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Red Carpet Recruiting

Thank goodness we’re back to basketball in our house this week.  I have to admit that last Sunday I checked out some of the Red Carpet action prior to the Academy Awards.  To be fair, Carol has watched far more than her share of basketball with me and I’m a firm believer in the give and take of any relationship.   Besides, she wouldn’t give up the remote and physically threatened me.  Did I mention I’m also a big believer in self-preservation?  So what does attire of the Hollywood elite have to do with recruiting?  Plenty if you understand the value of style and fit.   

One of the most common threads between fashion and evaluating your colligate opportunities is the tendency to get caught up in labels and reputation.  It’s not enough to have Luis Vuitton, Armani or Vera Wang as an option if ultimately the end result just “isn’t you”.  The same goes for an athlete as she considers each of the universities recruiting her.  There are plenty of programs and coaches out there that have a “name” or perceived status that simply aren’t the right fit regardless of their interest in a prospect. Just because they happen to see their setting as a great situation for you doesn’t mean that it actually is.  In the end, it’s imperative that the prospect herself identifies and finds the option that’smost comfortable for her as opposed to anotherthat may be ideal in someone else’s eyes or may have been the right choice for other athletes.   

It’s easy to get caught up in the “guess who called” or “I heard from” aspect of recruiting. It can do wonders for the ego and self-confidence.  While reassuring, take all of the calls, letters and inquiries for what they actually are…a compliment.  At the same time it’s important to be cautious and not overreact to a program’s interest just because of who they are or what they may have accomplished in the past.  Those elements have theirlegitimate value but areoften given way too much credence in the processblinding a recruit to possible deficiencies in what a program might have to offer. 

Once you get past the “label” aspect of the schools looking for your signature on a National Letter of Intent it’s important to understand just what style and fit actually mean in the recruiting process.  And it’s just as important to recognize that the very definition of each is an individual and personalcharacterization.  Everyone around you will have an opinion and it’s wise to hear what those who know and care about you have to say.  However, when all is said and done it’s the recruit herself who will have to live with a decision based on herown interpretation of those elements.   

Contrary to the fashion industry, style in the recruiting process is something that’s essentially a constant and much simpler to define.  Over the years very few programs have been able to reinvent themselves in terms of their style of play.  All programs run at some point just as all will have to set up and execute in a set offense at times.On the whole, however, most teams cangenerally be defined as eithera transition or halfcourt team.  There are those who will push it more with a particular roster of players and some who will set it up more frequently if their current group isn’t as strong on the break.  However, wholesale long term changes philosophically are rare.  Any recruit who has the potential to play at the next level has a self-awareness of what approach best suits her game.  Should you find yourself involved with a program looking to go a different direction than their track record represents, you’ve got lots of questions to ask.  You need to know what it is that’s making them shift gears and why they happen to see you as an instrumental part of that change.  You also need to ask about their other recruiting efforts as well ashow their current roster fits into that change.  It’s not a reason to eliminate a program but it’s an option that needs to be looked at closely and cautiously.   

Another perspective of style is the coach’s approach to their players both on and off the floor.  The obvious is what you see come game time.  Are they screamers and foot stompers or the nurturing, warm and fuzzy types?  Look to see how much teaching and actual coaching is going on throughout the game.  Are their time outs spent rehashing what just happened or focused on what’s going to be done next?  Take note of how often and why substitutions are made.  Do players get yanked for every mistake or are they allowed to play through it?  Evaluate the roles of the assistants and their input to both their head coach and players during the game.  Are they actually coaches or just recruiters and stat takers?  Be sure to assess their coaching style in the practice setting as well.  Confirm with current players that what you see on a visit is the way things are normally.  Coaches have been known to offer up their own “Oscar Winning” performances when they know that a recruit is in the gym.  None of these elements are right or wrong, they’re just different.  Coaching style can make or break an athlete’s college experience and should never be minimized in their decision making process. 

A coach’s style off the floor is a critical element as well.  For all practical purposes they become a surrogate parent to some degree throughout the course of a player’s career.  Some are all business and often reliant upon their assistant coaches to provide the attention and personal touchthat the team needs.  There are those that go too far the other direction and try to be a friend to their athletes often blurring the line that has to be drawn between player and coach.  The ideal coach can maintain that line but still remain warm, caring and accessible athletically, academically and personally.  Again, the best source for insight on the player – coach relationship is the current players.  Ask multiple players about their relationship with the coach but be sure to have those conversations when no coaches or other players are present.  See if the starters and the bench feel the same way and find out if the seniors view things as the underclassmen do.  Be sure “who” you’re getting to know in the recruiting process is the same person you might end up playing for during your career. 

Fit is more a description of comfort than actually how clothing or a collegiate setting happens to work for an individual.  Let’s face it, baggy or skin tight, some jeans are just right in the mind of the wearer no matter what the rest of us might see or think.  The definition of “fit” in recruiting is just as flexible is it is in fashion.  A prospect from the city may want the setting of a small college town or vice versa.  An athlete who graduated with just 100 classmates maywell be looking for all that a 50,000 student university has to offer.  Some are looking to stay close to home while others are hoping to put as many miles between themselves and the house as possible.  The focus might be playing time or simply signing at the highest level possible even ifit might mean being a role player across the course of four seasons.  The seemingly obvious isn’t always the fit that a recruit might be searching for.  Ultimately a key component of a successful recruiting decision is finding genuine comfort in a setting that will lead tosuccesson the court, in the classroom andin her personal life.   

One of the challenging aspects of finding the right combination of fit and style are all the opinions.  I was amazed at the comments of the pundits during the pre-Oscar activities last week.  Folks who wouldn’t qualify to vacuum the Red Carpet let alone walk on it themselves were ruthlessly critiquing the attire, appearance and choices of the Academy Award attendees.  It happens in recruiting as well.  People who’ve never been a prospect, the parent of one or spent time personally vested in the process itselfoffer up their so called expertise and opinions on what direction a recruit should go.  Simply observing an athlete’s play or following colligate programs, their play and signings really doesn’t provide any qualifications that warrant credibility.  Having a web site, selling a service, or tweeting on the life and times of a teen aged prospect doesn’t provide any expertise either.  I may offer advice and insight on the recruiting process itself but it would be completely inappropriate for someone like me or anyone else outside the personal circle of a prospect to attempt to influence their actual direction or choice.  Sure, we’ve all got opinions, but the voices a prospect should be listening to are the ones who truly know her best.    

Look around and you’ll see lots of people who simply follow fashion trends wearing the latest styles and designs just because somebody else was sporting it.  In decision makingit’s better to be a trendsetter and go with an original.  There was a line in the 2010 movie The Social Network offering up the wisdom that “fashion is never finished”.  A good recruiting process is the same way.  Over time keeping an open mind to changes in your priorities, a willingness to be honest about the evolution of your game and the capacity to make a choice for yourself will give you the best odds of finding the right style and a good fit.

Mark Lewis

Mark Lewis is a national evaluator and photographer for Blue Star Basketball as well as the lead columnist for Blue Star Media. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 Division I assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA), he logged 25 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and Washington State.  Lewis also serves as a member of the prestigious McDonald’s All-American selection committee.   He resides with his wife Carol near Houston, Texas.

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