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Does Early-Bird Recruiting Catch All-Americans?
By Roger Moore
If you check the list of student-athletes signing on the dotted line every November, odds are you are going to see the signature of a national champion or two … or three … of four.
In mid-April there is a second signing period. Again, there will be a national champion or two. And without looking at any numbers most mat fans would probably tell you a very high percentage of national champions were among early signees.
There are various reasons for high school wrestlers to sign early. A high-profile recruit can forget about the recruiting process during his senior year if he’s already decided to sign. He can focus on other things besides returning phone calls, and the fact his decision is made there are no more coaches to impress.
On the other hand, if a student-athlete decides to wait there might not be any scholarship money left at his program of choice.
Head coaches will tell you that recruiting is not an exact science. But 99 percent of them will admit that they would like to have their class signed by the second week of November.
In other words: early.
“We are not in a position to wait until April or May,” said Oklahoma State head coach John Smith. “You only have so much money you can spend on a recruit and if you wait around you are going to lose that kid a lot of the time.
“Sometimes there are kids, really good kids, who don’t get signed early. They may gel a little later than others, or the fact they didn’t get as much attention from coaches as they thought might motivate them to work harder than they were before. But we aren’t usually in a position by that point to sign those types of kids.
“If somebody wants to wait until spring we generally have to walk away.”
Although the landscape is slowly changing, Smith is still part of a “big program” monopoly on many of the nation’s top recruits. Smaller schools often get a big-name athlete but it’s the Oklahoma States and Iowas and the high-profile programs that get multiple big-name recruits.
Like other collegiate sports, the nation’s top programs often get to pick who they sign. With 9.9 scholarships available it’s imperative that those choices are right.
“You have to take chances, but most of the good kids are going to sign early,” said Smith, who knows of a few exceptions.
Johnny Thompson wrestled at 133 pounds for the Cowboys from 2001-04. A state champion as a senior in Oklahoma, Thompson was barely on anyone’s radar. He was originally headed to Missouri before a late — very late signing — with Oklahoma State. He finished his career with a 127-14 record, two NCAA titles, and four All-American seasons.
Another Cowboy, Chris Pendleton, was considered a “late bloomer.” The Californian turned into a two-time NCAA champion.
Nobody will ever forget Mark Branch. Actually, every coach in the country pretty much did during his prep career at Newkirk in Oklahoma. He wrestled in four NCAA finals, winning a pair of championships.
“They are out there, but they are pretty hard to find,” Smith said. “Sometimes it’s about a little luck. Just because you are one of the top recruits doesn’t mean you are going to be a national champion.”
Statistics prove the exact science recruiters are looking for is still being worked out. A look at All-Americans and national champions over a five-year span from 2001-05 shows a higher percentage of mat stars signed early — but not by much.
Of the 50 individual NCAA champions from 2001-05, 29 of them signed during the early (November) period. Which means 42 percent, or 21 NCAA champions, during the same period were signed in April or other circumstances that did not include a November signature.
Of the 400 All-Americans during the same span, 175 were early signees. The math shows 44 percent, meaning 56 percent of top-eight finishes came from athletes possibly under the radar. Injuries also play a role, ending careers early or not allowing an individual to reach that Division-I potential.
Still, coaches want to get the majority of their classes signed before January.
Branch, in his second year at Wyoming, constantly goes up against the bigger programs in recruiting. Sometimes it’s about getting the leftovers, or maybe a diamond in the rough that a bigger program may have passed on.
Also, evaluating needs may not be feasible until January or February.
“We have had a hard time in the early signing period going against the big-name programs,” Branch said. “That’s mostly because we are going after kids who are on a lot of radars. I think that we can recruit wiser in the spring because by then we know our team better.
“We can get a feel for which of our current guys are more likely to be impact players and if there is potential to lose any current wrestlers during the season. We have had guys adjusting and finding their college weights so we can now look at our team in the future and have a better idea about the priority weights we need to be recruiting. I feel more confident in that area in the spring.
“But everyone does want to present those blue chip names in the fall if possible.”
For many of the smaller programs, the spring period also opens up the list of available recruits.
“My philosophy is that there will be a lot of very good unsigned kids in the spring and not nearly as much competition so we shouldn’t panic if things aren’t going well in the fall,” Branch said. “Maybe there will be a kid come out of nowhere at a weight we now know we need and we will have more money to offer than some of the other schools.”
With the increase in parity enhanced even more by a corps of solid young coaches, often times it’s about getting them in the room, developing champs from those recruits ranked outside the top five.
“There is not that big of a gap between the top four or five guys and somebody who might be around 15 or 20 in the country,” Smith said. “Once you get them on campus sometimes they improve and then there are others who don’t pan out.”
At Edinboro, Tim Flynn runs a program hovering around the top 15 almost every season. His goal is similar to most other head coaches.
“We certainly try to identify the right kids to sign early,” Flynn said. “It seems that many of the well-known athletes are committing early. It’s nice to sign kids early and not have to worry about as much recruiting during the season.
“I imagine that we are the same as the bigger schools in that we are trying to fill our needs with blue-chip kids early. I think the kids that sign early are just better known prior to their senior year than those who sign late. But there is a lot of time between signing and the end of a college career. Things change.”
Usually four or five starters from a program like Edinboro are early signees. The rest, half of the team, is made up of various late signees, walk-ons, transfers and sometimes student-athletes who received little attention as high school wrestlers.
At the end of the day, the big names — the nation’s top signees — are identified by which programs they’ve signed with. But what makes collegiate wrestling as intriguing as it is are those national champions from UC-Davis, North Carolina State, Lock Haven, Hofstra and others.
(Roger Moore is an author and freelance journalist who lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He has been part of the Oklahoma State wrestling radio broadcast since 1997 and was named WIN and the National Wrestling Media Association’s Journalist of the Year in 2005.) n