NCAA rule changes could spark state of recruiting chaos
Last weekend at their convention in Grapevine, Texas, the NCAA Board of Directors approved a long-awaited package of "common sense" rulebook revisions. Most notably, they eliminated longstanding restrictions on the way coaches can contact recruits -- no more improper phone calls, illegal text messages, dead periods or quiet periods.
"It's huge," proclaimed NCAA president Mark Emmert. "A significant step," said Wake Forest president and board chairman Nathan Hatch. "A milestone," blared a USA Today headline.
Given such celebratory tone, one can only assume there's similar euphoria among those that will be directly impacted by the changes. Right?
"It's insane. It's bad on both ends," said a recruiting coordinator at a major-conference school. "If it's not regulated where coaches have periods here and there that are designated as breaks, you don't get any time with your family."
"It's great for us, but it sucks for the recruits," said another recruiting coordinator. "You take the top 50 kids in the country -- every school in the country is going to be calling and texting these kids all day."
"Were going to be like a bunch of teenage schoolchildren texting all the time," said Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez. "I'm going to have to learn to text faster than I do now."
"I think it's horrible," echoed Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. "The toll it's going to take on college coaches -- on their families, on any social life they may have, and the toll on [recruits] as well -- is tremendous."
So it's a triumphal recruiting moment for everybody except recruits, recruiters and the recruiters' family members. Which figures, since improving recruiting was never the focus of these reforms.
The NCAA's push to streamline its infamously bloated rulebook began with Emmert's August 2011 Presidential Summit. At the time, college athletics was dealing with a rash of embarrassing scandals at high-profile programs, and its leaders agreed that compliance departments, investigators and Committee on Infractions members would be better served focusing more on egregious rule-breakers and less on trivial violations like improper phone calls.
"We want to focus on those things that actually make a difference in our institutions and not necessarily those things that deal with communication devices or whether or not a bagel has peanut butter on it," Emmert said at the time. A Rules Working Group comprised of college presidents took on the task of revising the rulebook, ultimately forwarding 26 proposals to the Board of Directors last weekend. The board approved 25 of them, including five that focus specifically on recruiting:
• Proposal 11-2, which allows for football programs to hire a recruiting coordinator and support staff separate from the coaching staff, any of whom can partake in all recruiting activities save for off-campus visits.
• Proposal 11-4, which eliminates restrictions on how many coaches can recruit off campus at a given time.
• Proposal 13-3, which "eliminate[s] restrictions on methods and modes of communication during recruiting," meaning no texting barriers, quiet periods or dead periods.
• Proposal 13-4, which eliminates a list of required materials (a banned-drug list, APR data) schools must send to recruits.
• Proposal 13-5A, which eliminates restrictions on sending printed materials (media guides, comic books, etc.) to recruits.
In deregulating recruiting, the NCAA did an about face on two general principles behind previous restrictions. One is the long-held notion of ensuring "an even playing field" between the haves and have-nots, whether by limiting the number of recruiters per school or warding off an arms race to see who can produce the glossiest pamphlets. Emmert and other leaders have openly said that's no longer a realistic goal. "We're not going to try and overcome those natural competitive advantages that people have," he said.
More puzzling, however, is the apparent abandonment of previous attempts to provide sought-after recruits with some semblance of normalcy. In a December news release, the NCAA said the Working Group relied on input from two student-athletes: a Duke women's lacrosse player and a former University of Maryland Baltimore County baseball player.
"I think the thing about texts is terrible," Cedar Hill (Texas) High coach Joey McGuire told The Dallas Morning News. "I think the NCAA has got to be going crazy. ... One of the reasons that they are doing it is because they can't enforce their rules. So instead of trying to enforce them, or change them in some way, they're just getting rid of them."
Some coaches say the rule won't make much difference. Many assistants already communicate frequently with recruits through Facebook or Twitter messaging (which is allowed). However, coaches live in a state of constant paranoia that a competitor is outworking them. If they learn another coach is texting a recruit five times a day, they're going to send six.
"You're just going to have to say, I'm not doing this on Sundays, I'm not doing this on vacation," said Rodriguez. "But I know this. When I go on vacation, I'm going to have my phone with me, and if a top prospect texts me, you better believe I'm gonna text him back."
The loosening of contact rules mirrors the changes instituted in basketball last summer. The difference, of course, is that basketball teams generally sign about five recruits per year. Football teams sign 25, and most contact 100-200 per class to get to that number.
Given that volume, the more significant change for football will be the rule that opens recruiting duties to non-coaches. It's also the one that most clearly favors programs with the deepest pockets.
Theoretically, a powerhouse like Alabama or Ohio State could hire a whole other staff devoted solely to contacting and maintaining relationships with recruits. Other BCS-conference programs, flush with new television money, would presumably follow suit. While some have suggested colleges may follow the NFL model of creating a separate player personnel department, more realistically, more menial recruiting tasks will be delegated to non-coaching personnel.
"Just because it is allowable for the entire staff to be involved in recruiting and those relationships doesn't necessarily mean it's wise to open the floodgates for everybody," said one BCS-conference staffer. "The response will mirror different recruiting tactics people have. Those that employ the scorched earth tactic of sending so much mail and so much electronic communication to the highest volume possible -- you've now opened more legal manpower for that scorched earth."
Some coaches are already strategizing for the new rules, which take effect on Aug. 1. One head coach with an opening on his staff said he's waiting to hear from his athletic director if he can divide the money into two positions: one coaching, one recruiting. Many others will presumably meet with their bosses to request a bigger payroll soon.
"What's more important to me?" said Rodriguez. "Facilities are important, but not more important than people -- the people that you recruit with, the people you're trying to recruit. It's going to be a whole other arm of the profession. Some schools will have a full-fledged scouting department that also does recruiting."
Meanwhile, the rule about sending printed materials may seem trite, but don't underestimate just how over-the-top recruiters can be if handed more money and fewer restrictions.
"This is a boom for the Fathead industry," said Farrell. "I can't wait for the first team to send an eight-foot Fathead to a kid of himself wearing their uniform. He's going to take a picture of it, put it on Twitter, it gets retweeted 85 times and everyone's going to know about it."
The Board of Directors did table one measure, Proposal 13-2, which would allow unlimited contact to begin on July 1 after a prospect's sophomore year. That's nearly a year earlier than the current calendar, in which coaches are allowed to call once during the spring of a prospect's junior year, then not again until Sept. 1. Coaches would also get another set of off-campus visits during prospects' junior years, ostensibly to allow recruits to form a deeper relationship with their prospective coaches.
But those coaches already spend much of January and early February living out of suitcases. Now, they'd be paying visit to two full classes simultaneously. By the time prospects sign in February of their senior years, they will have endured nearly two years of pursuit, and as we see today, even an early commitment doesn't dissuade recruiters from other schools.
The American Football Coaches Association requested the board not approve that proposal. It will be discussed again in April.
Ultimately, we won't know the effects of the NCAA's overhaul until the new rules take hold in August. And there will be undoubtedly be unintended consequences and areas of abuse. For instance, the ability to create new staff positions could result in more "package deals" where schools hire a coveted prospect's coach.
The NCAA says its approved deregulation measures will allow it to trim 25 pages from its nearly 500-page rulebook. Here's guessing a few go back in when it has to adopt new restrictions to curb abuse of coaches' newfound freedom.
In the meantime, two different recruiting staffers used the same analogy to describe the forthcoming environment: "It's going to be like the Wild, Wild West."