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When a Michigan recruit comes to The Big House, the Wolverines roll out the blue carpet.
The recruit’s crisp, fall afternoon begins before kickoff on the football field, where he observes the pregame warm-up. Fans cheer as he makes his way to the recruiting section, where he’ll sit in a prime seat with potential student-athletes – known as PSAs – from several other sports.
Junior golfers can’t get that kind of experience in the summer, when they visit lifeless campuses on the way home from a tournament. There’s hardly anyone there to shake a kid’s hand, let alone cheer for him as he finds his seat.
“It’s unfortunate that a lot of kids commit early and don’t get to see our product with its best foot forward,” Michigan men’s coach Andrew Sapp said.
There once was a time when Georgia Tech men’s coach Bruce Heppler would meticulously plan every minute of an official visit. Under NCAA rules, PSAs are allowed five official visits during their senior year of high school, and kids used to take advantage of every one. Hey, that’s five football games, if nothing else.
Coaches then held their collective breath, waiting for seniors to reveal their decisions in time for the November signing period. If those prospects fell through, coaches worked hard to get someone else signed in the spring.
Recruiting is different today. Official visits have gone the way of the balata ball. They’re still around, but top players rarely put them in play.
Junior players and their parents start their homework on potential colleges as early as middle school and take unofficial visits before they can drive. By spring break of their junior years, many already have given verbal commitments (which are not binding and can be made at any age). Just look for the logoed lids and mascot headcovers.
Once a handful of top players make their decisions, Heppler waits for “full-blown panic” to set in for those still undecided.
“No one wants to be the only player who doesn’t have a head cover,” Heppler said. “There’s tremendous peer pressure to have your deal done.”
The entire recruiting process basically has shifted back one year. At the U.S. Juniors this summer, most coaches were done with the class of 2010 and spent the bulk of their time evaluating ’11 and ’12 – players with whom coaches can’t even talk, because of NCAA rules.
Coaches can’t call a recruit or engage in off-campus conversations until July 1 of the player’s senior year. Players, however, can call coaches. Personalized written correspondence begins Sept. 1 of their junior year.
To expedite the process, PSAs often call coaches and request an unofficial campus visit.
“Now it seems it’s the kids who are driving the bus,” UCLA women’s coach Carrie Forsyth said. “They don’t want to be left out.”
Official visits are paid by the school – airfare, hotel, meals, modest entertainment. Parents pay for unofficial visits, which must be contained within the campus. Players can take five official visits during their senior year. They can take as many unofficial visits as mom and dad can afford.
Seniors still take official visits, but most do so after they have verbally committed.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the trend started, though Heppler believes he got one of the first early commitments from 2004 graduate Jonathan Moore. The Oregonian committed to Tech as a sophomore, then backed out in November of his junior year to switch to Oklahoma State.
Women’s coaches point to the incredibly deep class of 2005 as a starting point. PSAs in that class knew they needed to get a jump on their top college choice before the scholarships disappeared. Women’s teams are allowed six scholarships per season; men’s teams are allowed 4.5.
Recruits like the current system because it allows them to enjoy a stress-free senior year. Coaches like knowing what’s in store for each signing period well in advance.
The downsides can’t be ignored. There’s a vast difference in touring a deserted campus in July than hanging out with the golf team after a rowdy football game.
Coaches worry that students rush to decide, leading some to regret their choices later. Though the total number of men’s transfers has held relatively steady during the past few seasons, according to the NCAA, the college women’s game has seen a spike in transfers (from 145 in 2003-04 to 167 in 2007-08).
“It leaves a lot of room for error on everybody’s part,” said Georgia women’s coach Kelley Hester, who has two players transferring to her school this fall. “I look for (the increase in) transfers to continue.”
The official in-home visit, often an excellent way to size up a kid, has all but died as well. When players commit before July 1, coaches can’t visit their recruits’ homes before making a deal.
“You might see the kid is an absolute slob,” Heppler said. “You can tell a lot about a kid by their room.”
There’s also the risk that a player who commits early might lose his or her swing or suffer a career-threatening injury. On the men’s side, a lot can change physically for a player from age 15 to 18. Does a coach sit on a scholarship, waiting to see how a player matures, or seize the chance to sign a hot prospect?
