Being a Great College Basketball Recruiter Isn’t Enough

Dana O’Neil, ESPN (

Andrew Francis sat in a hotel meeting room this past April, one of a handful of young assistant coaches assembled for a seminar. Sitting in the audience was another top assistant, a guy with a reputation as an outstanding recruiter.

“He couldn’t get a job,” Francis said.

Francis, an Iowa assistant, was retelling this story from his bleacher seat on the first day of July recruiting. In front of him loomed the long hot month that most every basketball coach calls the “lifeblood” of his program. Like everyone else, Francis would spend the next weeks crisscrossing the country, hoping to lure the great players to Iowa City.

There was a time when acing this and only this part of the job was enough to skyrocket a top assistant up the success ladder.

Francis insists that time has passed.

“You have to be able to recruit, there’s no question,’’ he said. “But you don’t want to be known as just a recruiting guy anymore. There’s almost a negative to it. People want to know that you can get good players, but you also have to know what to do with them. You have to know how to run a program and represent a university.’’

The business of coaching, much like the business of sport, has changed dramatically. The fiscal responsibility entrusted to a top coach turns him into a CEO as much as an X’s and O’s guy, and rare is the university president willing to entrust his multimillion-dollar business to a man who can only do one aspect of the job.

That’s why groups like Villa 7, the consortium designed as a networking organization for young assistants, have prospered and why people like Francis spend as much time sitting in seminars as they do in bleachers.

“Schools want people who know how to talk to recruits, yes, but also to donors, to alums, who they can entrust to run their program and not embarrass their university,’’ Francis said. “Let’s be honest. There’s an awful lot of money in this job these days, so it has to be the right person for the right reason.’’

The challenge is how to distinguish yourself from the pack. Landing players, growing a reputation as a guy who could bring top talent to a roster used to be the golden ticket to instant head coaching.

Now it’s a lot harder. The job market is more crowded than ever and, because of the pressure and expectations, good jobs are tougher to come by.

Francis has followed the old-fashioned route, starting as a volunteer assistant coach at Concordia College, before joining Jay Wright’s staff at Villanova as an administrative assistant and video coordinator. After two years, Philadelphia native Fran McCaffery hired him as an assistant at Siena and after helping to build the Saints into a mid-major winner, made the jump to the Hawkeyes.

And so the natural progression on Francis’ career arc would be to become a head coach if he helps McCaffery steer Iowa in the right direction.

But the vicious cycle is tricky. To get Iowa on track, you need players and to get players you have to be a great recruiter, but being a great recruiter isn’t enough anymore.

“Without question, this is a huge part of my job,’’ Francis said. “There are a lot of great coaches out there, but if you can’t get great players, it doesn’t matter. You can’t win. Still I think the bigger issue is if you get those great players, what will you do with them? Will you make them better players and better men who represent your school well? If you can do all of that, then you’re ready to be a head coach.’’

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