Recruiting that STEMs from Academia

The recruiting steps for student-athletes as viewed through the lens of a Division III coach at a high academic STEM institution

-Coach Rusty Loyd, Head Men’s Basketball Coach, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

THE OVERALL LANDSCAPE – It is important to understand that every school, at every level, has challenges in its ability to recruit.  Some schools just have more challenges than others.  At the highest levels of Division I, recruiting comes down to facilities, relationships, playing style, and life after college.  Some schools provide in these areas better than others, which gives them a recruiting advantage.  What do the practice facility, arena, and locker rooms look like?  Who will be teammates, and what coach will be training, teaching, and mentoring me?  What will the team run to best accentuate what I do as a player and create opportunities for me after college?  Answering these questions allows a coach to successfully recruit at that level.  Moving from Division I high-major to Division I mid-major to Division II to Division III, two things are clear…the lines between the levels are incredibly undefined and ambiguous, and the questions student-athletes need answered change drastically from Division to Division and school to school.

THE DIVISION III LANDSCAPE – Division III coaches have a different list of questions than those at Division I.  Some are inherent to the level that we work…schools do not have massive budgets for practice facilities, separate playing arenas, and athletic dorms.  Schools do not offer athletic scholarships to help cover the costs for players.  Coaches are not paid hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars along with their five, six, or seven man staffs of assistants and operations directors and strength coaches to support the players in every way possible.  What Division III athletics does have are nice facilities (some that are new and cost millions of dollars – and some that are older and don’t), financial aid that is determined similarly to every other non-athletic student who attends the school, and finally, most only have two paid coaches (and sometimes a graduate assistant) doing the jobs of larger staffs at higher levels.  But like I said, we all have challenges.  Some of us just have more challenges than others.  

THE INSTITUTIONAL QUIRKS – While navigating the Division III landscape, coaches are also navigating those challenges that are specific to the school for whom they work…what I refer to as “the quirks.”  What is your geographic recruiting radius (intra-state, intra-region, or national)?  What majors does the school offer?  What are the minimum academic requirements for admission?  And the most important question of all…how competitive is financial aid?  These are the questions that a coach should have asked when he interviewed for the job, and these are the challenges that he agreed to overcome when he decided to take the job.  Every coach has to recruit through “the quirks” of their school to find success.  Because at every school, there is an ideal student in that school who would thrive at a particular institution.  The job of a Division III coach is to find that young man (and hope that he is good at basketball). 

THE STEM SCHOOL SEARCH – My school, a Division III school, certainly has its quirks in recruiting.  

What are the steps necessary to recruit at a high academic Division III school that only offers STEM majors?  To understand these steps, it is essential to know my recruiting philosophy.  

We only bring in four to six recruits each year.  Some years it is more (we had a class of nine), and some years it is less (we had a class of three).  Our goal, unlike most Division III programs, is to keep every newcomer in the program for all four years.  Most Division III schools do not have a recruiting philosophy centered around maintaining recruits in the program for four years.  Often, schools recruit as many players as possible, create competition in practices/games, and the best players survive for the entire four years.  I believe that promising players a four-year experience (not promising playing time, but being a part of the team) creates a culture of competitiveness, but also camaraderie.  Players understand that their teammates are counting on them to perform, improve, and succeed.  In 11 years (five as an assistant and six as the head coach), 59 players have decided to join our program after being extended “an offer” (explained later).  Of those 59, 49 have made it through the program all four years.  That is an 83% retention rate, which would be incredible for most scholarship schools and is almost unprecedented at the Division III level.  I believe the greatest factor in our high retention rate is the philosophy that the individual matters to team success; recruiting is not about bringing in the most players and seeing who can survive.  I believe in educating players about the challenges they will face before they arrive.  This creates a culture where the expectation is that players help one another survive and thrive.

To matriculate a class of four to six players, we begin with approximately 2000 names in our database.  Most of those 2000 student-athletes will never step foot on campus, and our staff will never watch most of them play. About 80% of them will not meet our admissions standards, but to get to that class of four to six players, you must start somewhere.

