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Look back to look forward

It's not a secret that the recruiting process could use some changes. Glenn Nelson for ESPN.com

Through the years, the recruiting landscape has shifted dramatically.

The evolution of recruiting legislation generally has been an effort to address the needs of the student athletes or a response to the growth and changes in the recruiting process itself. What has also happened is an often shortsighted and kneejerk reaction to issues without understanding the residual effects and long-term impact of that action.

When I started coaching back in 1985 there were minimal guidelines surrounding virtually every aspect of recruiting. You could call a prospect of any age, at any time, and as often as you liked. Often a phone call would occur before you could even get a questionnaire in their hands. We were calling players in three or four different academic classes and it wasn't unusual to be making multiple calls each week to both the prospect and her parents. It's important to keep in mind that this was a time when most homes had only one phone and mom and dad weren't too thrilled for it to be tied up all the time. A recruit with her own phone in her room was a recruiting luxury. The closest thing to a cell phone was seen on reruns of "Star Trek."

During that time, getting out and seeing athletes in action had no limits as well. There was no limit on the days we could be on the road in the academic year or the number of times we could evaluate a recruit. Often we saw virtually every game our top recruits played with their high school team. A lot of assistant coaches missed quite a few of their own games in those days. At one point the NCAA limited us to the evaluation of three competitions per year. Of course that meant we started dropping in on their practices at every opportunity since they didn't actually meet the definition of "competition". We were on the road in the summers back then, too, but you didn't see players the multiple times that you do today. AAU National Championships were exempt and run outside the July recruiting period which at that time just happened to run the entire month. We made a living off those AAU events and the Blue Star and Cathy Rush camps, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to current summer schedules that some athletes take on today.

The correspondence that we sent back then was pretty focused and, just like the phone calls, it began as soon as you identified a prospect rather than Sept. 1 of the junior year as it does now. We wrote several times a week, followed up every call, dropped a line when something big happened with our team or on special occasions … like if the sun came up. We couldn't talk to recruits after their games in person, but you can bet we didn't leave the gym without handing a note to the coach to share with her. Keep in mind none of that was electronic. Handwritten wasn't the gold standard of interest; it was a necessity of the time. The fax machine added a new dimension to things -- as did e-mail -- and we did our best to keep FedEx in business trying to make our correspondence stand out among the crowd. Texting and instant messaging were another chapter in the written efforts of recruiters and contributed to a tremendous lack of sleep that college coaches have yet to recover from.

Through the years legislative changes were enacted to protect the athletes and their families from the constant barrage of recruiting communication and the imposition it made on them both academically and personally. The advent and constant tweaking of the recruiting calendar has served both recruiters and recruits alike. Other changes still have been enacted to level the playing field among college programs despite the fact the resources and opportunities of each program are inherently different. The growth of the game itself, the resources and efforts allocated by college programs and even the advancement of technology have each necessitated legislative attention as well.

While the intent of each change through the years has seemingly had the best interests of the recruits, coaches or the process itself in mind, it would be easy to debate as to whether recruiting, as a result, has evolved into the refined experience it should be today. In this ultra-competitive environment it's hard to have a conversation with any college coach and not encounter the sentiment that we have to change this or we have to change that.

You'll have no problem finding coaches who want less days on the road and at the same time turn around and find an equal number staunchly holding on to every opportunity they have to get out and evaluate. There are those who want earlier opportunities for official campus visits and others in turn who claim it would only benefit those of the upper echelon programs. No matter what the topic, you'll find varying opinions and all too often they'll be self-serving reactions to current trends in recruiting rather than what's best in the broader spectrum.

From the prospect's side of things there is legitimate debate as to whether the current structure allows for sufficient contact and exposure to a university, program and its coaches. Add to that the early offers and commitments that are made with limited research and homework from both sides and it's obvious the road is still lined with potholes. The transfer student was a rarity back when unlimited contact was the norm but today a large number of coaches monitor and hold a scholarship yearly for the ever growing number of disgruntled athletes.

The reality that we may have created over the years is that we've legislated ourselves into a whole new set of problems. Yes, the athletes needed protection, privacy and respect in the recruiting process and that relief was provided. At the same time with communication and contact minimized, evaluation opportunities restricted and the necessity of an offer just to stay in the running, coaches are forgoing the courtship. Marriage is being proposed on the first date and it's often being done through a third party at that.

It used to be that you wrote to a player so that you could hopefully get them on the phone when the time came. Once you got them on the phone your goal was to set up a home visit and sit down with them and their family in their living room. In their home you hoped to walk away with a commitment for one of their five permissible official campus visits. If you were fortunate enough to get them on campus you then had the chance to help them envision themselves in that environment and seal the deal. Simple, nice, neat and step by step.

That structure seems to have taken a backseat to the fast track recruiting of today. Now it's more like see them play, call their coach and put an offer on the table. Extending a scholarship offer isn't the honor and compliment it was years ago, it's just the ante to stay in the game. Poker is a fitting analogy since coaches are more willing than ever to gamble on recruits personally. They're content to worry about getting to know them down the road. "If she can play, let's get her on campus" is today's recruiting battle cry.

The "good ole days" are not the answer but as the sport looks at new legislation and structure it's important to see a bigger picture that includes a glance to the past. The tradeoffs have to be recognized and it's important to stop trying patch work our way through issues. Nothing needs to be done because it's being done on the men's side, and it shouldn't be avoided for the same reason. We need to look back at the positive aspects of our own contact, interaction and framework that used to be there and find the long-term solutions that won't need readdressing or lead to an entirely new set of problems.

A better thought than the one I opened with may well be: May you have the hindsight to know where you have been, the foresight to know where you are going, and the insight to know when you have gone too far.
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Mark Lewis is the national recruiting coordinator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State. He can be reached at mark@hoopgurlz.com.