From postponements to cancellations, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the sports landscape out of whack, and it isn’t just sports that were in session. The current NCAA restrictions have left college coaches, both new and old, and recruits in limbo, but they’re finding new ways to manage during the world crisis.
New football coaches trying to build relationships
When Lane Kiffin was hired by Ole Miss in December, he knew he would need to scramble to close out his recruiting class in the early signing period. He didn’t know, however, that he and his staff would have the challenge of trying to build relationships and recruit with essentially no spring recruiting due to the coronavirus.
Once they get through December, coaches start to build their recruiting board for the next class and use January and the spring as a way to get back on track. Unfortunately for new coaches this year, the NCAA had created a new dead period that ran from Feb. 3 to 29.
Combine that with a newly created dead period that started March 13 and will now run at least through June 30 and new coaches are at a big disadvantage.
“We had so many big-time visits set up in the spring,” Ole Miss co-defensive coordinator Chris Partridge said. “We’re a new staff, so you want people to see how it’s put together. That face-to-face with these guys is going to be the way we’re going to win these battles, and right now you can put them on the phone, but it’s the in-person stuff that’s important.”
Partridge wasn’t hired at Ole Miss until January, so he has been at the school for an even shorter amount of time. With no in-person communication, there isn’t much new coaches can do about trying to build relationships outside of video calls, text messaging and social media.
It has been even more difficult for new Baylor coach Dave Aranda, who was hired in January after the early signing period. He is undertaking the challenge of trying to meet his current team while also trying to identify recruits that would fit his program.
“It goes now to your relationship with that high school coach and what he says. Now it goes to, ‘Hey, Dave, you gotta trust me on this, you gotta look at this kid,'” Aranda said. “You would always have that, and we would always respect and honor that, but you’d have the ability to see it.
“Now, when you don’t have that ability, especially for us, and being a new staff and getting down standards of here’s what we look for on this position, and here’s what we’re trying to look for in that position, you’d like to be able to go and watch them and see it — and when you can’t, it adds a layer.”
That layer is going to be tough for new coaches to navigate, and it could impact how they fill their whole class in December. — Tom VanHaaren
The impact of losing spring recruiting visits
Whether it’s a new coach or not, all football coaches are hurting in recruiting from losing spring visits. In a normal calendar year, coaches would have from March to June 21 to get prospects on campus.
Now, with the dead period created by the NCAA, all schools are missing out on that valuable time to get prospects and their parents in front of them and sell the school in person. Penn State coach James Franklin believes that is a detriment to everyone, but more so to the schools in the Northeast that get a delayed start to spring activities and visits because of the weather.
“Some schools have gotten done spring ball, some people have gotten done half of spring ball, they’ve had junior days,” Franklin said. “For us, the way the calendar fell, one of the things that was really challenging is our players were home on spring break when this hit, so I wasn’t even able to have a team meeting. A lot of our players didn’t have their books with them and weren’t able to come back to campus.”
Franklin believes the Big Ten was aggressive in getting the new recruiting rules allowing spring official visits in place to level the playing field when the weather is attractive in the Northeast and Midwest. But now that is all for naught.
While a school such as LSU doesn’t have the weather issues Penn State has, the program still likes to get prospects on campus for unofficial visits in the spring. It is a huge part of LSU’s recruiting strategy, and it’s now in flux without that opportunity.
Derek Ponamsky, special assistant to the head coach at LSU, said the Tigers have had to cancel several junior days that could impact the entire class.
“For us to have to cancel a junior day, and essentially every Saturday during the spring when we’re having scrimmages, and nobody on campus through spring, that’s really where we make our relationships,” Ponamsky said. “That’s where we spend our time because we want to save our official visits for the season.”
LSU has call lists every day for the coaching staff and for head coach Ed Orgeron in what they call power hour. The coaches continue to call, text and DM recruits, and in place of junior days, they are using video calls and FaceTime to build relationships and give virtual tours of the facilities.
Coaches are doing everything they’re allowed to do to make sure the recruits are able to get a sense of what the program has to offer.
“The old expression is, recruiting is like shaving: If you don’t do it for a couple days, you start to look like a bum,” Ponamsky said. — VanHaaren
What has this meant for committed football prospects?
While those recruits already committed are in a favorable position as compared to uncommitted prospects, they haven’t gone without impact.
ESPN Jr. 300 running back Evan Pryor committed to Ohio State in March, and he said that he was comfortable enough to make his decision because he had gotten an early start to his unofficial visits last year. He had seen Ohio State in a camp setting and at a game during the 2019 season.
But because of the pandemic, he was still forced to go off those experiences rather than taking in any other schools or getting another chance to see the Buckeyes in person again.
