by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Wednesday’s announcement of 21 new players to Northwestern’s football program represented a lot of hard work put in by coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff in the past year. In some cases, like with 4-star quarterback Matt Alviti, who chose NU over Nebraska, Notre Dame and a host of others, it’s been a very long process.
“Matt is someone I’ve known longer than my son Brendan,” Fitzgerald remarked. Brendan turned four today.
But for all the work that currently goes into putting together a recruiting class, it’s about to get a lot tougher.
The NCAA announced last month that it would change its regulatory process in regards to recruiting, giving individual schools more of a direct say in how they choose to recruit. That means there will be no more limits on texting or phone calls and no more recruiting dead periods.
“These new rules represent noteworthy progress toward what can only be described as more common sense rules that allow schools more discretion in decision-making,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in the release. “This vote by the Board of Directors refocuses our attention on the things that really matter, the core values of intercollegiate athletics.”
There’s only one problem with Emmert’s “common sense” proposal: many coaches disagree.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Fitzgerald said. “As a trustee of the (American Football Coaches Association), I’m going to do everything I can in my power, I think to educate, like our other trustees will be, to educate our coaching body to override a lot of these NCAA rules that have been passed.”
“With the student-athlete in mind”
The general premise of the NCAA is to do what is best for the student-athletes — to protect them from outside parties trying to profit from their success, to make sure academics come first and to maintain fairness in college athletics. The problem, is many people disagree with the NCAA on how to make sure the student-athletes benefit.
In this case, Fitzgerald feels the NCAA missed the mark big time.
“I think those rules were not made with the student-athlete in mind,” Fitzgerald said. “I’d like to go back to the way it used to be, and we’d like to go back to the NFL model where we can only contact seniors.
“So there’s a lot of week that we’ll get done on Monday, hopefully, with the Big Ten conference and having discussions with our great athletic directors about potentially starting to move forward with trying to override some of the legislation that was passed. Because my opinion… it was a little ready, shoot, aim instead of ready, aim shoot.”
On the surface, one could suggest that there is the benefit of recruits receiving more information, and therefore they will be better prepared to make their college decision. However, there’s a point where too much information is overwhelming.
Top recruits are already hounded by college coaches, and with no contact restrictions, they could get information overload. It’s not that college coaches want to be on their phones all day; rather, it’s the, “I can’t send just five text today because my rival coach might send 10” mentality that could send college football recruiting down a path of no return.
Moreover, now that coaches are contacting even younger players, they can inflate these kids’ views of their abilities from a young age.
“I’m just talking to, especially some of these juniors that I can’t talk about right now that are way, way too wrapped up about this process right now,” Fitzgerald said. “And that’s my concern about the process. I just think we’re self-inflating 17, 16, 15-year old kids’ egos, and the reality is today, kids just bought a ticket to a greater challenge.”
The increased scope of the recruiting process has already played a role in inflating kids’ egos. Naturally, that makes them less coachable in high school and gives them less time to develop from an incredible talent to a great player.
“You’ve got a 15-year old kid that gets rated really high that thinks he’s really good, and a coach can’t tell him to go keep running through the line, because he’s got a personal trainer, he’s got a dot com site or whatever that’s telling him he’s really good,” Fitzgerald said.
“I don’t think that’s healthy for a kid who doesn’t have a license, that’s got to make a lot of choices in his life, that’s got to play multi years on the varsity to be able to grow and learn. So I think some of these things need to be really discussed and analyzed.”
The Burden on Coaches
For recruits, the proposed rule changes mean more hassles and annoying phone calls. For college coaches — especially assistants — it means a completely new job description.
Recruiting is an extremely painstaking job that has assistant coaches flying around the country and talking to recruits for much of the year. That will only increase under the new rules, and because coaches will be afraid of losing out on a player to a rival school, they’ll have to give up any semblance of a home or family life that they currently have if they want to be competitive.
