In Their Words: Life at the Mid-Major Level

Posted by rtmsf on September 21st, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences and an occasional contributor.


Over the summer, we’ve spent time hearing about some of the next big-name recruits on their way to college basketball: Jared Sullinger and Harrison Barnes, Anthony Davis and Michael Gilchrist. We’ve heard the big-time schools announce their high profile games on their upcoming schedules: Kentucky going to the Maui Invitational and visiting North Carolina, Michigan State hosting Texas and going to Duke. But for the vast majority of Division I programs, they’ve been flying under the radar. There are at present 73 teams that participate in basketball in the six BCS conferences, but there are 347 total programs in Division I. Of those other 274 programs, there are certainly quite a few big-name programs: last year’s national runner-up Butler comes to mind immediately, as does Gonzaga, Memphis and a handful of other schools in conferences like the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West. But, we were also interested in how the other half (or really, how the other three-quarters) lives, so we spent some time talking to coaches, athletic directors and other people around the country affiliated with some of those other schools — those non-BCS schools, those “mid-majors” — and we asked them about how they recruit, how they create a schedule, how they market their programs, and quite a few other things. Over the next eight weeks, we’ll let them tell you their story, in their own words.

To begin, let me introduce and thank this week’s cast of characters:

  • Murry Bartow, Head Coach, East Tennessee State – Bartow is entering his eighth season as the Buccaneers head coach, after having previously succeeded his father Gene Bartow as the head coach at UAB. Bartow has posted a 118-72 record in his years at ETSU and has racked up 241 total wins and four NCAA appearances in his 13 seasons as a head coach.
  • George Ivory, Head Coach, Arkansas-Pine Bluff – Ivory enters his third season in Pine Bluff, where he has turned the Golden Lions into winners. UAPB turned around an 0-11 start last season by finishing 18-5 over their last 23 games, winning UAPB’s first SWAC tournament title in 43 years and advancing to the NCAA tournament before losing to eventual national-champion Duke.
  • Chris Caputo, Assistant Coach, George Mason – Caputo is entering his sixth season as an assistant coach for the Patriots after spending the previous three seasons as an administrative assistant and video coordinator under head coach Jim Larranaga.
  • Tommy Dempsey, Head Coach, Rider – Dempsey enters his fifth season as the head man at Rider, following two seasons as an assistant. He has compiled an 83-75 record over that time and coached NBA lottery pick Jason Thompson during his time there.
  • Eric Reveno, Head Coach, Portland – Reveno heads into his fifth season at Portland having turned around a program from a team that was 18-45 in his first two seasons to a team on the rise with a 40-24 record over the last two seasons. Reveno spent his previous nine seasons as an assistant at Stanford, his alma mater where he was a Pac-10 Conference All-Academic Team selection as a senior.
  • Eric Brown, Assistant Coach, Long Beach State – Brown enters his fifth year as an assistant on head coach Dan Monson’s staff, after previously having spent time on coaching staffs at Cal-State Northridge, USC and Iowa State.
  • Jason James, Head Coach, Tennessee-Martin – James enters his second season as the head coach at UT-Martin following eight seasons as an assistant coach there. His first season was rough, to the tune of 4-25, after he was appointed head coach in the wake of scandal with the previous head coach. But James, the recruiter who brought Lester Hudson to UT-Martin, has plans to begin to turn things around this season.
  • Dale Layer, Head Coach, Liberty – Layer enters his second season at Liberty after having spent a season as an assistant at the university in 2007-08. In between, he spent a year at Marquette and previously he spent seven seasons as the head coach at Colorado State. He has compiled a 118-122 record in his eight seasons as a Division I head coach.
  • Gregg Bach, Assistant Athletics Director for Communications, Akron – Bach was named to his current position this past summer after having spent the previous eight years on the media relations staff in the Akron athletic department. His new job makes him the spokesperson of the athletic department.

First up: recruiting. This is the biggest, most pressure-packed area in college athletics. No matter how good coaches are at the X’s-and-O’s, they need players to execute their plans. At the mid-major level, the likelihood of a coach winding up with a ready-made pro is minuscule, so coaches have to find diamonds-in-the-rough, and, perhaps more importantly, develop their players over the course of their careers. Not only do schools at this level have to compete with other schools of similar size, if they find themselves competing with  a higher-level school for the same prospect, they may have to make a decision as to whether or not continuing to recruit the player is a worthwhile use of time. And the schools have to make the most of every advantage they can find in order to land the best student-athletes for their institution.

