Coaches' signing week confessional: A wrong house, a runaway car and a drifting boat
Geno Auriemma was on the golf course one morning during the offseason in 1999. The UConn women's basketball coach was on edge because he was expecting an important call, but he didn't know exactly when it would come in. So he explained to Dave, his playing partner, that he might have to suddenly step away for a few moments in the middle of the round.
Moments later, Auriemma's phone rang. It was Diana Taurasi.
"So there we are, on the golf course, and all of a sudden my phone rings, and I pick it up, and it's Diana," Auriemma said. "I hang up and Dave goes, 'How did it go?' I said, 'Well, we just got the best player in the country, maybe someone who can become one of the best players in the history of college basketball.' And he goes, 'No way.' I said, 'Yep, you heard it here first.' It was an amazing moment, and then it was back to golf."
While Auriemma remembers that moment vividly, he doesn't remember a thing about his round after the call. He's pretty sure it wasn't great because he was pretty preoccupied with landing the best player in the country. (Can you blame him?)
Tales from the recruiting trail are nothing new. Fans of college basketball have heard story after story of future stars fielding call after call, hearing promise after promise, and going on visit after visit. The stress, however, isn't reserved for prospects. It's perhaps even more severe for coaches whose livelihoods can depend on the decisions of teenagers. Recruiting becomes an all-encompassing part of coaches' lives, never far from their thoughts -- or phones. In fact, sometimes it's the recruiting game that gives coaches their most memorable and entertaining wins and losses.
For every player Auriemma lands at UConn, there are dozens of other coaches across the country receiving a call, albeit a much more disappointing one, from the same player. Stephanie Gaitley, now the head coach at Fordham, knows what it's like to lose a top player to UConn all too well. In 1990, she was the head coach at Richmond and found her program on Rebecca Lobo's short list. She knew landing Lobo was a long shot, but she was thrilled Richmond was in consideration because she believed Lobo was the type of player who could transform her program.
So when Lobo told her she would be calling her at a certain time, Gaitley was a mixture of nerves and excitement. It was the pre-cell phone era, so Gaitley made her way to her office to receive the call. She remembers hopping out of her car and running inside.
"I'm hanging around and the call finally comes in -- she decides to go with UConn," Gaitley said. "I absolutely understood her decision, but I was of course disappointed. I walked outside, and I'm like, 'Holy sh--, where is my car? I'm looking all around, it's a new Mercedes my husband and I were leasing, and I can't see it anywhere. I'm thinking, 'I know I parked it here. Someone must have stolen it.' I'm panicking. And then someone says, 'There's a car in the ditch across the street.'
"Sure enough, it's my car. In all my excitement, I forgot to put it in park, and it was in neutral. It rolled across the street, and into a ditch. It thankfully didn't get damaged, but that was the culmination of my attempt to recruit Rebecca Lobo."
Gaitley can laugh about it now. After all, that's somehow not even the worst of her recruiting stories. There was the time she got bit by a prospect's dog and had to cover the gushing blood with her sweatshirt so the family wouldn't see how bad it was. She got a rabies shot as soon as she left. Another time -- pre-Uber -- she miscalculated how far a recruit lived from the airport and didn't have enough cash to pay for her 100-mile return cab trip, so she asked the prospect's parents for a ride. She didn't land either player, but she'll never forget them.
She is far from alone with her stories of travel nightmares. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was packing for a recruiting trip to Canada recently when she realized her passport had expired and she would be unable to go. She called associate head coach Lisa Boyer and told her she would have to make the trip alone.
"Of course, dummy me, I didn't look at my passport until the night before, so [Boyer] went by herself and the plan was to videoconference me in," Staley said. "So she went to the young lady's house, or what she thought was her house, and she's sitting there in the living room with this older couple who don't speak English, and only speak French, and don't seem to understand why she's there. She's sitting there awkwardly for 10-15 minutes and finally she was like, 'This doesn't feel right -- let me try to get out of this.'
"Turns out she was actually in the wrong spot. She calls me, and we ended up figuring out she was about 20 to 25 minutes away from where she needed to be. She ended up making it there, but was pretty late."
Speaking last week while waiting to hear from several top-10 prospects, Staley admitted the process can be draining. Even when she feels confident a prospect will be committing to South Carolina, she doesn't fully believe it until she sees them publicly declare it with a tweet or a signing ceremony at their high school. Too many things can change in the course of a day, or a weekend, and she never knows what another coach may have said or promised. Her phone is with her at all times just in case someone has made a decision or has had a change of heart.
Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer can relate, although his cell service isn't always the most reliable.
"I love to go fishing, and during the summer, I tend to go off the coast and the reception there is terrible," he said. "It's, of course, always when someone calls who I haven't been able to get a hold off. Finally, they're returning your call and the next thing you know, you've drifted 10 yards to the right, and all of a sudden you realize you haven't heard them say anything back and you're like, 'Hello?' and then you look at your phone and there's no service.
"If it's an underclassman, you can't call them back [due to NCAA rules], so I'll start driving around holding my phone up until it dings and hope they call back. It's stressful."
Thankfully, he tends to be on land when a player calls with her ultimate decision. When he landed Victoria Vivians in 2013, easily the biggest recruit he had gotten to that point, he was sitting at a conference table eating a taco salad.
"I remember dropping my fork and standing up and screaming when I got the call from Victoria Vivians," he said. "Of course, everybody down the hall came running and going, 'What's wrong?' and making sure I was OK. But it was just such an exciting time, and we had worked so hard to get her. I remember talking to her high school coach from an airplane as we were heading to the Sweet 16. I talked to him until we got into the clouds and lost contact because I wanted him to know how badly we wanted her.
"But everyone would tell me we didn't have a chance to get her because there were so many good teams after her. I'd go to the golf course and there's a man, he's 93 now, he was probably 87 or 88 back then, and he'd meet me on the first hole and he'd say, 'Well, I hear you're not getting Victoria because she's going to Florida or Kentucky or wherever.' You can't pay attention to the noise. I always felt good about her, even though she did have opportunities at bigger places, but that's what made it even better when she called."
Coaches can generally tell within the first two words of the phone call whether a player had chosen to come play for them or not.
"You know right away by the tone of the voice, or even by how they address you over email to let you know or set up a call, what their decision is," Texas A&M head coach Gary Blair said. "If it's an upbeat voice, it's a good sign. If they sound down or uneasy, or if they write, 'Dear Gary,' or 'Hello Gary,' you know it's game over."
Blair, like Auriemma, has gotten his fair share of calls -- good and bad -- on the golf course, and his regular foursome partners have come to expect him to skip a hole to take a call.
"Geno has won 11 titles at UConn -- he doesn't need to recruit," Blair said. "The reality is, he selects who he wants, and the rest of us recruit who he doesn't pick. He's earned that right, but it does make it challenging.
"Winning a national title [in 2011] and everything after -- being at the ESPYS, doing the 'Dougie' on television -- helped with recruiting big-time. The worst 'Dougie' anyone has probably ever seen. White men really can't dance. That's why I probably haven't been invited on 'Dancing with the Stars,' which I watch every Monday night, but I bet that would help get some players, too."