Recruit. Rebuild. Reload.
College athletics is such a revolving door rooted in change that ever-evolving landscapes and new names on different rosters has become the norm. Now more than ever, keeping with the Jones’ and making sure that you’re on top of your recruiting game has never been more important.
The recruitment of players has become such an important aspect of coaching, almost equal to that of what a coach does during a game. I recently caught up with Bryant University Head Coach, Jared Grasso, to discuss the intricacies of tracking, engaging with, and pursuing potential players.
Jared Grasso came in at a time where the program needed new life. Upon being hired, Grasso inherited a team coming off of a 3-28 season. Knowing a change was needed, the team began to rebuild through recruiting.
In 2019-20, the Bulldogs won 15 games for the first time in five years. While there were many driving forces behind it, a common thread appeared in kids Grasso and his staff recruited.
JUCO transfer, Hall Elisias, Freshman Charles Pride, NEC All-Rookie Team member Benon Lin, and the 2019-20 Northeast Conference Rookie of The Year Michael Green III were all vital contributors to the teams success.
And that wasn’t by mistake.
Recruiting From The Ground Up
“First, you want to recruit your returning players,” Grasso said of how he approached recruiting when he first arrived at Bryant a few years ago. “You want them to know they’re your guys and you’re going to treat them like your guys.”
Grasso’s use of the phrase my guys manifests a sense of inclusion and togetherness. For a coach in their first year, recruiting begins day one with the returning players and not so much with new faces.
“First, make them understand they’re going to be treated as one of my guys then make them understand the changes in culture we’re going to make. Step three is the recruiting piece and find guys who will fit me and how I do things.”
Roster management seems basic at the surface level: you’re alotted x-amount of scholarships, players leave for one-reason-or-another after the season, you turn around and use said scholarships on new players and voila! Your roster is set. Simple.
Or is it?
“Recruiting has become so complex now,” Coach Grasso said. “There’s the High School and Junior College recruiting where you hear about a kid and go see him play live. You start recruiting him, his coach, his family members, and whoever is handling his recruitment.”
“Then you have the regular transfers who, your old fashion transfer, will come in and sit out a year and get acclimated to the way you do things. They’ll learn the ropes. Then there’s the Grad Transfer piece where they’re eligible right away for one year.”
Maybe it’s not so simple after all.
With so many moving parts and new names and faces to keep track of, Grasso and his staff do a good job of making sure that they’re tracking the prospects that best fit their system and culture.
“For us, we have a master list of High School and Junior College,” Grasso said of his recruiting board. “When July recruiting ends and we’re meeting as a staff, we’re probably putting together a list of guys we’d like to follow up on.”
“Then we’re putting together a list of priority guys I’m probably going to be on the phone with and recruiting myself. Guys I know we’re going to put real time into.”
In regards to the priority prospects, Grasso says once they know who those players are the staff starts to look at the given prospects schedule for when they can go and see them play live and when they can get the recruit on campus for a visit.
Does that mean Grasso likes to try and sign a player as quickly as possible? Not so much.
“I’m a guy who isn’t in a hurry to sign a ton of guys early, I like to see our team and really get a feel [for the chemistry.] Sometimes you don’t know your team at that point. You could have five or six new guys coming in and you really need to see your team together to see what your needs are.”
Leveraging Resources in The Recruiting Rat Race
Trying to persuade a player to join your program can be tricky and given your team isn’t the only one trying to land their commitment, finding a balance in communication with a player lays a foundation for the way the recruitment could go.
So how does a coach make sure they aren’t laying it on too thick without coming across as passive?
“You have to get a feel for the kid, and a lot of times I’ll tell the kid you tell me how you want me to recruit you,” Grasso shared. “I’ll call you everyday, I’ll call you once a week. Some kids want a lot of attention and want to hear from you often and those kids you have to make sure you’re on the phone with or texting.”
Texting provides a unique avenue when recruiting a player; the ease of reaching a player is much greater, but on the same hand it’s a tougher medium when trying to establish a relationship.
“So much is done over text message which you’re able to do in a timely manner where you can text 25 kids in a 10 minute period,” Grasso said. “Where you’re on one phone call for 45 minutes. But I think the best way to build genuine, authentic relationships is face-to-face or via phone conversations.”
“For me, it’s very important I’m on the phone with guys so I get to know them, they get to know me, and when we get on campus we already have a relationship.”
Coach Grasso noted sometimes the player may prefer texting whereas the parents want to be on the phone regularly. For Grasso, it’s a case-by-case situation by which he can adapt accordingly.
No matter the case, it’s imperative for a program the size of Bryant leave no stone un-turned in their search for their next star player. With resources not as plentiful for Grasso and his staff as other programs may have, being as efficient as possible on the recruiting trail is a premium.