STEP 1A – FOUND THE STUDENT (March through February)

I (it is the collective “we” of my staff, but for simplicity, I will use “I” throughout) find the student-athletes that eventually join my team using two methods.  FOUND THE STUDENT or FOUND THE ATHLETE.  There are a multitude of ways that I can find academic information for a prospective student-athlete.  They include but are not limited to…

  • Email/phone call/direct message from the prospect
  • Email/phone call/direct message from a high school or AAU coach
  • Email/phone call/direct message from a reference such as a parent or an alumnus

On those occasions, when I receive the academic information for a student and they meet our academics requirements, I have FOUND THE STUDENT and now must determine his athletic ability.

At the same, I have rosters from elite camps, AAU tournaments, summer shootouts, and recruiting services.  I spend countless hours entering information into our database (our student workers do most of this) to contact each of them individually.  Every single player that enters our database is contacted via text/email (or both) and asked two simple questions, “What is your GPA/test score?  What do you want to study in college?”  When a student-athlete sends back information that meets our minimum requirements AND identifies a STEM major – we have FOUND THE STUDENT.  Now I must determine his athletic ability by FILLING IN THE BLANK (Step 2).

STEP 1B – FIND THE ATHLETE (March through February)

There are a multitude of ways that I can gather information regarding an impactful player for a program.  They include but are not limited to…

  • Email/phone call/direct message from the prospect
  • Email/phone call/direct message from a high school or AAU coach
  • Email/phone call/direct message from a reference such as a parent or an alumnus
  • Evaluating players in high school games, AAU games, Elite Camps, All-Star games, and every other conceivable type of game where a high school player participates.

On those occasions when I receive information about a player who could positively impact our program, I have FOUND THE PLAYER and now must determine his academic ability.

The biggest difference between FOUND THE PLAYER and FOUND THE STUDENT is accessibility to information.  For me, it is much harder to find a student because anyone can watch a basketball game and recognize the great players.  But no one can observe that same game and recognize which great players are also great students!  There are hundreds of thousands of players competing in high school basketball games around the world who could help my team win games.  However, only a small percentage of those students have the academic resume to get accepted to my institution.  Similarly, an even smaller percentage want to study within the STEM field.  

Finding a great player is hard.  Finding a great player who has excellent academic credentials is extremely hard.  Finding a great player who has excellent academic credentials and wants to study STEM is like finding a needle in a haystack.  I am the guy who is always digging through the haystacks!

Combining steps 1A and 1B allows me to identify and recruit enough quality student-athletes to assemble a strong recruiting class at the Division III level.  Once identified as a strong student OR as a strong player, the next step is to FILL IN THE BLANK.

STEP 2 – FILL IN THE BLANK (March through February)

Filling in the blank is a simple process.  If I have FOUND THE STUDENT, the next step is to determine his athletic ability.  With the internet and more widespread use of game film platforms like Hudl and Synergy, this step used to take weeks, if not months, to complete.  Now it can be done in hours, if not minutes.  Conversely, if I have FOUND THE PLAYER, then I must identify how strong of a student he is and what he plans to study in college.  Asking players via text or email for their academic info is the best and most time-efficient way to gather information.  One of the resources that helps combine this process into one simultaneous search is a recruiting service.  They provide academic info and film evaluations in one-stop shopping.  Streamlining the process is a huge time saver in finding prospects, but transforming this information into serious interest is the next challenge.

STEP 3 – GAUGING INTEREST (March through February)

After a prospect is identified, and the blanks are filled in (with positive information), a student-athlete becomes a “TOP RECRUIT.”   Every top recruit is contacted and introduced to our institution and program.  In initial conversations, I provide information and gauge a prospect’s interest.  An interested prospect receives an invitation to visit campus.  Within my program, an invitation to campus is the greatest measuring stick of our sincere interest in a prospective student-athlete.  

