Recruiting at Iowa. . .

Herky member Tom Kirkendall, who through the years has developed friendships and contacts with quite a few notable Division I coaches, recently posted this perspective on the joys and frustrations of recruiting at the University of Iowa. . .

Date: Fri, 20 Dec 1996 10:13:00 -0600
From: Tom Kirkendall 
Subject: HERKY: Recruiting I

This is the post that I referred to in my earlier post of this morning:

In my view, the fundamental defect in the anti-Davis arguments is a profound misunderstanding of the nature of recruiting at the University of Iowa. Despite their differences, both the anti-Davis camp and the pro-Davis group concede that you cannot win consistently at the Division I level without good players. Most of the Davis-bashers believe that Davis' failure to recruit top notch Division I players year in and year out is a sharp reflection of his mediocre evaluation skills as a coach. On the other hand, many of the Davis defenders (this one included) recognize that Iowa has substantial, if not insurmountable, limitations in its ability to attract top notch Division I players. The Davis defenders believe that he has managed these limitations reasonably well.

The purpose of this post is to start a thread on the nature of recruiting in college football and basketball, particularly with regard to the University of Iowa. In this and a series of following posts, I am going to provide some background on the nature of recruiting which is not well-known outside coaching circles. Moreover, I am going to pass along observations and insight from many of the assistant and head coaches in Division I football and basketball that I have had the privilege of knowing (a few of whom are among my good friends) over the past 25 years. Several of these men have worked as coaches at the University of Iowa.

In starting this thread, I do not expect to convert any of the anti-Davis crowd to his defense team. However, I do believe that a better understanding of the nature of recruiting and the problems that Iowa has traditionally experienced in this key area will help bridge the gap between these two rather entrenched camps of Iowa supporters.

This first post will focus on the background of recruiting. When we talk about recruiting, we all often inadvertantly lump or confuse the recruitment of a player (i.e., the actual courtship) with the evaluation of the player. Actually, the latter occurs before the former and has much to do with defining how a player is recruited. I don't think many of the Davis-bashers believe that he is a lousy recruiter--indeed, most everyone concedes that Davis is a nice man who makes a good impression on most people. Rather, the Davis-bashers believe that he simply is a poor judge of talent and address that deficiency when they call him a lousy recruiter. In reality, coaches come in all stripes when it comes to evaluating and recruiting players. For example, Bobby Knight, who is a very good coach, is legendary for being a mediocre evaluator of talent and an uneven recruiter, charming at times and a horse's ass at others.

Secondly, although evaluation of football and basketball players has improved dramatically over the past several decades--particularly the past decade--evaluation of high school athletes in those sports still pales in comparison to evaluation of baseball players. This is a function of how the professional versions of those sports have developed economically. Over its enduring legacy, Major League Baseball capitalized a vast minor league system which was fed by hundreds of professional scouts, who for over a century have scoured the bushes and farms for the best baseball playing athletes. A parallel system has never been developed for either professional football or basketball--college football and basketball have always been a convenient and inexpensive alternative to minor leagues in those sports. As a result, the "professional scouts" for most Division I universities are still assistant coaches, who spend only a part of their time (probably about 20%) on the actual evaluation of prospective athletes. For years, so-called "talent scouts" in both football and basketball have directed high school athletes to particular Division I programs, but the quality of those evaluators remains largely suspect and certainly not anywhere near as well-refined as professional baseball scouts.

Consequently, inasmuch as baseball scouting is the "granddaddy" of athlete evaluation, evaluation of athletes for Division I football and basketball has traditionally mirrored baseball evaluation. As a result, and bringing the focus to basketball, Division I players coming out of high school are commonly categorized by most top notch coaching staffs into four categories:

Grade A prospect: This means that the balance of information known about the player is overwhelmingly positive. This does not mean that the player is going to be a superstar or even a star player. Some will and some won't. What this term means is that there is no apparent reason why this player should not become a star. Looking at his future, there is no limit. A grade A prospect has roughly a 40% chance of becoming a star in Division I, a 65% chance of being good, and an 85% chance of being a starter for at least a part of his career. A grade A prospect is usually either a very good or dominating player by his sophomore year in high school.

