ABCA Recap: Early Recruiting Talk

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DALLAS — In last week’s ABCA convention primer, we outlined some of the major issues facing college baseball as we head into 2019. And the No. 1 priority for the sport’s leadership group at this year’s Division I coaches meeting was pushing coaches to speak with their athletic directors about the proposal to add a third full-time assistant coach to each staff. There’s plenty of concern from coaches around the country that it won’t get passed by the NCAA, but everyone understands that this is a crucial opportunity, particularly since it’s a joint proposal with softball.

“Especially the third coach, I think it’s very important that you guys take the time to go talk to your ADs,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan told the assembled coaches at Thursday’s meeting. “If this does not get approved now, it will probably never get approved. So I know we’re all at different levels, some schools can pay X amount, some schools can pay this amount, but at the end of the day it’s a better system than we have now. The volunteer will get benefits, the volunteer will be able to get on the road and have the opportunity to get a job, and we can develop coaches for our sport. I don’t see a negative here.”

So there’s nothing new on that front; coaches simply must work hard to get their administrations to support the proposal in advance of this spring’s vote. ABCA executive director Craig Keilitz did share the results of a new survey that asked coaches, “If this proposal passes, what type of position will your school most likely have as the third baseball assistant coach?” The results:

Full-time paid assistant: 44 percent
Part-time paid assistant: 17 percent
Graduate assistant: 2 percent
Non-paid assistant: 37 percent

The key will be whether the schools that won’t be able to afford a third full-time paid assistant will mobilize behind a proposal that benefits the sport as a whole, and the coaching profession in general. More full-time jobs is a great thing for everyone.

Early Recruiting Proposal Debated

The biggest new item discussed at this year’s convention was a proposal this fall by the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Experience Committee that would dramatically change the nature of early recruiting. The proposal is intended to create a uniform set of guidelines for all sports other than football and basketball — and that’s the problem.

Louisville coach Dan McDonnell told the assembled coaches that he appreciated what the SAEC was trying to do, taking input from high school students and parents as well as conference and university administrators.

“But it’s really hard to lump baseball in with other sports,” McDonnell said. “No disrespect to lacrosse or softball or other sports, but we deal with agents, we deal with professional scouts, the AAU coaches obviously are very powerful, and we deal with 1,200 amateurs being drafted every year. So to feel like we should just sit back and adopt what lacrosse is doing, I’m totally against it. That’s why we’re here tonight to throw out some ideas.”

Under the current system, coaches can contact players as early as they want — more and more high school freshmen and even eighth-graders have begun to make verbal commitments over the past decade, and the SAEC is trying to curb that trend. The SAEC’s proposal would bar coaches from having any communication with high school students until June 15 before their junior year, at which point they could start making telephone calls and communicating via text message. Then, starting Aug. 1 before their junior year, they could start making official and unofficial visits and making verbal commitments.

The ABCA put together a committee of coaches to present a baseball-specific counterproposal. What they came up with was this: allow coaches to start corresponding with high school players starting Aug. 1 before their sophomore year. At this point, they could make unofficial visits and verbal commitments, in addition to communicating via phone calls and text messages. Then official visits would start Aug. 1 before their junior year, as it is now.

“I think most coaches would agree recruiting got out of hand. It’s crazy, with all the middle school kids, kids who haven’t played a high school game, kids who haven’t played varsity. OK, there’s a lot of good points to that,” McDonnell said. “So if like many of the coaches in the room, you don’t want to wait until the junior year to finally get to the table and start making a relationship and making offers — do we find a happy medium? Let these kids get to high school, let them play a year of high school, let them play a summer after their freshman year. Now, before their sophomore year, baseball coaches can now have interaction, can now have unofficial visits. The official visit does not change — the NCAA wants that junior year. That’s what they say the student-athlete, the high school families want. So we don’t think we should even ruffle that suggestion, and we lived with it this past year. They want high school visits to take official visits their junior year? OK, that’s great. But we feel there’s an advantage to college baseball if going into their sophomore year, we’re not allowed to have contact, unofficial visits, kids on campus.”

Keilitz said he was sending out a survey to coaches that he hopes to get back by the end of this week, in order to get back to the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee with a baseball-specific proposal. Most coaches seem optimistic that baseball will be allowed to adopt rules on this issue that makes sense for the sport and its own unique set of circumstances. But O’Sullivan wanted to make sure coaches understood the potential ramifications if the SAEC’s recommendations are passed.

“I’m very passionate about this. I know there’s probably a lot of people in this room who think that if you push back recruiting it will help their situation, but at the end of the day I don’t think it’s gonna help our sport,” O’Sullivan said.

“The reality of recruiting is, if we put ourselves in position where we can only have contact after Sept. 1 of their junior year, at 12:01 we’re all gonna be on the phone all night long with recruits. Recruits are going to tell us they’re already committed to a school. There’s gonna be deals that have been done under the table, through agents, through travel coaches, and it’s not going to be able to be policed. And we’re foolish to think otherwise. What’s gonna happen is we’re going to come back here in three or four years, and our recruiting’s going to be just like football and basketball. And at that point, I don’t know how you fix it.”

O’Sullivan acknowledged that the current system of “gentleman’s handshakes” and verbal commitments that are largely respected by other coaches is not a perfect system, but he argued that it is far better than the alternative if the SAEC’s recommendations are passed in April. The middle ground — restricting contact until after a player’s sophomore year — makes a lot more sense for everybody.

“I think the coaches felt let’s find a happy medium, let’s not offer middle school kids, let’s not get involved with ninth graders,” McDonnell said. “Let’s let them get their high school career underway, get that first summer underway, and now as they start their sophomore year, we think it’s time to get involved and start building relationships.

“At the end of the day, we want to get a proposal to the NCAA, to the committee, that says, ‘Hey, this is what we want for college baseball.’ Let’s do what’s best for college baseball. What’s best for other sports? Great. But for us to be lumped in with all those Olympic sports, I definitely don’t feel is the best thing for college baseball.”

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