Potentially admissible students who are good players but have little to no interest in a high academic institution are removed from our top list. Players in this category seldom matriculate to our institution.  Recruiting is about the allocation of resources, and time is the most critical resource coaches have at their disposal.  Coaches cannot spend time pursuing individuals that they believe will choose a different institution – for any reason.  

Although I may pursue a few students who fall into this category each year, more often than not, I remove those who do not prioritize academics.  Removing a player from the list does not mean I remove him from my recruiting list entirely.  I will continue to educate every student who is academically qualified for our school on the opportunities available academically and athletically.  If at some point, the prospect shows an interest in visiting campus, I reevaluate his priorities and determine if a visit is a good use of his time and my time.  

STEP 4 – CAMPUS VISIT (September, March, April)

I offer two types of campus visits– both of which are unofficial visits as defined by the NCAA.  The first is a visit during the school year to spend most or all of a day learning about the different academic and athletic opportunities we provide.  On a typical visit, a student-athlete will participate in a variety of non-academic activities: campus tour, eat with the team in the dining hall, tour the athletic facility, and meet with our coaching staff.  On this same visit, he will participate in more academic meetings than non-academic meetings.  He will engage in the following activities: meet with an admissions counselor, meet with career services, attend a class, and meet with a professor. These visits are VERY extensive and time-consuming, but they give the best glimpse into the life of our players.  Because of the considerable investment in time, I reserve these visits for students whom I have FILLED IN THE BLANKS, GAUGED THEIR INTEREST as positive, and consider a top recruit.  I believe that an in-person visit to campus is the crucial building block to a young man choosing our institution.  I majority of current players would agree their visit to campus solidified us as their number one college choice.

The second type of visit is an invitation to attend our Elite Camp in June.  This one day camp provides the opportunity to see campus, meet current players, interact with our staff in a basketball setting, and compete in games and drills with other recruits.  Our numbers stay low for camp because there are not that many strong students who want a STEM education and want to play college basketball.  These small numbers (usually in the 20s or 30s) allow our staff to work with players in an individualized setting which helps foster a relationship.  Players who come for Elite Camp, and are on our top prospect list, are also invited to campus for an individual visit day.  Elite Camp does not provide enough academic info for a young man and his family to determine if we are a good fit.

STEP 5 – THE OFFER (September, March, April)

The final meeting during a visit is with me.  I wrap up the visit, answer any remaining questions, and discuss the next steps in the recruiting process.  However, the most critical part of this final meeting is my pledge to the player and his family that he is a priority to me and our program.  I want the player to join our team, but more importantly, I want him to join our community.  I believe the best way to show a player that he is a priority is to “offer” him a spot on the team.  

My explanation of “the offer” is simple.  

  • It is a public declaration, at every level, that a program wants that prospect to join their team because the staff believes he can be an impactful player.  It translates to, “we think you are good, and we want you on our team.”
  • Divisions I, II and NAIA offers have a financial component.  They are offering athletic financial aid in exchange for a player participating on the team.
  • Division III offers have no financial component. If the player decides not to play or is removed from the team, his financial aid package will not change in any way.
  • My offer is for the player to receive the best undergraduate engineering degree in the country, a guarantee that he will be on the team for four years, and an opportunity to compete in practice every day to show he deserves a chance to impact our success.  

While explaining the offer, I also explain that my Division III offer has more validity than a Division I, Division II, or NAIA offer because it will not be rescinded.  At those schools, the coach could offer three forwards simultaneously, knowing that he only has one scholarship available for that position.  If and when one of the players chooses to accept the offer, the other two scholarships are no longer available, and the offer is often rescinded.  At the Division III level, once I make an offer, it will not go away or be revoked if other players accept an offer.  I am willing to take three forwards onto my team because there are no financial ramifications to my proposal.  If all three young men choose our program, and more importantly, our education, then our institution and team are better for having them.  In a given year, we typically make between 20 and 30 offers to get our class of four to six incoming recruits. Not every one that receives an offer will choose to attend.  In five years of making offers to players (over 100 in total), I have never once contacted a player to rescind an offer.  

