In Their Words: Life at the Mid-Major Level (part two)

Posted by rtmsf on September 28th, 2010

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

To read the entire In Their Words series, click here.


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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Todd Miles, Assistant Athletics Director for Media Relations, Long Beach State – Miles starts his third year in Long Beach following a seven-year stretch at Boise State where he was the primary media relations contact for the basketball team.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Last time around, we heard about the challenges mid-major schools face in competing for recruits and the importance of player development at the mid-major level. This time, we’ll look at some of the more practical questions to be answered when recruiting, such as what types of players coaches are going to be looking for and where they are going to find them. If you’re in a talent-rich area, you may not ever need to go outside of your region to find players, but the bigger pool of talent from which you are able to draw, the more likely you are to be able to land talented players.

Tommy Dempsey, Head Coach, Rider: We’re in a great location. We sit right in the middle between Philadelphia and New York City. We’re about 35 miles from Philadelphia and about 50 miles from New York City, which also puts us two hours from Baltimore, maybe three hours from Washington DC, within three hours of Virginia, we have a couple of kids from Delaware, so again we’re in a location that allows us to recruit regionally. I think most coaches will tell you that they want to take care of their back yard, but how big your back yard is changes for everybody. If you’re in the Midwest and there are not as many players within a two-hour radius of your school, then obviously you have to change your approach. But in our situation we are able to do the majority of our recruiting close to home.

Locating Talent is Extremely Important

Jason James, Head Coach, Tennessee-Martin: As far as location, we try to bring in student-athletes within about a six hour radius from us, we’ve been more successful doing that, but saying that, we kind of go where we know people, where people can help us and we’ve been able to be successful because of our contacts.

Todd Miles, Assistant Athletics Director for Media Relations, Long Beach State: Coach (Dan) Monson’s goal is always to get the best player in Long Beach. That’s his number one goal. That’s how we got Larry Anderson. Casper Ware is a local kid, T.J. Robinson happened to come from Connecticut, but he came because we were recruiting Larry Anderson who was at a prep school and we saw T.J. But, with this team this year we had a lot of returners, so they were trying to find pieces that would fit with this team, with all these returners they had certain needs and they may have been a little more particular about who they wanted. Three years ago when Coach Monson and his staff came here, they needed players, and it didn’t matter what position. And I think this year maybe more they wanted to recruit to a position or to a skill set.

Eric Brown, Assistant Coach, Long Beach State: We prefer to recruit locally, but really, it is all based on need. Certain classes are stronger than others: 2012 looks to be stronger than the 2011 class, as an example. And then there might be times when you have to recruit for need, like you need a point – it’s not just about recruiting a position, like you need a guard or forward – you might have more specific needs, like you need an athletic, guard-the-rim post-player, they may not need to be a great offensive post player. Or you might need a post player who can pick-and-pop and hit the three, but isn’t that great on the block. Or you might have a bunch of 6’4/6’5 athletes who are drivers/slashers, but you need to find a guy that can hit the three. If a player can do it all, they’re not going to come to our level. Sometimes we just need to find guys that can fit a need. In this case, we got some really good kids out of state and if we have a need and don’t think that need can be best filled out of the local area, we go to wherever it is we can get it.

Chris Caputo, Assistant Coach, George Mason: There are some years where we sign a number of guys from the area and other years where it’s a little bit different, but yeah, our base is the local area. Last year we brought in two kids from the DC area. Obviously we want to stay with that as much as possible, but there are times when there is just not enough volume in your area when you’ve got to get five or six kids in a year, which we’ve had to do. You know, we had to get 10 guys in two years and so sometimes when there’s not as much in the area and you’ve got to get quality, you’ve got to go to places out of the area, and I think that’s where TV has helped us as well.

Schools like Long Beach State and George Mason have easy access to major metropolitan areas. Obviously, not all schools enjoy such a location, and as a result cannot rely entirely on getting recruits from their local area.

Murry Bartow, Head Coach, East Tennessee State: We kind of have been able to recruit on a national level. We would love to recruit as much as we can locally, and regionally and certainly in the state of Tennessee, but we’re also very much able and willing to do some recruiting outside of the state. We’ve got four kids right now from Florida and we’ve had a lot of Florida kids in our program over the years. We’ve had success with those guys, we’ve gotten to the NCAA Tournament and they’ve gotten their degrees, and so because of that, then that kind of dominoes, where you’re able to go back and get that next player. So, we’ve recruited Florida very well. Fortunately when kids come here we’re in a really great community and we’ve got great fans and we’ve got good facilities and we’ve just been able, once they get here on their official visits, those visits have gone well and we’ve been able to get those kids to come.

Dale Layer, Head Coach, Liberty: We have a unique institution; it’s the largest Christian institution in the world, so anyone who desires a Christian worldview being taught in our classes, we can recruit literally anywhere in the world if we find a person who matches up with what Liberty is all about. So we’ll have guys all across the country. That being said, it does help for a young man to be able to drive home for a long weekend, so a little closer to home is the most ideal. We’ll spend time in Texas, Florida, the Southeast, but we can go literally just about anywhere in the world and find a player if he matches up with what Liberty is all about.