Recruiting Players Takes on Many Forms

Murry Bartow, Head Coach, East Tennessee State: Obviously, if you’re a college basketball coach, the most important part of your job is making sure that you’ve got good players.

George Ivory, Head Coach, Arkansas-Pine Bluff: There are a lot of things that go into recruiting. It comes down to what that kid is really looking for and what that kid wants out of college.

Bartow: There are so many things that go into it. There is no question that the relationship is critical, whether that’s with the head coach or an assistant coach. But that is very pivotal in the decision, building the relationship with not only the prospect, but a mom or a dad or whoever is going to be helping them make that decision. And certainly the product you’re trying to show them is important. Fortunately, I think I’m in a situation where I think we’ve got a good product, but there are a lot of things that are important: the school, the community, the housing, the fan’s support of your program, how many times you’re potentially going to be on TV and what conference you’re in, your history, the success you’ve had and how many times you’ve been to the NCAA tournament recently. So there are a lot of things and certainly different things are important to different players. For instance, we’ve been to the NCAA Tournament the last two years, and for some prospects that is very, very critical and important, and for others that might not be so important. So there are different things for different prospects.

When George Mason broke through to the Final Four in 2006, they were the first big mid-major success story in the NCAA Tournament since, arguably, Larry Bird’s Indiana State team made it there in 1979. Sure, there have been other non-BCS schools to get to the Final Four (Memphis ’08, Louisville ’05 and Marquette ’03 all came out of Conference USA, and Utah ’98 out of the WAC are all examples of non-BCS teams advancing to the Final Four, but none of those teams can really be considered a mid-major given their substantial basketball budgets), but Mason, an 11-seed and one of the last teams into the tournament that season, is clearly the first “modern” mid-major Cinderella story. While their success opened some doors recruiting-wise, new challenges arose as well.

Chris Caputo, Assistant Coach, George Mason: I don’t think anything has gotten easier since the Final Four, but it has been different for sure. I think we’ve gotten some good players, but you’ve got to caution yourself against those with superficial interest, people who will put you on their list because it sounds good, but they’re really not considering you because they are too far from home or whatever. You still want to make sure you’re getting guys that really want to be there and they’re hungry. Sometimes when you have success there are certain kids who are really attracted to the success and maybe not as attracted to working, almost like they’re feeling, “hey, if I get a scholarship over at George Mason, that’s it, I don’t have to work anymore.” But the guys that helped us get there, they signed with George Mason when it wasn’t as fashionable and they were driven to succeed. The one thing that the Final Four appearance has done for us is that it has helped us get involved with guys who maybe we previously couldn’t have gotten involved with. It helps us get into homes in different areas. You know, our school is much more of a household name nationally, and we’ve become a stronger name in our area as well. I think it has been good, but you also have to be careful with it too.

For mid-majors, a lot of the big-name recruits (McDonald’s All-Americans), are out of the question in all but the rarest of circumstances. This season, point guard Ray McCallum, Jr. chose Detroit over BCS schools like Arizona, Florida and UCLA, a decision which would have been startling were it not for the fact that his dad is the head coach there. For most mid-major programs, these players aren’t even in consideration. To make up for that, mid-majors have to find players that fly under the radar of some of the bigger schools and guys who are willing to put in the hard work to improve.

McCallum Went Mid-Major, But He's an Exceptional Case

Tommy Dempsey, Head Coach, Rider: We know we’re not going to get McDonald’s All-Americans, and we’re not going to get the guys with the handlers and the big entourages, and all that. And that is probably more good than bad, to be honest with you. But, so what we really have to get, we have to build around character. There is pressure to win, but there is also as much pressure to do it in the right way, because you’re recruiting at schools that aren’t necessarily going to sell-out to win, aren’t necessarily going to turn the other cheek if you commit violations to go get that diaper dandy. So I think it is important that you build your program with good people – hard working – that you hope have a big upside, because we don’t get the finished product. We have to get the kid that is under-recruited, and then we have to spend time – player development becomes much more of the secret to success at the mid-major, where sometimes at the high-major level you are getting guys that can come in and, you know, either one-and-dones or two-and-dones, I think they are sometime far more ready to help you than the guys that we get. That’s why you often see that the good mid-major teams are filled with juniors and seniors, because they are guys that have been there, they are good character kids, they’re going to graduate, and if they have a great work ethic and play together well as a team, those are the best teams that I have coached.

