Monday, January 23, 2017

Transparency necessary to fix college recruiting

Imagine you are searching for a new home.  You visit ten houses and finally find the right place.  You tell the real estate agent, "This is the one, we are ready to buy."  The agent says, "Great! You'll just have to wait until 18 months from now to sign the paperwork on 'National House Buying Day.'  In the meantime just verbally agree that you'll buy the house and the sellers will verbally agree they will sell it to you.  You have nothing to worry about and in 18 months you'll be able to move into your home." How confident would you feel about actually moving into that house under the verbally agreed upon terms?

There are serious problems in college athletics surrounding early recruiting that are finally being recognized. This issue is being looked at by the NCAA and the Ivy League is advocating for changes in the recruiting approach to delay when and under what circumstances people can talk about and/or offer a scholarship to prospective students.  The debate is being fueled by college coaches and grammar school prospects making "commitments" to each other.

For decades the NCAA has tried to regulate who can talk to whom, when it can occur, and under what circumstances. It is classic bureaucracy.  The magical first day a coach can call someone is July 1 of their junior year, unless it happens to be June 15 after their sophomore year, or September 1, or some other window of time.  You can't call the prospect but they can call you.  These arbitrary dates and rules have become the recruiting equivalent of the now infamous NCAA regulation of not being able to provide cream cheese for a bagel.

As long as the NCAA rule book has existed, armies of compliance staff have instructed coaches how to work around/within the rules.  This bureaucratic system fosters an environment where "advisers" and youth level coaches flourish in order to facilitate communication between prospects and college coaches.  Families seek to work around arbitrary recruiting dates to become educated about college enrollment opportunities.  And coaches work around the dates to secure the services of talented prospects.  Both parties want these conversations to occur, otherwise they wouldn't working so hard to have them.

The regulations simply don't work and have contributed to the current state of affairs.  And unfortunately, new regulations won't work either.

Few participants in the current system are honest brokers.  The prospects and families have incentive to shop for the best deal (particularly in equivalency sports.)  After making a "commitment" - that they are often pressured into - they can still continue to look at other schools and will continue to receive inquiries from other coaches until they are officially signed.  Coaches have incentive to offer earlier and earlier because they know the system better than anyone; they know that even a soft commitment is helpful; and they know if a better athlete comes along they have lots of opportunities to escape from their verbal "commitment" with no accountability for failing to honor their offer.   The NCAA, colleges and universities are complicit in the behavior because they continue to allow the system to persist.

It is time for a radically different approach to college recruiting by creating transparency in the strange and unethical world we've created.  College athletics should eliminate all restrictions regarding athletic commitments and related agreements by permitting prospects of any age and colleges to move at the pace that is best for each individual situation by implementing the following changes:

1) Eliminate all "signing days."  When I got down on one knee and proposed to my now wife of 20 years, I didn't say "will you marry me?" and then after she said yes, tell her the ring was coming on "National Ring Day."  Amazon will deliver things to your house in 24 hours.  You can buy a car when you are ready to buy.  Once a buyer and seller have an agreement, you make the purchase.  The same principle should apply in the college athletics recruiting process.

When a school and a prospect agree to the terms of their relationship for what should be among the best four year's of a person's life - their college career - they should be able to seal the deal in writing and sign a National Letter of Intent, financial aid agreement or a similar contract making all parties explicitly clear about their intentions.  With a binding commitment the school is protected against poaching or dishonesty by the family. And the prospect is protected against losing their offer due to coaching changes, injury, failing to develop at the correct rate or a coach simply wanting to go in a different direction.  Everyone is on the same page - no room for funny business.

2) Allow signed commitments to occur at any age.  Yes, this is radical, but currently coaches and schools hold most of the power in the relationship and face no accountability when they break their agreements.  Families face no accountability when they break their commitment either.  For those who are worried about high pressure sales, require a delay of a week or two between the offer and being permitted to sign and the signing cannot be in the presence of a coach - similar to the current rules about signing the Letter of Intent.

3) Under this deregulated system, if both parties agree to part ways they are free to do so.  But if the prospect wants to leave against the school's wishes after signing an agreement it would trigger use of the one-time transfer exception for those sports that permit immediate competition without sitting a year - preventing use of that exception later.  For those sports that require a year in residence to compete after transferring, the student athlete could leave but would have to sit a year, just as they do now when they transfer after enrollment.  If the school is no longer interested in the prospect but the prospect still wants to attend the school, the prospect would retain the rights in the written agreement.

