Happy Hunting Grounds: High School Recruiting Havens
by Gary Criswell, VirginiaPreps.com
TSL Extra, Issue #2

As a follow up to last monthís article on building a college coaching staff I would like to weigh in on the Beamer to UNC situation, which swirled around the coaching community as I wrote this new article. I believe this is a normal course of events for almost any coach that experiences success at any school that doesnít have a long, elite football pedigree.

I have not seen where anyone is talking about how a coach thinks when pondering a career move. Money helps, but itís not about the money, itís about accomplishment and getting the tools to get the job done. Only at UNC could Coach Beamer; a) rebuild another program- not many coaches get to do that twice in a career at that level, b) coach in the ACC-a more stable and highly regarded conference than the Big East (deserved or not), c) work with new facilities that have already been built, and d) do all this while having a shot at retaining the same recruiting base he enjoyed at Tech while maintaining UNCís potentially extensive recruiting reach. UNC would have allowed Beamer to take on a new challenge without dealing with too many unknowns that would lurk at say, Alabama. That being said, I still couldn't see him leaving his alma mater - and he didn't. Now letís talk recruiting.

College Football coaches are paid to do three things; win games, fill seats and graduate players. Any staff that loses sight of those facts wonít keep their jobs very long. We all know about obtaining the talent to win games, but coaches also recognize that the correct recruits can also help a program accomplish goals two and three on a more consistent basis.

In-state recruits fill stadiums, keep the program in the local papers, and more quickly form a bond with the "faithful" that always translates into ticket sales. Concentrating on your home state is also much more cost and time effective. Winning your home stateís recruiting "wars" is more than about pride; it is about a strategic advantage.

Much has been written recently about the recruiting talent in Virginia. Comparisons have been made with Florida, California, and Pennsylvania, especially about with regards to speed and skill position players. My personal reaction has always been; "not so fast my friend" when confronted with such accolades for my home stateís talent base. Caution must be exhibited anytime you compare our state with any true Sun Belt state, especially one that has high school Spring Football.

However, the state of Virginia can take pride in its depth of recruiting talent. I donít believe that there is a state the size of Virginia that is able to sustain two I-A, seven I-AA, and three Division II (or similar) programs. Thatís 725 scholarship players with a lionís share of the recruits coming from the Commonwealth. These teams are just not "showing up" on Saturdays. In the 90ís there were many years that four or even five of these twelve scholarship programs went on to post-season play. This success results in keeping football in the sports pages and fuels the enthusiasm for the sport of football among high school players, thereby ensuring that the pipeline will stay full.

Where are the recruiting havens in the State of Virginia? I never bought totally into the idea that there is one area of the State that consistently yields the best recruits both in quality and quantity year after year. Obviously the consensus opinion is that the AAA Eastern Region yields the most football talent. They have the right mix of population, demographics, and consistent levels of competition that makes the area the "first stop" among the college recruiters. When it comes to finding the best talent in Virginiaís high schools, it is not always a question of what areas you

recruit. The consistently successful recruiter has "his schools" that he knows yields the best players; i.e. ready for the rigors of college football.

While being blessed with great athletes is the first criteria for qualifying as a recruiting haven, there are other factors that make certain schools the place to be during the recruiting season. In fact, when I was a college recruiter, with the rules as they are today and not being able to spend much time with a recruit, I always evaluated the home life and even the neighborhood in which the recruit lived. This went a long way to determine if the player would fit in with our program.

When a recruit is a far superior athlete and an accomplished student and obviously would be at the head of anybodyís recruiting class, it really doesnít matter from what school he comes, you recruit him and sign him. But when your incoming class is filling up, and you are sorting out whom you will offer scholarships to, the intangibles of the recruitsí background starts to break the ties. Many times you settle on the kids from the same area and the same schools. Letís look at what these schools have to offer.

Friday Night Fever

I know it sounds simplistic to state that you want players from winning programs. Recruiting players that know how to win is desirable for obvious reasons. But its not the winning, itís learning how to prepare, the exposure to big games and the appreciation for tradition that builds the mindset of a strong recruit.

Successful high school programs are usually not simply a collection of good athletes with good coaches that show up at the same school and win football games. Great high school programs teach their players to pay the price that it takes to prepare them physically. There are several high school programs in this state that are renowned for getting their players fit to play. The great programs have their athletes in a year round program when they are not participating in other sports. This regimen not only enhances the physical development of the future recruit, it prepares them for the full time job that awaits a major college student/athlete.

Athletes that are used to playing in a "big game" are always attractive recruiting targets. I also liked to recruit in districts that were strong from top to bottom because I liked to think that they were challenged each week. It is also easier to get meaningful tape to evaluate a player when he plays a tough opponent each week.

Traditionally strong programs also instill a certain attitude on their players that translates well at the next level. I also had great success at every high school level (A-AAA) when the players played in communities, both rural and urban, that the games still managed to be big events. It is beneficial to bring in recruits that have played in front of big crowds.