“Just going off of prior experience and being on campus, knowing how dead it will be for this period of time,” Pryor said. “Knowing how I felt from being on campus twice was huge, so that’s what I went off of, and that’s why I committed.”
That isn’t to say Pryor wasn’t fully ready or comfortable to commit. He was. But he and his family felt it was best to announce a decision now rather than try to wait it out to see any other schools.
“Knowing my timeline and when I wanted to commit, it was about having that feeling from prior experience,” Pryor said. “Sitting down with the family saying you’ve been a recruit for a long time, it’s time to get this over with.”
And because coaches don’t have any other team activities to participate in, they are only focused on recruiting, which means they are still trying to actively recruit committed prospects.
Michigan quarterback commit J.J. McCarthy is one of the top quarterbacks in the class, and he is firmly committed to the Wolverines, but he said that hasn’t stopped other coaches from trying to pry him away.
He respectfully tells those coaches he is 100 percent committed to Michigan, but he never tries to burn any bridges. Not having to deal with the recruiting process during this time, though, is something he is thankful for.
“I feel for a lot of the recruits out there that can’t go on visits and can’t go see all the schools they need to make their decisions,” McCarthy said. “Because this is a big time for a lot of recruits to go see their schools, because it’s right before summer camp, it’s right before the season, and it’s a big time. So that’s why I’m so thankful I found Michigan when I did and I got that feeling when I did.” — VanHaaren
Life as a new athletic director
Nearly every coaching search this spring was somewhat voluntary. An athletic director fired his head coach and then had to go search for a replacement.
That wasn’t exactly the case for Benko, the new athletic director at Georgia Southern.
On Benko’s final day at Mississippi State, where he was deputy athletic director, he received a call from Mark Byington, the men’s basketball coach at Georgia Southern. Byington was leaving to take the head-coaching job at James Madison.
Instead of easing into his new role at Georgia Southern, Benko was now thrown into the fire — in the middle of a pandemic.
“My first thought was that my next week is going to be a little different than I had planned,” Benko said.
Benko had been part of coaching searches at Mississippi State, but never a basketball one. He had no shortlist, no pool of candidates in mind. So he started making phone calls, first to some mentors of his in the basketball space and then to other people his mentors told him to call.
Byington left Georgia Southern on a Friday, and by Monday, Benko had a list of about 10 to 12 names. By Tuesday, he was down to five people — and had Skype calls with each of the five.
“You always want to size somebody up and look him in the eye, one-on-one,” Benko said. “That wasn’t possible this time out of precaution with the COVID-19. That was the piece that was the biggest challenge, when you want to meet with someone in person. It was conference calls, video conference calls. The traditional avenues were shut off.”
After Skyping with five candidates, Benko took a day to assess the interviews and then had it down to two finalists by Thursday into Friday. At that point, Benko started thinking about whether there was a way to meet his preferred candidate in person on Saturday — but that was quickly cast aside.
“It wasn’t responsible to put him or me in that situation,” he said. “It wasn’t worth the inherent risk associated with that activity.”
On that Saturday, Benko made the final decision: Georgia Southern was hiring Texas Tech assistant coach Brian Burg as its new basketball coach.
In an ideal world, Benko would have met with Burg in person to make sure he was making the right decision — but he has no concerns that he made a mistake with his hire.
“Ultimately when you get to this process, you turn over every stone, talk to everybody associated with different people. A picture builds in your head,” Benko said. “Having not met Brian in person obviously wasn’t a deal breaker. I know enough about him to make an informed decision. I think it’s a slam dunk hire.” — Jeff Borzello
The challenges of being a new coach
When UNC Wilmington athletic director Jimmy Bass called Siddle and offered him the opportunity to take over for C.B. McGrath as the Seahawks’ new men’s basketball coach, Siddle jumped at it.
It was a dream job for Siddle. The North Carolina native spent three seasons as an assistant coach under Kevin Keatts at UNCW and then followed Keatts to NC State.
There was one issue, though: When Siddle accepted the job, his entire new team was under strict quarantine. UNCW’s Colonial Athletic Association tournament game was officiated by a referee who later tested positive for the coronavirus.
Siddle wouldn’t be able to meet his team.
“It took me back a little bit,” Siddle said.
And given the widespread closures that followed, Siddle still hasn’t met his players. Siddle had his first Zoom meeting with his entire team on the first Friday of April, nearly three weeks after he was hired as head coach.
“Immediately when I got the job, I wanted to get on the phone with them,” he said. “I spent my first two hours on the job calling all my players, talked to every last one of them. I just wanted to express my concern for them, let them know how excited I was to be their head coach. … From that point to now, I’ve continued to do that. It’s tough. The only time they’ve seen my face is off FaceTime.”
There have been other challenges too, both from a personal and professional standpoint. But aside from not being able to meet his players, recruiting and filling out his roster has been the biggest focus.