STEP 6 – ADMISSIONS PROCESS (March through May 1)

The only contingency to an offer is that the student must get accepted to the institution on his own accord.  This contingency often does not become a factor because I spend a great deal of time FINDING THE STUDENT as a part of our early process, and therefore I don’t often invite someone to campus who will not be accepted.  The admissions process, while tedious and sometimes laborious, requires providing proof of the academic work completed in high school in the form of a transcript, securing recommendations from teachers, and submitting standardized test scores.  Each institution has its own set of criteria that they require for admission, and each school sets its deadlines for submission.  At our institution, the “Early Action” period has a deadline of November 1.  We also have a “Regular Decision” deadline that we rarely work with because we try to get all of our recruits to apply early action.  All applications completed by November 1 will receive a decision from admissions sometime in mid-December.  There can be a long period between receiving a positive admissions decision and receiving a financial aid package.  This window allows our staff to give each admitted recruit a ton of individual attention by SHOWING THE LOVE.

STEP 7 – SHOW THE LOVE (April through May 1)

For a typical recruit, I like to do steps 1-6 in a fairly natural progression.  The only step that cannot be skipped or bypassed is the admissions process.  Once that occurs, then I move on to showing the prospect that he is a high priority for our program.  Showing love is accomplished by attending practices, having regular text conversations, talking with his high school coaches, and lots AND lots of phone calls.  However, the best method of showing individual attention is by attending basketball games.  After a visit in September or October, our school is typically one of the recruit’s top five college choices.  To become their first choice, the player needs to see a member of my staff as often as possible for positive affirmation.  My staff will attend between three and five high school games a week to accomplish this goal.  Building a relationship with a player (and his family) is the single best indicator of whether my school will be at the top of a recruits list.  The greatest determining factor of whether he chooses my school or not is financial aid.

STEP 7 – FINANCIAL AID (December through May 1)

At the Division III level, financial aid is the process by which institutions “package” together funding in the form of loans, grants, work opportunities, and family contributions to cover the cost of attendance.  There are many details and intricacies to this process which make it difficult to understand.  From the FAFSA to unsubsidized loans to EFC, the process can be very confusing and create uncertainty for families.  Ultimately, a family hopes their financial aid package lowers the cost so they can pay for the student to attend without making too many financial sacrifices. For some families, this sacrifice is greater than others.  Out-of-pocket cost is one factor in making this sacrifice, and taking out student loans is another.  At our institution, financial aid packages typically come out in mid-January.  With a decision deadline of May 1, families have time to evaluate the financial aid components and determine if the decision to attend is a sound investment.  I try, throughout the process, to remind families of a few simple factors when considering financial aid. 

1) The sticker price is how much the school costs, but is rarely how much a student pays to attend. Financial aid packages help mitigate that cost and make college more affordable.  The sticker price of my school is $70,000 per year and includes tuition, room and board, a laptop, and student fees for the year.  However, exactly zero players on my team pay $70,000 per year to attend.  They each receive an individualized financial aid package that takes many factors into account to provide financial assistance.  So even though the sticker price might be $70,000, some students may pay $20,000, and others may pay $50,000.  The only way to learn what the actual out-of-pocket cost of attendance will be is to apply, get accepted, and receive a package. 

2) My school will not be the cheapest option.  The cost of a private college education is quite expensive and, if a family’s single most crucial factor in deciding is cost, then that family will probably not choose our school.  Many of the student-athletes I recruit end up choosing four-year public institutions where they do not participate in athletics.  That decision is often financially driven. 

3) Even though we may be more expensive than other options, there is a high probability that we are worth the difference.  Some of the most important numbers to consider when choosing a college are return on investment and placement rate upon graduation.  Return on investment is a ratio of net profit versus initial investment.  Therefore, to make an initial cost of college “worth it,” a school must provide a high probability of a strong salary over time and a high likelihood of securing a job the first year.  Our sticker price is $70,000, but our average starting salary is approximately $70,000, and our job placement rate is over 90% each year at graduation. These two numbers (70,000 and 90%) are the biggest reasons that students choose our school.  

