This article was originally published May 4, 2020, in the beginning months of the COVID-19 pandemic. I spoke with legendary head coach Mark Edwards about how the pandemic would affect college recruiting, and now more than a year later, it feels appropriate to look back at the predictions we made to see how accurate they’ve been.
Earlier this week, I caught up with Mark Edwards, who retired from coaching in 2018 after 46 total years, 37 of those as the head coach at NCAA Division III Washington University in St. Louis. He collected 685 career wins, 34-straight winning seasons from 1984-2018, 20 NCAA Tournament appearances, three Final Fours (2007-09) and two national championships (2008, 2009).
This is the beginning of a new monthly series chronically my conversations with Mark Edwards, with a new topic each month. This month, we focused on how the affects the COVID-19 fallout can and will have on college basketball recruiting. I can’t promise that we’ll be perfectly on topic all the time, but who doesn’t get sidetracked every once in a while?
Mark Edwards Monthly: COVID-19 and Recruiting
Justin Meyer: Hi Coach, glad to start this series. To start, have you talked to any current coaches about what’s happening? Do you talk to Pat Juckem about how he’s dealing with this or any other coaching friends you know?
Mark Edwards: Yeah, Pat and I had a conversation a couple days ago. Beyond that, I have not. I’ve talked to some other retired people, but it’s just really very difficult. Everyone’s just sequestered at home, and they’re scrambling around trying to figure out what it is they’re going to do. I know Pat has talked to some of the coaches up in Wisconsin and other places. You hit it on the head, there’s going to be a lot of question marks. I recruited for nine years at Division I, so I am familiar with the Division I approach to recruiting. It’s changed over all those years, but the impetus is still there, and the factors that affect recruiting are still there. But how this is going to happen? It’s one of those things, we can make a lot of guesses. I would say coaches today are going to have take a hard look at their recruiting and identify those areas of recruiting that have essential to their success in recruiting, in other words, on-campus visits, summer evaluations, phone calls, networking, all those different elements that they count on in building their recruiting program. And that’s going to vary from school to school. Some schools recruit regionally, and some schools recruit nationally. Those are going to be impacted in different ways.
I think the one thing that I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about, which I predict is going to be a major consideration, and that is the cutting of budgets. There’s definitely going to be some budget cutting. I don’t care what level you’re at. Now, perhaps at the Division I where basketball pays for itself at a certain number of those institutions, but there’s a lot of those low majors, etcetera, I don’t know how they’re going to be able to sustain the budgetary cuts. And then you’ve got the other levels – Division II, NAIA – some of those schools are struggling to begin with. I would not be surprised if there is a number of schools that do not reopen. To me, that’s going to be a big factor. The other thing is, when they cut budgets, if you’re a state school, higher education at the state level is the one that is the most susceptible to be cut. So, if a state has to cut it’s budget, the biggest cut is going to come in higher education because that’s where they can raise the tuition or charge differently. They can’t take it out of the school system, the local schools or the high schools, because those are all mandated by law, as far as the amount that goes to each school district. There are a lot of big questions. You can plan whatever you want, but if your program doesn’t have the money to sustain the level you want to be at, you’re going to have a problem.
I think recruiting wise, the other big issue to me would be the evaluation of athletes. The summer evaluation period, that’s going to be probably gone, would be my guess. Video is a good way to evaluate, but it’s very iffy to be able to tell how good a kid really is. And then of course face-to-face recruiting of a kid is something that’s really important. Here’s another little thing that might be, and I’m just talking out of context here, but years from now, you might see a lot of transfers, because kids are going to end up going to colleges, sight unseen this year. It’s kind of like the deal is almost complete, but it wasn’t really complete, because you didn’t get that last visit in. And I know a number of kids who are going to college, not necessarily athletes but they’re going to college, and they didn’t get to visit the campus this spring. A lot of those had a May 1st decision deadline, so they were waiting until April to see the schools during their breaks, and now, they don’t have it. So, it’s interesting. There’s going to be a lot of really different things happening.
