University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball head coach John Calipari has it easy in recruiting. Occidental’s Brian Newhall? Not so much. Newhall recently shed light on the difficulties and realities of Division-III recruiting and the challenges specific to Occidental.
Division-I coaches such as Calipari can sell full academic scholarships, state-of-the-art facilities and a chance to compete at the highest level of collegiate sports to their athletes. Newhall and his fellow Occidental coaches, on the other hand, are unable to offer such benefits and must make a more concentrated effort to continue to build their programs every year.
“Right off the bat, you’re going to have to go non-scholarship,” Newhall said. “It’s a challenge. You have to get lucky sometimes.”
According to Newhall, the men’s basketball coaching staff travels to basketball showcases all around the country and subsequently sends mass emails to around 2,000 players who have caught its eye. From those, a few hundred respond and even fewer actually come to visit campus. The number of interested prospective student-athletes dwindles until around six to eight eventually commit to the basketball program.
Head track and field coach Rob Bartlett shared a sentiment similar to Newhall’s when it comes to his own recruiting, in terms of the steps he must take to find the right people.
“Recruiting at Division-III is, at the heart of it, a numbers game,” Bartlett said. “We are, to an extent, looking for needles in haystack.”
Bartlett also noted that he intends to bring in between 20 and 30 new athletes every year. But in order to find those who match his criteria — both academically and athletically gifted — he needs to communicate with around 5,000 high school students; a daunting task for a staff of just three coaches.
Newhall also brought up the notion of prominence.
Occidental coaches struggle to sign high-caliber athletes during the Early Decision process because many of the recruits hold out hope for the opportunity to play at the Division-I level. But for qualified prospective athletes who understand that Division-III is their ceiling, name recognition becomes the largest obstacle for an institution like Occidental.
According to Newhall, almost every player he has recruited that has a genuine interest in Occidental also has a handful of other college options from which to choose. Over his 26 seasons at the helm of the program, this scenario has prevented Newhall from gaining total confidence when trying to sign a player.
“It’s a little easier for Amherst, Williams, Claremont to get good players because of the prestige,” Newhall said. “For Oxy, it’s, ‘I got in, I’m excited, I’m going to go visit five other schools.’ I’m so jaded because I’ve done it so many times. You just get heartbroken.”
Additionally, according to Newhall, coaches have much less pull at Occidental than they may at other schools due to the lack of scholarships to offer, budget restrictions and academic rigor.
Newhall said that, unlike some other SCIAC institutions, Occidental’s admissions office focuses on a holistic approach. If a talented athlete does not meet the academic criteria for Occidental — which goes beyond just high school GPA and SAT scores — the college will not admit the applicant.
“That’s a credit to admissions,” Newhall said. “No matter how good the kid is, if he doesn’t qualify, admissions isn’t taking him.”
Bartlett will not bother even pursuing a prospective athlete if he or she does not seem to meet academic criteria.
“If we think they can get into the school, we recruit them,” Bartlett said. “Anybody we don’t think can get into the school, we’re not going to recruit them.”
First-year Joe Compagno, a point guard on the men’s basketball who Newhall recruited last year, understands the difficulties that Division-III coaches undergo in order to sign talented players. A Division-II coach offered Compagno guaranteed admittance and a full scholarship on the spot, an action that is simply not possible for an Occidental coach.
“It definitely seemed easier for bigger schools,” Compagno said. “The coach can say, ‘If I say you’re in, you’re in.’ With Division-III, if you don’t get in, there’s nothing the coach can really do. That definitely creates a struggle for both the athlete and the coach.”
At the end of the day, Occidental’s coaches and those belonging to similarly prestigious Division-III programs must truly sell their schools and academic environments to reel in the student-athletes who they feel can best contribute to their respective institution.
“We’re selling Oxy’s academic reputation; we’re selling our community — the four-year promise,” Bartlett said. “What we’re doing is saying ‘come to Oxy and first and foremost be a student. Get a good degree and leave college in four years with a chance to go to grad school or get a great job.’”