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The Absurdity Of Recruiting

Now Hawaii head coach Norm Chow is refusing to let an LDS student transfer to Brigham Young University.
Now Hawaii head coach Norm Chow is refusing to let an LDS student transfer to Brigham Young University.

It’s been a tumultuous offseason for recruiting news. Big Ten coaches (particularly Bret Bielema) came down with a major case of the butthurt over Urban Meyer’s steady recruiting of players who have verbaled elsewhere. Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan came under fire for blocking a transfer to schools over 1,000 miles away, and recently, Hawaii head football coach Norm Chow is being assailed for preventing a returned LDS missionary from transferring to BYU. This in addition to the legion of stories on various “recruiting violations”, “impermissible text messages”, and with sportswriters and university administrators harrumphing over the proverbial high ground. It’s a very weird spectacle to watch, especially for me, since I work as a professional recruiter. What we see in the NCAA bears little resemblance to recruiting for the rest of the real world.

Sadly, I don’t work in athletic recruiting (ATTN: Division 1 Athletic Directors…if you would like to change that, I’m on Linkedin)…I’m a corporate recruiter for a marketing research company. Like most recruiters, I use both active and passive recruiting. Active recruiting focuses on candidates who are actively looking for jobs, so I’ll post ads on job boards, go to career fairs, and that sort of thing. In my particular industry, most (but not all) of these candidates are not with another company; they’re true free agents in the marketplace. Passive recruiting focuses on candidates who are not actively looking, or haven’t applied to a posting. This may involve facebook or LinkedIn stalking, cold calls, or schmoozing at industry networking events. These candidates are almost exclusively with other companies, so recruiters are pretty literally just trying to steal them away. For workers with particularly unique skills (like Perl programming, or I dunno, the ability to run a 4.3 40 yard dash), almost all candidates are found this way.

How brash you can be in trying to woo a candidate away varies a little bit from industry to industry, but for very competitive markets, recruiters can be pretty ballsy (a famous example comes from the games programming industry, where a recruiting firm send fruit baskets to the desk of every single employee to publicly let everybody know they were hiring). In industries where talent is highly mobile (like IT and finance), recruiting top talent can be pretty bloody, but not so bloody that anybody would try to enforce industry-wide rules on restricting movement. Nobody would follow them.

Beyond the top executive level, the only common restrictions tend to be non-compete clauses for major competitors. I even have a non-compete in my contract (though the amount of sensitive secret corporate knowledge I possess is exactly zero). It would make sense to force an executive at Coke to wait a few years before starting a gig at Pepsi, but a contract that also prohibited him from switching to Burger King or Boeing would (correctly) be laughed at. Yet we see similar restrictions with athletic recruiting.

Perhaps there are good reasons for having a highly regulated system on athlete recruiting. Ideally, I think we’d like student athletes to be in a good position to graduate, and as anybody who has transferred can tell you, changing colleges can be a huge administrative pain in the ass. Perhaps after watching Lebron, Carmelo, and Dwight Howard’s respective dramas, our appetite for full on "free agency" circuses has been dulled a bit. Maybe we know that if we give somebody like Houston Nutt an inch, he’s going to take two miles. It appears difficult to assess the consequences of liberalizing the student athlete economy, particularly with the so-called arbitrators of fairness and defenders of student athletes, the NCAA, either completely in the pocket of business interests or wildly inconsistent. The NCAA polices itself like a bunch of pimply faced teenagers in their mother’s basement playing Dungeons and Dragons; they sit around rolling dice and swilling Mountain Dew, and hope that the numbers can spell out some sort of consistent story. They are hard to take seriously.

As previously touched on, Hawaii head coach Norm Chow is presently blocking a player from transferring to BYU. If Chow wanted, he could pack up his bags and work for BYU tomorrow (if they wanted him). So could any member of his staff. So could any instructor or professor at the University of Hawaii. As could any IT professional or member of the support staff.

In fact, so could any non-athlete student, even if that student had verbally committed to another university. Allowing student free agency hasn’t caused a collapse in the higher education system. Universities don’t really recruit committed students now, but there isn’t really anything stopping say, Stanford, from emailing every physics student at MIT and saying, "How could you like to do your research with just as talented professors, only with better weather and girls?" In fact, if I worked for Denison, I’d stand outside the OSU registrar and hand my card to every kid who finished registering for classes. Locked out of your class again? Tired of being just a number at Ohio State? Why not give Denison a look?

Rival coaches may continue to castigate people like Meyer for their aggressive recruiting tactics, but in virtually any other industry, Meyer’s hustle would be highly rewarded. At the end of the day, Meyer is just giving kids what they want, and what the Ryan's and Chow's are trying to block -- the freedom to work where you want. If there is a way to provide that without causing academic collapse, we should make those accommodations. If folks are unwilling to work in that environment, maybe they should look at other industries. Have ‘em email their resumes to me. Maybe I can hustle something for them. It’s what recruiters do.