Grade B prospect: This means that what we know about the prospect is mostly good, but that there is something about him that bothers you. For example, an exciting player with good physical skills who has lousy fundamentals. Or an athlete that was a "late bloomer" physically and has not played at a high level throughout his high school career. Many grade B prospects will go on to be Division I stars, so this category does not mean that they won't be a star--only that there is something to worry about. A grade B prospect has roughly a 10-15% chance of becoming a star in Division I, a 40-50% chance of being a good player, and a 70% chance of being at least a marginal regular for at least a part of his career. Virtually all grade A and B prospects will play in Division I. A grade B prospect is usually either a very good or dominating player by his junior year in high school.

Grade C prospect: This means that there is an even mix of information about the prospect that makes you think that he will (i) be a good Division I player, and (ii) won't make it at the Division I level. Occasionally, a Class C prospect will become a star at the Division I level. But not very often. For every Class C prospect that becomes a star, dozens of prospects in this category sink into oblivion without a trace. A grade C prospect has only a slight chance of being a Division I star, and about a 50-50 chance of playing regularly for a part of his career. A grade C prospect is usually a very good player by his senior year in high school.

Grade D prospect: This means that there the indications about the player are predominantly, but not overwhelmingly, negative. The term Grade D prospect means that there is something here that you have to like. It is extremely rare for a Grade D prospect to become a Division I star. Guy V. Lewis, the legendary former Houston coach, once told me that Hakeem Olajuwon was the only Grade D prospect that he had ever heard of who had become a Division I star.

For a variety of reasons that I will address in a future post, Iowa has never been able to attract many Grade A prospects to either its football or basketball program. As a result, Iowa has traditionally relied upon attracting an occasional grade A prospect, a few grade B prospects, a whole host of Grade C and D prospects, and then attempted to "coach the hell out of" the C's and D's to remain competitive with other Division I programs which are able to choose primarily from grade A and B prospects.

Signing off for now, but to return soon . . .

Best regards,

Tom Kirkendall
Houston and The Woodlands, Texas

Date: Fri, 20 Dec 1996 15:36:00 -0600
From: Tom Kirkendall 
Subject: HERKY: Second post in Recruiting Series

My first post explained how most coaching staffs categorize players coming out of high school. This post examines the basic problems that Iowa coaches have traditionally confronted in recruiting. During the modern eras of basketball (post-1955) and football (post-Evy's introduction of the Wing T formation), Iowa has generally recruited a few grade A prospects and a few more grade B prospects, but concentrated on molding groups of grade C and D prospects into competitive teams. This has been a policy followed by almost every Iowa football and basketball coaching staff over the past 40 years.

Iowa's policy has been formed by the problems that it faces in recruiting. The fact of the matter is that almost every year, the majority of grade A and B prospects almost always prefer to attend a school that is close to their home. Inasmuch as Iowa high schools produce few grade A or B prospects in either football or basketball, UI must compete with many other schools for the minority of grade A and B prospects who don't mind traveling to a distant place to play their sport. Iowa has gotten a few grade A and B players who wanted to stay close to home from nearby Illinois and Wisconsin. But many of Iowa's grade A and B prospects in football and basketball have come from distant venues such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Texas.

Moreover, when Iowa has recruited grade A and B players from far off places, it has been almost entirely from places that were less attractive to live than Iowa. Indeed, until Hayden Fry opened up his Texas pipeline to Iowa's football program, it had been a running joke among Iowa assistant coaches that they never got to travel to anyplace nice when they were recruiting--they always had to pursue players at locales less desirable than Iowa City to have any chance of success. That has changed somewhat over the past 10-15 years, but it is still an important threshold hurdle that UI often cannot leap in its recruitment of grade A and B players.

Consequently, in pursuing grade A and B prospects, Iowa coaching staffs have traditionally been faced with a limited supply of prospects who either (i) live in or near Iowa and want to play ball close to home, or (ii) live in locations less desirable than Iowa and want to leave home to play ball.

Complicating Iowa's recruiting further is that grade A and B players are not produced annually in a uniform manner. For example, in one year, Illinois might produce 10 grade A and B players, eight of whom are outside the Chicago urban high schools. The next year, Illionis might produce 2, both of whom attend Chicago urban high schools. Even nationally, in some years there are far less grade A and B players than in others. If in those lean years, the grade A and B players are located primarily in places that are more desirable to live than Iowa, UI will almost certainly have a more risky recruiting year. Note that I didn't say a "worse" recruiting year, just more risky--i.e., in a lean year, Iowa might have to load up on more grade C and D prospects and therefore be forced to "roll the dice" on whether those prospects would develop well during their careers.

In a recent post, Gary Gaffney made a good point about the inconsistent quality of the recruiting "gurus" who have become increasingly influential basketball and football recruiting annals. This inconsistency and the increasing reliance which some coaching staffs (including Iowa's) have placed on these gurus has also affected Iowa's recruiting. Some of these recruiting gurus are quite insightful. However, most of them just pass along "propaganda" on players planted by well-intentioned high school coaches who are attempting to generate scholarship offers for their players. The best evaluators of football and basketball players remain the coaches--that is, the people who have actually experienced in battle what skills are necessary to win at the Division I level. This is not to suggest that all coaches are good evaluators of talent because even some very good ones (i.e., Coach Knight) certainly are not. But by and large, coaches remain the best evaluators of athletic ability. In Major League Baseball, which has the most refined scouting system for high school athletes in American sports, it is rare for a top notch scout not to have an extensive background in either coaching or player personnel development within a top level of athletic competition. In comparison, many of the current recruiting gurus in college basketball and football have no coaching experience whatsoever.

Complicating Iowa's recruiting process even further is the fact that university athletic programs are still widely viewed by coaches and players as either "football schools" or "basketball schools." I know that sounds incredibly simplistic, but remember we are not generally dealing with rocket scientists here. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard coaches use the expression that such and such a university athletic program is a "football school" or a "basketball school" in referring to a particular program. Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Indiana, and UCLA are examples of Division I universities that have comprehensive athletic programs but are still known as "basketball schools." Notre Dame, the three Florida universities, Penn State, LSU, Texas, Texas A&M, Southern Cal, Washington, Ohio State, Michigan (despite their rich basketball heritage), Oklahoma, Auburn and Alabama are examples of universities that are known as "football schools."

The fact of the matter is that grade A and B prospects in basketball and football, who are willing to travel from their home to college, gravitate toward universities that are either "basketball schools" or "football schools." There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is financial. Kentucky, for example, is notorious for having paid its basketball players for decades. The same is true in football at Oklahoma. But there is no question that Iowa is at a competitive disadvantage competing against a "basketball school" or a "football school" for a grade A or B prospect in either sport. The competitive disadvantage is not insurmountable, but it is significant.

During the 1950's, Iowa was among a group of relatively few Division I universities that was considered to have equally strong basketball and football programs. For almost 20 years from 1960 until Coach Fry came on the scene, Iowa came perilously close to becoming known as a "basketball school" only. A part of Coach Fry's enduring legacy at Iowa is that he re-established football as a component of Iowa's well-balanced athletic program. And appropriately, that is how Iowa is currently percieved by most coaches and players--strong, competitive, and well-coached football and basketball programs that are a cut below perennial championship quality because of lack of depth in the number of grade A and B prospects who realistically can be brought into the programs. Again, grade A and B prospects don't assure championships--just look at Michigan's basketball program. However, being able to stockpile such talent certainly increases the chances of success even in the face of mediocre coaching (i.e., not Syracuse's basketball team this year).

Iowa coaching staffs over the past 40 years have adopted a fairly uniform approach to recruiting. From staff to staff, there have been some variations on the approach, but generally those variations have been on the margin. In my next post on recruiting, I'll examine this uniform approach to recruiting and maybe even make a couple of suggestions on how Iowa could improve on it.

Signing off again until then,

Best regards,

Tom Kirkendall
Houston and The Woodlands, Texas

Date: Fri, 20 Dec 1996 15:40:00 -0600
From: Tom Kirkendall 
Subject: HERKY: Third in the Recruiting Series

Recruiting grade A athletes to Iowa is generally a risky proposition. Inasmuch as college basketball and football are, by and large, not prone to excessive risk-taking when it comes to their jobs, Iowa coaches have developed a policy over the past 40 years of recruiting relatively few grade A athletes and concentrating on development of grade B and C players to field competitive teams. Not surprisingly, Iowa's strongest basketball teams over that time have been the ones with the strongest groups of grade B and C players.

I once asked a former Iowa basketball coach about why he didn't pursue more grade A players during his tenure at Iowa. He replied, "For the time it took to recruit one of those grade A players, I could have recruited three or four grade B's, gotten at least two of them, and probably had at least as good a team without the grade A guy. And with my luck, the grade A player would have blown out his knee, anyway."

Risk permeates college recruiting, and the recruitment of grade A players is fraught with risk. Much time is invested in recruiting the grade A player, so if he doesn't pan out, then the coach may have undermined the nucleus of his team by wasting time on the grade A player that could have been better used on recruiting multiple prospects of lower grades. Grade A recruits often come with a price, and if a coach pays that price, the coach runs the risk of an NCAA investigation and his job. In this day and age, successful grade A players in basketball tend to move on to the greener pastures of the pros early so that the coach may be constantly consumed with replacing his departing grade A player with another grade A player while attempting to ensure that team's nucleus of lesser grade players doesn't deteriorate because of his constant pursuit of the grade A players. Even if the coach is successful in developing a pipeline of grade A players, the school will likely become known as a "basketball" or "football" school, often to the detriment of the other major sport program and the balance of the athletic department in general.

Wisely, I think, UI has chosen the course of maintaining a balance in its athletic sports programs, even though that balance has certainly caused it to lose out on the recruitment of grade A players in both football and basketball. Iowa might have been able to attain the status of a "basketball school" like Indiana or Kansas, but I doubt that Iowans would have been willing to pay the price to the other athletic programs--particularly football--that such an emphasis would have likely cost. As a result, Iowa's recruiting policy over the 40 years of the modern basketball era has been remarkably consistent as between the seven coaches of that era--recruit a few grade A players, supplement those grade A's with a strong nucleus of grade B and C players, and then attempt to mold those units into competitive, over-achieving teams.

This approach is particularly evident in the tenures of Iowa's three most successful basketball coaches of the modern era--Bucky O'Connor, Ralph Miller, and Lute Olsen. In 1952, O'Connor had a remarkable recruiting year in which he brought in a borderline grade A player--Carl Cain--a solid grade B big man in Bill Logan, and two over-achieving grade C guards in Bill Seaburg and Sharm Scheurerman. By the end of the 1953-54 season, that group of sophomores was starting (along with junior Deacon Davis) and upset defending national champion Indiana in Bloomington by 20 points! The two following seasons, that group went on to two Final Fours, losing in the semi-finals the first season and in the final game the second. Although Cain was a consensus All-American during those final two seasons and Logan turned into a top notch center, my father and other fans of that team believed that the guard tandem of Seaburg and Scheurerman--both grade C prospects--were the real key to the Fabulous Five's success.

Miller, who coached two Big Ten championships in his seven seasons at Iowa, had three grade A players during his tenure at Iowa--Ben McGilmer, John Johnson, and Fred Brown. All three played major roles on Iowa's undefeated 1969-70 Big Ten championship team. But the three players who played major roles on both of Miller's championship teams were Chad Calabria and Glenn Vidnovic--both grade B prospects--and Dick Jensen, a grade C prospect.

Olsen was the King of the grade B prospect. Not until he recruited Greg Stokes toward the end of his Iowa career did he have a consensus grade A prospect (Clay Hargrave was considered an "A" by many but that was not a consensus). However, the solid grade B and C players that he recruited was an impressive group--Ronnie Lester, Vince Brookins, Bob Hansen, Bruce King, Michael Payne, Kenny Arnold, Kevin Boyle, etc. Olsen's 1980 Final Four team got more out of less talent than any good Iowa basketball team other than the 1961 18-6 team comprised of Don Nelson and 4 grade C and D players.

The experience of Iowa's less successful coaches during the modern era reflect the risks inherent in Iowa's recruiting approach. Sharm Scheurerman recruited Iowa's first bonafide grade A prospect of the modern era--Don Nelson--then supplemented that outstanding recruit with solid subsequent recruiting classes that included three grade B prospects and another grade A--Connie Hawkins. Unfortunately, Hawkins couldn't pass freshman Rhetoric, and the three grade B prospects flunked out at the mid-term of their sophomore season (1961). Nelson's magnificence carried that team to an 18-6 record and 2nd place Big Ten finish, but the nucleus of Scheurerman's program was gutted. Two seasons later, Sharm was history.

Dick Schultz suffered a similar fate. Replacing Miller after the 1970 team's undefeated Big Ten run, Schultz planned on combining grade A recruit James Speed with grade A veteran Fred Brown, a several solid grade B prospects (Niel Fegebank, Rick Williams, Harold Sullinger), and an interesting grade D prospect in the middle (Kevin Kunnert). Unfortunately, Speed was blinded by meningitis before he ever played a game at Iowa, Sullinger flunked out, and Schultz did not have adequate grade B prospects to compensate for those losses. After four seasons, Schultz was gone.

It took Coach Davis a few years to understand the problems of recruiting at Iowa. After inheriting a solid nucleus of players that included a grade A prospect (Marble) and a host of good grade B's (Armstrong, Horton, Wright, Lorenzen), Davis initially invested a substantial amount of time in recruiting a grade A prospect--Ray Thompson. That turned out to be a mistake, and the time invested in Thompson undermined the overall quality of his first two recruiting classes after the Marble/Armstrong/Horton group left. He did a nice job in recovering from that poor start by recruiting solid grade B players such as Chris Street, James Moses, Val Barnes, and James Winters, and developing grade C Acie Earl into a reasonably effective Division I center. However, three major disappointments have undermined the effectiveness of Davis' recruiting during the latter half of his tenure at Iowa--(i) the failure of grade A prospect Kenyon Murray to pan out into a star player, (ii) the death of Street, a grade B prospect who was becoming a star player, and (iii) the failure to attract LaFrenz to UI, the only consensus grade A basketball prospect to be produced by an Iowa high school in the modern era.

In my fourth and last post on recruiting (which will follow this one shortly), I will give my recommendations on how Coach Davis can improve his recruiting at Iowa.

Best regards,

Tom Kirkendall
Houston and The Woodlands, Texas

Date: Fri, 20 Dec 1996 15:42:00 -0600
From: Tom Kirkendall 
Subject: HERKY: Fourth (and last) in the Recruiting Series

Here are my recommendations for upgrading the quality of Coach Davis' recruiting at Iowa:

1. Concentrate on recruiting the grade B prospects. As Miller and Olsen proved, these are the heart and soul of good Iowa teams. There are more of them than grade A prospects, and they generally do not take as much time to recruit as the grade A guys, so you can hedge your risk of losing one better than you can with a grade A prospect. No grade B prospect produced by an Iowa high school should be allowed to get away from Iowa.

2. Don't ever lose a grade A prospect produced by an Iowa high school. This type of player is so rare that it is pretty inexcusable to allow one to get away. The loss of LaFrenz was a big blow to Davis' program. If Davis loses Oliver, I may become a convert to the Herky Davis-basher group.

3. The only grade C and D prospects that Iowa should recruit are "project" big men. Forget wasting scholarships on grade C guard prospects like McCausland. Iowa's program has reached a status that all of its "open court" prospects (i.e., point and big guards, and small forward) should be at least of grade B quality.

In conclusion, Iowa's recruiting policy will probably never allow either Iowa's basketball or football program to reach pinnacle status. However, that policy is based upon realistic limitations that Iowa has in recruiting grade A prospects and the policy has produced well-balanced athletic programs that are competitive with the best in Division I. If Iowa were to change its recruiting approach radically, then there is a substantially increased risk of NCAA sanctions and imbalance in the athletic programs. You don't have to agree with this approach--and I concede that Coach Davis' execution of it merits much of the Herky Davis-bashers' criticism--but I think it's hard to argue that Iowa's recruiting policy is unreasonable or not well-founded. As Coaches Evy, Fry, Miller, and Olsen have shown, with a little luck, Iowa's recruiting approach can produce Big Ten champions and national title contenders. If Davis improves in his execution of it, I think he can improve the performance of his teams over the latter half of his Iowa tenure and take it to a higher level. But as I pointed out at the start of this post--recruiting at Iowa is a risky proposition. If Davis does not improve his recruiting, Iowa's basketball program could slide downward quickly.

There, I'm through.

Best regards,

Tom Kirkendall
Houston and The Woodlands, Texas

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Later, Tom added these thoughts about Iowa high school sports:

Subject: HERKY: Improving Iowa H.S. Athletics
Date: Sat, 21 Dec 1996 17:48:00 -0600
From: Tom Kirkendall 

Brad Moss and Gary Gaffney have started an interesting thread about how athletics in Iowa high schools has improved over the past 25 years. I cannot add much to their insightful thoughts, but here are a couple of observations:

1. One of Hayden Fry's enduring legacies at Iowa is the emphasis that he placed on recruiting Iowa high school players. Having said that, his Texas recruiting pipeline facilitated his Iowa recruiting because he was able to take complimentary or developmental Iowa players that some former Iowa coaches might not have been able to take a chance on. Evy did the same thing to an extent with his Ohio and East Coast recruiting pipeline, but he did not recruit Iowa players as heavily as Hayden.

2. No question that Iowa high school coaching has improved. Let me give you a concrete example. When I was a sophomore at City High (1968-69), the varsity football team did not win a game (0-9). Indeed, our sophomore team could have given the varsity a run for their money that season. The following spring, John Raffensperger replaced the former City High track coach and turned City High's track program into one of the state's best. Two seasons later in my senior season (1970-71), City High won the Mississippi Valley Conference football championship for the first time since the 1953 season. Raffensperger's ascension to track coach and the football championship a short time later was not a coincidence.

3. I think the development of Iowa high school basketball is a more difficult proposition than football. Iowa has a small black population and basketball is quintessentially a black man's game. Allow me to use my personal experience as another example. Born and raised in Iowa through high school, I was a decent basketball player who played on a couple of good City High teams. Immediately after high school, I moved to Houston with my family. Eight years later, after playing a steady diet of playground, University of Houston intramural league basketball, and summer league basketball against good black players, I was playing competitively (well, against everyone but Calvin Murphy, that is) against many professional and Division I basketball players in Houston's Pro-Am Summer League at Houston's Fonde Recreation Center. There is absolutely no way that I would have developed as a basketball player to the extent necessary to qualify to play in that league had I remained in Iowa City. The competition against the good black players in Houston quite simply made me a better player.

4. Iowa high school basketball teams need to play more tournaments. Before district (i.e., conference) play begins in Texas, most high school teams have played in at least two, and as many as four, tournaments. They begin around Thanksgiving and continue all the way through the Christmas holidays. District play generally begins after Christmas. This emphasis on tournament play allows teams to compress many games into a short period of time. The resulting increase in competition improves the quality of play.

5. As good people like Gary Gaffney contribute their time to the development of youth sports in Iowa, I expect Iowa high school sports to continue to improve. When I grew up in Iowa City, there was not much in the way of organized youth sports past Little League baseball. When I moved to Texas after high school, I was utterly amazed at how much more developed and organized youth sports were in Texas than in Iowa. That Iowa has been catching up over the past 25 years is an important factor in the development of quality athletes.

Best regards,

Tom Kirkendall
Houston and The Woodlands, Texas

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