Tis the season for grassroots movements, community organizing, participation and non-participation. But this fall, those things aren’t exclusive to the political climate and the 2016 election.
It’s trickled down to college athletics, all the way to women’s basketball.
Friday marks the first day of the last evaluation period of 2016, a three-day window in which Division I coaches can watch recruitable prospects. Originally designed as an event for uncommitted seniors, the fall evaluation period has ballooned to include events for players as young as freshmen in high school, with players spilling into the gym in hopes of catching the eye of a college coach. But in a twist, the chairs reserved for D-I coaches might stay empty all weekend, as the Power 5 coaches have organized a protest, and banded together with the intention of boycotting the evaluation period for a host of reasons.
Over the last week, SI.com spoke about the protest with numerous Power Five coaches, almost all of whom requested anonymity. The first thing all wanted to make clear: “boycott” is too strong a word. They are not trying to make any sort of statement in anger, coaches said, but trying to do what’s best for their program. For most, that means staying home this weekend.
The reason for the protest—or non-boycott boycott—is threefold, according to coaches.
First, many are fed up with the price of tournament packets, booklets of rosters that college coaches receive upon paying their entry fee. Packets are supposed to be chock-full of contact information for the prospects, but sometimes aren’t accurate or up-to-date. (This has become a well-documented issue on the men’s side of college hoops. CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish wrote on it this summer.) Furthermore, there are so many events now that college coaches are often forced to pay obscene amounts of money to watch just one player at a single event, and play recruiting hopscotch around the country, criss-crossing the nation to see so many events and spend thousands of dollars. One Power Five coach said her staff crunched the numbers, and found that in just two years, they’ve spent more than $4,000 more than they did in 2014 on packets alone. Another coach told a story of sending an assistant across the country for one day, to one event, to watch one team. When the assistant arrived, the team had left early for its next event. No refund was available for the college that had paid what turned out to be a useless entry fee. The head coach called it “exasperating.”
Second, coaches are concerned the September calendar in general is out of control. Along with an evaluation weekend, coaches are visiting juniors for initial in-home visits, and hosting seniors for on-campus visits before the November signing period. And this all takes place with their current team in school, demanding attention and on-court instruction. One veteran coach, who has run a top-20 program for more than a decade, said coaches go into living rooms and “make all these promises about being there for kids—but then we have to go on the road all of September. How does that make sense?” Taking time away from kids on campus, one assistant explained, ultimately holds the game back. In order to grow women’s basketball in the market, the product needs to be better. But how can coaches develop talent if they’re never on campus?
Third, many coaches—especially women—are worried about work-life balance, and if it’s even feasible in an industry with skyrocketing salaries and millions of dollars pouring into college athletics because of television contracts, all of which adds up to increased pressure. July has long been reserved for recruiting season but on the women’s side, there’s the September evaluation period and two spring evaluation periods, plus all the on-campus recruiting and in-home visits. It’s a dizzying amount of work. One female coach said that young coaches especially and “absolutely” feel pressure to go on the road every day that they can, often wearing themselves and their staffs down before games have even started in November.
So will the protest work and create change? No one is quite sure. But according to UCLA coach Cori Close, it’s time to get some concrete numbers.
“I’m not mad at anyone,” said Close, who is about to begin her fifth season in Westwood, and sits on the NCAA’s Ad Hoc Committee, which constantly reviews the recruiting calendar and makes recommendations to the oversight committee about potential schedule changes, additions or subtractions.
“This is not an angry boycott. There are some really good event operators out there … but in September, between the evaluation period and visits, we are spending a lot of money. So we said, let’s get some realistic data. Let’s not go out, and see how it plays out. Maybe we’ll even keep (the calendar) the way it is.”
Conversations about banding together and skipping the evaluation period started in July, at a recruiting event in Augusta, Ga. By August, coaches were circulating emails to take the temperature of each of the Power Five conferences. (In women’s collegiate basketball, the American Conference, home of perennial power UConn, would be considered the sixth “Power Five” school because of the influence Geno Auriemma wields.)
There was some, but not total, consensus: The Pac-12, which had two teams in the 2016 Final Four (Oregon State and Washington) voted in solidarity to not go out this weekend. Close praised her conference’s willingness to come together on the issue, noting the sacrifice made by programs like Arizona and Colorado, both of which have new coaches and are trying to put together viable rosters for the immediate future.
Other conferences played coy when asked what was going on. In a survey conducted by SI.com, many coaches wouldn’t give specifics on their plans for this weekend, merely saying they’d be participating, as a staff, in “recruiting.” They declined to verify if that recruiting would take place on, or off, campus.
One reason to not get too detailed: Coaches are worried about potential backlash from event operators and AAU coaches.
“I really believe in a lot of event operators,” Close said. “I want to listen and learn from them. I know a lot of them are good, and really in it to help kids. To me, if someone threatens something [like refusing to send a player to a particular coach or campus] that will show who’s in it for the right reasons.”
