Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber spent only three nights at home for meals during the month of July. But he did manage to find time to go to the beach for some sun and relaxation with his wife and three daughters.
"The summer isn't as bad as it used to be," he said. "You have to take some time to unwind or (the recruiting grind) will take its toll."
Weber is starting his 30th year in Division I coaching--from Purdue to Southern Illinois to Illinois--and he admits there have been a lot of changes along the way. When he started, there was no AAU or Internet, only a few camps and tournaments such as 5-Star and B/C.
But Dorothy isn't living in Kansas any more.
"Now it's crazy. Everybody has a team," Weber said. "I still recall seeing Everette Stephens at the first Nike ABCD camp in Princeton, N.J. But I've seen things evolve. The AAU has exploded. People are aware of recruiting through the Internet. People pay attention all year. They see kids before the coaches see them. You have to recruit kids at a younger age."
Weber recalls when talented prospects such as Bruce Douglas,Ed Horton and Scott Skiles came to summer camp,when the Prairie State Games was a huge recruiting tool for Illinois. Now kids play on traveling AAU teams and attend AAU events from coast to coast. And they employ personal trainers, develop entourages and get advice from parents, high school coaches, AAU coaches and other outside influence peddlers.
"Everybody sees NBA dollars," Weber said. "But the odds are so low."
He believes USA Basketball may provide an answer to the problem and do something about bringing sanity to the chaos. By using the European model, which emphasizes teaching and fundamentals, USA Basketball proposes to get involved by organizing regional camps, then expand to national camps.
Nike, after a great deal of criticism aimed at its grassroots program, has made an effort by establishing the Steve Nash point guard camp and the Paul Pierce swingman camp and the Kobe Bryant camp to emphasize fundamentals and drills.
"We have the best natural ability and athleticism but others have passed us on shooting skills and fundamentals," Weber said. "In other countries, kids put in 5-6 hours a day on basketball. No wonder they are doing so much better than us."
Meanwhile, Weber has made some changes, too. Burned by the losses of such recruits as Sherron Collins and Julian Wright and Derrick Rose, he has opted to get involved in the recruiting process much earlier than before. And his game plan is paying off with commitments from such nationally rated prospects such as Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson.
"At first, we couldn't get kids here at all," he said. "I was amazed that a state school had trouble getting kids to come to see a game and get them on campus. When you go North (to Chicago), there is so much diversity. They lose loyalty to the state school. Chicago is a melting pot with loyalties to a lot of schools."
Weber admits that offering a scholarship to a freshman or sophomore is a big risk. He recalls Glenn Robinson was a no-brainer. He saw Robinson in eighth grade and knew he was a big-timer. Kevin Garnett was the same. There weren't many questions about Derrick Rose, either.
"But other young kids, you don't get to know their heart or ability," he said. "They want to be offered and their parents get mad because they don't get an offer as a freshman. If there is a great ninth grader, if I don't get after him, I will lose my advantage."
There is a fine line to all of these evaluations. Kids are more wordly today than when Weber began working for Gene Keady. They play in national tournaments in fifth and sixth grade. Coaches have a better idea of what they can do. But will they take the next step to develop physically and mentally? Will they mature?
"I've tried to do the right thing, to make sure on kids," Weber said. "Maybe it hurt me in the long run. I waited too long on some. What we try to do--and I've been fortunate in the last few years--is get early commitments and have more time to watch kids and don't have to chase them."
Weber is allowed seven evaluations during the school year and summer. He is able to observe prospects in different situations, high school and AAU and practice. He admits he has become more educated in the decision-making process.
"What do I look for? Athleticism. Can they compete physically and athletically? Do they have skill sets to match the position--jump shot, ball-handling, rebounding? Will they grow? Are they big enough? You can't be 6-4 and play power forward. You watch to see his work ethic. Do they want to put in time? Do they work hard?
"And you have to know the kid. Character has become a big factor. In the long haul, it makes or breaks a kid being successful. If you get involved early, maybe you can help him to mature. This isn't an exact science. It is dangerous to recruit young kids because others may develop and help other programs."