Negative Recruiting Reaches Staggering DepthsPosted by Chris Johnson on September 18th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Most college hoops fans follow the game purely for their own enjoyment. They don’t see what goes on behind the scenes – the extreme measures programs often take to keep their student-athletes eligible and the hostile interplay between opposing players. And they most certainly do not know everything there is to know about recruiting. The practice seems simple enough: woo players with the promise of playing time, high scoring totals, and wins; drop huge sums on gaudy locker rooms, maybe a game console or two; superimpose a silhouette of your school’s logo/mascot at midcourt, just to give that four-star shooting guard something to look at, something the other schools don’t have, every time he takes the floor. All of this is fair game, but anyone with even scant knowledge of college basketball recruiting, particularly amongst the best schools and players, can tell you there’s much more to it than shiny facilities and the prospect of maintaining a gaudy scoring average in an uptempo offense. The presence of agents, shoe company representatives, and other third parties, all attempting to influence top-level recruits’ decisions in one way or another – and quite often funneling them to a particular school – has only increased in recent years. Coaches and players are not oblivious to this; it’s not hard for them to point out those who are not playing by the rules.
That’s just one unseemly aspect fans rarely, if ever, get to experience. The number of top-ranked players who don’t come across some type of illicit financial arrangement – who are not offered something from someone – over the course of their recruitment is probably smaller than anyone not directly involved with recruiting could possibly imagine. Another side, an arguably worse one, is the concept of negative recruiting, wherein coaches bash coaches from programs, or simply bash their programs, in an effort to lead players away from competitors. It can be anything from pointing out a particularly unsavory aspect of one coach’s resume, to critiquing his preferred style of play, to commenting on the lack of fan or institutional support at his program. Sometimes, things get ugly, and on Tuesday, we learned of one particularly disconcerting case involving Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy.
Alex Robinson, an ESPN top-100 recruit, committed to the Aggies last week after rebuffing offers from Baylor, Florida State, Memphis, Oklahoma State, and others. On Tuesday, he spoke with Gary Parrish, who wanted to clear up some rumors he had heard surrounding the way competing schools were handling the recruitment of players considering Texas A&M. Speaking to Robinson, the Aggies’ first top-100 commitment since Kennedy made his condition public more than a year and a half ago, a player courted by a number of top programs, was, in theory, a reliable way to learn about what other coaches were saying while trying to recruit against Texas A&M. As it turns out, what Parrish had been hearing from various sources is dishearteningly true. According to Robinson, rival coaches cited Kennedy’s Parkinson’s Disease (and presumably used the same tactic with other players) – which he made public in October 2011 – as a reason not to commit to play for the Aggies.
“They actually did [use Kennedy's Parkinson's diagnosis against Texas A&M],” Robinson said by phone a few minutes after the top-50 prospect committed to Texas A&M just 48 hours following a weekend visit. “But I just kinda brushed it off like, ‘Hey, that’s part of recruiting. [The other coaches are just] trying to get me to their school.’”
Big-time college basketball coaches – or any high-ranking position in a major athletic department, for that matter – inhabit a cutthroat world. Even the very best, most successful, beloved head men are constantly under pressure, constantly needing new top players to replenish the talent pipeline. Their jobs largely depend on their ability to recruit the best players in the country; when you don’t recruit effectively, well… You get the point. Given the mandate to win, win, win and, in turn, recruit, recruit, recruit, it’s easy to understand how opposing coaches would use every bit of knowledge available to them to sway high school prospects. Part of that process is negative recruiting. If a handful of coaches are battling for one player, of course they’re free to say derogatory things about one another. When one player can be the difference between getting fired and winning a national championship, all manner of recruiting disparagements/enticements are on the table.
And, with that said, I can’t even fathom anyone having the utter ethical negligence to bring up an someone’s degenerative neurological disease, of throwing any sense of decorum and respect and, I don’t know, common decency out the window. College basketball is a fiercely competitive game, and recruiting battles are just as rigorous and heated as the ones on the court, but have we really gotten to the point where nothing is off-limits? Where a coach can use anything – from chronic medical disorders to information about one’s personal life, and everything in between – to devalue an opponent’s recruiting pitch for his benefit? At what point do a coach’s devious tactics start to become public knowledge (for the record, Robinson didn’t give Parrish the names of coaches or programs that mentioned Kennedy’s Parkinson’s, but you can find his offer list here. That’s as good a place as any to start naming off candidates)? Don’t coaches, players talk to one another about these things? Are there negative repercussions to stooping this low? There has to be, right? If it wasn’t official before, it is now: college basketball recruiting is a scary, dark place. And you know what? I probably shouldn’t be surprised. When the mentality is some wicked mixture of win-now, win-at-all-costs, there are no rules. The sad part? Stuff like this – the worst negative recruiting anecdotes you can possibly dream up – probably happens far more often than we’d like to believe.
Watch college basketball. Enjoy it. Do not wish to know the process behind the product on the court. You would rather not. Trust me.