How does this solve the early recruiting and commitment problem?  It's simple - when coaches and athletic programs know they actually have to live with the decision to sign a 7th grade prodigy who may suddenly stop growing or develop a bad attitude as a high school junior the early offers will stop.  Similarly, when families know their child will actually have to enroll at their fourth back-up choice school they committed to and can no longer shop for better offers they will pause, further educate themselves and become more sure about their decision.  Further, knowing how much movement occurs within coaching ranks, families will become far more focused on the total educational opportunities of the school they plan to attend rather than their sport and the sales ability of a coach when their son or daughter commits.

Critics of this concept will contend that early decisions are impractical due to undergraduate admission standards and young students being unprepared to make such a decision.  But what is "too early" for one individual isn't "too early" for another.  Every student is different and their preparation and ability to evaluate their college future is also different.  Consider Ivy League Cornell University's recent decision to admit a 12 year-old student. Cornell determined the student was able to handle their college curriculum and it was a national story.  Prospective student athletes in similar situations with athletic talent should be able to do the same thing.  It's already happening internationally with 9 year olds.  And it is obviously happening with slightly older prospects in the NCAA recruiting environment, but without the transparency of written agreements.

The problem that needs to be addressed isn't the age of recruiting, which is not a predictor of readiness, maturity or decision-making ability.  The problem is the pressure college athletics' fosters through a system of arbitrary dates, indirect communication and "commitments" that have no meaning.

Allowing signed commitments at any time eliminates the winks, nods and crossed fingers behind backs.  Coaches and families will have to be up front about their intentions because they will have to actually live with their decision.  Advisors and agents will become less integral to the system because communication can occur directly between coach and prospect rather than via third parties who help circumvent the NCAA's recruiting contact rules to achieve what everyone wants - open communication about the future.

Going back to my original home buying analogy, some states provide a three day window in which the person who signs the paperwork to buy a home can change their mind for any reason and back out.  Ask a real estate broker what happens during those three days - the buyer and seller often continue to look to see if they can find a better house or attain a higher selling price.  Obviously the same thing is happening in a recruiting environment where prospects and coaches have months and often multiple years between their "commitment" and actually signing documents ensuring the commitment will be upheld.

The desire to eliminate the pressure associated with early recruiting, while laudable and necessary, isn't going to happen through regulation.  It can best be achieved through deregulation and transparency.  Creating another version of the same system with new dates and more regulations will be no more successful than the current system.  More regulation will let everyone feel better because they tried to address the problem - but the problem won't be solved.

Creating a system with transparency by providing open communication, freedom in decision-making and written agreements - in real-time like any other important life decision - will push recruiting decisions to the appropriate time for each individual situation and significantly improve ethical behavior in a system in need of reform.

Feel free to share your opinions via the comment section on ultimatesportsinsider.com.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The importance of mission

There are numerous and significant "elephants in the room" across college athletics.  1) the seemingly endless parade of stories about unethical or illegal behavior happening at a too-long list of universities across the country; 2) student athlete exploitation concerns, particularly in football and men's basketball; and 3) a never-ending discussion about the need to find more financial resources coupled with criticism over how they are spent.

The common response to unethical or illegal behavior is to create more policies and procedures, call for additional oversight, and suggest we can regulate our way to better morals.  Committees and external reviewers are empowered to make recommendations and provide the appearance of action. Carefully wordsmithed statements of outrage coupled with steadfast assurances nothing similar will happen again are part of the process too.  Yet impropriety repeats itself as sure as the sun rises.

The unfortunate by-product of these incidents is additional bureaucracy, expense and lost time for the 98% of the people who do things correctly.  And there is little evidence behavior actually improves with increased regulation because when everyone becomes responsible, no one is responsible.  The elephant sneezes, and everyone else catches the cold.

I've been fortunate to have some excellent mentors throughout my career.  One in particular consistently reinforced the importance of mission in successful organizations.  The mission is fundamental for aligning action, avoiding problems and properly addressing problems that do arise.

Every athletic department has a mission.  It's your reason for existing.  It provides purpose.

Do you know your department's mission?  Have you and your staff memorized it?  If not, why not?  Most likely it's because your mission is far too lengthy - perhaps paragraphs long - for anyone to remember or recite in a meaningful manner.  A mission that long probably needs to be redone - reduced to one meaningful paragraph, or better yet, a sentence.  Stringing together lofty but meaningless word-salad phrases is a recipe for eye rolls and glazing over.

Direct, specific, unambiguous and narrow are good traits for your mission.  If you list 15 things can you really expect to do all, or any, of them well?  Simplicity of purpose radiates and makes important decisions easier - hiring and evaluating staff; accountability for performance; strategic decisions with limited resources are made easier with a clear mission and philosophical grounding.