Fortunately for Siddle, he has coached in the state of North Carolina for years and has good relationships with most of the coaches in the area — and he also has seen most of the available prospects from his time recruiting at NC State.
“I got lucky,” he said. “It helps us in a way. Some of the guys that you have right now that are available, maybe they haven’t taken any visits anywhere. High-major guys haven’t been able to see them as much, so they filter down to us. I’m looking at it as a positive. We’ve been fortunate enough to get a couple commitments where, if things were normal, I don’t know if we would have gotten.”
With no timetable on when Siddle will be able to meet his team or go back on the road recruiting, he and his staff are just forging ahead while trying to prepare for the 2020-21 season and beyond.
“We’re just embracing the situation,” Siddle said. “We’re just having to be creative. Losing spring visits has been detrimental and do things a different way. We’re not going to make excuses and let it stop us from working. We have to figure out a way, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.” — Borzello
Men’s basketball recruits dealing with uncertainty
As it stands now, there are 198 uncommitted ESPN Junior 300 recruits in the 2021 class. For a lot of prospects, the spring was going to be a big part of sorting out the process and figuring out how they would narrow their list or ultimately pick a final school.
Caleb Williams is the top-ranked uncommitted quarterback in the class and has seen his recruitment shift because of the interruption in the calendar.
He released a top five of Clemson, LSU, Maryland, Oklahoma and Penn State, but he still has a lot left to consider.
“I was going to commit in the summer, and I don’t know if I’m still going to commit in the summer or if I’m going to change that,” Williams said. “But I’ve always wanted to commit before my senior year, at the latest, but I don’t know with this pandemic if that’s possible because I need to get to these schools again. I have five schools, and I need to go visit them all if I can, so it definitely changed my timeline because I released a top five and I released it sooner than I would have if we didn’t have this pandemic.”
Williams has controlled the process and told coaches he doesn’t want to be bothered and bombarded with calls or text messages, but his father, Carl, said coaches have started to get more aggressive in their communication with him instead of his son.
Other recruits haven’t been able to control the process as much as Williams, though, and have seen an absurd increase in the communication they receive from coaches. ESPN Jr. 300 running back Donovan Edwards estimated he is getting over 300 calls, texts and direct messages on social media from coaches, and it isn’t slowing down.
Williams, Edwards and other uncommitted prospects are all in the same boat, though. The uncertainty of how long this will last has brought uncertainty to their recruiting process and how it will actually play out.
“Some coaches want me to commit now, but considering this is a life career decision, I definitely want to take my time to ensure I make the best decision, which will be life-changing,” ESPN Jr. 300 defensive end Travion Ford said. “I’m still uncertain on when I will commit; I’m still narrowing down schools to determine where I will take my last two official visits. That may be hard to do before the new football season starts, so everything is up in the air right now.” — Borzello
The unsigned 2020 recruit waiting to take visits
Mane planned to have a busy spring. As one of the top unsigned prospects left in the 2020 class, the point guard was one of the more sought-after recruits, and his recruitment was ready to ramp up. The Canada native was going to take more visits and then make a decision.
Campuses closing across the United States grounded those plans.
“I’m at the same stage right now,” Mane said. “I’m waiting to see when I’ll be allowed to get on campus to visit. My parents and I are really big into taking a visit before making a decision. Maybe if this goes on for too long, we’ll have to sit down and talk about it. But we’re sticking to the plan, making sure we visit before making a decision.”
Thus far, Mane has only visited Marquette and Maryland. And with the NCAA extending the dead period until the end of June, the earliest he will be able to take another visit is in July — although the National Association of Basketball Coaches recommended the NCAA push the dead period another month until July 31 — with Michigan State, Memphis, DePaul and Pittsburgh all still on his list.
Would he commit to a school without physically visiting its campus?
“I want to be sure of the decision I make,” Mane said. “My commitment, I don’t leave nothing to chance. I don’t see myself doing that, but we’ll see what happens.”
There’s another wrinkle to Mane’s decision-making process. Because of his age and original graduating class, Mane is eligible for the 2020 NBA draft, and he decided in late April to test the draft waters.
“I sent in my paperwork, but I am keeping my options open as far as college,” Mane told ESPN’s Jonathan Givony. “I am not planning on hiring an agent right now. I want to hear directly from teams. If I can get a guarantee I’ll be drafted, I will probably need to think about staying in.”
The uncertainty of the NBA pre-draft procedure and the recruiting calendar has left Mane somewhat in limbo.
