If a coach could figure out the secret to a recruit's mind, they could write their own checks.
Every school has a recruiting coordinator whose job it is to sell a school to a perspective recruit. A school could start with a database of as high as 1000 players and begin to whittle that list down to maybe two dozen serious prospects. But every school knows that when they make their calls, there are other schools out there who want those same players.
It can be nasty sometimes. There have already been many articles written about coaches trying to cast enemy programs in the category of "lesbian coach/lesbian program" if they suspect parents might be homophobes. Maya Moore's choice of Connecticut started a cold war between Tennessee and Connecticut which still hasn't thawed (even with Moore's graduation) where Tennessee reported Connecticut to the NCAA for Connecticut giving Moore a tour of the ESPN facilities - a secondary violation. (Want to start a flame war on a Tennessee/UConn message board? Mention the words "Maya Moore", "Tennessee" and "Connecticut" all in the same sentence.)
National Champion Baylor was put on probation by the NCAA - a reduction in scholarships - as the result of impermissible text messages and phone calls sent by the program and impermissible contact between Baylor staff and the family of superstar Brittney Griner (Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey's daughter was on the same AAU team with Griner). Muffet McGraw, head coach at Notre Dame, said in an interview regarding their title game loss to Baylor. "I think for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was what happened after and what came out after, I think it made it harder to swallow." Clearly, McGraw had Baylor's alleged recruiting violations in the back of her mind.
Clearly, every school looks for an edge, and if schools don't cross the line they know exactly where that line is and how close they can get to it. But how do players figure out which school they're going to go to?
Interviews and models
There isn't much written about how basketball players decide on a school but a lot has been written about how football players decide. More than likely, this is because of greater fan interest and the greater financial potential of having a working model. There are a lot of differences between college football players and women's basketball players to say the least, but the football recruiting process might provide some insight.
Economists at Mercer University - Mike DuMond, Allen Lynch and Jennifer Platania - made the attempt to predict where highly ranked football players would sign. They built a predictive model that had a 71 percent success rate, based on the choices of approximately 3300 football players made between 2002 and 2004. A large array of factors was built into their model, and they could determine which of these factors had great predictive significance and which did not.
Factors NOT having great predictive significance were:
- Graduation rate
- Number of Bowl Championship Series (BCS) appearances
- Roster depth at a recruited player's positions
- Numbers of players who go on to the pros
- Number of national championship victories
The last one is particularly surprising.
Factors having great predictive significance were:
- Whether the athlete made an "official visit" to a specific college
- Whether the school is in a BCS conference
- The distance from the high school athlete’s hometown to a specific school
- Whether the recruit is in the same state as a specific school
- The final AP Ranking of a specific school in the previous year of competition
- The number of conference titles a school has recorded in recent years
- Whether the school is currently under a "bowl ban" for violating NCAA rules
- The current number of scholarship reductions a school faces for violating NCAA rules
- The size of the team’s stadium (measured in terms of seating capacity)
- Whether the school has an on-campus stadium
- The current age of the team’s stadium
Oddly enough, scholarship reductions were a positive factor, not a negative factor. Recruits knew that with reduced scholarships, there would be less competition for positions and playing time, so Baylor's reduction in scholarships might not hurt them that much.
If we had the data in women's basketball, we could attempt to do something similar. Unfortunately, gathering such data would be a volunteer effort like most things in women's basketball.
Note that distance was listed as one of the factors above. I looked at the top prospects from Hoopgurlz/ESPN for the classes of 2012-15 and broke them down by state.
This map does not line up the way you'd think it would by population of state. If the order went strictly by state population, California should have had the largest number of prime recruits but it appears that Texas - second in population - has the most basketball talent. New York is third in state population but is tied for eighth in prime talent. Maryland might be 19th in state population, but it is a basketball paradise, fifth in overall talent.
Baylor, Tennessee, and Stanford should all be in good positions - they are all located in states where there is a lot of homegrown talent. However, not every basketball power is located in a state with a lot of basketball talent. It is a tribute to Connecticut that they are one of the best programs in the country despite their home state having a (relative) dearth of talent - the reach of UConn is far and wide. The same for Notre Dame, where out of the 309 prospects on the list, only six were from the state of Indiana. As for programs like Utah - with just one home-grown prospect on the list - their work becomes that much more difficult.