JM: About the budgetary cuts, I saw today, FBS schools, there are 16 schools that already have the minimum amount of programs that are allowed, and two of them are power five schools: Mississippi State and Kansas State. And those are the power five schools that probably have more money. A lot of the other schools probably don’t have as much money. Like Colorado State, they were on that list, Buffalo, and I know the SUNY school already was hemorrhaging money. There are definitely going to be schools that close.
About the transfer thing, that’s something I’ve thought about, too. So, this kid I talked to, Ronnie DeGray III, not that he wasn’t sold on UMass. He was talking happily about the staff, and he had visited. He did that beforehand. But he didn’t get to go to those other schools. He said that if he had gone to those schools, he didn’t know how that could have affected what he thought. And yeah, he got to go, but how many kids didn’t get to visit their UMass?
Edwards: The other thing that’s going to happen, too, is how the conferences are going to be impacted. You have conference tournaments. Yeah, the big ten, the power five, they make money at their conference tournament, because they have television packaged and everything. But how about those other schools that don’t make money at the conference tournaments? They don’t make money at it. There’s going to be somebody saying, ‘Why are we having this tournament when all were doing is hemorrhaging money?’ It’s outside the season, it’s not part of the regular season.
I don’t know if that will happen, but then you drop into Division II and III, and it becomes even more critical, because you don’t have the television money or the exposure. I’ve already heard rumors about different colleges not even opening their doors, and how’s that going to affect conferences? If they have 12 teams in a conference and five of the them don’t come back. I don’t know.
JM: The summer evaluation period and having to watch kids on video, that’s something I wanted to ask about. Who gets hurt from this situation more? Obviously, I would say it’s worse for the kid than it is for the coaches making money who are adults and are professional, but it’s a two-way street. There are going to be coaches who get stuck with kids, who they’re like, ‘Oh boy, this kid is now eating a hole in my roster, he doesn’t fit the culture, this was a mistake.’
Edwards: Right, right.
JM: And there are going to kids who are saying, ‘I don’t fit here at all, what is happening?’
Edwards: And there are going to be times where the coach, he doesn’t know what he’s getting. He takes a kid, he doesn’t fit, or if the kid’s too good for that school, he’ll probably leave. He’ll move up. If he’s not good enough for that school, he probably won’t give it a chance. I think a big thing is, what the kids’ expectations are going to be. Do they expect to go in and play right away? What kind of perception to they have of their own ability? The networking that takes place at any level is really tremendous.
I was at Washington University for 37 years, and over that period of time, I built a network of coaches and people who knew our program, former players, etcetera, and when they saw people who would fit, they’d let me know. They’d say, ‘Oh, this guy is perfect for you, he’s your type of player,’ or whatever. I think coaches are going to have to rely on their networks. They’re going to have to rely on the people who actually know the program you’re recruiting to, and they’ve had kids in or they have been in it themselves. I think that’ll be a big advantage for some schools.
I think the really good basketball programs are going to stay really good, because they’re going to figure out how to attract the same kids, they’ve been attracting, and I think the schools that are trying to either rebuild or get better or that aren’t real strong to begin with, they’re going to be rolling the dice. And not only that, if they don’t have the money to provide a strong program for a kid who wants to go there, that’s going to make it even more difficult.
I guess what I’m saying is, the traditional winning programs have an advantage. They’re known, they have networks, they have alumni support, and the players in the program are creditable. If a kid is looking at the school, he kind of knows what he wants to do and it’s a good basketball program with good tradition, you know what? Chances are, he’s not taking too big of a gamble.
JM: That’s true. Just talking from a DI perspective, places like Kentucky, that’s a known commodity. You know what you’re getting. You don’t need John Calipari to come face-to-face with you to know what they’re about. So, I totally see what you’re saying.