“I don’t think they were made — the changes were not made — with the quality of life of our assistant coaches in mind, and I would like to revert back (to the old rules),” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald would like the NCAA to enforce NFL-style rules, which only allow NFL teams access to college seniors. He said the new NCAA rules will really hamper the ability of high school coaches to coach.
“I would put it to you in this light: How do you think I would feel if the NFL had full access to my sophomores and juniors and seniors?” Fitzgerald said. “It doesn’t make any sense. It makes no sense. So why would we now do it with 15 and 16 and 17-year-old kids?”
For powerhouse high schools with top recruits, normal practices could essentially become scouting combines for college coaches.
“And after talking with the high school coaches, and the association and our trustees meetings at the national convention that we just had,” Fitzgerald said, “the high school coaches have zero interest in us having earlier access with their student-athletes.”
Getting in touch early and often is the only way for college coaches to keep up with their fellow schools because of the fear that if they aren’t doing it, somebody else is. That extends the scope of the job tremendously, and according to Fitzgerald, few people in his business want that to happen.
“There’s not a coach in the country that wants to unlimitedly text message everybody, especially juniors,” Fitzgerald said. “They don’t want unlimited phone calls for the senior class.
“Sure, I’d love to talk to a 12-year-old. I’d rather talk to my 4-year old son today on his birthday.”
Call Centers and Scouting Departments
Under the new rules, it would be impossible for the current coaching staffs to do the necessary work without blocking out the rest of their lives. That means increased staff sizes and more money are necessary to keep up in the recruiting world.
The NCAA is trying to allow individual schools more autonomous decision-making in regards to how they spend their money. However, it will allow the rich to get richer since they have more resources. It will also hurt non-revenue sports as more money is put into football.
In order to keep up, Northwestern will have to significantly increase its football staff. That, in itself, isn’t a bad thing, but it will take away resources available to other sports.
“The trickle-down again now goes to our other 18 sports,” Fitzgerald said. “So what’s going to happen is these athletic departments are going to have to support football in a way that they’ve never had to before, which then hurts Kate Drohan and our softball team, Kellie Amonte Hiller and our lacrosse team and Paul Stevens and our baseball team. That’s what’s going to happen, and I don’t think that’s very wise in the grand scheme of where we’re going.”
Under the new rules, major college football programs could have what are essentially equivalent to NFL scouting departments and talent evaluators who are calling recruits 24/7.
“Again, would I like to add 20 guys to my staff? Sure. Absolutely. Sounds good to me,” Fitzgerald said. “But now I’m going to adding guys — I might as well get a call center, say, ‘Here’s the list. Feel free; call them.’ We’re going to be like United when you call to change your flight. It’s going to be ridiculous. We’ve got major issues that we’ve got to fix.”
Considering the commitment NU has made to investing in athletics, the school can’t afford not to play with the big boys when it comes to recruiting, even if that means adding call centers and scouting departments is necessary to put a winning product on the field.
“If they’re going to have a scouting department in Columbus or Gainesville or Palo Alto, we’re going to have one,” Fitzgerald said.
A Misguided Route
The NCAA has received a lot of criticism over the years that its rulebook is outdated and unenforceable. Everyone — including the NCAA — agrees something has to change.
However, by proposing these new rule changes, the NCAA essentially said, “Since these rules aren’t enforceable, we’re just not going to enforce much at all.” While some things need to be changed, Fitzgerald said, other rules need to stay in place.
“The consequences that come along with this, I keep hearing the term deregulation,” Fitzgerald said. “I’d like to hear the term we use is reregulation — kind of look at the rules that don’t make sense and reregulate those, and the ones that are made for quality of life of the student-athletes.”
Ultimately, the NCAA is trying to find the best ways to protect its student-athletes and its member institutions. But the new ways it’s trying to do so might end up hurting everyone involved. Moreover, it gets away from the organization’s traditional purpose.
“It’s about academics first, them being great kids and hopefully being good enough football players to play Big Ten football,” Fitzgerald said. “And we’re flipping this thing over.”