San Francisco - With the National Letter of Intent early signing period here, it seems like a good time to reflect on my past experience as a D1 recruiting coordinator and share some memories of the significance of this time of year. I also want to share some thoughts about how college baseball recruiting has changed since I was at the University of San Francisco (2000-2002).
My most vivid memory as a recruiting coordinator is about a player we didn’t get, and it wasn’t because we were out-recruited or we were not a program the player wanted to play for. What stands out to me is a phone call I had to make to this particular player. You see, I had to pull a scholarship offer from him because we had decided to go with a different player, one we had also been actively recruiting. Both kids played the same position and at one time I thought we would end up with both players.
The player we pulled the offer from was a junior college player, one I had seen but none of the other coaches had seen. I was in my first year as the recruiting coordinator and though I would like to think the head coach trusted my ability to evaluate, I realize it wasn’t 100% trust.
We offered the JC player a sizable scholarship and brought him out on an official visit. My report on the player to the rest of the staff was that he was a strong offensive player, an above average defender and best of all, he was a difference maker type of kid because of his make-up and his intangibles. The visit was great and all the coaches got the same feeling about his make-up and intangibles. He left the visit basically saying, "see you guys next fall" but we didn’t have a 100% commitment from him yet.
So the fall moved along and we were also actively pursuing a high school shortstop. We also liked his ability with the bat, his future as a defensive player and that he ran well. On top of all his ability, the high school player was an exceptional student and he qualified for an academic scholarship to the university, based solely on his merit as a student. That is a significant part of this story.
You see, the scholarship he qualified for guaranteed him 3/4 of tuition to a private school that at the time was around $40,000 to attend (it is higher now). Even better was that merit based academic scholarship money does not count toward athletic money so we could supplement his academic scholarship money with a smaller athletic scholarship and make his total package VERY affordable. When a private school can sink a minimal amount into a high school player they really like and want, wow, what a coup that is, because it allows more funds to allot elsewhere, giving a better opportunity for quality depth, which is not easy to do at the private schools.
So, we have a JC kid that we had to offer over 50% to and a high school kid we only had to commit about 20% to. Both were good players, with the JC player being more advanced and ready to contribute right away, but there was the possibility we would only have him for one year whereas we felt confident we would have the high school kid for all four years and that he would be able to contribute as a freshman.
Again, we were recruiting them both with the idea that we would take both of them if we could pull it off. As mid-October rolled around, we still had not gotten that firm commitment from the JC player, even though everything he said told us he had already made up his mind to come to our place. However, he was still taking some trips and even drove a long way to make a visit to a program that we certainly didn’t feel was able to offer all we could, in terms of the quality of the education, as well as the quality of our program and competition in our conference and on our non-conference schedule.
As the scenario dragged out with the JC player, the head coach started to feel less confident about getting him so he instructed me to contact the player to give him a deadline for the offer. Well, I could not reach the player as he was on that trip to another school. So I called his dad and told him about the deadline, and asked him to pass that information on to his son. He said he would and he understood.
This was about the time of the Arizona Senior Fall Classic, which we had planned to attend for two specific reasons; we wanted our last look at the high school shortstop to make a final decision on him and we were also in the market for a centerfielder and there were a couple we had been following. So we headed down to Arizona.
While there, the head coach was really bearing down on the high school shortstop and the kid played great. He was swinging the bat really well, playing well on defense and was stealing bases. Our head coach had seen enough, though he likely saw one of this kid’s best days ever. It is never a good idea to make a decision on a player’s best or his worst day. Again, I think it was one of his best days and it was in front of our head coach, who was increasingly frustrated at being strung out by the JC kid. After all, if we didn’t get him and if we didn’t get the high school kid, we would have been left with nothing. Timing can be (and often is) EVERYTHING for a player to get his opportunity.
The next step was something I will never forget and it was one of the least enjoyable things I ever had to do while I was a college coach. The head coach instructed me to call the JC kid or his dad (whoever I could reach) and pull the offer. Well, I did reach the player and pulled the offer, told him he had taken too long and we had decided to go in another direction. The player was confused because he did not know there was a deadline for him to make a decision. Turns out his father didn’t tell him about the deadline. I guess the dad was calling what he thought was a bluff from us. Ooops.
We eventually did get the high school player and he was solid for four years at USF, was part of some very good teams there, including the program's only regional qualifier. Ultimately he didn’t quite live up to the head coach’s expectations but that is not the player’s fault, I think the expectations were too high on him. The player played nearly every game for four years, was a difference maker in terms of leadership and his intangibles, was an outstanding student and member of the student body and all in all, was a model student-athlete, one who is still thought of very fondly by all of us in the program at that time.
Now, back to the JC player and what happened with him. He ended up going to a school in the Big 12, a good baseball program, though he had to move positions, away from the middle of the diamond. The following year, USF played his program and in that series, he killed the ball and really shined. I was out of the program by then, but at one point the head coach called or emailed me and let me know that the JC kid was quite good and was making a big impact AGAINST us. I think it was his way of telling me that he should have trusted me a little more because when all was said and done, we could have had both players. I don’t blame the head coach, after all, I was pretty young (28) and not all that experienced.
Stories like this are all part of the fabric of recruiting at the D1 level. Choices have to be made and both sides have responsibility and accountability in the decision and communication process. When a program is asking a kid for a commitment the player often times wants to “keep his options open” sometimes even if that offer is exactly what he wants. At the same time, the program has to keep its options open in the case they do not get the players they want. You see, most of the time the programs don’t get their very top choices and they do not want to be left without the positions filled that they need to fill.
Everything in the recruiting process leads up to the signing period, which to me really gets too much attention (especially the early signing period), but really is just the icing on the cake, the formality and finish line of the actual process. There are instances when schools will send out Letters of Intent to players, without yet having received a verbal commitment from them, but in most cases, they already have those verbal commitments. So again, it is really just a formality, though an important one that has rules, guidelines and deadlines, as well as procedures that have to be followed.
Now, how has college baseball recruiting changed since I was doing it? Well, at the time I was getting out, I think text messaging and all the electronic media and communication methods we have now were just starting to emerge (email was the prevalent form). Since then, rules for text messaging players have gone from allowing them to not allowing them at all (blame football and basketball coaches for that one). Emails are still widely used and the rules for phone calls are all the same.
I think the major change has been how young players are when giving their verbal commitments. There are kids that have not even played a game in their junior year of high school but have already given a verbal commitment. In some cases, there are even sophomores that have committed.
With that, it seems the usage of the official visit has also changed quite a bit. Used to be that a program used the official visits as a carrot (parents and kids seem to feel an OV means the program is VERY interested, and usually that is the case), a lure to get the player to campus, learn about the player, allow the player to learn about the school and program and to a large degree, impress the player. Each player is allowed to take five official visits and each program, to my recollection, is allowed to bring in 25 kids on official visits.
Now it seems there are fewer and fewer kids making their allotment of official visits and using those opportunities to make their decisions. It seems that many programs use their official visits on the group of players they get early verbal commitments from as some sort of orientation or reward or way to get all their players there at one time to “celebrate” their recruiting class. A big reason for that change though goes back to players “verballing” earlier and earlier, which has sort of eliminated the original main reason for official visits.
Obviously there are many other changes (such as the proclivity of the college programs themselves running their own “showcases” and camps as both money makers but also as recruiting tools), but I do think most would agree that the biggest change is the amount of kids who are making very early verbal commitments.