How big do you feel, as somebody who did recruit for a long time, is the loss of campus visits, at least from a coach perspective?
Mark Edwards: That may vary from coach to coach, but for me, that is the hugest problem. That’s where you make the sell. That’s where the kid comes on, and he gets the feel. Our whole recruiting was based upon the atmosphere that the kid felt when he visited the campus. The players, the academics, the aesthetics of the campus, the banners hanging in the gym, how excited people are about what’s going on the campus, not just athletics but all parts of the campus. If somebody asked me what was the number one thing from a recruiting standpoint that helped us get the type of players we got over the years, it was the campus visit. You can go into the kid’s home as much as you want, but all you’re doing is trying to pain the picture. Until the kid walks that picture and gets a feel for it and a sense of what it is he’s signing up for, you really don’t have anything. So, I think the campus visit is big.
If it were me, I would still count on the campus visit being big. Obviously, it’s not going to for this year, but even if next year, if things are still kind of iffy, I’d still figure out a way for the kids and his folks to come walk through the campus to get a sense of it. But to me, that’s going to be one of the biggest things you have to try to overcome.
JM: You mention next year, and that’s also what I’m curious about. Let’s take the Class of 2020. A lot of kids have already done some visits by now, and they’ve probably had coaches come out and see them play because they’ve been recruiting them for a year, two years, whatever. The groundwork has been done. Like you said, now the final sell, that’s what’s lost, but the groundwork was done.
But the Class of 2021, or even the Class of 2022, now that groundwork can’t even be done. Now, you can’t go see them play in person, because, A, you can’t go there, and B, they’re not even playing. I feel like people might talk about how this will affect the Class of 2020, but I could see this having massive ramifications for the next two classes, perhaps even more so than this one. But how big of an impact do you think just what’s happening right now, let’s pretend this stays contained to this year, coronavirus is solved, we’re back to normal by the start of 2021. How much can what’s already happened affect the 2021 and 2022 classes?
Edwards: It probably could have an effect, but I’m one of these people who feels that it’s kind of like over-preparing for a game. You can for a lot of different scenarios: what if they press, what if they zone, what if they do all this type of stuff, what if this happens, what if that happens. And you do, you address it, and you have it in the back of your mind, or at least think of it. But then what you do is you prioritize where you’re going to put your efforts. That’s got to be the game plan. As a coach, if all of a sudden they come out in a full-court press you didn’t expect, then hopefully you’ve done a good enough job of preparing your team that they know how to counter it or go up against it even though that wasn’t part of the game plan. Well, I think that we’re talking about all of the whole picture. I think right now what the coaches have to do is zero in on this year and be very cognizant and aware of what they have to learn in order to contend with next year.
Keep your team together, keep the team that you have. Get them excited about coming back and playing again. Enable your program to grow by utilizing the players who are in the program now. Recruiting is vital, and part of the recruiting is the kids you already have. If it were me, if I were still coaching, I think the big thing I would do is give a big video hug to the guys I have on my team and say, ‘Hey, this is one more challenge for us. Let’s be excited about it. Championships don’t come easy.’
I recognize the 2022 implications, but if I start worrying about that too much, I’m going to forget about the 2021 team that’s for real that’s already here.
JM: I get what you’re saying, and as a coach, there’s nothing you can do. This can’t all be negative, though. There have to be positives. There has to be something positive that comes out of this. Some side effect has to be accidentally positive. Can we think of any?
Edwards: That’s a good point. Where is the silver lining? There’s always a silver lining, what’s this one going to be? I know one of them. And that’s going to be the athletes are going to learn from this. They’re going to learn how much they really appreciated playing the game, and playing the game with a team that was committed. The disappointment for the seniors this year who ended their careers with nothing. Their career ended. I think that when they get together this fall, let’s just assume schools are going to start up on time and the teams are going to come back onto the campus, and teams that ended their seasons in a variety of ways, some of them their season was already over, they’re going to get together in a room and they’re going to celebrate the opportunity to compete again. To me, that’s going to be a big benefit.
