A fine line separates the letter and spirit of the laws of men's college lacrosse recruiting, and enterprising Division I coaches are now crossing it with increasing regularity, potentially placing the best interest of the student-athlete at risk.
Hardly any coach advocates early recruiting, a practice that has stirred controversy in the lacrosse community. Top-tier coaches, however, insist they can't help it. Even high-school coaches, who feel helpless when sophomores who haven't even taken the SAT verbally commit to elite college programs, have expressed sympathy toward coaches such as Virginia's Dom Starsia.
"The way the system is now, you have to feed into that system and operate the same way," said Malcolm Lester, who has coached St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. for 20 years. "I'm actually surprised it's been allowed to go on this long."
So when Starsia released the names of the players who will comprise next year's freshman class in November, no one in the lacrosse community was surprised. Indeed, Starsia said he already has filled his next two recruiting classes.
The genesis\nSome 15 to 20 years ago, most Division I coaches only recruited individuals who had completed their junior years in high school. The NCAA rulebook prohibits college coaches from contacting prospective students by phone or through in-person, off-campus visits prior to July 1 after their junior years. Coaches can only begin sending recruiting materials to prospects Sept. 1 of their junior years.
About 10 years ago, however, coaches began to pursue highly regarded juniors before their spring seasons even began. Coaches began exploiting a loophole in the rules - although they are not allowed to initiate phone calls to recruits, they can express interest to a recruit's high-school coach and ask him to convey the information to the recruit. The recruit can then call the college coach without breaking any NCAA rules.
Bill Tierney, who coached Princeton to a national championship in 1992, attributes the acceleration of the recruiting process to increased pressure on coaches to reach the Final Four. He estimates more coaches have been fired during the past five years than during the previous 20 combined.
Former Maryland coach Dave Cottle, for example, was forced to resign in May following a 12-4 season during which the Terrapins advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. After Cottle resigned, The Baltimore Sun reported that former Maryland athletic director Deborah Yow had informed Cottle earlier in the year that he would be fired unless the Terrapins reached the Final Four.
"When you see things like that, what's the bottom line?" asked Richie Meade, Navy's coach and president of the Intercollegiate Men's Lacrosse Coaches Association. "Am I supposed to train officers to defend America or win lacrosse games?"
Tierney, who now coaches at Denver after 22 years at Princeton, also noted that the low number of competitive Division I teams - only eight programs have won the NCAA title since the tournament's inception in 1971 - all but forces high-school athletes to engage the system.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there are 60 D-I teams - probably 20 where kids look and say, 'I really wanna go to Denver or Virginia,'" he said. "If you're bringing in 10 kids a year, that's only 200 spots ... The kids aren't idiots."
According to U.S. Lacrosse, moreover, youth participation in the sport has grown by more than 138 percent since 2001 to nearly 300,000, including some 228,000 high-school players. And while all parties involved are happy to see the sport grow, Division I talent can now be found in Ohio, Illinois, Colorado and even California - the home state of Virginia freshman midfielder Rob Emery, Inside Lacrosse's No. 9 recruit in the country.
"It's tougher for coaches because differentiating that talent is tougher - [it is] coming from more zip codes across the country," said Steve Stenersen, President and CEO of U.S. Lacrosse.
At the vanguard of the evolution of lacrosse recruiting is Starsia, joined by North Carolina's Joe Breschi and Johns Hopkins' Dave Pietramala. During the past two years, Tierney said, those coaches began recruiting sophomores. Other coaches followed suit; Tierney said a three- to four-month difference in recruiting separates second-tier Division I schools from Virginia and Carolina. From this point moving forward, Starsia said he thinks all of his recruits will have committed before spring of their junior years.
"I think everybody is a little bit more anxious about losing out on an opportunity," Starsia said.
Closing the gap\nSome coaches argue the costs of taking advantage of such early recruiting opportunities, however, far outweigh the benefits of signing a sophomore who could become the next All-American. Even Starsia vehemently opposes the direction lacrosse recruiting is headed, noting that 15-year-old kids do not think about the academic opportunities various colleges have to offer. Rather, they become enamored with schools because of the team's "great looking uniforms." Starsia's main concern is that making decisions on such superficial grounds reinforces a "rock 'n' roll public image of the sport, rather than the Native American history of the game," he said.
Lester coached current Virginia sophomore defenseman Chris Landon and is sending St. Albans defenseman Albert Kammler to play for the Cavaliers next year.
"It's so early, and there are very few 15- and 16-year-old kids who know themselves," Lester said. "It puts a lot of pressure on kids."
The ones who do commit early have an incentive to slack off in school, Lester said, but both Tierney and Starsia noted that once a player commits, they inform him that any slip in academic performance could jeopardize his admission into the school. Once they do so, Starsia said most of his recruits actually perform better in the classroom.
Still, most coaches agree sophomores are too young to comprehend the magnitude of choosing where to go to college. Meade, the Navy coach, defines recruiting - from the recruit's point of view - as the gap between perception and reality. For many players, reality does not set in until one-and-a-half years through college, Tierney said.
"It goes through these crazy cycles of fantasy to reality and back," Tierney said.
After a year, some kids realize they are not the All-Americans they were in high school anymore, and that other talented athletes are competing for the same positions. The result, Tierney said, has been a precipitous increase in transfers, players quitting and more coaches getting fired. Although no definitive studies directly link early recruiting to these trends, anecdotal evidence points toward that conclusion. Six other prominent figures in the lacrosse community interviewed for this story, including five college and high-school coaches, agreed with Tierney.