4) Sometimes loans are worth taking, and sometimes they are not.  Many individuals believe that student loans are a poor investment in a student’s future – and this can be true.  However, a loan is a sound investment if the borrowed amount, interest accrued, and necessary time to repay the loan are measured in juxtaposition with placement rate and, more importantly, the average starting salary of the school.  If the salary is high enough and the placement rate is strong enough, then the decision to take out a loan has a higher probability of being labeled as a “good investment” UNLESS the size of the loan financially cripples the borrower for an extended period.

If, after receiving a financial aid package, a family pays $20,000 per year out-of-pocket ($80,000 total), the student has to take out a $5,000 loan each year ($20,000 total), and upon graduation, the student’s starting salary is $70,000 (our average), then for that family, the return on investment is pretty solid.  They spend $80,000 in total over four years, have to repay $20,000 in loans, and over the next ten years, the student will make in the neighborhood $700,000 (which does not include regular salary adjustments for inflation, bonuses, or any raises that might occur).  That is a pretty solid return on investment for any family who can make that initial investment.

STEP 8 – RETURN TO CAMPUS (March and April)

The last step for many recruits before deciding is returning to campus for one final visit.  This visit may be necessary to answer questions about academics, athletics, financial aid, or team culture.  However, the single greatest reason students return to campus, and sometimes, more importantly, the family returns to campus, is to remind themselves why our institution has been at the top of their list for so long.  For many students, the last time they visited was in September, and this visit reminds them why they believe our institution is the best option for their academic and athletic success.  For some, this visit is just a short meeting with the coaching staff or maybe a few players to ask questions.  Most stop by the financial aid office to confirm information they received.  This last opportunity to be on campus confirms our school is the perfect match.  I genuinely believe that if a student has gone through all seven steps and returns to campus for one last visit, he will choose us.

STEP 9 – THE DECISION (on or before May 1)

Most people know that LeBron James made “the decision” in 2010 to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat.  That decision changed the course of NBA history and made some people extremely happy (and some Clevelanders very sad).  Similarly, young men across the country make decisions each spring that change the course of academic institutions and basketball programs across the country.  When they make these decisions, they make their soon-to-be basketball coach extremely happy (but they also make other coaches extremely sad).  

For any 18-year-old young man, making a college choice is difficult.  It does not matter if he plans on playing a sport or not; the process of deciding his future is challenging.  Similarly, having to tell someone “NO” who has spent countless hours texting, talking, educating, researching, driving, and investing in him is an even more daunting endeavor.  I am always hoping for a “YES” from each recruit, but the numbers show that for every “YES” I get, I will hear “NO” ten times over.  But, as a coach, I live for the “YES.”  It makes every mile driven, every call made, and every text sent worth the trouble.

In conclusion, the recruiting process is long.  I often describe it as a marathon – not a sprint.  A Division I coach may offer a kid on Monday and expect a decision by Friday.  At a Division III school, I offer a kid in September and hope for a decision by April.  From gathering their initial information to the final decision, it can take as long as an entire calendar year for a prospective student-athlete to make a final decision.  Over that period, there will be countless phone calls, texts, emails, conversations, games, practices, and questions, but a resilient coach and his staff will help the recruit navigate obstacles.  Each step provides challenges for the player to overcome, for the coaches to overcome, and for the school to overcome.  As I said before, everyone has challenges. Some just have more challenges than others.   

When a young man chooses my school and our program, I know that he has done so with a crystal-clear understanding of the hurdles that lie ahead of him, but more importantly, that he possesses a passion for overcoming those challenges and changing his future.  A wise man once said, “anything in life worth doing is hard.”  Finding a needle in a haystack in hard.  Being a college basketball player is hard.  Choosing to pursue your academic interest at the best STEM school in the country is hard.  But for those who want to take on the challenge of a lifetime, choosing Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology is easy.

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