“It’s not like we’re a Kentucky or a Duke where I’m hopping in a private plane after practice,” Grasso said. “You have to maximize your finances and resources and your time. You’re flying commercial, you’re flying to cities and towns off-the-beaten-path.”
“So when you do that, you want to combine as much as you can so you can get as much out of that trip as you can. For us [in the Northeast], we can hop in the car and in a day I can go see three prep schools or I can drive to New York City and see three or four high schools. It makes it a little bit easier when you can hop in a car and go do that.”
The Biggest Asset A Coach Can Have…
At every level of basketball, you hear a common theme on what is considered to be one of the most important aspects of the sport: relationships.
Now more than ever, relationships are key when college and pro teams alike are doing their homework on prospects whom they’d like to have as apart of their roster.
“That is recruiting,” Grasso says of interpersonal relationships within the sport. “It’s about relationships, it’s about treating people right and that comes with kids coming to play for you and having success and knowing you were honest with them.”
“For a high school coach or an AAU coach who knows you treated their former student-athlete right and they had a good experience playing for you, those things are vital. The lifeblood of our program is recruiting and that starts with relationships.”
Grasso used the phrase treat people right a few times when discussing relationships in the sport. Not “networking”, not trying to find ways to climb the ladder, but treat people right.
Simply put, at it’s purest essence, the basis of recruiting is being authentic, helpful, and genuine.
These relationships, cultivated and nurtured over the course of years, span the globe. With international talent rapidly developing in countries all over, it’s an aspect you can’t ignore.
Understanding how important it is to have a proven history with high school and AAU coaches, it should be no surprise who Grasso considers to be the best recruiters within his program.
“My best recruiters are my current and former players,” Grasso said. “They’re the ones who can tell you what I’m all about. They’re the ones who have been through it. Thankfully, because of the relationships you have, their [former] coaches are thankful you’ve put their student-athlete in the position to be successful and in turn, they’re going to help you down the line.”
Recruiting in a Pandemic
Our day-to-day life has been interrupted so drastically due to COVID-19. As we all begin to assimilate to new ways of living, albeit for the short term, it can create a bit of havoc. The same goes for college basketball coaches as the time to continue to recruiting and land commitments hasn’t stopped.
And no matter what changes in the world, the typical madness within the basketball world remains the same.
Every year teams get afflicated by transfers, and being as prepared as possible is what most coaches try to do.
“There’s no way you can control it unfortunately,” Grasso said. “For me, I do the best job building relationships with guys as I can. Sometimes kids transfer for all types of reason; some basketball related, some off-the-court related.”
“I do think it’s turned into a culture,” Grasso said of the transfer trend. “I got a text this morning about a kid leaving Purdue, a kid leaving Michigan and all playing 20+ minutes a game. If these guys are leaving and they’re unhappy, how can you ever stop this?”
Grasso anticipates teams to start being more year-to-year with their expectations as opposed to a traditional four year build. Given the difficulties of forecasting who might transfer out, it’ll keep coaches with plan a, plan b and plan c with all needing to be viable options with how they run their program.
For Grasso, he knows how there is now a heightened risk of players leaving early, which reinforces his approach.
“For me, I’m re-recruiting my guys every day,” Grasso said of trying to maintain his roster. “My actions and my relationships with my guys are a recurring theme daily, and I’m going to re-recruit my guys daily. Hopefully our situation is one that they can continue to enjoy because of their success on the court and as students in the Bryant community.”
And despite the transfer market as hot as ever and the need to continue to recruit, it’s business as usual in the most unusual way for coaches during a global Pandemic.
“It’s very much an adjustment not having kids come in for official visits,” Grasso said of recruiting in a pandemic. “You’re getting commitments from guys who have never been on your campus. It’s a lot of phone calls, a lot of text messages, a lot of Zoom calls, a lot of online virtual campus tours…you’re doing as much as you can to still sell your program.”
“It’s been a strange year. For the kids, three weeks ago they were still hoping they could take official visits. [Now] you see guys coming off the board, making decisions without taking visiting a campus so will that lead to more transfers?”
“Anyone that’s signing late is probably doing so without having taken an official visit to that school and will kids make more mistakes? I guess that’s something we’ll see in the numbers as we move forward.”
For Grasso, what keeps things running smoothly on the recruiting front during these unprecedented times?
You guessed it: relationships.
“It comes back to relationships,” Grasso said. “It’s about them trusting you as a coach and your coaching staff and your university that you’re the right fit.”
Despite the craziness that surrounds the recruiting period in college basketball, there will always be ways for coaches to evolve and better not only their program, but the lives of young people across the country.
All through the vehicle of basketball.