It’s kind of like, we’ve stopped and looked around us because everything has slowed down. One of the things they’re doing, is they’re looking around, and they’re going to say, ‘You know, basketball is really, really big to me. I missed that as much as I missed anything.’ When they get back on the campus, they’re going to have a diff perspective. And I firmly believe that. I think it’s going to be important that the coaches recognize that, and I know the coaches are ready for it, because you have to be. That’s the whole coaching profession. So, that’s one silver lining.
Justin Meyer: Angela Dugalić is a player from near Chicago, and she is going to Oregon next year. She was a McDonald’s All-American; she was going to play in that. That got canceled. She was going to play in the Jordan Classic. That got canceled. She had a chance to play for the Serbian national team. There was a real chance she was going to play in the Olympics this summer. Well, there are no more Olympics this summer. And now she’s not even really playing basketball. She told me she went out with her brother, who also plays college basketball, to a nearby outdoor hoop weeks ago. They were staying distanced and everything, and they had somebody yell from their window, ‘What are you doing, you got to go inside, blah blah blah,’ so they went inside.
I could hear it in her voice. I could just tell the lack of basketball is getting at her. The other kid I talked to, he was telling me, ‘I am now realizing how much time I really put into basketball, and I don’t know what to do with myself now.’ These are kids who aren’t yet playing college basketball, so they haven’t even tasted what that’s like yet. But I would think especially the kids who have played college basketball and know what that’s like are going to have this hunger that they didn’t fully understand until they had it taken away from them.
Edwards: The thing is, we’ve got three different things here. We’ve got the athletes who are returning, the athletes who ended their career this way, and the athletes who are beginning. The ones I feel sorry for are the ones who ended their careers this way: the seniors. The seniors in high school. We’re talking college, but how about all those seniors, the kids who have been playing since fifth grade, and they weren’t good enough to really go on and play at the college level. What is that, 90 percent of high school players? And, they’re seniors, too. That’s kind of getting off the track on how this is going to impact college basketball, but I feel sorry for all those kids. Baseball players, track athletes, all these people who played sports in high school and were seniors, and that was the end of their careers. That’s it, it’s over. College is the same way. Not very many kids are going to go on to the pros.
That’s going to be another thing that’s going to be interesting. Didn’t we already have one kid who elected not to go to college who’s going to go to the G League? I don’t know, how is that going to impact Division I basketball? Probably not that much, because they’re not going to play against you. That’s what kills you, when you have that kid play against you. Instead of going to Kentucky, he goes to North Carolina. That hurts Kentucky. That’s going to be a drain of the pool, because if that kid goes to the G League, that means someone else is going to get that scholarship, and it’s going to filter all the way down.
JM: In that sense, I don’t think it’s going to have that big of an impact. First of all, you’re never going to have that many kids choose to go pro because there simply are not that many kids who are capable of doing that. And even if all of them did, how many is that in a class? Fifteen or 20 maybe could immediately go play in the NBA or G League? The worst thing that could happen is programs that usually have kids stay for four years get stronger.
Some people are seeing that and are reacting like, ‘Oh my God, Division I basketball will have an upheaval.’ Do you really think that Norfolk State cares? Is it going to affect them really? No, they’re going to continue on. At Davidson, is this going to affect how Bob McKillop recruits? I don’t think so. His program isn’t going to change. John Calipari might have to make adjustments, but that’s about it.
Edwards: I agree with you, that probably isn’t going to make much of a difference. The pros, that’s business. I find myself being less sympathetic about how this impacts them, because they’re talking about how many games they can get in. That’s what they’re going to be talking about. They’re going to have a team that people are going to pay to see. It’s a totally different thing.
