This is the first of a two-part series examining how the college baseball recruiting landscape changed during the COVID-19 pandemic and what lies on the horizon. Part 1 deals with the extended recruiting dead period and how college coaches coped with having to alter their methods of recruiting. Part 2 in October will examine the impact of the transfer portal.
Christmas came early for college coaches and recruiting coordinators in 2021.
After having to deal with an extended dead period for 15 straight months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Division I coaches had their restraints removed on June 1 when the NCAA officially ended the dead period, allowing coaches and recruiters to return to some sense of normalcy in attracting and getting players to campus.
College baseball coaches will enter the second full contact period on the 2021-22 recruiting calendar on Friday (Sept. 10), where for the next month they can continue to bring recruits to campus, show off facilities, display the atmosphere of college football gamedays and put on their best recruiting pitches to entice the next wave of college baseball standouts. The difference is that, as opposed to a quiet period, coaches can now visit players on their high school campus or in their homes, and evaluate them during games.
It is the sense of normalcy that has eluded college baseball coaches for the better part of two years.
“For us, anytime we get a player on campus at Georgia Tech, any and all negative connotations or perceptions that they have about anything are absolved,” said James Ramsey, an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Georgia Tech and former All-American at Florida State. “I think not being able to put a recruit’s two feet on campus and in our new $12 million facility was challenging. But I also think that for the families that also wanted to actually be on campus, it’s one thing to say a campus feels like home on a Zoom call. It’s another to say it feels like home when you’re actually at the campus.”
Some sense of normalcy
During a recruiting dead period, coaches are not allowed any in-person contact with recruits and/or their parents. Coaches are not allowed to bring recruits to campus, cannot talk to them at the athlete’s school or an athletic camp. Not even a random meeting at the local convenience store is allowed.
Athletes and coaches still are allowed to communicate by phone, email, social media and other forms of digital communication. But it’s not the same. The phone can tell the college coach only so much about the athlete, and the athlete can learn only so much about the school in an email.
It’s hard enough to get a leg up on recruiting while having to do that for a few weeks during the normal recruiting calendar, none of which are consecutive. Imagine having to do that for 15 months straight.
The NCAA initially shut down college recruiting and instituted an indefinite dead period on March 13, 2020. Then, in September 2020, the dead period was extended again through the end of the year. The NCAA finally announced last April that the dead period would end June 1 and schools would return to their regular recruiting calendar.
For college baseball coaches, it was almost two full seasons of having to rely on highlights, videos and the kids’ words as to just how ready they were to be a Division I player. While video can show quite a bit about a kid, it can show only so much.
“You don’t get to see what happened or what they do away from the game,” said Jim Schlossnagle, who was recently hired as head coach at Texas A&M after 18 successful seasons at TCU. “You’re only seeing their best pitches, you’re only seeing their best swings. You don’t get to see them run the bases, you don’t get to see them play a ton of defense. You don’t get to see the intangibles that come with being in the ballpark and watching them interact with teammates and coaches and parents. You’re just seeing the best of everybody versus the entirety of the skill set and the full picture.”
The extended dead period forced coaches to not only get creative about how they evaluate players and decide whether to offer them scholarships almost sight unseen, but also forced them to practice restraint. While the dead period was extended for more than a year, the NCAA did provide relief by relaxing roster and scholarship limitations in order to give coaches more leeway in building a team during the 2021 season.
“You’re certainly taking some risks that you would never have taken because you didn’t see them with your own eyes,” said Cooper Fouts, an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Louisiana Tech, who joined the Bulldogs staff after three seasons at Purdue. “So, you're probably trusting some people that maybe you've trusted, but man, you just didn't know. So that was a challenge.
“But I think the biggest piece was just, when you get a guy committed, and you just don't quite know. You want to think that guy's pretty good. But no matter what, you're always going to miss on guys, and I think the mystery is just going to be so much higher because you didn't see him with your own eyes. And it's not just the talent evaluation, it's the personality evaluation. We didn't get to spend time with them on campus, you didn't get a chance to meet their parents, you didn't get a chance to really have the interaction you normally would, where you would on the personal side of the recruiting process.”
So now that the extended dead period is a thing of the past, and coaches are into the current recruiting calendar, just what will college baseball recruiting look like going forward?
The NCAA is providing some relief through various recruiting waivers. One of those, applicable to all sports, will allow full-time institutional staff members, current students and all coaches, including volunteer coaches, to initiate recruiting calls (telephone or video) involving prospective student athletes at an institution they're permitted to call. This waiver will extend to Dec. 31 and requires all staff who do not normally make recruiting calls to pass the NCAA recruiting exam before making or receiving calls with prospective student-athletes.
A roster limit will be put back into place for the 2022 season, but it will be extended to 40 spots whereas in 2021 there was no cap. Also, the number of players on scholarship will stay at 32, where it was in 2021, and for the second straight season the 25 percent scholarship minimum – requiring all players on a roster to be at least at one-quarter of a scholarship – will be waived.
Plus, the NCAA granted a waiver for a one-time transfer for all student-athletes as long as they entered the transfer portal by July 1. Almost 3,000 prospective student-athletes were in the transfer portal as of Sept. 1, providing for 2022 rosters across college baseball to be radically changed.
And while all this signals a return to some sense of normalcy from the days before the pandemic, there may not be a complete return to the way it was, at least not anytime soon.
“I don't think we'll ever see the old normal again, because I think you're going to have a higher percentage of grad transfers as well, because you're going to have more young guys who are registered early on and because of the older kids who are still in college,” Fouts said. “So, I think that'll be the cycle that you have to continue to look at is how many guys are grad transferring. Much like football, their first year, they're redshirting. And I think that cycle of older kids staying in college baseball, they’re around for a good amount of time, until that cycle wears out, I still think it's going to be another three to four years before you can see the age of kids in college go back to what it used to be. I don't think it's a one- or two-year fix.”