By Roy and Harv Schmidt
Over the past several years, Illinois high school basketball coaches have lost a tremendous amount of influence over the recruitment of their top players. While we are not going to debate the merits of those who do have influence, this blog is going to offer an in-depth analysis of what this declining influence means to college coaches, parents, and the prospects themselves within the recruiting environment.
In the 25 years that we have been involved with recruiting analysis in the state of Illinois, we have often commented on the state of recruiting as it pertains to Illinois high school basketball prospects. We have come to the conclusion that the high school coach has lost a tremendous amount of influence in the recruiting process. We have commented extensively on the early signing period and the rising influence of the spring and summer evaluation periods. We have also commented on the AAU coaches, handlers, and other key people associated with this process. However, we have not too often looked at how the declining influence of Illinois high school basketball coaches has impacted the ability of regional college programs to recruit top Illinois prospects.
What does it mean when Illinois high school basketball coaches have lost influence over the recruitment of their top players? Well, to explore possible answers to this question, we must first understand WHY the influence has been lost to begin with.
First of all, the time of year when high school coaches earn their living has itself lost a tremendous amount of influence on the exposure and recruitment of Illinois high school basketball prospects. In other words, the regular IHSA season hardly means anything anymore from a recruiting standpoint. Prospects usually sign letters of intent by the November signing period of their senior seasons. However, the recruiting process starts much earlier than that. The pressure to win among college programs is so high that commitments are secured at earlier and earlier ages. These commitments are often secured during the spring and summer when high school coaches are not even working. Yes, there are a few high school coaches who demand that the recruiting process goes through them. If their players do play spring and summer AAU or travel ball, they always accompany them wherever they play. However, many more coaches need to do this or else all control is lost.
Second, high profile spring and summer exposure camps and events are where ALL of the top 100 and beyond national player rankings lists are made. How a prospect performs in the regular season rarely means anything anymore. We have seen enough Mc Donald's All-Americans with subpar senior seasons to know that this is true. Consequently, it is essential that all top players attend these events. It is even more essential that all college programs which desire to get the best possible players attend these events as well. Naturally, this expands the recruiting horizons for all of the prospects.
Back in the old days, when high school coaches had more control and there were less events going on in the spring and summer, college coaches went out more during the regular seasons to scout, evaluate, and recruit high school prospects. Because this would often conflict with their own program's game, practice, and travel schedules, college programs often did not travel all over. This meant that top prospects were primarily recruited at the local and regional levels. Sure, the Top 30-50 prospects would draw coaches from all over, but most recruiting lists were stacked with the local and regional favorites who had more time to recruit prospects and to evaluate them.
Third, when AAU and travel ball became prevalent and the "off season" began to replace the regular season in its recruiting significance, the players involved with influencing a prospects' recruitment changed. This is significant, because for better or for worse, these people have different mindsets. Unlike most high school coaches, they are NOT certified teachers or educators. They do not look at those things the same way that a certified educator may look at them. Consequently, they will not favor all of the financial and career advantages associated with attending the local or state university. Parents who have taken control from high school coaches are often overzealous and think their kids are better than they are. They are more inclined to want to send their kids away in order to maximize on an opportunity, especially if the kid can get a full scholarship. As a result, parents today are much less inclined to show loyalty to state, local, and regional colleges and universities.
AAU and traveling coaches also have different mindsets by nature. Just read their marketing literature, and you know that these coaches and their success is judged by how many Division I players they produce, and the number of D1 programs they send them to. This is especially true if the program (as is almost always the case) receives huge funding from a shoe company. These companies have contracts with college programs across the country, so what is the incentive to send a program's top prospects to the same two or three local or regional college programs? Simply put, there is no incentive whatsoever.
Expanding the avenues of recruitment to as many colleges and universities across the country as you can is the best way to maximize the recruiting opportunities for every prospect in the program. We are not saying this is wrong or right. However, we ARE emphatically saying that this means that many colleges and universities have to work that much harder to recruit the top local and regional prospects.
During the old days when the high school coach was the primary and maybe only recruiting contact, colleges would invite high school coaches to speak at camps or participate in developmental clinics. The relationships between colleges and high school coaches was much more "tight" then. Sure, these relationships still exist and they must. However, they are no longer guarantees of recruiting success. For example, the days are long gone when Lou Henson could walk down the streets on the south side of Chicago with Simeon coach Bob Hambric and go to a fishery like two long-lost buddies, knowing that Simeon's top prospect would go to Illinois.
Yes, Illinois is still THE king in Illinois high school basketball recruiting. Yes, they keep a lot of top talent at home. And yes, they have great relationships with most high school coaches, and have worked hard at developing much stronger relationships with Chicago Public League coaches. However, if they leave it at this, they could lose out on many recruits. Instead, the hiring of assistant coach Jerrance Howard was indicative of head coach Bruce Weber's realization that it is primarily the AAU coaches, parents, and others that will ultimately determine the Illini's recruiting success. Howard has cultivated all of these relationships, and has made Weber's relationships in this area that much stronger as well.
Finally, look at the recruiting lists, scholarship offers, and actual commitments and signings of top Illinois prospects from the leading AAU and travel club programs in Illinois over the years,(such as the Illinois Warriors, Illinois Wolves, Rising Stars, Mac Irvin Fire, Mean Streets, and Full Package, among others). Kids from Illinois are going all over, for all of the reasons outlined above. Yes, most if not all of these programs value and emphasize strong relationships with the local and regional programs, but some place even more emphasis on a national recruiting profile. This has not affected Illinois as much because of their Top 20 national profile. It used to affect Northwestern, but the new direction which Bill Carmody went with the hiring of assistant coach Tavaras Hardy was similar to the approach taken by Weber with the hiring of Howard. Thus, Northwestern's recruiting has taken off and Hardy has deserved every bit of praise for being one of the top up and coming recruiters in all of college basketball, not just the region.
It will be interesting to see if local, state, and regional college programs come to grips with the recruiting realities mentioned in this blog. Many of them already have. However, those who have not may not be in a situation to control much. In today's age of overhyped prospects and when most parents and AAU coaches have a tendency to oversell prospects, this almost "kills" the local and regional low and mid-major college programs, not to mention the efforts of many small colleges. Those programs that overcome these obstacles to continue to land top prospects are truly the best recruiters that you will find anywhere!