August 26, 2021 

Inside the new normal of 2021 summer recruiting

Challenges and changes abound in WCBK recruiting, with coaches back on the road

The lifeblood of college athletics is the recruiting trail, where known and unknown talent is discovered every year. In July, airports are full of basketball coaches from every level, taking flights and managing delays with dozens of them sprinting to rental car counters just before they close at night. There are hours spent on airplanes and in line at Starbucks paging through tournament roster books to get organized for the 12- to 15-hour days in freezing cold gyms and overheated convention centers, searching for court 1 or court 41. 

What’s waiting at the end of the marathon day? A late-night meal where you can find it with friends and acquaintances you only get a chance to see during the grind that is summer recruiting.

When the COVID pandemic engulfed college athletics in March 2020, everything that was considered normal came to a screeching halt. There were no more on-campus visits, no summer camps, and no recruiting trail to hit. Things were turned upside down for programs, coaches and potential student-athletes. Would there be an opportunity to play in front of coaches during the summer? Would players be able to see a campus in person and know if it was right for them? 

Coaches relied on film and live streams of games to evaluate and only some of the traditional summer tournaments occurred. Many potential student-athletes did not have a full summer season and their high school seasons were still up in the air. After all the ups and downs, June 1, 2021 could not have gotten here fast enough.

‘A sense of normalcy

“It was fantastic to be back out and I never thought I’d miss cold gyms and wearing three layers,” said Kristen Gillespie, Illinois State head coach. “There was a sense of normalcy for sure.”

The consensus from coaches across women’s basketball is that a year spent staring at screens watching film and live streams to recruit was difficult to do. As one head coach said, ‘it’s only as good as the film itself’. Staffs would lose count how many times the live streams would freeze up in a day and if there was no scoring and time system attached to the feed, coaches were left to try and figure it out on their own.

“Something I like to watch is how a player handles time and score situations and that is way easier to evaluate in person, with a scoreboard at the games,” Amy Williams, Nebraska head coach told The Next. “How they handle being up one or down two with 10 seconds left can tell you a lot about the basketball IQ of a kid. But seeing them live does show you all the intangibles, too.”

Nothing can replace the ability to sit courtside and watch potential student-athletes compete and showcase their skills. Being back out on the road also means that the old saying of ‘someone is always watching’ is relevant again.

“For us, it’s about the character piece,” said Gillespie. “That is something we missed the most not seeing players in person last year. We want to see what kind of teammate they are and how they interact in the huddle. How do they respond to their coaches on the sidelines? How do they take coaching, period? That is big for us to see in person.”

Head coach Kristen Gillespie of Illinois State (Photo credit: Dennis Banks, ISU Athletics)

Other agree. Robyn Scherr-Wells, the new head coach at Evansville, says that nothing takes the place of being in the gym. “To be able to see players live lets you hear them, how they communicate, what they say and to see their body language – those things are invaluable.”

Welcome Back to Campus

Finding the right fit for both a player and a program is not an easy task. It’s months, if not years, of building relationships in recruiting that come from coaches evaluating, talking to recruits and parents, texting with club coaches and campus visits for recruits when programs bring out their best to showcase their institutions. When the COVID shutdown slammed the door on everything, bringing kids to campus for visits or camps was not an option.

“It was challenging times for everyone,” Williams said. “We are fortunate at Nebraska to have things in place that helped us be able to give potential student-athletes access and picture themselves here. We had 3-D virtual tours and Zoom sessions. We want it to be a fit for us and for them. We made the best of it.”

Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Amy Williams (Photo credit: Scott Bruhn/NU Communications)

But there really is no replacement for the real thing. And that’s why coach after coach has said that getting recruits to campus is key, not just for their upcoming signing classes, but looking ahead to future classes. Unofficial visits and camps are a lot of work and can be exhausting for coaching staffs, but after what they endured last year, everyone has been back at it.

“We had our first camp in over two years last week at Nebraska with our elite camp and it felt great to be back and around the campers, to have kids on campus,” said Williams, who is also a Nebraska alumna. If there is one person that knows the Cornhusker fight song, it’s her. “The first line of our fight song is, ‘There is no place like Nebraska.’ You have to feel it and get them here to put their feet on the ground and see it for themselves.”

Finding the right place

While college athletics was shutting down in March 2020, Karen Aston was also parting ways with the University of Texas after eight seasons as its head coach. She found herself in a place she’d never been her entire coaching career – being able to take a step back and re-evaluate what came next. “I was able to take a breath, spend time with my family and determine what I want my impact to be,” Aston told The Next. “I wanted to be in the right program and surround myself with people who believe in what I believe in. This is a new challenge for me.”

That challenge began in March 2021 when Aston was named head coach at the University Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). When she hit the ground running, she had to assess their roster and address their immediate needs. “There were no signees when we got here, so we brought in some transfers from the portal and JUCO ranks and addressed needing experience at the point guard spot. It’s been about finding pieces of the puzzle that make us more competitive this next year.”

As they rebuild the Roadrunner program, Aston and her staff have spent a lot of time with their new team this summer. “We know things are always changing and last year was hard on everyone, so we have focused on our players and their mental status, making sure they are doing all right. They spent two summer school sessions on campus and so we had a full summer with them of workouts in the gym and strength and conditioning. We approach it as every day is a new day.”

UTSA head coach Karen Aston runs summer workouts with her new team. (Photo credit: Beth Tate, UTSA Athletics)

The first few months on the job were also spent trying to evaluate recruits via video, but reaching June 1 brought new life to recruiting. “It was something I had not experienced before, but we basically had unofficial visits every day of the week,” said Aston. “Our staff was amazing and our players were great. It was a huge opportunity to showcase UTSA, the city of San Antonio and to get a jump start before you see kids in person in July.”

Over the long term, Aston’s philosophy is to build from the ground up with full classes, all the while evaluating what they have and what they need for long-term success. She says that she knows some sports evaluate recruits all the time via film, but basketball is just different. “You can’t replace being in-person. You want and need to see the little things, like point guard play – how do they communicate on the floor, how do they see the floor, control a game – you need to see it for yourself. It was just nice to be back in the gym and hear the shoes squeak.”

Questions and uncertainty

Have you ever seen that person who just keeps driving in a circle in a round-about without ever taking an exit street? That will give you an idea of how many coaches and programs across the country seemed to be moving at the end of the 2020-21 season. With an extra year of eligibility awaiting current student-athletes and a transfer portal moving at insane speeds, coaches spent a lot of time managing their own rosters before they could look ahead to what recruiting could and would bring.

Then came the questions.

Parents, AAU coaches and recruits wanting to know what the roster is going to look like, who is coming back for another year and is that impacting the needs you thought you had for your next class? Some programs couldn’t answer all the questions right away. Some coaches have decided to hold a spot so they can explore the transfer portal next spring. The 2022 recruiting class will be impacted the most by uncertainty and all the changes, a fact not lost on coaches.

“This is tough for the ‘22 class. These young women didn’t have the opportunities other classes had, especially now with the portal – it’s been crazy. In the conversations we have with our recruits it is different. You don’t have all the time in the world now and this is a new beast for everyone,” Illinois State’s Gillespie said.

Coming off a year unlike any other, there has been a common theme of gratitude and excitement from coaches when talking about recruiting this summer. It was worth it to be in five cities in the first seven days of the live period. It felt good to walk from court to court in Augusta, Georgia, and get your steps in for the day. It was fun to take a break and catch up with coaching friends in Chicago over dinner.

This time around, the “new normal” did feel a lot like the old normal.

Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a former shooting guard at Kansas State and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!

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