In states where there is more than one program, head coaches know that they have to establish themselves as the top program. This was a goal of MaChelle Joseph at Georgia Tech, to play in-state schools and beat them. The Georgia-Georgia Tech game was a given because the schools are traditional rivals but Georgia Tech usually has a school like Kennesaw State (this year) or Mercer or Georgia State on the schedule. Joseph's goal is to make Georgia Tech the school of choice for any Georgia-born prospect.
The campus visit
Travis Destache at the University of Wisconsin-Stout researched the most important factors in college choice among Wisconsin football players. (The only Division I football program in Wisconsin is at Wisconsin-Madison.) He wanted to know the answers to three questions?
- Which factors influenced choice of schools among respondents?
- Which factors of a campus visit were most important among respondents?
- Is there a difference between recruits from small schools and recruits from large schools in how they make their choices?
Of particular interest is the second question - the campus visit. The campus visit is one of the most important parts of a potential recruit's decision making. With the pressure on recruits to make their decisions earlier and earlier, many sign their letters of intent before an official visit but I suspect most wait until after the official visit. An official visit is an all-expenses paid (within reason) visit by a recruit to a school, a forty-eight hour period where she can see the campus, meet the team, talk to the coaches, and experience a glimpse of campus life, all in an attempt by a school to seal the deal.
According to Destache, the most important factors of a campus visit were (in descending order):
- Interaction with coaching staff
- One-on-one meeting with the head coach
- Interaction with team members
- Tour of football facilities
- Tour of campus
- Visiting facilities related to your major
- Meeting with academic advisor
- Meeting with faculty in your major
- Meeting with strength coach
- Experiencing the social life of the college
- Viewing dormitories
A standard deviation was also taken to indicate how much consensus there was in the answers. "Interaction with the coaching staff" had the lowest standard deviation, indicating that the respondents were in close agreement on its relative importance. "Tour of football facilities" was second and "tour of campus" was third.
Oddly enough, "one on one meeting with the head coach" had a very high standard deviation - although in general it was the second most important factor, there was more variation among individual respondents on how important it was. One theory might be that players might have different expectations for their one-on-one meeting, or if the rest of the coaching staff is friendly and supportive, that might be enough to sway a recruit. Of course, the high variation means that for some players, the results of the one-on-one meeting might be the prime deciding factor.
Looking at the numbers for recruits from both large schools and small schools, there doesn't seem to be much difference in the importance of the factors listed above.
One goal of a coach is to have a recruiting resource, a person or place one can go to in order to get quality players. Coaches do this in different ways. Some establish good relationships with high schools. Others have an alumni pipeline, where a player can be recommended by an influential alum who knows his or her stuff.
Other schools have international pipelines - for some reason these coaches have a connection which allows them to convince foreign-born players to attend their schools. These players might have American parents who live overseas and those players might already have experience in European youth club basketball. Some, however, might be true foreign players with a limited English language background.
Georgia Tech has been particularly fortunate in picking up players from Sweden. They have Danielle Hamilton-Carter and Frida Fogdemark, two Swedish players. Last year Slovakian player Tjasa Gortnar also played for the Yellow Jackets.
Some players get their pipelines in other ways. You might not know that Auburn head coach Terri Williams-Flournoy's brother is Boo Williams, a man who certainly knows his way around AAU girls basketball. If he doesn't provide players, I'm sure that brother and sister might have conversations about where to find good players.
Various AAU squads are also great pipelines - there are definitely AAU teams which are good year after year after year and if a coaches get along well with each other, who is to say what might happen? There are also AAU tournament showcase events that are must-see locations not only to evaluate talent, but to network.
Many AAU tournaments are sponsored by various shoe companies - Nike, Adidas, Reebok. On the men's basketball side, some schools are known as "Nike schools" or "Adidas school" and various AAU coaches/shoe company personnel get a strong say as to who goes where - even to the point of making it clear that if you're from an Adidas school you're really not welcome at the Nike tournament.
Women's basketball, however, seems to be free of much of the shady shenanigans associated with men's basketball recruiting. On the other hand, as the women's game becomes more prominent everyone is predicting encroachment into a system that is perceived to be mostly on the up and up.