Trying to get inside the mind of a teenager is difficult at best, yet people who follow the recruiting process seem to be continually amazed as to why a high school athlete would elect to sign a Letter of Intent with a specific school. Having followed the recruiting process for ten years, it is obvious to me that the factors that really do influence many kids are not the same things that we think should influence their decision. This disconnect is especially apparent this year, when a handful of kids from Arizona High Schools have made non-binding commitments to Nebraska. Having read hundreds of "do they know how bad the weather is in Nebraska?" posts, it occurs to me that the average fan misunderstands why the majority of kids select a specific school.
The things that really do influence a high school kid's decision:
Immediate playing time - kids want to play, and they want to play soon (if not in their first year, then certainly by their second).
Relationship with assistant coach - most kids are recruited by a specific assistant on the staff, not by the Head Coach. When I read quotes from kids after they make a commitment, I nearly always read that “I got on great with Coach X, and we chat every week.”
Opportunity to make the pros – although a small percentage of Division 1-A players will make the NFL, they all think they will. Kids want to believe that their choice of school will prepare them for the next level.
Academics – this works both ways. Some kids want to use their athletic skills to get a free education at a top flight school. Quite honestly, who could blame Mike Mitchell for going to Stanford or Darnell Autry from choosing Northwestern? Don’t get me wrong, ASU can provide a first-class education, but it doesn’t have the same reputation as the elite institutions. On the other hand, some kids may need to look for a school with lower academic standards than ASU.
Availability of choice of major – on a related note, some kids have a very specific major in mind and want to go to a school where that major is featured. Last year, Myron Rolle (who wants to become a neurosurgeon) selected Florida State because of their pre-med program. I recall reading an article that mentioned he was impressed by FSU because when he went for his official visit they took him to meet the faculty before he met the coaches.
TV exposure – this is one area where all the Pac-10 schools, with the notable exception of USC, lose out big time. Michigan can come in to Arizona and tell a kid that his parents will be able to watch him on TV every week. ASU cannot go to Michigan and tell a kid there the same thing. Also, because Pac-10 teams get little exposure outside of the Pac-10 states, kids outside that territory do not grow up dreaming of becoming a Sun Devil.
Parental influence (and sometimes, parental interference) – personally, if my mother had told me to go to School X, I would have crossed it off my list immediately, but some kids do listen to their parents, and some parents are more opinionated than others.
High school coach – many kids respect their high school coach. In some cases, he is probably their dominant father figure. So if your coach tells you that School X is no good, or School Y is the place to be, it’s bound to have an impact.
Distance between home and school – some kids want to play close to home so that their friends and family can attend every game. Others probably want to get a long way away from home. (Of course, at USC the boosters will fly your parents in every weekend so distance is less of an issue!).
General impression of the athletic department – au’s basketball program probably helps their football recruiting more than anything their football program has ever done. au hoops is truly a national program, and that certainly helps the school’s name recognition.
Fan support – if you were a recruit and made your official visit to Nebraska and saw the stadium full, with everyone wearing red, how could you not be impressed? And if you then attended a game at a half-full Sun Devil Stadium, with most people arriving mid-way through the first quarter and gone by mid-way through the fourth quarter, how could it not have an impact?
Things we think should influence their decision that are overrated:
Weather – first of all, I have never heard a kid say “I selected San Diego State because the weather in San Diego is perfect”. Never. Ever. Second, most of ASU’s recruiting is in California, and it’s hard to argue that Arizona’s weather is better than California’s. Third, kids growing up in AZ may be sick of the hot summers, and the prospect of attending a school in a different climate may actually be attractive to them. Forth, most of the recruiting visits take place in the early fall, when it can still be hot in AZ. Those recruits who baked in the sun during the Oregon game this past season probably didn’t walk away too excited about the prospect of playing and practicing in that heat for six months of the year.
Girls – sure, the girls at ASU are probably the best on earth, but every school has cute co-eds.
Facilities – yes, ASU has a great weights room, but so do most of the other top schools. All of the Pac-10 programs have upgraded their facilities over the past few years. ASU is keeping up, but we’re not pulling away.
Town location – many of the top programs in the nation are is backwater towns that wouldn’t exist save for the university. But that doesn’t stop kids from attending year after year. Mill Ave. is great, but a kid’s not going to choose ASU because of it.
Head Coach – most kids have very little contact with the Head Coach diring the recruiting process. His role is usually that of the closer. Being an effective closer is critical, but few kids make their decision based on who the top man is (unless his future is in doubt, in which case the uncertainty can have a major impact).
Legacy – just because “Jimmy” is the son of a Sun Devil legend doesn’t mean he’ll want to follow his father’s footsteps. Gerald Riggs barely gave us a glance as he made his way to Tennessee.