NCAA Considers Easing Limits on Coaches' Calls to Recruits

October 01, 2009

Keeping track of telephone calls between college coaches and recruits has become such a burden to athletics compliance staffs that the National Collegiate Athletic Association is considering lifting some longstanding restrictions on such calls.

Under current NCAA rules, coaches are not allowed to call recruits until the summer after the athletes' junior year of high school, and then only during specific "contact periods." The association's members created the rules many years ago to protect athletes from being flooded with phone calls from overzealous coaches.

But under a proposal sponsored by the Pacific-10 Conference, the rules would change to allow unlimited phone calls between coaches and athletes during those contact periods. The measure has garnered widespread support from compliance staffs across the country, and also from the NCAA's Division I recruiting cabinet. It will come up for a vote in January at the NCAA's annual meeting.

The concept is already in place in one key area of college athletics. In football, which has some of the most aggressive and creative recruiting of any sport, coaches may call recruits as often as they want during the specified period. (In all sports, prospective athletes are allowed to contact coaches as frequently as they want.)

Athletics officials say that several recent changes in the recruiting process have made the rules unnecessary for all other sports.

For starters, telephone calls have slipped in prominence in coaches' arsenal of recruiting tactics. In most Division I sports, coaches begin recruiting athletes long before their senior year of high school—without the benefit of initiating telephone calls—and often secure verbal commitments from athletes by their junior year. This makes the few calls coaches are permitted to make during the final year of high school far less important than they used to be, officials say.

What's more, improved technology allows athletes and their families to silence or screen unwanted calls, making them much less intrusive than before. And most athletes prefer to communicate by electronic means anyway, officials say.

Unwanted calls were a problem "when there was only one phone in the kitchen and dinner was being interrupted," says John Morris, senior associate athletic director for compliance at the University of Washington. But now, in compliance offices, "all this money, time, technology, and resources are being put into something that's inherently difficult to monitor—when phone calls aren't as important to recruiting as they used to be."

Setting the Ground Rules

Athletes and their families should set their own ground rules regarding phone calls from coaches. Coaches should respect those boundaries. And compliance officers should not spend valuable time wading through coaches' phone records.

Those ideas formed the rationale the Division I recruiting cabinet gave earlier this week when it announced its support for the Pac-10's proposal.

"We are looking at student athletes to take responsibility on their end," says Petrina Long, a senior associate athletic director at the University of California at Los Angeles and chair of the cabinet, a group of athletics officials that examines pressing concerns in the Division I recruiting process.

But the strain the rules place on compliance staffs was the main inspiration for the proposed rule change, she emphasizes. Phones now handle far more than just old-fashioned calls, so "the monitoring of telephone calls is now the monitoring of all technology," Ms. Long says.

For that reason, some wealthier athletics programs often purchase expensive software designed to cross-check coaches' cellphone records with recruits' phone numbers. Others spend even more for advanced systems that provide coaches with special phones intended only for calls to recruits.

Yet even with those elaborate systems in place, Mr. Morris says, human beings still have to run the final checks. "It's an immense amount of work," he says. And for many cash-strapped programs, close monitoring is impossible.

Athletes, though, have yet to weigh in on the proposal. Matthew Baysinger, chair of the NCAA's Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, says the group has placed the measure on its "high priority" list and will be taking a close look at how the rule change would affect prospective athletes.

(In recent years, the committee has pushed for stricter regulation of contact between coaches and athletes. Two years ago, at the committee's urging, the NCAA banned text messaging between coaches and recruits.)

Cautionary Tales

Mr. Morris and others maintain that monitoring telephone records so closely is unnecessary, in part, because the vast majority of coaches avoid excessive calling. But a head coach's abuse of telephone calls to recruits has brought embarrassment to at least two major athletics programs in recent years.

The NCAA's Division I Committee on Infractions singled out Kelvin Sampson and his assistant coaches at the University of Oklahoma's men's basketball program in 2006 for making nearly 600 impermissible calls to 17 different recruits. Two years later, Mr. Sampson got into more trouble, this time at Indiana University, for making more phone calls to recruits in violation of NCAA rules. In both cases, the infractions committee faulted athletics officials for failing to properly monitor Mr. Sampson's activities.

For most coaches, though, following the rules works to their benefit, Mr. Morris says. "If you call too much, you're going to alienate the recruit."

Some critics of the proposal might view its supporters as "complaining compliance professionals who just don't want to do the work," Mr. Morris says. "That's not the intent here. It's an honest belief that the amount of money and resources being devoted to this is not worth the return."