Eric Reveno, Head Coach, Portland: At our program, at our level, we have to dig a little deeper than the high-major schools may need to. If you’re at, say, North Carolina or Duke, you basically just need a list of the top 100 recruits and you can go down the list and pick and choose. Here, we’ve got to go out and see the kids play and find guys who can come in and contribute for us. I think we have to do more of our own scouting, rather than letting scouting services do that work for us.

Dempsey: I’ve coached an NBA lottery pick that wasn’t recruited by any majors: Jason Thompson now with the Sacramento Kings. And I’ve had Ryan Thompson, who is now going to training camp with the Utah Jazz, who came in without a lot of fanfare either – he wasn’t even on the all-rookie team in our league. So the player development just becomes so important. By the time our guys are juniors and seniors, if we’re going to have a really good team, our best players have to be ACC/Big East-type players, and we’re not going to get them as ACC/Big East-type players. So I just think from a recruiting standpoint, you’ve really got to go after kids that have a strong work ethic, because what separates guys a lot of times, once you get them, is how hard they are going to work, and if you can get enough guys that are driven, that have a high capacity for work, as their careers go on, they can hopefully work hard enough to become Big East/ACC level players.

Reveno: Jared Stohl, who was the best three-point shooter in the country last year, wasn’t exactly highly recruited out of high school, but we saw him play and we knew, hey, this kid can shoot, this kid can play for us, especially in our style. Those are the kinds of guys we need to get, players that are maybe under-recruited, and players who are going to work hard and improve.

Stohl Represents the Diamonds in the Rough Mid-Majors Seek

Dempsey: NBA lottery pick? No I didn’t see that type of potential in Jason Thompson when recruiting him. If I saw that, somebody else would have seen it. I’m not that far ahead of the curve when it comes to player evaluation. But I would say, sometimes you don’t know how hard a guy is going to work until you actually get them, because the people – their AAU coach, their high school coach – they’re all going to tell you that they are hard workers, but there are different degrees, different levels of how hard guys work. And I think that after we had him here and coached him for a year we knew that he had a good chance to be one of the better kids in our league, and then he just continued to work and develop, and I would say probably by the end of his sophomore year, we still didn’t necessarily think that he would be a lottery pick, but people started to sniff around, and people started to call and say, “hey, tell me about this kid, send me film,” and he started to create a buzz. But it probably wasn’t until his junior year where we started thinking, you know, this guy is going to play in the NBA. But again, he needed that time to develop. I mean, you couldn’t predict NBA after his freshman or sophomore season because he just needed the time to develop and he needed to continue to work and things started to come together for him.

Reveno: When we were at Stanford, we had a chance at kids like Josh Childress or, say, the Collins twins, you know, McDonald’s All-Americans, or top-100 recruits. At Portland, we don’t have much of a chance at those kinds of guys. But the similarity is that at Stanford, we were able to get guys like Peter Prowitt or Dan Grunfeld, or other guys who weren’t top-100 recruits, but guys who could really play that flew below the radars and were able to improve over their careers. That’s the type of guy that we need to get to be successful at Portland.

With recruiting now a long process, there can be times when players improve over their high school careers, and where once it was predominantly mid-major schools with interest in a prospect, suddenly larger BCS schools swoop in and try to win over the student-athlete. In many of these cases, after putting in a lot of work trying to win a recruiting battle against schools their size, they are suddenly distinct underdogs to higher profile schools.

Eric Brown, Assistant Coach, Long Beach State: We’ll take our shot. If we’ve been recruiting a kid all along, if all of a sudden the Pac-10 comes along, you just hang in there and hang in there and you develop a relationship. If you do get a kid that’s being recruited by those schools, you’re going to have to slug it out and be patient and keep grinding at it and hope it works out.

Jason James, Head Coach, Tennessee-Martin: It can be difficult for us when those bigger schools are coming in, just because of resources and the size of school and the conferences. It makes it very hard for us to compete against those schools recruiting-wise. But we try to establish a solid relationship on the front end with the young man, and sometimes those relationships will win out over bigger schools.

Ivory: It all depends on the kids and the parents and what kind of relationship we have. We’re not going to back down from recruiting a kid if a big university comes in, but it’s a big difference. But we feel like we just need to keep trying.

