Recruiting in college athletics can be part science and part art, part benevolence and part snake oil sales.
It can be partly heartwarming and particularly distasteful.
Empty promises are spread and repeated. Boundaries are pushed or ignored. Too often, the recruiting trail becomes a warpath on which plotting recruiters use every sound bite, every rumor, every controversy, every discrepancy as ammunition against other programs.
Rather than utilize their time with a prospective athlete to pitch their own school, some coaches attempt to disparage the facilities, policies and personalities of their competitors.
Moments after speaking to a room full of high school coaches Monday afternoon during the South Carolina Athletic Coaches Association All-Sports Clinic at the TD Center, University of South Carolina men’s basketball coach Frank Martin candidly asserted his intolerance for negative recruiting.
“Some coaches, their line is ‘It’s just business.’ Well, when that business comes across my plate, it becomes personal,” Martin said. “Anytime someone at another school wants to speak negatively about our school, that person is trying to jeopardize not just my family, but my staff and their families, the players that have believed in us.
“I’ve got no time for that. I don’t respect it. I confront it every time we come across it.”
Martin’s colleague at USC, football coach Steve Spurrier, confronted some of his detractors during an impromptu press conference last week. Spurrier responded to questions about his age, a topic that foes have raised with recruits to invoke distrust in Spurrier’s longevity at Carolina.
Spurrier cannot remedy being 70, but he refused to stand idly while competitors attempt to destabilize the program and reputation he has built. During his defiant rant last Wednesday, Spurrier repeatedly referred to his “enemies.” Although he specified one reporter, he left the label ambiguous enough to seem rash, cryptic and oddly timed.
However, it was not intended solely for critical writers or rival fans. It also was targeted for his antagonists on the recruiting trail, and the message apparently hit the mark. By Monday, Spurrier secured four new commitments from coveted recruits.
Negative recruiting is not a new tactic. Elite talent is the lifeblood of a competitive program. Some coaches are willing to cut down their peers to get it. Thus, coaches are cautious about sticking their necks out. That explains why many are so calculated with their words and so protective of their brand and image.
Anything they say or do could be used against them in a recruit’s living room.
Cunning coaches compare facilities, campus life, roster composition, curriculum and even uniforms against competing schools. Some already are comparing disparities in the cost of attendance stipend that scholarship athletes will be awarded starting next month.
The pitches do not stop after a player commits. The four players who pledged loyalty to South Carolina over the weekend may face even more attention from other programs now. The push to “flip” a recruit is sometimes more intense than the initial pursuit.
Under the negative recruiting strategy, coaches concede that the best way to elevate their program is to put down another. That appears weak and often 17-year old recruits do not recognize the fallacy in that reasoning. Answering inquiries about playing time and relative atmosphere is one thing, but planting seeds of doubt with denigrating ridicule is revolting and sometimes simply childish.
It can be demeaning to a recruit and his family, because it presumes that their decision will be based on trivial fixations. It also presumes that they are not capable of collecting pertinent positive information from several schools themselves and analyzing it accordingly.
Recruiting should be about building genuine relationships, not about selling points. Gaining an edge should not require crossing the line.