Thoughts of the Day: April 10, 2020



“Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, so you can’t put anything above that” – Pete Carroll

How many thousand times have I heard quotes similar to that one in the more than 50 years I’ve been writing about sports? Obviously, there is more to college football than recruiting, otherwise Carroll or Nick Saban or Urban Meyer would have won a bunch more national championships. Just as obvious, recruiting is also the lifeblood of college basketball. On a consistent basis nobody outrecruits John Calipari yet he’s won only one national championship. To put Coach K in perspective, he’s been at Duke 40 years and has won only five national championships. Very few college baseball coaches outrecruit Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin or Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan. Between the two of them the former Clemson assistants and best buddies have won a grand total of three NCAA titles.

Neither great recruiting nor great coaching guarantees championships, but as the late, great Al McGuire once told me, “It’s a lot easier to coach Secretariat than it is to coach a donkey.”

A lot of great recruiters can’t coach a lick. In his three years as Florida’s head coach, Ron Zook blew FSU and Miami away on the recruiting trail but in those same three years, Zooker lost more than half as many games (14) as Steve Spurrier lost (27) in the 12 previous years. Zooker was a great recruiter and might have been a decent head coach if he had spent a few years learning the trade at a place like Toledo or Ohio U instead of learning on the job at UF.

By the same token there are great X and O guys who are lost balls in the tall weeds when it comes to recruiting. When you hear that magic cliché “greatest coach to never win a national championship” they’re usually talking about that guy whose teams always seem to over-achieve because they don’t have good enough talent, doesn’t matter the sport.

No matter how you want to define your sport, however, the consistent winners will be the coaches who bring in outstanding talent. That doesn’t necessarily mean a load of 5-star guys – Jay Wright at Villanova and Tony Bennett at Virginia come to mind in basketball; Tom Osborne for football – but it means recruiting talented kids who fit the system. Great coaches with a great system who find the right players always win big, but finding the right players for your system is still recruiting, isn’t it?

And this brings us to recruiting vs. the corona virus. Any way you look at it, college football, basketball and baseball are going to take a hit. If the virus is eradicated fairly soon, the hit won’t be long term but we’ll see how the recruiting landscape changes in the coming months.

Since the University of Florida is my chief concern, I’ll narrow my focus to the Gators.

Football recruiting vs. the corona virus: When the virus shut things down, Dan Mullen had commitments from 13 rising high school seniors, a class that Rivals ranks third nationally and 247Sports fourth. The Gators have 19 seniors and it’s entirely possible 3-4 kids will either depart the program or leave for the NFL. So, it will be a class of 23-25 signees, which means Mullen is at the halfway point and he’s going to be doing battle with the likes of Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Gus Malzahn and Dabo Swinney for the players who will fill out this class – that is, if all 13 of the committed kids stick.

Typically, where Mullen and his staff would gain a good bit of momentum would be during the June camp season. Since the head coach can’t recruit off campus in the spring, the June camp season is critical. I’ve always contended that the two most important aspects of football camps are (1) getting kids on campus for 24-48 hours during which time they get to know the entire coaching and support staff as well as come to grips with all the non-football aspects of being a Gator that will factor into their college experience; and (2) the coaches will get a chance to see how a kid responds to coaching while competing and interacting with other kids equally as talented.

Camp season is also when coaches get to see that kid who was listed 6-5, 250 in his high school program and discover he’s really 6-2, 220 or see that kid who was 6-2, 220 has grown three inches and put on 30 pounds since the previous November. I remember Florida’s 1999 recruiting class that included a defensive tackle out of Maryland named Tony Charles. He was listed something like 6-4, 270 in high school but when he showed up at Florida he had mysteriously shrunk and was perhaps 6-1 to go with 237 very skinny pounds. Charles never made it to Florida’s June camps so how he was even recruited remains one of life’s great mysteries.