The Coach

Probably the biggest question that I field from parents is, "What should my sonís coach do to promote him?" My stock answer is that if your son is good enough, colleges will find him. But there are coaches that do a better job of promoting their athletes than others. A high school head coach's impact on his athletesí recruiting fortunes basically fall into three categories:1.) their cooperation with college programs; 2.) helping evaluate their talent; and 3.) the system to which they expose their athletes.

Believe it or not, getting their athletes into scholarship programs is not a high priority with some high school coaches. In other programs, getting their players into college seemingly overrides the goal of actually winning championships. Assistant Coaches out on the road recruiting really need to rely on the HS coach to get him the information he needs in a timely fashion. I can name high school programs right now that college recruiters will not go into unless there is a super prospect available because the coach there can not be counted on to reliably deliver the desired data; whether they be transcripts or game tapes.

Coaches have to be very careful not to oversell their players. College recruiters will put up with the occasional "6-4" offensive lineman that loses two inches on the way to his official visit. But a high school coach can get tainted when he consistently pushes players on recruiters that are unlikely (according to the collegeís evaluation) to be able to cut it in college football. High school coaches understandably get emotionally attached to these players and that clouds their judgment. College assistants are salesmen and they donít like to say "no" too often. They tend to gravitate to coaches that can objectively evaluate their players as well lead them (the recruiters) to other players that they have coached against. Great high school coaches are great scouts also.

There is also one other trend that I need to point out that speaks directly to the "marketing" of high school football prospects. Camps have become huge on the recruiting landscape. Obviously a hands-on experience is invaluable when recruiter meets recruit and gets to evaluate him in a camp setting. What is overlooked is the high school head coach who has the ability to put together a large contingent of players to attend State Uís camp, sprinkled with a couple of blue chips, all paying full price. If you think that there is not a quid-pro-quo relationship involved here then you share a rosier picture of the business world than I do. This is NCAA-legal when the high school coach is compensated as a clinician or camp counselor for the college camp, and is a valuable tool for his team, getting them together as a team during the off-season.

Inside the Halls

I am pleased to say that I survived some major NCAA academic reforms while in college coaching. I found out very early in my career that there was a sure fire way to figure out if a high school program really "got it" when it came to football scholarships. A clueless guidance office was a true danger signal that the prospect was already at a serious disadvantage. I also learned very quickly where the academic havens were and where SAT was thought to be short for Saturday.

It is always helpful to recruit players that are used to a challenging academic environment. While you might think that this is becoming more difficult given the condition of our nationís schools, I have found that an athlete that is identified early as a prospect can get the correct mix of "GPA builders" and college prep classes. I have even seen the reverse effect when it comes to college worthiness. I ran into a recruit last year at a great high school that had an 1100+ SAT score but could not qualify for a Division II scholarship because his GPA was too low. Go figure.

The Boys in the Hood

You can call it what you want, but I donít think I could recruit players from wealthy homes. I always felt that you had to be double sure with recruits that never wanted for anything while they grew up. Give me a middle class kid anytime. It would be comforting to me as a fan if my favorite team recruited a lot of players from true working class neighborhoods.

I think everyone who has been a college assistant has a story like the one that Iím closing this article with. I recruited a quarterback (my first signee) from a Virginia city that was just large enough to have a neighborhood that could only be described as a slum. This young man had an arm that Jeff George could be proud of and had overcome some serious academic deficiencies.

In those days, you could take the letter of intent to the recruit and have him and a parent sign it in person. As I arrived at the home, I knew that I was in for an experience. The house had three rooms and was drafty but neat. The smell of kerosene fumes ensured that my sports jacket was soon headed to the cleaners. As we munched on chicken wings I explained the details of the scholarship.

As we proceeded, I noticed that the father was becoming increasingly agitated, and soon his hands began to noticeably shake to the point that he might not have been able to sign the documents. It was only after we "sealed the deal" with a drink that he got control of himself again. I realized that the family had attempted to sober up the Dad before I came for my visit, and I asked for that celebratory drink myself to purposely relieve him from his distress.

The new college quarterback never returned home after he left for his freshman year. He became a four year starter, earned his degree and he is a now a guidance counselor. I always believed that this young man appreciated the opportunity that he had and he capitalized on it. There are a lot of recruiting nuggets out there; you just need to know where to look.

Enjoy the game!

Gary Criswell has a varied and interesting career, including stints as a high school JV football coach and head wrestling coach at Henrico High School, a baseball umpire, and an assistant football coach at Virginia Union University. Gary now works as a Sales Manager for Network Business Furniture, serves as an analyst for WRNL's High School and College sports broadcasting, and continues to work as an advisor to college coaches on recruiting. Gary runs Rivals' VirginiaPreps.com web site.


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