Accountability to the mission is important.  From top to bottom, everyone should understand how their role and decision making relates to the mission.  Does everyone in your organization fully embrace your department's mission?  If not, why not?  And what are you doing to change that situation?  If someone isn't furthering and supporting the reason you exist and doesn't act accordingly, you have problems and those problems left unaddressed corrode your department from the inside. And double standards can be just as damaging.

So much of this really comes down to walking the talk, which is hard to do if you aren't clear what the talk is.

Your department, your teams and you can benefit from a mission that is memorable, simple and repeatable.  You know the elephants in your room, and so does everyone else.  Re-establishing your mission could be your first step to helping the elephants out the door.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Athlete Viewpoint Launch

In March 2015, after five years as a Division I Athletic Director, I started on a new path. For the first time in a long time, I had time to stop moving, reflect, and think deeply about our profession and the student athletes that we serve.

College athletics is a relentless existence regardless of your position. Student athlete time demands have never been greater; head coaches face unending scrutiny and the expectation of instant and permanent success; and athletic administrators spend their days putting out fires and answering to everyone - University administrators, Trustees, coaches, staff, students, parents, and the media - while barely seeing their own families.

I spent several months developing numerous ways to support friends and colleagues in intercollegiate athletics. My goals with each endeavor are to address the unrealistic and relentless demands on senior athletics administrators; mitigate risk; save financial resources; reduce staff time and frustration; and enhance the student athlete experience. While some concepts are still in production, others are already adding value to my colleagues in this field.

Through my consulting, I've been able to assist a number of coaching friends achieve their first head coaching positions. It has brought me immense personal satisfaction seeing good people with great values join the ranks of the coaching elite. They are individuals who will help student athletes excel - in sport, the classroom and life - and will make headlines for our field for all of the RIGHT reasons.

In addition, we developed and launched Athlete Viewpoint. Athlete Viewpoint is your student athlete survey turbocharged and designed to yield maximum data to make your life easier. In addition, you can compare the views of your student athletes to those of student athletes across the country. I'd encourage you to click on the link and check it out for yourself. And if you are reading this as one of our early adopters who have already signed on, thank you! We are excited to see the impact you can make on your campus with this valuable information.


Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin writes frequently about building a tribe of like-minded individuals. If you are reading this blog on a regular basis, you are part of that tribe. Thoughtful, philosophical, curious and dedicated to providing every student athlete an opportunity for both a distinctive education and a championship experience.

Like many of you, I've been in college athletics a long time and I've seen many changes to our field - not all of them good. Through the Ultimate Sports Insider and these other new initiatives, I hope to continue the conversation with you all about how to best support each other, and enhance the good work that is taking place in athletics today.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Man in the Arena

Excerpt from the speech "Citizenship in a Republic", delivered by Theodore Roosevelt at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April 1910.  

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Athletic budget update #74

Dowling College (NCAA Division II) is closing effective June 3, 2016.  The college had been in existence since 1968, offered 14 sports and won 2 national championships (men's soccer 2006 and men's lacrosse 2012) as part of a lengthy list of championship successes.

Alaska Fairbanks may have to petition for a waiver of NCAA rules if it drops below the minimum number of sports required for membership.

Idaho announced it is moving its football program from the highest competitive level (FBS) to a level that requires less financial commitment (FCS) and better institutional and conference alignment.

Morehead State announced they are dropping their men's and women's tennis programs in order to save about $400,000 while add adding women's indoor track and beach volleyball.  The elimination of men's tennis makes it the 12th program dropped in the last two years.

Arizona State is reinstating men's tennis following a $1 million donation from their Director of Athletics Ray Anderson and a $4 million donation from adidas.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The sorting hat and your career

I had the opportunity to speak at The Head Coach Training Center (@HeadCoachTC) earlier this week as part of a panel discussion about what directors of athletics are seeking when hiring coaches. While I was there I was reminded of the The Harry Potter series.

The first installment, "Harry Potter and Sorcerer's Stone", has a scene that involves a "sorting hat," - a magical hat that assigns each student into one of four "houses" where they will live, make friends, attend class and compete against the other houses.  The decision is based on the sorting hat's impression of the talents, abilities, attitudes and values of the student wearing the hat.  If you aren't familiar with the scene you can watch below.


The sorting hat is fictional.  But your daily actions are the sorting hat of your professional career. 

I'll be attending the National Collegiate Recruiting Conference on June 11 speaking about career development.  Summer is a good time to invest in yourself and advance professionally and this conference is one opportunity among many you should consider.  

At some point the hat is going to be on your head.  Will it be yelling your name for the house of your choice?