Some coaches erred on the side of being blunt about their plans. Through a UConn spokesman, Geno Auriemma said that while his staff will spend the month recruiting, “I just felt like there was nothing for us to go see that we hadn’t already seen. Our time can be better spent on campus.”
Syracuse confirmed that its coaches will also skip the evaluation period. That means that none of the 2016 Final Four teams will be represented in gyms this weekend.
Still, others have been vocal in their plans to hit the road. Maryland’s Brenda Frese, who won the 2006 national championship and most recently led her team to the 2015 Final Four, is one of those coaches.
“I feel obligated to recruits, to my university and to my family,” Frese said. “I need to do my job.”
Frese was on a foreign trip with her team in Italy in late August when she heard plans about the boycott and felt at that point, it was too late for such a drastic move. “By the time it came up, I had already committed to recruits, and told them they’re going to see me in the stands,” she said.
She has other concerns, too. “I’m a team player, but why are we doing it? I’ve heard a lot of mixed things. Is it over the price of the packets, or that we don’t want the evaluation period? … I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that I’m going out recruiting.”
And yet Frese understands, and shares, the concern about overall spending. On a recent cross-country recruiting trip for an in-home visit, she balked at a $400/night hotel per-room cost for her and her staff. She acknowledges that among Power Five schools, cost isn’t really an issue because athletic departments that make money off football have cash to spend. But at a school like University of Missouri-Kansas City, where Frese’s sister Marsha is the head coach, they don’t have unlimited funds.
Then there’s the chatter that some event operators and club coaches are in it for themselves—and to stuff their own pockets.
Mike Flynn has spent most his adult life working in women’s basketball, first as a reporter, then as a coach and founder of the Philly Belles AAU club (most famous alum: Breanna Stewart) and Blue Star Media. He’s run camps and college showcases since 1981, and will be in the gym this weekend, too. He says any and all college coaches are welcome to swing by. And for the record, he doesn’t seem to appreciate all the vague talk from coaches. If there’s a problem, he says, people need to be specific about it.
“What we have is a massive cowardice from today’s head coaches to say exactly who the problem is,” Flynn says. “It doesn’t help when you have an event operator like Brandon Clay abusing girls’ basketball opportunities … Everybody is entitled to make what they can. But if he wants to flaunt his success, he should be on the boys’ side. Those type of things hurt the integrity of girls’ basketball.”
Clay owns and operates Peach State Hoops, an organization that runs numerous collegiate showcase events and claims to be, “the leader for women’s basketball player rankings, recruiting news and evaluations,” according to its website. Clay has fallen under fire from coaches across the country for what many feel are overpriced Peach State events, where play on the court often doesn’t match the value of the college coaches’ entry fee. Clay declined an interview request from SI.com, but offered his blog as a window into his thinking. Writing from a businessman’s perspective, Clay said that as a leader of a for-profit business, has to “tackle many of the same questions regarding budgets, scheduling and time that these [college] programs do. So it is no surprise that each fall some programs utilize the fall weekend in their planning and others do not.”
Flynn isn’t convinced that come tipoff, college coaches’ chairs will actually be empty. “If you want my take, about 50 percent will stay home. If you take out those who have home football games”—and therefore, are likely hosting 2017 prospects—“the other 50 percent are gonna go out. What else are they going to do? Bravo for those who do go out; it opens up opportunities for other (players). If coaches aren’t going to go to abusive events, double bravo.”
As recruiting gets bigger and bigger for more college sports—there’s an argument to be made that it’s already out of control in football and men’s hoops—Flynn thinks there needs to be more regulation. He says he has repeatedly “requested that the NCAA put in stronger guidelines to deal with the explosion of irreputable events and scouting services, and nothing has been done.”
So what’s the end game? No one seems quite sure.
Close says that while “there is never gonna be a perfect solution for everyone involved,” the move by most Power Five coaches to sit out this weekend has, at the very least, been a good conversation starter between coaches and event operators. She estimates that 90 percent of Power Five schools will stay home.
“I do think that coaches have complained about a lot of things for a long time and now it’s like, oh my gosh, they’re going to do something about that!” she said. “There’s a healthy dialogue taking place now. And I don’t know if that would have happened unless there was a major change.”
Close and other coaches acknowledge the importance of the fall evaluation period for mid-major and lower division schools. Flynn questions if anything will actually change, because he wonders if coaches with influence—as in, coaches who win a lot at the highest—are truly motivated to shake things up. He says that’s not the only problem.
“There’s no vision for where we need to be, because legislation goes through too many hands, and those hands [of administrators] are often not familiar with today’s issues. And, when you’re at the top, all you care about is, ‘Don’t mess up my space, don’t change my routine.’ That’s why there’s no change. Top coaches who sit on committees don’t want to see change, because it may make them uncomfortable.”
There is proposed legislation on the table that would eliminate the September evaluation period as well as one of the spring evaluation periods in April. The vote on both proposals would occur next April, and go into effect for the 2017-18 school year. Until then, there are plenty of open seats for college coaches in the gym. Friday, players and event operators will find out if anyone wants to sit in them.