A player like Jordan Spieth, Golfweek’s No. 1 junior, has coaches following his every move on the junior circuit. Spieth, 16, of Dallas, said he enjoys the process, and he recently narrowed his list to about eight schools, calling six of them – Georgia, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Texas, UCLA and USC – to let them know he’s interested.
Spieth, a 2011 graduate, was 13 the first time coaches watched him play. He recalls one hole at the Red River Shootout where he stuck it to 6 feet and botched the birdie putt.
“I had one eye looking at my putt and one eye looking at (the coach),” Spieth said. “It’s just like friends are watching now.”
Spieth said a major factor in his decision will be the coach: “He’s going to be (my) out-of-town dad for the next four years.” The U.S. Junior champ hopes to commit next spring.
Rachel Morris beat her peers to the punch, committing in the fall of her sophomore year to USC.
The first time Morris called coach Andrea Gaston, she was offered a scholarship. Six weeks later, she committed.
Morris took an unofficial visit and attended a football game. She lives 90 minutes from campus and already owns a USC hat, wristband, head cover, license-plate holder and key chain.
“I was kind of surprised myself,” Morris said of her early decision. “It was also a really big relief.”
Coaches log thousands of steps following top recruits quite literally around the world. Arizona State coach Melissa Luellen made a video tour of campus to show Carlota Ciganda in Europe. One month after her virtual tour, the Spaniard committed.
Cory Whitsett, class of 2010, said that had he based his decision on how many miles coaches walked outside the ropes to get his attention, he’d be going to Texas or LSU. Instead, he chose Alabama and committed last March.
Recruits weigh many factors when picking a school, including geography, potential playing time, a program’s facilities and ranking, and rapport with coaches and future teammates. What’s most important to one recruit may not be as significant to another.
Looking back, Philip Francis would’ve waited a little longer to “look at the bigger picture.” Coaches started following Francis at age 12. By high school, he concedes some of them had overdone it – too much love.
Francis chose UCLA, but two years later transferred back home to Arizona State.
“I wanted to get it over with,” Francis said of the recruiting process. “It’s real important to look at everything and prioritize what’s important to you.”
Chris Haack wonders whether some kids hurry the process to avoid its intrusive nature. The Georgia men’s coach doesn’t believe in a flurry of bulk mail on Sept. 1, sending as few as five letters to PSAs. Other coaches send hundreds.
“I want to sell them on what’s real,” Haack said. “Not the fluff. (Georgia) seems to sell itself.”
Every spring, more college coaches are forced out of their jobs because of poor performance.
It’s not as publicized as in other sports, but not all of these coaches are choosing an early retirement.
Complacency is a killer in this business. If coaches aren’t on the recruiting trail, they aren’t in the game. They gamble their careers on kids not yet fully developed – players whom they’ve spent countless hours evaluating but barely know.
“Make a couple of mistakes and see how you finish at NCAAs,” said Devon Brouse, men’s and women’s coach at Purdue. “When coaches start commanding larger salaries, expectations are going to go up. It’s just like football coaches. They don’t last long.”
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Tips for recruits
- Be realistic about your ability.
- Create a list of schools that you might like to attend, with the thought of playing golf. Don’t wait. It’s never too early.
- Early in high school, send the coach a short awareness e-mail or letter introducing yourself with the basic information. You want it to be simple and an easy read. Coaches who have interest will respond. If they don’t, send them a follow-up e-mail, letter or call. You’ll find out quickly if there is interest. This will help you narrow your list.
- Utilize online resume services to complete and send a link to a coach.
- Inform the coach of your tournament schedule as early as possible. After a tournament, let the coach know how you did.
- Make unofficial visits to campuses. Call the admissions office to arrange a campus tour and let the coach know that you would like to meet.
- Phone the coach. There are no NCAA restrictions against your initiating contact. However, keep in mind that a coach is not allowed to phone you until July 1 before your senior year.
- Ask a lot of questions and make sure you get the answers you want. You also are recruiting – to find the best fit academically and athletically.
- Do research on the golf programs in which you are interested. More than one source is recommended.
– Lance Ringler