JM: Another aspect as well is that not as many coaches got fired this year. It’s hard to fire a coach when there is no end to the season. I’ll take Maryland, as an example. Mark Turgeon has been, shall we say, divisive among the fan base for a while. The team won a share of the conference this year, which is great, but the big knock has been in March. Depending on how the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament had gone, he might have lost his job. But he didn’t. How could you possibly fire him after winning the Big Ten? How could you do that when now everyone is going to have to slash their budgets? So, you’d have to pay him his contract and all this stuff, and that’s just Maryland. There are plenty of other schools in similar situations, or in a more obvious we-need-to-move-on-from-this-coach situation, but they can’t.
Edwards: Yeah, but that’s not going to be that many people. Where it’s really going to impact are schools that probably wanted to make a change, with losing records and a tradition of three or four years of losing, and they planned on making a change, but almost all the Division III schools have a freeze on hiring now. So, if you change, you can’t hire a coach. You dig into the Division III schools, look at the statements they’ve made concerning how they’re going to deal with this financially. Almost all of them are saying they’re having a hiring freeze. If they have an open position, they can’t fill it. They could maybe get someone to be an interim who was an assistant or something like that, they could do it that way. But that’s not a good way to do it. There are a lot of big question marks there.
JM: Part of me feels like this whole situation puts in perspective how little this matters. You understand what I’m saying?
Edwards: There are going to be a lot of people who aren’t sympathetic with you, you know what I’m saying?
Justin Meyer: These are real problems, especially if you’re talking about a kid who lost out on a chance at winning a conference title or a national title, or a chance at playing in the tournament at all. That’s tragic, but at a certain point, there are going to be a number of athletes and coaches whose families get sick, or even themselves get sick. It’s an unfortunate inevitability. Once one NBA player tested positive, sports stopped.
Karl-Anthony Towns’ mom, she already passed away from COVID. That’s a very big name who had their family affected by this. Having something like that happen to a person can completely change how they view life and how they live at all. You could have a basketball player put so much time into basketball, and at 20 years old, they have their parent ripped away from them, and they’re like, ‘What am I doing? Why did I spend all this time playing basketball, and I was not spending time with my mom?’ And then they stop playing basketball.
Edwards: How about this? How about the high school kids? These programs get cut. So, you’re cutting off the pipeline at the low level. It’s just what you were saying, they lose their incentive. Okay, a kid at the college level loses his incentive because of this, what about the high school kids, which is the feeder program for these colleges.
JM: Or it could go the other way. Someone could be like, ‘Now I’m going to throw myself into this.’ And I’m sure there’s going to be both. Both are going to happen.
I hope that a lot of people use this as a time to really reflect on themselves, their lives, society, things that they’ve accepted as fact or as, this is what is done, you know? I hope that people start to see some inconsistencies in the system, so to speak, or some priorities that have been mismanaged. And I hope we possess the ability to reflect in a meaningful and impactful way. I’m not confident that we do, but I really hope that we do.
Edwards: I think there a lot of people who recognize what you just said, that this is an opportunity. There will be some people who won’t seize that opportunity, who will be selfish. It’s like the people who are still partying. They don’t recognize what part they’re playing in history. They don’t seize that moment to have a chance to make a difference. That’s too bad, but that’s just human nature, I guess. There are always going to be some people like that. I do think, though, that everybody has been made aware that this is real. There’s nobody that’s rolling their eyes and going, ‘Here we go again, it’s another manufactured crisis.’ Everybody realizes this crisis is real.
The older you get, too, the more you’re concerned about it. Like my age group, we are concerned about it. We’re not afraid of it, but we recognize the vulnerability, because we’ve been through things before. It’s like a 16-year-old thinking about death. That’s not a factor, that’s not something that’s on their thought process, or shouldn’t be, anyway. As you experience more and more things, you start to recognize how vulnerable you really are. This is just another measure of that vulnerability, another example of it. We’re just one germ away from disaster.