The NCAA's June 2010 Academic Progress Rates report - the most recent data on the subject - reveals lacrosse had the lowest four-year transfer rate at 2.9 percent of any men's Division I sport with at least 50 teams between the 2005-06 and 2008-09 academic years. By comparison, soccer's was 12 percent, basketball's was 5.7 percent and football's was 5 percent. No relevant baseline exists for comparison, however. An NCAA spokesperson said because the APR is only in its sixth year, the NCAA does not have any other data on the men's lacrosse transfer rate.
"If a good scientist looked into this, I'd bet my bottom dollar they're related," Tierney said.
During Tierney's 22 years at Princeton, not a single player transferred to or from the program. One-and-a-half years into his career at Denver, however, six players have transferred. Tierney said a couple players have quit as well.
Rick Senatore has coached at Franklin Pierce, a Division II school in New Hampshire, for only one season. Heading into his second year at the helm, 10 players have transferred into his program, including four former Division I players.
"There's a lot of players out there who play on D-I programs starting to find out there are 50 guys on the team and they're No. 43," Senatore said.
Starsia disagreed with the general consensus. Only two players have transferred from Virginia since 2005, and Starsia said he could "count on one hand" the total number of transfers from Virginia during his 19-year tenure. He added he does not see the trend developing across the nation.\nIdentity crisis\nStill, other coaches suggest at least a moderate correlation between early recruiting and an increase in the number of college transfers. That trend, coupled with the increased pressure placed on high-school lacrosse athletes to make life decisions their peers do not consider until a year or two later, has made the sport become more like basketball and football. Stenersen worries early recruiting may damage the image of lacrosse, a non-revenue sport whose coaches take pride in prioritizing the interests of the student-athlete.
"This arms race mentality to find the next great player who's a sixth-grader is just wrong for our game," he said.
Whereas football puts more than 45,000 fans in the stands every weekend, lacrosse only has that opportunity to gain exposure once a year - during the Final Four. Starsia said teams that reach that stage in the tournament gain three times as much publicity as they do during the rest of the year.
"In shooting for that moon, it's highlighted a need for coaches to continue the arms race, to be in the Final Four and not get fired," Tierney said.
Tierney recognizes the problem with potentially exploiting vulnerable 15-year-olds who will listen to anything a coach tells them, but the coach also noted lacrosse's superior graduation rates. Because Major League Lacrosse does not offer the most lavish of lifestyles, lacrosse players have more incentive to graduate than top-notch football or basketball players do.
The NCAA's most recent four-year APR, which primarily calculates eligibility and retention rates of student-athletes, indicates that lacrosse edges all men's sports except gymnastics, ice hockey, skiing and volleyball with a score of 971 out of 1,000. Basketball and football, meanwhile, earned scores of 940 and 944, respectively. At Virginia, men's lacrosse scored a 988.
"We can hold onto graduation rates and happiness quotients of players staying," Tierney said.
Pointing fingers\nWhat's troubling for coaches such as Starsia is that, although he is the one signing younger and younger high-school players, the athletes and their families are not doing their part to curb the fast-paced recruiting.
Starsia said he doesn't pressure kids to make early commitments, but when a high-school All-American contacts him and indicates his interest in Virginia, Starsia doesn't have much of a choice.\n"The families that want to do this earlier, we can't force them to stop," he said. "When a boy who's a good player calls me up, we need to react."
If Starsia doesn't respond quickly, the recruit likely will turn to North Carolina or Johns Hopkins - schools Virginia competes with each year.
That could have been the case with Ryan Tucker, a midfielder at Gilman High School in Maryland. Tucker's mother coaches the Hopkins women's team, and the 6-foot-2, 200-pound recruit also caught Breschi's eye at Carolina. When Tucker called Starsia and told him he wanted to commit to Virginia the summer before his junior year, the coach didn't have the luxury to say no.
That dilemma brings another question to the fore: Does the onus of responsibility lie on the 15-year-old kid or on the college coach?
"You have to ask Ryan Tucker why he wanted to make a close decision at that point," Starsia said.
Brooks Matthews, Tucker's coach at Gilman, agreed with Starsia that much of the pressure high-school athletes face is self-inflicted.
"I believe high-school players have more control over the process than they think they do," Matthews said. "If a kid is an elite player who waits to make a commitment, I don't think a school is going to turn him down."
Searching for solutions
For his part, Starsia has made an individual effort to slow down the recruiting process. He delivered a proposal to the Intercollegiate Men's Lacrosse Coaches Association that would prohibit recruits from visiting college coaches on campus until Sept. 1 of their junior years. Without an in-person visit, Starsia said it would be extremely unlikely for a recruit to make a commitment to an institution. The IMLCA passed the proposal along to the NCAA, which Starsia said is deliberating whether to implement a "one-size-fits-all" model or to allow each sport decide its own solution to the situation.
The NCAA did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
Even if Starsia's plan passes, however, coaches would still have ample opportunity to contact recruits by mail and phone.
Tierney said the ideal method would permit coaches to recruit only high-school seniors. That would help coaches get to know the recruits as they develop their games and, moreover, give coaches a better picture of what sort of athlete will arrive on campus the following year.
Although coaches agree the recruiting process must slow down, they realize it only takes one rogue coach to ruin any sort of informal coaches' agreement - a simple tragedy of the commons.\nStill, Tierney worries the past has receded into an infinite distance, high-school freshmen are next on the recruiting itinerary and the outlook for change is bleak.
"You can't legislate morality, and I'm not saying [early recruiting] is inappropriate," Meade said. "That's the way people do business; that's the way business is done."
This story is part one of a two-part series. Tomorrow's section will discuss the impact that last May's alleged murder of Yeardley Love has had on coaches' recruiting efforts in college lacrosse.