A little over a year after the coronavirus changed life in the United States, New Mexico State University’s athletics programs are still feeling the pressures and facing the challenges of recruiting during the pandemic.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association imposed a “dead period” when the pandemic began last year, temporarily pausing all in-person recruitment activities. The NCAA recently announced this dead period has been extended until May 31, 2021. Several NMSU coaches have said this change has stopped one of the most important parts of the recruitment process — meeting prospective athletes.
Cory Martin, recruiting coordinator for NMSU’s football team, explained that coaches are usually on the road almost two months, meeting new players in person.
“Prior to COVID-19, each coach would spend close to six to eight weeks on the road recruiting, meeting prospects and conducting home visits. Since the outbreak, we have not been allowed to leave our campus or host any recruits,” Martin said.
NMSU coaches have turned to familiar tools to keep up with recruitment during the shutdown. Many have integrated Zoom into their recruiting process the same way teachers have been utilizing the program to conduct classes virtually.
Brooke Atkinson, head coach of the NMSU women’s basketball team, explained how she used to travel to see players, watch videos of them playing and invite them to campus. Since the pandemic began, building relationships with the players has gone fully online.
“We would recruit by film or word of mouth, contact the recruit, watch in person and then bring them on campus for an official or unofficial visit. [Now], we watch a lot of film on the recruit and build relationships through phone calls and Zoom calls,” Atkinson said.
Some coaches have focused on utilizing other tools familiar to them during the recruitment process. Both Kathy Rudolph and Emily Wang, head coaches for softball and women’s tennis respectively, have said that utilizing recruitment services — services designed to help prospective athletes find a college — has been a part of their recruitment process in the past. Now, however, they find themselves using this tool much more often.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have utilized the recruiting services more frequently in order to identify prospective athletes and to get a better sense of who the recruit is as a person or player,” Wang said.
“It has been very hard for the student athletes. They are having to make a major life choice on attending a certain university without possibly ever seeing it in person.”
She also explained that coaches have been having issues with ranking and evaluating players. “The biggest obstacle that we have come across is something that affects all schools in a similar way … Competition opportunities are limited so player rankings and ratings are not completely accurate and coaches are unable to evaluate players,” Wang said.
The challenges that the pandemic have brought are far-reaching and have affected all parties involved in the recruitment process, including athletes. Several NMSU coaches have expressed that because in-person meetings are prohibited, student athletes have found it difficult to commit to a school without seeing it themselves.
“It has been very hard for the student athletes. They are having to make a major life choice on attending a certain university without possibly ever seeing it in person,” Martin said. “My hope [is] that student athletes will be able to visit college campuses again because of how much that will benefit them in making such a major life decision.”
Coaches are also experiencing budget cuts, limiting their ability to see the players they want to recruit and evaluate them effectively.
Carlos Vargas, head coach of the men’s tennis team, cited “budget cuts and the elimination of in-person meetings” as some of the main obstacles he has faced.
Another challenge that both programs and students have to face has to do with scholarships. The NCAA has allowed all returning athletes to have an extra year of eligibility, which has been a concern for coaches. Michael Jordan, head coach of the NMSU volleyball team, said that this extra year of eligibility has had an impact on who they offer a scholarship to.
“This is difficult to navigate because now we don’t have scholarships available for possible recruits somewhere down the road,” Jordan said.
Cory Martin also explained that it has been difficult for coaches to offer full-ride scholarships to potential athletes.
Despite all the challenges and setbacks for college athletics recruitment, there is a silver lining. Vargas explained that the pandemic “has evened the playing field temporarily by not allowing the bigger programs to bring their recruits on campus for lavish recruiting visits, while the smaller schools have to do it online or by phone.”
Doug Martin, head coach of the NMSU football team added, “ We’ve never had the money to be able to compete on a level playing field with everybody else. We can’t travel like everybody else does. We don’t have the money to do all that stuff … ”
Even with the added challenges, most coaches appear optimistic about their ability to continue recruiting, and are hopeful about the future of their programs and their players.
“You can be successful recruiting virtually, you just have to work at it and be more in-depth,” Atkinson said.