“There’s a lot of unknown with the pre-draft process,” Mane told Givony. “Unfortunately, we can’t work out in front of teams. Hopefully, it’s going to be smooth. Probably a lot of Zoom and Skype calls. I think workouts would have helped me, but we can’t do much right now with everything that is going on around the world.” — Borzello
The 2021 recruit waiting to make an impression
Barnhizer was going to be a player to watch on the spring and summer grassroots circuit. The 6-foot-6 wing had a strong junior season at Indiana’s Jefferson High School, becoming a high-major prospect in the Midwest region.
Butler, Xavier and Northwestern had all offered Barnhizer, with a number of mid-major programs in the area also extending offers. Indiana was showing interest.
Barnhizer was expected to suit up for Indiana Elite on the Adidas Gauntlet this spring, with the chance to go from an under-the-radar regional recruit to a national name.
“I believe in myself that I could; it just depends on how I play — if we ever do have an AAU season. Just to get some more looks,” Barnhizer said. “It definitely hurts. Not only for guys like me, but guys that didn’t have anything. This is their final chance to get some options, get their school paid for. I’m lucky. I can go to any school that I have right now and get my school paid for. But a lot of kids, it’s gonna hurt, because they didn’t get that one school they needed.”
The April evaluation period was canceled and the dead period is extended until June 30, meaning college coaches won’t be able to watch or visit with recruits until at least July. If the July live periods are canceled too, the 2021 class will go into their senior seasons with fewer opportunities to be evaluated than any class before them.
“It messes it up,” Barnhizer said. “This was 2021’s last AAU season. It’s going to be wacky. This class could go under-the-radar. Just flow right into college based off their first three years of high school.”
For Barnhizer, he realizes he might have to stick with the list he currently has and not expect any more schools to jump in the mix. And he would be OK if that was the case — mostly because he already took trips to campuses before the nationwide quarantine.
“I was supposed to go on more visits when this pandemic happened, and I’m just not sure if I’ll be able to do that,” Barnhizer said. “I’ve talked to all the coaches that have offered me, I’ve been to a lot of them, I’ve met them in person. If I did have to make a decision, I’m perfectly fine with that. But just the thought of what could have been, what could have happened, that kind of thought is going to linger with kids like us.” — Borzello
The women’s basketball transfer home in Australia
Choosing a school from a distance isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. As a high school senior finishing her studies while competing as an amateur in Australia’s professional women’s basketball league nearly four years ago, Bibby didn’t have much time for intercontinental excursions.
She experienced remote recruiting long before it was all the rage.
Yet once she waded through enough emails and FaceTime conversations with coaches in the U.S. to narrow her choices to Mississippi State and Fordham, she still got on a plane and made the trek across the Pacific to visit both campuses and meet people in person.
“If I’m going to go to one of these places, I have to see it first,” Bibby recalled thinking.
That wasn’t a luxury available to her the second time around. Part of Mississippi State teams that advanced to back-to-back national championship games, Bibby last month transferred to Maryland for her final season. (She will sit out the 2020-21 season under current NCAA rules.) And for someone situated on the other side of the international date line, looking for a new school amid the pandemic meant living in two worlds simultaneously.
Bibby is now home in Australia. Mississippi State’s compliance department helped her find a flight five days after the NCAA tournament was canceled. Her parents and sister were in other parts of the U.S. at the time — her sister studying abroad for a semester and her parents touring after the SEC tournament. All ended up in the Los Angeles airport at the same time — but such was the rush of Aussies returning home that the three parties took different flights from there.
It was during the mandatory, 14-day self-quarantine that followed when Bibby said she discussed exploring her options for transferring. She also cited Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer’s departure for Texas as a factor. And a day after his departure, she entered the transfer portal.
It was nearly midnight in Australia. But the same day was only just beginning back in the U.S. The first email from a coach arrived within minutes. Then another. And another.
So for much of the first three weeks of April, as Mississippi State administered exams remotely and college basketball coaches made their pitches, she lived in Australia but on Starkville time.
And once again, she found herself sizing up schools from thousands of miles away. At least she had Zoom, which allowed schools such as Maryland to get creative with their virtual tours.
“I did see that with a couple of schools, but Maryland was definitely unique in how in-depth they went,” Bibby said. “We were on the Zoom call for quite some time.”
In the end, she built the strongest virtual connection with Maryland coach Brenda Frese, an impression supplemented by positive reviews for the school from people she contacted in the Australian sports community. She had to trust that was enough.
“Honestly, I don’t think anyone really had it all figured out,” Bibby said. “It’s a hard process, and it’s completely different from anything we’ve ever had to do before. There’s not one school that is completely nailing it, but I don’t think anyone is really falling behind, either.
“Everyone that I talked to, they all did a phenomenal job, especially with the time difference that I have.”
Now all she can do is wait and hope she can return to the U.S. before the lease on her Starkville apartment runs out at the end of July. Remote recruiting is one thing. Remote moving is another. — Graham Hays