Thanks to camp season, Jim McElwain offered a scholarship to the backup quarterback from Manvel, Texas who had never started a varsity game and then didn’t start one as a senior. Kyle Trask threw at camp, wowed the coaches with his football IQ and passed the eyeball test when it came to prototypical size for a pocket passer. The same folks who laughed at McElwain offering Trask aren’t laughing now, that’s for sure.

When you throw in no spring football at the high school level with no camps in June, Mullen is going to have to trust the instincts of his assistants far more than ever before. And it won’t just be Mullen doing it. Every coach in the country faces the same issues and it’s going to result in chances taken on certain recruits and a lot of kids getting overlooked at the highest levels since they didn’t get a chance to show up on a campus to show what they could do.

Florida has the advantage of having won 21 games the last two seasons and that will override many of the disadvantages of no spring football and no camps. Winning does cure a lot of ills. A big season in the fall will help Mullen fill out his class with highly ranked players, but in some cases it will be a reach. We won’t know for another year or two just how much corona affected the quality of Mullen’s recruiting.

Basketball recruiting vs. the corona virus: As it stands right now, Mike White is in great shape. He won’t have a single senior on his roster with all 13 scholarships filled. If there is no attrition, whether early departures to the NBA after the 2020-21 season or transfers, then White can afford to go a year without signing anyone. That is a rather huge if, however, particularly should Scottie Lewis, Keyontae Johnson, Andrew Nembhard and Anthony Duruji have the kind of years that the elevate their NBA Draft stock. There is also the matter of the pending NCAA legislation that will grant one free transfer without the penalty of sitting a season. Transfers are already at epidemic levels in college basketball without the rule change.

Where the corona virus will hit White and probably 95% of all the coaches in Division I is the elimination of the AAU circuits, whether that’s Nike, Adidas, Under Armour or independents. The premier AAU circuit is the Nike EYBL, which stages a few weekends of “league play” where teams battle it out for a spot at the Peach Jam in North Augusta, SC. At the Peach Jam, games are played on four courts simultaneously in the same building. It’s a who’s who of the best college coaches in the country who line the courts. In four days they can see nearly every good kid in the country who plays the Nike circuit. Adidas and Under Armour stage big events and there is that free-for-all in Las Vegas where several hundred games will be played in tournaments over a seven-day period.

This is where the bulk of college basketball recruiting is done since it is when college coaches get to see kids going head-to-head against equal or better talent and see how well they play together when suddenly they aren’t the only stud on the team. Added to the importance of the AAU circuit is the early November early signing period when most of the kids with the talent to play in the Southeastern Conference will sign.

In an ideal scenario, White will hold onto all but a couple of his current roster. Losing two is manageable, but losing four and without the advantage of seeing who fits his system on the AAU circuit? That could spell real trouble a year or two down the road.

Baseball recruiting vs. the corona virus: Summer on the travel ball circuit is where Kevin O’Sullivan makes his recruiting living. He’s such a keen evaluator of talent and the summer circuit enables him to see if that pitcher who routinely threw it past a dozen hitters at the high school level can do it against what is essentially an all-star roster. Does that power hitter who routinely went deep on smaller high school fields get it out of the yard or does the ball die at the warning track? Since his arrival at UF, O’Sullivan has routinely made the sharpest evaluations which is why the Gators have been in the national championship hunt for eight of his 13 seasons on the job.

The recruits O’Sullivan is bringing in for the 2021 season are the fourth-ranked class by Perfect Game. Typically that kind of class might result in half going pro but the Major League Baseball Draft might be fewer than half the normal 40 rounds. That should mean fewer high school players selected and more of a premium on proven college talent. The way it looks right now, O’Sullivan will only lose two underclassmen – Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich. Florida figures to be loaded in 2021.

Where things could get painful is 2022 when O’Sullivan could have as many as 11 draft-eligible players. Without the summer circuit in 2020 in which to evaluate the players he wants to recruit, it is possible we could see a dip in talent in 2022.

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