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Challenging task awaits Division III recruiting group

By Gary Brown

A 14-member representative panel co-chaired by Worcester State University Associate Athletics Director and head women’s basketball coach Karen Tessmer and Becker College Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer David Ellis is looking critically at the 24/7/365 recruiting model in Division III.

The group plans to address a constituency at the Convention in January whose opinions range from anxiety to contentment with the status quo.

What the working group knows so far is what prompted its creation. Feedback from more than 300 participants at a 2012 Convention session urged review of a “rat-race” recruiting model that they said was burning out coaches, bombarding prospective student-athletes and bending the division’s proportional-based philosophy.

The nonscholastic youth sports culture

Among the concerns raised at the 2012 Convention session devoted to the Division III recruiting environment was the influx of club and travel teams and their affect on interscholastic sports and intercollegiate athletics as well.

“The nonscholastic scene is a business, and if you have money to play on a team, you can find a team to play on,” said Division III Recruiting Working Group co-chair Karen Tessmer, the head women’s basketball coach at Worcester State.

The convergence of these teams at “showcase” events or tournaments can be a beneficial and efficient one-stop shop for recruiters on a budget, but their proliferation may be coming at the expense of high school programs. One Division III president surmised that if the current trend is left unchecked, within 10 years high school sports could be regarded as little more than an after-school activity.

Tessmer said a soccer coach from a state championship high school team told her she’s worried whether students even want to play on the high school team anymore because there is so much pressure from their club team coaches to be practicing and playing with them.

“Players are getting the message from the club coaches that the high y instruction and that it’s taking away from the club team goals,” Tessmer said. “I don’t think Division III can solve the nonscholastic challenges on our own. It’s an issue that affects all three divisions. But I would like to see Division III be active and recommend ways that might at least curtail some of the influential behavior.”

That could be a challenge in Division III, where many of the part-time coaches fill out their careers as club coaches. Restricting access presents a conflict of interest.

“Many of them are torn because that’s their business,” Tessmer said.

-Gary Brown

But since then, the idea of calendars and other restrictions to rein in recruiting has discomforted some – including a few presidents – who see student-athlete recruitment as an extension of student recruitment in a division where student-athletes make up a high percentage of the student body at most schools.

“To be sure, this is a hot-button issue that garners a range of strong opinion,” said Tessmer, who also serves as Worcester State’s compliance officer. “As with many issues in a division as diverse as ours, it all depends upon whom you ask. People have identified the problems – they’re out there and they’ve been talked about – but perhaps they haven’t been articulated as well by the people in the trenches.”

Those concerns include the whole youth sports culture and the role of nonscholastic organizations; the well-being of the student-athlete when it comes to being recruited; the work-life balance of coaches; the retention of coaches, particularly females; and student-athletes who are burned out on sports by the time they get to college.

Appointed in June, the working group has conducted two teleconferences and has two more scheduled before an in-person meeting Oct. 21-22 in Indianapolis. More calls will follow as needed for the group to assemble a presentation for the membership to chew on at the Convention’s Division III Issues Forum on Jan. 18. That presentation may be more about the progress the group has made and the directions it is thinking of pursuing rather than actual recommendations.

With membership support, review and discussion will continue throughout the following year. If legislative proposals emerge, they won’t be voted on before the 2014 Convention.

To expedite its work, the group established a steering committee to frame the overarching purpose, define the problems and evaluate the current recruiting culture within the context of the Division III philosophy. Three subcommittees were added to address:

  • The “institutional impact” that the current recruiting environment or any alternatives would have on admissions, compliance, enrollment, part-time coaches, budget, work-life balance and gender equity, among other aspects of the campus experience.
  • The impact any restrictions might have on nonscholastic events (club sports, AAU, travel teams, etc.), and how they would affect coaches, parents and prospects who thrive in that environment.
  • How the current environment or any alternatives would affect both prospective and current student-athletes from the standpoint of time demands, financial constraints, sport-specialization and burnout.

A Sept. 14 steering committee call produced a more defined framework for future discussions. Among the driving factors is how the Division III philosophy of personal balance for athletes and coaches – and the Division III reality of both athletics excellence and enrollment management – mesh with an ever-changing youth sports culture.

Steering committee member Barney Forsythe, president at Westminster (Missouri), said the overlap produces competing motivations. On the one hand, Division III coaches are expected to get as much talent as they can to be successful in competition, but as extensions of the campus admissions office, they’re also expected to bring in students.

“Both are pressures on coaches, but they drive different kinds of recruiting behaviors,” Forsythe said.

Meanwhile, the youth sports culture has grown to be one in which families increasingly seek involvement for their children but with a greater expectation for a return on that investment. That “hyper-competitiveness” has implications, Forsythe said.

“Our challenge is that the Division III sports culture and the youth sports culture are conflicting with each other, and the Division III reality sits in the middle as the mediator,” he said. “If you look at the culture 40 years ago when Division III was established, there was probably more overlap between the youth sports culture and the DIII philosophy. Now those circles are farther apart.”

The working group is intentionally diverse, not only in race and gender but also background, position, geography and public/private representation. That kind of inclusion was especially necessary, given the range of opinion the topic provokes. Tessmer said that’s an asset: “There’s a voice from every part of athletics and campus life,” she said.

Those voices vary so far. A survey in April found that of more than 560 respondents, about 45 percent said they would support the development of a recruiting calendar. However, 24 percent were opposed and another 32 percent were undecided. Results showed greater support among female coaches (55 percent) than their male counterparts (39 percent).

The session last January that kick-started the whole discussion included a lot of people at the practitioner level who didn’t like what they were seeing with the current environment.

“I’ve been in this business a long time,” said Southern Maine Athletics Director Al Bean, who moderated the 2012 Convention session. “I never thought I would see full-time assistant coaches in Division III, or Division III schools flying all over the country recruiting kids. There are a number of schools doing that. To bring a little bit of sanity back into the process would be good both for the individuals who are out there fighting the fight and also to the institutions that are paying for it all.”

But when the 43-member Presidents Advisory Group discussed the matter in August, many of them raised the caution flag on calendars or other restrictions. One president called athletics “an enrollment life blood” and said how coaches recruit should be an institutional decision. Another said legislating the recruiting environment would be “the kiss of death” at some smaller schools.

But the first step is to have a clear understanding of what the group is trying to solve.

“We certainly need to define the issues before identifying the solutions,” said Division III Vice President Dan Dutcher. “We’re talking about whether the recruiting environment is appropriate within the context of the Division III philosophy.”

“There’s no hidden agenda here,” Tessmer said. “It’s an open slate, but we know whatever we recommend won’t please everyone. Each sport is so different. We have to be fair and consider as many sport-specific perspectives as we can. And we have to consider how whatever we recommend affects enforcement and compliance.”