The War Room
Gordon Chiesa is a dapper man with a small mustache and an enormous store of energy, most of which he devotes to his job as recruiting coordinator at Providence. Chiesa, 36, looks vaguely like Inspector Clouseau, but when he closets himself in the Friars' War Room he's as calculating and obsessive as Dr. Strangelove. And why not? With more and more colleges chasing the same pool of high school basketball talent, recruiting these days takes place in a Sellers market.
It is Chiesa's job to help his boss, Providence coach Rick Pitino, hunt down the best centers, forwards and guards in the land. To seize every advantage, Providence has given over one room in its basketball suite to the recruiting effort. The walls of the War Room are papered with color-coded file cards, each containing the particulars of a different prospect. The cards are arranged in order of desirability, high school class and position. "This is the new era," says Chiesa by way of explanation.
Yet the Providence staff is plainly up against it. The business of player procurement is a highly competitive one, filled with high school coaches eager to gain favor with big-time college coaches; with Runyonesque touts, middlemen and hangers-on looking for money or prestige; and with streetwise and smooth-talking college assistants practiced in the art of buttering up prospects while at the same time judging which ones are worth the effort. Isn't it demeaning for grown men to kowtow to teenagers? "The secret is to get other people to do that for you," said Dick Versace when he was the coach at Bradley last spring. By summer Versace was the ex-coach; the Braves were nailed by the NCAA for recruiting violations.
There's still the coach who dispatches his "surgeon" (see Recruiter's Phrase Book, page 36) to an airport to "bump" a prospect who's just returning from his visit to UCLA, in an attempt to rub off some of the glow. And all big-time schools ply prospects with cloying letters, pitches and the latest vogue: videotapes.
Recruiting has never been unimportant. But with the stakes (read: TV and tournament money) higher than ever, recruiting is more crucial than ever. Talent must be hunted down and taken. Within the recruiting industry—yes, industry—& player that a school really wants is a "take." One it has landed but didn't really need is a "gottem."
It shouldn't be surprising that recruiters speak in a vernacular evocative of back-room deal-makers. That's what they are. Is cheating as widespread as the whisperings suggest? "On the top end—with the best kids—it's probably bigger than ever," says Mark Warkentien, an assistant at Nevada-Las Vegas.
As long as improprieties continue—and the NCAA's caseload remains unmanageable—the questions of what the kid gets and who gets the kid have created a new realm of fan interest. In the same way the competition for Nielsen ratings is often more interesting than the programs TV networks put on the air, a school's chasing and signing of a certain recruit can make for a better story than what the team actually does with him. The prey's the thing.
Ain't Gonna Bump No More
When he cut the R & B record of that title, Joe Tex might as well have been singing about the NCAA rules that restrict the amount of "incidental contact" representatives of a school can have with a recruit. In 1977, Jeff Ruland considered Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Notre Dame and arriviste Iona. He chose Iona because of the dogged efforts of the Alphabet Man, Tom Abatemarco, then coach Jim Valvano's recruiter. Every day of Ruland's senior year Abatemarco would "bump" him—in person, with a phone call or a note under his windshield. No way an Iona beats out a field of big-timers for a Ruland today.