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May 18, 2012

Friday Discussion: The recruiting approach

Trying something new today. It's the Friday Discussion, where we'll throw out a topic, present a case that tries to address each side of the issue, and then turn it over to you and see where the discussion goes.

Check or raise

(Okay, that's not the best title for today's discussion, but I'm reading a book about the World Series of Poker - and the murder of Ted Binion, among other things - so my brain is tilting toward poker terms.)

As we've watched Paul Chryst and his staff work on building their first full recruiting class, several trends have emerged. For starters, the coaches have relied heavily on the spring evaluation period for making determinations on offers; the offer sheet has nearly doubled since the coaches hit the road after spring camp, and it grows every day.

The offering process will be part of a future Friday Discussion, but for today we're going to look at how the coaches have worked on recruits who already have offers. This has been discussed on the message boards quite a bit, and often those conversations come down to a debate of "being aggressive" and "being laid-back". That sets up the discussion as a dichotomy of approaches, but it's not entirely accurate or complete.

Chryst and his staff have been very un-forceful in recruiting thus far. More than a few recruits have commented on how "laid-back" the coaches are; that term has been used quite often by the recruits themselves. When Cincinnati offensive line recruit Alex Gall visited Pitt this spring, the interaction with Chryst stuck out for that very reason:

"Coach Chryst told me he wants me to make the best decision for me. He was really laid-back about it. There are a few schools that are like that, but he really didn't want to push me to make a decision. It was pretty unique how laid-back he was."

Similarly, when four-star Belle Vernon offensive tackle Dorian Johnson was on campus last week, he had the same impression:

"I liked the fact that we just chilled. There was no pressure and they really didn't talk about football at all. We just talked about my personal life. That's different because usually coaches try to talk up the program and talk about football and all of that, and they really didn't do that at all."

This follows what Chryst has said since he was hired: his goal in recruiting is to sign good players who want to be at Pitt (if you flash back to his Signing Day comments, some of his most effusive praise was for players like JP Holtz who "really wanted to be here"). Chryst doesn't consider himself a salesman and doesn't consider recruiting to be a form of sales, and he has basically presented his recruiting "pitch" - although you can't really call it that - as being something along these lines (I'm paraphrasing):

"I like Pitt. Here are the reasons I like Pitt. I hope you like Pitt, too. If you don't, then good luck with your future endeavors."

In the world of college recruiting, that's about as laid-back as you can get.

But here's the problem: to a certain extent, recruiting is sales. Coaches are selling their university, their football program, and themselves to the recruits in the hopes of landing the best possible players. It's a courtship, with all the bells and whistles of a proper 19th-century marriage enticement. Typically, when a recruit visits, everything is geared toward convincing that recruit to commit to that school. The tours, the academic presentations, the meetings with position coaches, and the sit-down with the head coach are all designed to achieve one goal: a commitment.

In most cases, the whole visit builds up to the sit-down with the head coach. More often than not, the sit-down is the culmination of the visit, the final exclamation point on what has been (ideally) a great visit. And that's when the head coach typically makes the final push; when it's done right, the meeting with the head coach convinces the recruit to pull the trigger on a commitment.

Chryst doesn't approach it that way, though. For Chryst, the visit is about the recruit's experience. They're going to put their best feet forward and show the recruit the better parts of campus and Heinz Field and the fact that the Steelers work out next door to Pitt, and the assistant coaches will show the recruit how he fits into the offense or defense. Then the final meeting with Chryst is more of a conversation rather than a "send it home" sales pitch.

Now, there are benefits to this approach. In many ways, it is a more genuine and authentic approach; after all, Pitt fans - and players and administrators and recruits - probably don't want to count "salesman" as one of the head coach's titles following the experience of 2011. And a recruit who commits when no pressure has been applied is probably more likely to stick with his commitment, since he made the decision wholly on his own and without prodding from the coaches.

And too much pressure can be a bad thing. A coach who over-stresses the situation with pressure to commit can either turn off a recruit to a school altogether if that recruit is not comfortable with committing, or it can lead to a commitment that is somewhat unstable, since the recruit will have made the pledge under less than ideal circumstances.

But sometimes prodding is needed. Sometimes a little nudge is essential. Sometimes a coach needs to finesse the situation just a little bit, give that little extra push to get a recruit who is on the fence to take the plunge. It's a matter of "feel" for the coach; a coach has to sense when a recruit is close to committing and when it is time to give that push.

For all of his shortcomings, Dave Wannstedt had some degree of acumen in this regard. He developed a reputation as a "closer" in recruiting because he often was able to give the nudge when the time was right. That's why Pitt's recruiting often followed the same general cycle each year (a big recruiting haul in June).

The ideal is probably a balance, with a laid-back approach for the majority of the recruitment, and then a push when the time is right to seal the deal. In some cases, that push may be necessary. In some cases, you may need to be more forceful to make the point to a recruit who is on the fence between your school and another, especially since that other school will probably be applying some pressure to get the commitment.

The "laid-back" approach - a poor term due to its oversimplification - shows respect for the recruit and allows him to make his own decision. It also goes a long way toward ensuring that recruits who commit to Pitt are doing it because they genuinely want to be at Pitt. But as the recruiting process goes on and the official visit season begins in the fall, Chryst and his staff may need to add the extra element of "encouragement" to their strategies. That adjustment may even be part of the strategy: start off "laid-back" and then gently apply more pressure as the recruiting process goes on. At this point, though, Chryst has only shown one side of the approach.

A final note: it should be pointed out that, for everything I've written here about being aggressive or laid-back, Chryst currently has more commitments than Wannstedt ever did at this point in the recruiting calendar.

So what do you think? Should Chryst and company stay the course and allow the recruits to make the decisions wholly on their own? Or does there need to be a bit more finesse in the approach?

Click here to get in on the discussion and offer your opinion

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