AU coaches struggle with recruiting during the pandemic

Coaches and prospective student-athletes are left in similarly precarious positions

AU coaches struggle with recruiting during the pandemic
The AU Athletics Center in Bender Arena.

A campus visit is an essential part of the decision-making process for many students who choose to go to college. But, the stakes are even higher for prospective student-athletes. The visit is more than a chance for them to learn about the school — it’s a chance for the school to learn about them. 

Campus visits often serve as a chance for coaches to sell themselves and their program, and to evaluate whether the athletes they recruit are strong fits for their program and culture.

But campus visits are no longer happening since American University has transitioned to remote learning and the Patriot League fall sports season is canceled. So what happens when no one is allowed on campus?

For AU wrestling Head Coach Teague Moore, this predicament has presented major obstacles as he tries to stay in touch with recruits and their families. It’s vastly different from the usual recruitment process.

“Everything has to be a phone call or Zoom calls,” Moore said. “They really want to make the decision, but they don’t know what campus looks like. We can show them videos, but that’s the biggest hurdle. What are the teammates like? What’s the locker room like?”

Under normal circumstances, official student-athlete visits would provide these answers. Recruits are allowed to make five official visits to Division I schools, with a maximum of one visit per school. Once the recruits arrive on campus, they have 48 hours to immerse themselves in the life of an AU athlete. This generally entails the chance to see the campus and the athletic facilities, meet their potential future teammates and coaches and sit in on class sessions. 

While current student-athletes have a role in getting to know the potential recruits on their visits, the coaches make final decisions on whether or not to continue pursuing a student-athlete.

“At the end of that visit, we both usually have an idea of whether or not we want to move on with the recruiting,” Moore said. “We get to know that student, and they get to know us as American University.”

It can be even harder for prospective recruits.

“We can’t give them that experience which normally solidifies their decision,” Moore said.

The recruiting process involves more than campus visits, though. College coaches spend years studying these prospective athletes, deciding whether or not to bring a recruit into the program. For AU men’s basketball Assistant Coach Eddie Jackson, the summer Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) circuit had been a major platform to check out potential recruits.

“Normally, we go out and see them play, sometimes with their high schools, most of the time with their AAU program at different events,” Jackson said. 

However, the summer sports circuit was almost entirely shut down this past summer, and regulations regarding the upcoming high school sports season have varied from state-to-state. Some states, like California and Virginia, postponed competition until 2021, while others have done nothing at all. As a result, evaluating prospective athletes has become even more of a challenge.

“I’m used to bouncing around at AAU tournaments watching games,” Jackson said. “Watching half of a game and then moving over to another court and watching a half there. But now, everything is online. Sometimes online, you don’t know who you’re watching.”

For Moore, much of the new recruiting process involves watching the recruit’s old matches to get a feel for their abilities. He also breaks down old AU matches with the recruits, so they can assess the culture and expectations that come with being on the AU wrestling team. Jackson said that the men’s basketball team is following many of the same steps, doing pretty much anything they can to connect with the recruits and their families.

Moore also has had to deal with a depleted staff, as both of his full-time assistants left over the summer. Since the University is currently under a hiring freeze, Moore has been the lone wrestling coach on staff since June, taking on 100 percent of the recruiting and coaching responsibilities, and doing it all remotely.

The NCAA extended the official recruiting dead period because of the pandemic, so recruiting has slowed down significantly.

“Well the good thing is, it's nationwide, not just us,” Jackson said. “But some schools have more resources or less resources though, and that's where everything shifts and you tend to rely on relationships and guys that you trust like AAU coaches and high school coaches.”

Coaches have made a slew of adjustments on the fly during the pandemic, but questions remain regarding the future of the NCAA and AU athletic departments. With most schools set to lose millions of dollars due to the pandemic, neither AU nor the NCAA has publicly made any adjustments regarding athletic scholarships. Recently, the NCAA voted to give an extra year of eligibility to fall sports athletes who had their seasons canceled. 

The NCAA also hasn't decided whether to expand the number of scholarship players that are allowed on the team per year, since seniors who were previously expected to leave have the choice to stay an extra year, and freshmen will still enter the program.

These are the types of questions that the NCAA and its conferences haven’t answered yet, but they will have to come up with solutions eventually.

In the meantime, the year-round venture of finding quality student-athletes and selling them on their university must continue for programs that don’t want to fall behind the competition.

“Right now, we have one commitment,” Jackson said. “We may only have one other scholarship; we won’t really know until the NCAA makes a decision on the season. We have to continue to see what’s out there and identify guys depending on what happens in the spring.” 

abranch@theeagleonline.com

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