Heels Overcoming Current Recruiting Challenges
Football recruiting during a pandemic is rather challenging, but the degree of difficulty is lessened a bit when executing a succinct plan with the right personnel and in an area surrounded by those whom a program covets.
That’s an apt description of North Carolina’s situation right now, as Mack Brown’s staff continues to flourish during these strangest of times, as the Tar Heels' class of 2021 is raked No. 9 in the nation.
A program must also have desirable attributes, and there’s never been a shortage of that at UNC.
“I’ve always felt like, number one, it’s about your product first,” Brown recently said, when asked why he’s having so much success on the trail. “And we’ve got a great product in the state of North Carolina. We’ve got great academics, Chapel Hill’s a wonderful college town, you’ve got your small campus but you’re close enough to Durham and Raleigh, that you’ve got some city stuff if you like it or need it as well.
“It’s very difficult to get in and not everybody fits here, so you have to do a great job of deciding who fits at your place and who loves the place.”
Past coaching staffs have done fairly well at UNC with some occasional flare ups. Since Rivals began ranking classes in 2002, Carolina has brought in 12 classes ranked among the top 30, not including this year’s, which will be the thirteenth one once the cycle concludes. Only four classes have been rated as low as the 40s (with a low of 44), and two were under John Bunting, one was the 2012 group following Everett Withers’ year as interim coach and the other was Larry Fedora’s first full cycle in 2013.
Otherwise, UNC’s lowest rated class was No. 36 in 2004. This year’s group likely will be the program’s sixth top-20 finish in this span: Second for Brown, three for Butch Davis and Bunting’s class in 2003 was ranked No. 13 in the nation.
Those staffs, however, never had to face the circumstances Brown is right now. The country is in the midst of a pandemic, thus eliminating the effect of Brown’s gifts shaking hands and making people feel like they’re the most important individuals he spoke to that day. That stuff is somewhat lost on zoom calls and face timing. It’s been beneficial that Brown has a staff that knows the region well, so familiarity with the region’s high school coaches and the programs has helped them get a better understanding of some prospects.
Inroads and Familiarity of the landscape have been huge for the staff.
“I didn’t want to hire coaches to recruit instate that didn’t know how to get to Wilmington or didn’t know how to get to Charlotte,” Brown said. “Stacy Searels worked at Georgia and he worked at App State. You’ve got Robert Gillespie and Tommy Thigpen. Tommy’s been here four times, but he also coached at Tennessee and recruited Georgia. You’ve got Lonnie Galloway, who’s recruited this state 15 years. You’ve got Jay Bateman that’s recruited this state 15 years. Dre’ Bly, from 757 as he calls it to Charlotte, nobody’s been around and more visible than Dre’.
“So, when you start looking at the guys that we’ve got, we just hired Coach (John) Lilly. A big part of when I hire someone is recruiting. And Coach Lilly was the recruiting coordinator at Florida State and then he coached at Georgia for Mark Richt for a long time. He’s from the state of North Carolina and was a high school football coach here. So a huge part of hiring John Lilly was his recruiting ties in North Carolina, in Georgia and in Florida.”
The player evaluation process has changed, too. At least temporarily.
There was no summer camp circuit, which is a great tool for staffs to host kids on their campuses seeing them work them out, coach them up and get a truer gauge for them as more than just athletes. There also haven’t been any windows allowing coaches to visit prospects at any time since mid-March, and now with high school football pushed until at least September in North Carolina and the spring in Virginia, those opportunities may not return for some time.
Yet, with 18 commitments for the 2021 class and only a few more slots to fill, at the most, Brown isn’t worried about 2021.
“We're in great shape with our '21 recruiting,” Brown said. “So, we missed our camps in the summer, which all universities did. That's a vital place to get to know people better; build relationships. The families weren't able to visit this spring. So, again, you miss those relationships.
“We're fortunate that we're in a footprint where most of our guys come from D.C. to Atlanta. They come to games as juniors. They're around us a lot. We recruit heavily in-state, so we were able to know all the families for the '21 recruits, and I think that's one of the reasons we've been able to do well.”
Carolina’s coach, however, is concerned about the next two classes.
“We've lost some guys that said, 'Coach, I can't wait and I didn't get to come and see you all and we didn't get to come to campus, so I feel like I need to commit to the one school I went to visit,’” Brown said. “I understand that completely. Where it will be different are the '22 and the '23 classes because hopefully by spring we'll be able to get back to some normalcy and have camps again.
“But the '22 class, if we don't get to see them play this fall, evaluations will just be slower because you'll be getting your evaluations on video. But there's nothing like seeing a young guy play basketball or seeing him play football, seeing him practice and seeing him in-person and getting to know him and the hardest thing right now is you're looking at a video and a transcript to make a decision on what his body type is like, what his family's like, do you like him, does he like you? It's not the best right now for any of us or the young student-athletes.”
Proximity might be on UNC’s side, though.
Chapel Hill is a six-hour drive from Atlanta and four hours from D.C. Within that range includes hot beds Charlotte (two-and-a-half hours) and the Tidewater area in Virginia (three hours). So, even though the NCAA’s extended dead period rolls through the summer, kids and their families can drive to Chapel Hill and at least get a feel for the town and campus if those so desired.
They can’t see inside the facilities or meet with any staffers, however. Proximity, as noted, is a big plus here for the Heels. It’s an important part of most athletes’ personal comforts.
“Our coaches are constantly asking, ‘How do you keep guys from transferring?’ I said, ‘Bring the right guys in and treat them right, bring guys that want to be here, and that’ll minimize your transfers for sure,’” Brown said. “And then secondly, and maybe most importantly, get a staff that fits your place, get a staff that understands who needs to be on your campus. And get a staff that’s recruited your state before, your footprint, because our recruiting footprint is from D.C. to Atlanta.”
Brown has that. And he has the necessary intangibles to succeed on the recruiting trail, even during a pandemic. That fact has played out over the last four months.