Caputo: I think quite honestly, it would be real hard for us to beat Carolina and Duke for a kid. But when you’re talking about some other schools, you know, we’ve had a number of kids visit BCS schools and choose George Mason. We’ve had a number of kids have interest. We have a kid on our roster who was committed to West Virginia (Bryon Allen), which is obviously a great program, you know – Coach Huggins, Final Four, incredible – certainly we’d have a hard time beating them maybe head-to-head very often, but he had committed and then decommitted and we were able to get him. But I also do think that there are tiers and there are some teams in those BCS leagues that haven’t made the postseason as frequently, and I think that’s something that all quality non-BCS schools will probably sell, in the sense that, “hey, it might be easier for us to make the NCAA Tournament than a team that has consistently been at the bottom of a 16 or 12 team league.” It doesn’t always work, but there are some people who maybe think that way as well. There are some people for whom the only thing that matters is playing in the Big East or the ACC, but there are other kids who may have a different value set.

Bartow: I think you’ve got to be a smart recruiter. Number one, you don’t want to waste time. It doesn’t help in recruiting to finish second or third. Let’s say you’re involved with a prospect and he keeps calling your name out and you’re one of four or five and it all looks good and sounds good, it doesn’t help you any if you don’t get him. So I think you can certainly waste time and I don’t believe in doing that. At the same time, it’s going to depend on a lot of things, it’s going to depend on the relationship and how strong your tie is to that player, it’s going to depend on whether he is local or in your region, so it might be a situation where he prefers to stay close to home, so there can be factors. But from a general standpoint, as a mid-major coach, you’ve got to be very careful if you’re wasting time maybe recruiting a player that is also being recruited by a BCS school, because it doesn’t help you to finish second. So, you’ve got to pinpoint the right guys and make sure you’re on the right guys. Now, with that being said, to get to the NCAA Tournament and to be successful and to win, you’ve got to get a few that people maybe consider a little above you. That maybe when you get them they’re going to be those all-league type guys that maybe separate you from the rest of people in your league. You know, you’ve got to get a good player, but you’ve got to be careful and you just can’t waste time recruiting guys that ultimately you’re probably not going to be able to get.

Some schools have built-in advantages that they need to take advantage of in order to give themselves the best chance to field a competitive team. Liberty is the world’s largest Christian university, so they may be able to pull in a recruit with a strong Christian background, even over schools from BCS conferences. For instance, this season they landed Stephen Baird, a 6’8 forward who considered high-majors like Marquette and Texas A&M.

Dale Layer, Head Coach, Liberty: I was an assistant at Marquette when we were recruiting Stephen, and I got to know him through that process, so when I got the job here it gave us a little bit of an in with Stephen. But Stephen wanted a school that was a Christian environment, so at least we were a viable alternative for him and a legitimate option. I think for players like Stephen, anywhere in the country, we can go head-to-head with anybody. Our facility could easily be placed in the ACC, our campus is state-of-the-art, 12,000 students, we have our own TV network, so we’ve got a lot of things here that would generally be associated with BCS level. So if a student-athlete wants a Christian education, we’re not a compromise with basketball. It gives us an opportunity to go head-to-head with anybody in the country on the right kid.

At the University of Akron, they’ve been able to sell their recruits on the program’s association with LeBron James, a local Akron product who played two years of high school basketball under Akron’s head coach Keith Dambrot. Aside from the possibility of playing pick-up games with James during the summer, or playing games with James in the audience, the program can also sell kids on the shoes and apparel associated with James’ connection with the program.

Gregg Bach, Assistant Athletics Director for Communications, Akron: When we’re recruiting high school basketball student-athletes, the fact that we wear Nike and that it’s the LeBron line certainly helps in recruiting. I really think the biggest benefit out of shoe and equipment deals is the recruiting element. It’s kind of funny to say that, but when you’re recruiting 17 and 18-year-old high school kids, those are the kind of things that they think about. And as weird as that sounds, it might very likely come down, if they’re looking at a couple of similar Akron-sized programs, and if they like the players and guys that they’ve met and the interaction they’ve had with the coaching staff, but when they know you’re wearing Nike and LeBron James stuff, and LeBron might come to your game or participate with you in open gym in the summer, I think that goes a long way.

While shoes and apparel might seem like relatively minor issues for student-athletes to consider when choosing their destination for college, they are just an example of the ways that mid-major programs try to distinguish themselves from their competitors and make themselves more appealing to prospective student-athletes. In order to bring in the talent necessary to win in Division I college basketball, programs need to make use of every possible advantage in their recruiting process.  Next week, we’ll take a look at the way a school’s geography can impact their recruiting philosophy and look at how academics factors into recruiting.

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One response to “In Their Words: Life at the Mid-Major Level”

  1. Corey says:

    Top-notch stuff. Can’t wait for the next installments.

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