Washington, D.C. -- A lot of Dads have sons who are good – maybe very good – at a particular sport. Some are great. Moreover, many of these athletes don’t want their athletic careers to end after the last whistle in high school.
I had two sons like that. One now plays NCAA Division III lacrosse. The other was recruited in two sports (football and lacrosse) by a dozen D-III schools. He instead attended a Division I school where he tried out as a long-snapper for the football team and got cut. Yeah, that’s how it goes sometimes and it was tough as hell on both of us. But he's still damn happy at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Hence, during the past four years – and now picking up again with my 11th grade son – I have been closely involved with the college athletics recruiting process. It may appear to be daunting and complex, but here’s the surprise: it’s not. Rather, assuming your kid is determined and resilient, and you are as well, the process involves old-fashioned research, a lot of proactive legwork and follow-through, and decision-making.
How did I learn this? Typical plodding Nellie: Four years ago, I sought the advice of Dads whose kids had been through the recruiting process. I called and met with a range of current and former college athletes and guys who knew college sports; I read a ton of material on recruiting and I put together a basic plan. It wasn’t perfect, but it got my sons the attention they sought. And here it is:
1. Skill Expectation: This is the honesty part: Simply put, how good is your kid at his sport? The NCAA is comprised of three Divisions - I, II, and III – corresponding to the level of competition. As a Dad, you need to frankly discuss with your son where his skills fit within this hierarchy. And it shouldn’t be hard: A good athlete gets that way by being aware of his capabilities and those of his peers. Be alert, however: Yes, your son may be truly gifted, Division 1 material, but rarely leave the bench in four years. At a D-II or D-III school, he may start every game. Once you and your son have established where he fits in these unforgiving Division categories, time to move on.
2. Geographic Location: Where does your son want to be? This is easy. Ask him. Does he want a big university or small college? Urban or suburban? A school in the South, the West, New England, the Middle West? Warm climate or one with seasons? Close to home, kinda close, or wwayyy away from home? “I don’t know” is not an answer. Discuss at length with him what he wants – drive him to schools close to you. Walk around and introduce yourself to students and adults you see. You can’t afford to be shy – hey, this is your son’s future you’re dealing with here. There are approximately 2,170 colleges and universities in the United States, of which there are athletic programs at 442 Division III, 302 D-II, and 335 D-1 schools. There are more than enough choices. Choose and decide, don’t equivocate.
3. Academic Interest: What does your son want to study? Trust me when I say this is secondary. Because unless you have a single-minded kid who wanted to be a doctor or a businessman or a pilot since age 7, this is probably unanswerable. The fact is, most kids don’t know what they want to do until they actually get on a campus with other kids, take classes, and find out what they like and at what they excel. If he has a general idea, then factor that into the equation.
These are the first, basic steps. Now comes the mechanics:
4. Using the criteria above, sit down with your son in total seclusion – I mean no phones allowed or distractions whatsoever – in front of a computer screen and search for 15 to 20 schools that match the criteria above (Here’s a tip: Start with your son’s sport, and punch in NCAA Division III). Full disclosure: This may not sound original, but it is the only way to get a sense of an academic institution outside of driving yourself nuts driving around the nation. Start with colleges you know, those that are close, and those that you’ve heard of. Look over every webpage of these college sites. Get a sense of the place, take written notes. Repeat: Total isolation – no devices and interruptions. As well, seek out individuals whom you respect and admire and ask them about their college experiences – they’ll have invaluable advice.
5. Review the team pages for the relevant sport at each of the schools in which your son is interested. Examine the rosters: Where do the kids come from? Competitive high schools? Geographic distribution of the players? What are the sizes of the kids? What are the coaches’ backgrounds? How long have they been there? What’s the team record during the past five years? What kind of athletic facilities? What’s the conference like? What kinds of schools does it contain?
6. Now apply Nellie’s "Broken Leg Theory.” If your son breaks his leg in spring practice or slipping in the dining hall and is finished with sports, does he still want to be at that school?
7. Next: Email the coaches. Send along a highlights film and or statisticcs for sports that don’t lend themselves to film. Send a one-page “Fact Sheet” on which are the following: GPA, test scores, classes taken last semester, classes for the current semester, your son’s size, 40-dash time where relevant, brief description of positions played, other sports played, records if team is a winner, any athletic honors and any extracurricular activities.
8. Bonus round: If your club team or high school team goes to tourneys, list those on the Fact Sheet. The same with sports camps you attended. If you are at tourneys or camps and you happen to see a college coach, have your kid - not you! - introduce himself.
9. If your aim is true based on your son’s skills, you’ll get responses back from coaches. If not, don’t worry – do a Round II of searching.
The key, as I said in the beginning, is to be proactive, constantly reaching out and then following through. If your kid is a superstar, coaches will call him. But there aren’t that many superstars. I know - my sons weren’t. The Dads and kids who succeed in this process are the ones who grind it out, day after day, never missing an opportunity at promotion. Moreover, it’s wise to print and catalog the emails and responses and all other notes and documents, placing all as a measure of progress in a three-ring binder. If you're diligent, it will be two binders.
When to start? If you and your kid are serious, start the summer after his sophomore year. Don’t worry about scholarships – they are few and far between for those at the D-1 level, funds are only partial at the D-II level, and they are nonexistent for sports at the D-III level.
If you have any questions, just email me (JeffNelligan@yahoo.com ). I’ve been through this twice. Yep, I made some errors - some were embarrassing to me personally and were a result of being a rookie and being too aggressive. But hey, when you are in contact with a cumulative 53 schools, you're going to make mistakes. I'd rather be shot down than miss an opportunity.
The success the boys had was based on their athletic abilities and academic consistency, and most importantly, because of their follow through and desire to play beyond high school.
Sports as a profession is not going to lead anywhere for 99.9 percent of high school athletes. But athletics of any kind places your son in a situation of camaraderie and competition, from which he learns resilience, drive, and ambition. Those are the qualities can’t be taught in a college classroom, but will be the most important qualities your son can ever possess.