's what we're doing. We're pressuring them before they're ready."
Other factors have pushed the recruiting calendar forward. Blue-chip prospects likely play on club teams and for club coaches who know how to skirt NCAA rules to establish earlier contact with college coaches.
For over a decade, Inside Lacrosse has provided extensive recruiting coverage. By 2006, the magazine had expanded its player rankings to include rising seniors and juniors. Its website goes so far as to list the "power 100" college freshmen, the top 50 rising seniors and juniors and the top 20 sophomore "young guns." Weekly recruiting round-ups report sophomore and junior verbal commitments to Division I schools. With a couple of clicks, prospects see spots evaporating at places like Notre Dame or Maryland. An early commitment becomes a status symbol.
The image of college coaches lined up in folding chairs
is an annual sight of summer on lacrosse fields across the
An accelerated recruiting process has ripple effects. Because many prospects have little or no high school lacrosse experience, U15 club teams, freshman-sophomore showcase events and camps have helped to fill the vacuum. Jake Reed's Nike Blue Chip, for instance, recently added a rising freshman session for July 2012.
Ryan Boyle, Inside Lacrosse's No.1-ranked incoming freshman in 2000 and a four-time All American attackman at Princeton, now runs camps, clinics and select teams as chief executive of Trilogy Lacrosse. Boyle emphasized that the majority of recruits, however, are not blue chips attending exclusive showcases. Because contact rules are more ambiguous, Boyle said, most of the kids who will go on to play college lacrosse are unsure how to navigate the process.
"There's a gray area. Parents and players are confused. Where there's confusion, hiding in the wings is anxiety and stress," Boyle said. "This should be a fun process."
The general growth of the game at least partially explains the expansion of club teams and the camp circuit. But college coaches looking to watch kids at younger ages and the general hysteria around recruiting is also responsible.
Top 205 got its name because more than 20 years ago, that's how many players organizers and college coaches wanted to attend. The camp now has two rising senior sessions, a rising junior session, a rising sophomore session and a 205 West session in Colorado — all with more than 205 kids. Jake Reed's Nike Blue Chip went from one group of 82 rising seniors in the summer of 2001 to four sessions covering every grade in 2012. The unrelated Blue Chip 225 has also expanded to include rising junior and rising sophomore camps. New England 150 now has three different dates.
Showcase events and team camps have followed a similar trajectory. During the summer, club teams can now attend Champ Camp, one of three Brine Shootout sessions, one of two Adrenaline Shootout events or one of two MVP Lacrosse team camps (formerly the Rutgers team camp) among others. That's in addition a steady diet of summer tournaments, "sizzles" and "slams." These events have trickled into the fall and even into January.
"We're evolving so fast as a sport," said Hartford coach Peter Lawrence. "It's a little like the Wild West. Everyone wants a club team."
Club lacrosse provides athletes opportunities to play year round, benefit from more talented teammates and learn from coaches from other programs. College coaches pay attention. Tierney admitted to watching just three high school games in person last year.
But those opportunities cost a lot of money and increase the likelihood that a player will narrow his athletic focus to lacrosse at an earlier age. Manney, who coaches a team of high school sophomores for NXT Lacrosse Club, played soccer and basketball growing up. He encourages multi-sport participation. "I don't want them putting all their eggs in one basket," he said.
Joe Trigiani directs Blackwolf Lacrosse, a D.C.-based, invite-only club that tries to be selective in the number of tournaments in which the kids play (just three last summer). While he thinks a club program focused solely on collecting a check would be transparent, he said parents and players must be informed consumers.
"With the explosion of clubs, it's tough," he said. "It's imperative to do the research."
There are worse things in the world than elite high school athletes committing early to some of the premier institutions of higher education. Most of the early commits will go on to productive college careers and harbor no regrets that they chose a school during their sophomore year. The same could be said for lower-tier recruits who are similarly pushed to commit at younger ages as a trickle-down effect.
But many of the people that make up the collective brain trust of the sport — from Boyle to US Lacrosse CEO Steve Stenersen to ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich to high school and college coaches — have been critical of the current timeline.
In a non-revenue sport like lacrosse — where few kids go on to professional lacrosse careers — the recruiting process should focus more on them being able to find the right school at an appropriate age. Unlike soccer, where select coaches have become the primary contact for college coaches, lacrosse advocates want a timeline that keeps the emphasis on the high school playing experience.
"I just think it's short-sighted," Stenersen said. "I do worry lacrosse has not learned from other sports."
Even college coaches who openly recruit sophomores agree that it isn't particularly efficient. At Virginia, for instance, they would get the blue chips whether they were sophomores or seniors. More time to observe and let players develop would make coaches less likely to make miscalculations or miss the late bloomers.
US Lacrosse Statement on Recruiting
US Lacrosse shares the concern of many lacrosse players, parents and coaches that the college recruiting process is not structured or timed in the best interests ... [Read More]
"Recruiting later helps UVA," Starsia said.
More important, there are real differences between schools among which kids must choose. Fifteen- and 16-year olds aren't necessarily prepared to know exactly what they want in a college. Universities establish application deadlines during a student's senior year for a reason.
Tierney recalled one high school coach who told him a student-athlete had committed to a school because he liked a team's gear. "Not a heck of a reason," he said. "[Early recruiting is] going to explode in a lot of our faces."
College coaches are actively trying to push back the calendar. The Intercollegiate Men's Lacrosse Coaches Association (IMLCA) has broached the idea of not letting recruits talk or visit with coaches before certain dates, even if initiated by the recruit. One proposal, drafted by Voelker, would ban campus visits or phone conversations with college coaches until after a prospect's junior year. Another proposal, written by Ohio State coach Nick Myers, would prevent the same types of contact until after sophomore year. This spring, coaches will vote on one of the proposals (or to keep the status quo) with plans to send it to the NCAA to legislate.
However, Starsia submitted similar legislation several years ago that would have prohibited recruits visiting coaches on campus before a specified date. The NCAA tabled the proposal, he said, because it was reluctant to allow piecemeal legislation for specific sports. The NCAA did not respond to requests for comment.
"The NCAA is of the mind to try one-size-fits-all," Starsia said. "I think it's inefficient. Men's lacrosse should be able to do what's right for men's lacrosse."
Until the NCAA intercedes, coaches seem certain the recruiting process will continue to accelerate. "High school coaches should be standing at the NCAA's door with pitchforks," Voelker said. "We are not going to stop ourselves."
Remember Brad Dotson, the can't-miss prospect out of Langley? After a productive summer and fall, Dotson cracked the Saxons' starting defense as a sophomore. But that spring, he developed mononucleosis. He was tired and sluggish, and his play suffered. ACC schools backed off.
Dotson recovered eventually. When Langley defeated Chantilly 17-8 to win the 2011 Virginia state championship, Dotson had one of his best games. Still, he went into junior summer uncommitted. He played a couple of club events and made the all-star team at Top 205. He also realized certain things about where he wanted to go to college.
"When I was a sophomore, I was immature. It was all about the name of the school," Dotson said.
He began looking more closely at Bucknell, a liberal arts university located in central Pennsylvania, where his sister was a freshman forward on the basketball team. Sure, Lewisburg isn't Chapel Hill or Charlottesville. But Dotson liked the small-school feel and its esteemed engineering program. In addition, the school had an impressive, up-and-coming lacrosse program. In 2011, the Bison won the Patriot League championship and nearly upset eventual national champion Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
After visiting a few other colleges, Dotson verbally committed to Bucknell in fall 2011.
"I can't imagine going anywhere else," he said.