As Coach Layer alludes to, while there are plenty of kids locally and regionally, mid-major coaches can also find diamonds-in-the-rough in international players. Not only can adding players from out of country create a pipeline of talent for programs (look no further than St. Mary’s for an excellent example), it can also create a culture of diversity in a program. At Rider, Coach Dempsey’s roster features three international players.

Recruiting Globally is an Area Some Schools Take Advantage Of

Dempsey: We were fortunate that two of our three international kids went to high school in New Jersey, one at Blair Academy (Justin Robinson) and one at Life Center Academy (Dera Nd-Ezuma), so we didn’t necessarily recruit them directly from Europe, we recruited them from a school in New Jersey. But we think that in our locker room and in our program it is good to have kids from different backgrounds, kids from different countries, it gives us a diverse locker room, even though two of the three kids went to school in New Jersey. The third kid, Tommy Pereira is from Nottingham, England, and he went to an academy in the Canary Islands, which is off the coast of West Africa. The coach there is an American and through a connection I went to the Canary Islands to watch him. It helped me that I had another player from England here and Tommy wanted to go to school in the United States, so, like anything else in recruiting, there’s gotta be some connection. We were able to connect with Tommy and we were able to bring him here to school.

For the biggest of the big name recruits, the choice of a college often comes down to basketball-related questions first and foremost: how much playing time am I going to get, how good is the program, does the coach regularly put players into the NBA? At the mid-major level, the academics questions are often just as important as the basketball questions.

George Ivory, Head Coach, Arkansas-Pine Bluff: Academics is very important. That’s the thing we let the kids and parents know when they come here. The first objective is to be a student. A degree is part of it. We want them to get a degree when they get through playing college basketball. We don’t want kids to come here four or five years and not have a degree when they are done.

Bartow: Academics are a very important component of the recruiting process. Obviously we’ll look at their high school transcript, we’ll talk to counselors, talk to teachers, talk to the high school coach and make sure academically they’re going to be in good standing and be eligible. And not just be eligible, but just as importantly, make sure that when they get to college, they want to do the work and that ultimately getting that degree is important to them. That’s certainly something we talk a lot about when we’re recruiting them, in terms of their commitment and their desire to get that college degree. And, you’ve got to see what they’re interested in studying and see if that major fits what you’ve got at your university and then once the guys get here, we’re very demanding of them academically to make sure that they’re doing what they need to be doing and that they’re on pace to get their degree.

Dempsey: We’ve taken some more at-risk academic kids at times. Now, that being said, a lot of it depends on where the kids are coming from. I just think a lot of times, if you get some kids from the city, they just may not be as well prepared – the environment that they were in may not have been conducive to getting good grades, they may not have been in an environment conducive to getting a good score on the SAT. So, you also have to know who you are. If you’re not a Patriot or Ivy league school, you’re not going to wind up with a locker room full of 1200-SAT kids and also be successful, so we’re more likely to give a kid a chance who might be a little bit of an underachiever so far in his academic career, if we know that going to college and graduating from college are high on his priority list. And I’m more likely to take a kid that I believe in as a person with good character that may have struggled a little bit academically, but I know that he is a good kid, he is a good worker, he wants to be a good student, if I have that sense, I’m more likely to take an academic risk than I would a behavioral risk.

Another big question at mid-majors is how the player will fit in on the campus. In some cases, some programs might be willing to overlook disciplinary questions in an attempt to pull in the best possible talent, while other schools are very reluctant to take any chances with potential distractions.

If You Expect Players for Four Years, You'll Want Them to Handle the Academic Side

Dempsey: We’ve tried to stay away from guys with disciplinary history. We haven’t taken a lot of second-chance kids, not because there aren’t a lot of success stories out there, but because guys who’ve been in trouble tend to get in trouble again, or at least have a higher chance of getting in trouble again. And, when you’re at a small school, where it is very important, we want to graduate our players, we want to be proud of the kids we have, we want to win, but we want, here, graduating our players takes precedence over winning. And, again, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we can go 10-20 every year, but I’m just saying that this is a true college experience. Yes basketball is important but it is also important that you’re in class every day, that you’re not getting in trouble in the dorms, that you’re not doing anything to embarrass the university, because we’re not at a level where we’re totally sold out to win. So I think you have to be smart with who you recruit, because if they’ve had trouble in the past, they more than likely will have trouble again, with exceptions of course, but previous behavior is a great predictor of future behavior.

In the end, recruiting at the mid-major level is about finding the advantages that your school has and promoting those, while still being true to your institution’s goals.

Layer: I think we’ve got some edges over some teams in our league, although there are some really great programs in our league, but I do think we have some advantages and we’re trying to use those to attract the absolute best players we can.

And while recruiting is the most important part of a basketball program’s grand plan, it is not completely separate from all the other goings-on in a program. Who teams play, where they play them, whether they’re on television or not, the style of play that a program is known for – these are all elements that are intertwined in the recruiting process. In our next article, we’ll take a look at the scheduling process at mid-majors and, among other things, see how a team’s scheduling process affects recruiting.  Join us next Tuesday for Part Three of In Their Words: Life at the Mid-Major Level.

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