CHASING THE BIG DOGS: COACHING AT A MID-MAJOR PROGRAM

 

Coaching at the mid-major level is the same as anywhere else. You draw up some plays and find players to make the Xs and Os on the chalkboard come to life. Then, you sit back and scream at the referees. Right?

“Well, some of that is true,” said Elon coach Mark Simons. “But you have to find the players to make it work. At the mid-major level, that can be extremely tough.” Simons is talking about recruiting. No matter how good the coach is, you still need athletes to execute the game plan.

Think there would be a Dean Dome had Dean Smith’s teams consisted of five 6-footers who couldn’t throw a peanut in a garbage barrel? How about Wisconsin’s run to the Final Four last season? Think it could have happened with players who refused to bend their knees and shuffle their feet?

This is why coaches are so willing to hop a plane for Nowhere, Louisiana to visit a 7-foot high school sophomore. It’s also the reason NCAA officials are so suspicious – and closely monitor everything from boosters to summer camps. Combine all of that … and you’re left with trying to sell the program to a 17-year old. And not just any 17-year old. Remember, this is a young man who can dunk. He’s been told repeatedly that the universe should genuflect at the mere mention of his name. So he believes UCLA or Kentucky owes him three floors of the school library and a personalized license plate. Now try to imagine telling this kid, “Son, we sure would like you to suit up at … Elon.”

“That’s the biggest thing we’ve found when it comes to recruiting at the mid-major level,” Simons said. “A kid gets a letter from Michigan or Indiana and suddenly, he thinks he’s going big-time. But all he got was a letter.”

Then there’s the television factor. “Every recruit asks how many times your team plays on TV,” Simons said. “Selling your program or the school’s academics isn’t enough anymore. This has been known for some time but I’ll say it anyway — TV has completely changed the game.” Simons has more than a first-hand look at the frustrating world of mid-major recruiting. He has a hand-in-marriage look, as his wife, Gail Goestenkors, is the women’s coach at Duke. And this is a man who experiences recruiting pains every day at the dinner table. “My son is a 6-foot-10 junior in high school,” Simons said. “I still haven’t gotten a verbal commitment.”

Money is another big difference between coaching in the Big South and the Big Ten. Big-time programs have big-time dollars. Meanwhile, mid-major schools have limited budgets from which they can spend on things such as travel, meals and hotels. “Actually, most high-major schools don’t have budgets,” said Eastern Kentucky coach Travis Ford. “They just spend, spend, spend. They’re catching planes left and right, and they’re definitely not eating fast food when they go on a recruiting trip.” Ford is entering his first season as a Division I head coach. So any budget is a substantial budget for him. “But there’s still the understanding that I really have to watch how I get to a place and where I stay once there,” he said. That means mid-major coaches usually drive to outposts as far as 10 hours away from their school. A recruit will notice that the coach didn’t fly, giving him the idea that the team rides a bus to away games. And “bus” is only one letter from “bush.”

So in many instances the coach drove for half a day to not sign a kid. “Of course, part of the reason we take the bus is the close proximity to the other schools in our league,” Ford said. “But the kid doesn’t see that.” Elon is in North Carolina, and plays non-conference games at Brigham Young, Indiana State and Virginia Tech this season. The team flies to locations that are more than a five-hour drive – but that’s it. “Even when we do travel through the air, we’re not taking some fancy plane that an NBA team uses,” said Southwest Missouri State coach Barry Hinson. “And I know some high-major teams that do.”

Hinson isn’t bitter. In fact, he’s the one mid-major coach who will tell you that recruiting for his school is about the same as anywhere. “We’re extremely fortunate (at Southwest Missouri State),” he said. “We have a budget that’s comparable to a lot of high-majors.” But even Hinson admits … when it comes to recruiting, a big budget doesn’t always cut it.

Bobby Jones is the coach at St. Francis, Pa. Just hearing the name of the school can make a kid look the other way. Especially if that kid has been called a Top 100 Prospect by recruiting experts. That’s why guys like Jones must have a better eye for talent than a Gene Keady or Jim Calhoun. “Let’s say you’re at the Nike Camp,” Jones said. “Well, you can tell right away who the top 100 players are. That’s the easy part. The tough part comes when you have to figure out who’s 101 through 250. That’s why it’s more difficult to recruit at this level. Information about mid-major talent just isn’t out there. You have to go get it.”

Once you’ve done that, you still have to work on getting the player to sign. “That’s when you begin crunching numbers,” Hinson said. “All of a sudden, it comes down to how many alumni you have, how many students are at the school, how many people you know.”

Why is that?

“Those numbers are important because kids want your program to have some support,” Hinson said. “Plus, it doesn’t hurt to know somebody who knows (the recruit). That way you’ll have an ‘in.'” But Hinson doesn’t buy the theory that mid-major coaches have to work harder than their more-celebrated peers. He said that everybody has issues, even his good friend Bill Self (now the coach at Illinois). “I don’t think any high-major program outworks us, and I don’t think we outwork the Division II schools,” Hinson said. “When it comes to recruiting, everybody has problems.” Or as Travis Ford said, “What we lack in funds can be made up for by simply winning.”

What Rick Majerus has done at Utah strongly supports that point. Still, Simons maintains that there are clear disadvantages to recruiting at the mid-major level. “I’ll give you an example,” he said. “A booster approached me the other day and said, ‘We have to get bigger this year.’ I said, ‘We have to get bigger every year.’ Believe me. Telling a 7-footer he’ll face great competition at Elon is a lot different than saying it when you’re the coach at Ohio State. Look, guards at the mid-major level are often as good as those at the larger programs. But do you really think those schools have trouble getting centers? I’m talking about the ones who can shoot and pass and block shots. If by some stroke of luck we do land a 7-footer, it’s normally one that has to be taught the very basics of the game. Heck, it’s normally one that needs to learn how to walk. There just aren’t that many big kids who can play.”

Even if Simons is wrong, and recruiting really isn’t the primary difference between the mid-majors and the big boys … he can give another example of why life is tougher for him than, say, Jim Boeheim. And all Simons needs to do is say “Hello.” That’s because the man answers his own phone. Try dialing up a high-major coach and you’ll get about four secretaries and 15 excuses as to why he can’t return your call.

Yes, life is simple at Elon. “But that doesn’t mean it’s easy,” Simons said.
(Sam Amico is a sportswriter for the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa).