The Old College Try:
Prep Coach Can Go
Only So Far To Help Athlete
The Nashville Tennessean
By Andy Humbles
Bob Note: This article discusses football and basketball recruiting but the points
made in the topic apply to the high school baseball student-athlete and coach equally
Father Ryan Athletic Director Steve Williams calls college recruiting of
high school student-athletes ''a balancing act among the coach, parents and players.''
But how is it determined which athletes are chased by colleges?
Media publicity? Gaudy statistics? Being on a winning team? All-State honors? How
actively the high school coach pushes his players?
After all, only about 5% of all high school athletes go on to play sports for college
teams, according to the National Federation of High School Associations.
''The biggest myth is high school coaches can get them scholarships,'' Riverdale
football Coach Gary Rankin said. ''You can help them out a lot, but when you're
good enough they'll find you. With some marginal players, the high school coach
can help some. But we hear from parents a lot that we don't help them.''
Rick Byrd has been recruiting players for 25 years as a college coach, the last
16 as the men's basketball coach at Belmont.
''Parents' expectations that high school coaches can push their kids into college
scholarships is way too high,'' Byrd said. ''Most high school coaches will try and
be honest about what level they feel a player is at even though they get emotionally
attached just like I do with my players.
''What parents need to understand is that things like points, stats, coach's
recommendations, they all fall way below the college coach's own evaluation.
That is the single most important part.''
That's not to say a high school coach's role isn't important in the recruiting process.
Pearl-Cohn football Coach Maurice Fitzgerald saw two of his players, John Henderson
and Buck Fitzgerald (the coach's son), wind up at the University of Tennessee. But
those were ''easy'' recruits. Coach Fitzgerald had to push Damien Harris, a 5-foot-6,
145-pound back now playing for Tennessee-Martin.
''Everyone's kid is an All-American, but in reality that's not the case,''
Fitzgerald said. ''A lot of times it's not athletic ability, but there might be
issues as a person. Sometimes you're afraid to stick your name out there because
you get a track record.
''I pushed Damien because colleges saw his size, a kid 5-5, 5-6, 145 pounds.
But what they didn't see is the intangibles — a great student, a great kid, and
he'll run through a wall. He was the third-leading rusher in the [Ohio Valley
Conference] last year until he got hurt.''
Salesmanship vs. Credibility
High school coaches are forced to walk a line between promoting the abilities
of their players and maintaining their credibility with college recruiters.
''The last thing a college coach wants is me calling him about a guy who can't play,''
said Montgomery Bell Academy football Coach Ricky Bowers, who had four Division I
signees from his 2000 team, including quarterback Ingle Martin to the University of
''A high school coach's responsibility is to provide the information requested
by the colleges and requested by the student-athletes to give to the colleges.
That's our job, but it's not our job to tell the colleges who should and shouldn't
''What parents and players don't realize is that just because you score 20
points in high school doesn't mean you'll be a good college player, just like
every good college player won't make the NBA,'' said James ''Doc'' Shelton, boys
basketball coach at Martin Luther King. ''I've seen coaches push kids who couldn't
play, but if a big-time coach calls me, he's going to take me at my word. If
my credibility isn't good, he's not going to listen to me.''
Another tightrope a high school coach like Collinwood's Michael Statom has to
walk is keeping his team together while certain players are receiving letters and
phone calls from college recruiters.
Several college football programs are looking at Collinwood juniors Jon Ward and
Jacob Victory, and senior offensive lineman Blake Luker has signed with Vanderbilt.
''When we get letters, [Statom] just puts them in our locker. When he thinks we need
to know something, he pulls us to the side and talks to us one on one,'' Ward said.
''He doesn't make it a big show. The other players know, but he does everything he
can to help them too.
''I think it would be the wrong attitude for a coach to say 'I'm going to sit back
and do nothing' if he has a player who could play at the next level. He doesn't
push it, but he helps. You hear things like 'so and so is getting more publicity,"
but that's mostly parents, and you get that everywhere.''
Meanwhile, athletes like Harris who might not be Division I prospects but have the
ability and desire to play at a lower-level school may need more assistance from his
or her high school coach.
''In my opinion, if a high school player wants to play in college, a coach should
do everything in his power to do that,'' said Christ Presbyterian Academy basketball
player Jonathan Russell, a guard who is hoping for a chance at an NAIA or Division
II or III school with help from his high school coach, Ken Brooks.
''Like anyone else, I'd love to play at a Duke or something like that, but at my
size and ability I'm going to play at a small-college level, and Coach Brooks is
honest about that.''
Some parents pay recruiting services to provide information to colleges about
their child's athletic exploits.
''We get thousands of mail from recruiting services, parents who have paid for
this,'' Byrd said. ''It might help a Division III player or someone in a minor
sport. But in my case, if you have to hire someone to get attention, you're
probably not getting attention because you're not that good.''
Stats Don't Matter
What the college coach looks for in evaluation, whether live or on film, is almost
always more about potential than overwhelming success at the high school level.
''You have guys that are just good high school football players, but not everyone is
a recruitable athlete on the college level,'' Tennessee State University football
Coach James Reese said. ''The high school coach's job is to sell the student-athlete
on what they can do and provide film.
''Stats are OK, particularly skill guys in that you want to see how he's doing,
but ultimately the determination comes from the coaching staff looking at that
film and meeting him face to face.''
Being on a losing team can make it harder for a prospective college athlete,
but Reese said he found starting tailback Charles Anthony playing for a 2-8
high school in Orlando, Fla., while evaluating a player on the opposing team.
''It's these guys' job to find out who the best players are,'' Shelton said of
college coaches. ''Word gets out. If there's a fire in town, word gets out.''
The attention is more intense from college football and basketball programs because
they have bigger recruiting budgets than many of the so-called ''minor'' sports.
So high school coaches in those sports might wind up playing a greater role in
getting a player noticed by a college.
''With us, some colleges may recruit a player strictly on the phone,'' said Don
Freudenthal, coach of the dominant Class A softball program at Ezell-Harding,
which has sent numerous players to college programs. ''I've had some kids sign,
and they've never seen them play except for videotape.''
Freudenthal follows the lead established by a close friend, the late Ken Dugan,
Lipscomb's legendary baseball coach.
''I know when Coach Dugan was alive, he signed a lot of guys on word of mouth
from people he put stock into,'' Freudenthal said. ''If I have a kid being overlooked,
I'll pick up the phone and maybe call an assistant and say give so and so a look. And
if you have a trust with a coach, they'll give her a look.''
Williams, who will retire as Ryan's athletic director this summer after 16 years at
the job, said prep coaches should take one basic approach when pushing their players
to college coaches, no matter what the sport.
''My perception is that a high school coach has to be brutally honest. I've seen
coaches overexpose a player, [the college] gets burned, then schools won't talk to
that coach anymore and it will hurt other guys.
''Mamas and daddies get mad then, but you are doing a kid a disservice if you
try and put him in a situation he can't be successful.''