The unofficial visit is, by far, the most misunderstood element of the recruiting process. It starts with the name. There’s nothing “unofficial” about an unofficial visit. A more accurate name would be “self-financed visits,” although even that’s something of a misnomer when schools can give prospects up to three (even five in some cases) free tickets to any home game and can use tricks with institutional policy to provide a free overnight stay.
But one thing that’s well-understood is that unofficial visits are a major issue in men’s basketball in particular, but all sports generally. As Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News notes, there’s two issues:
As it stands now, the college basketball prospect whose family has money can travel in grand style – being hosted by famous coaches, comparing every school’s practice facility to the one he just saw and the one he’ll see next. The prospect of limited means might be able to see the schools in his immediate area, but if he is being pursued by out-of-state programs he might be stuck in the dilemma of either accepting a virtual “visit” through the school’s web site or receiving assistance from a “third party” to make an unofficial.
DeCourcy’s solution? Ban unofficial visits. Or to put in language that would actually make it into the NCAA Manual, ban all face-to-face contact between coaches and prospects unless it occurs during an official visit or a permissible off-campus contact. In addition, prohibit schools from providing complimentary admissions to prospects on unofficial visits.
The problem with banning unofficial visits is it requires a complete rewrite of the recruiting rules, even beyond the current revisions expected over the next year or two. That’s how closely tied together recruiting rules are. It also does not solve the problem of the advantage of money in recruiting.
Taking the latter issue first, banning unofficial visits means taking away opportunities for prospects to visit local schools. While some players might not be able to afford cross-country trips, they have the opportunity for frequent and early contact with coaches in their backyard. The Chicago prospect considering UCLA and Kentucky might be on equal footing but loses his advantage if he was considering DePaul, Northwestern, or even Illinois.
Unofficial visits were seen as a part of the progression in recruiting. As freshmen and sophomores, prospects need to make the effort to get in contact with a coach, either by calling coaches or visiting campus on their own. As juniors the coaches can reach out to them either by email (most sports) and/or the occasional phone call (basketball and football). Finally as seniors, coaches can call regularly and invite the prospect to come for a visit on the school’s dime.
There Recruiting Process Has Changed
Increasingly that progression is being ignored by prospects and altered (or broken) by the NCAA. The start of all recruiting activity is starting to converge on a single date, sometime during the summer prior to a prospect’s junior year in high school. This will increasingly result in a hard sell at that time.
That is exactly what the SEC had in mind for women’s soccer when they proposed a radical restructuring of the recruiting rules in 2009. Among other things, the SEC wanted to have all of the following recruiting activities start on August 1 before a prospect’s senior year in high school:
- Unofficial visits
- Official visits
- Off-campus contact
- Calls to the prospect
- Calls from the prospect
- Verbal or written offers of financial aid
The SEC’s rationale was to combat the growing tide of early commitments in women’s soccer, but it is hard to ignore that all these rules would work to the advantage of rural schools with larger budgets. Women’s soccer recruiting would be an August to February blitz that favored flashy sales pitches rather than relationships built up with a coach over a number of years.
The Ivy League went one step further and took that proposal, dropped the ban on coaches receiving phone calls, and wanted to make it the rule for all sports, including football and basketball. That probably succeeded in killing both proposals since everyone realized just how ridiculous it was and no coach wanted to set that sort of precedent in one sport let alone make it the rule for everyone.
So to Ban Unofficial Visits Without Further Breaking Recruiting, the NCAA Could Do One or a Combination of a Few Things
First, expand official visits to the junior year and remove the limit of five visits for each prospect. Prospects would still only be permitted to visit each school once. The limit that keeps prospects from spending every weekend on an official visit would be the institutional limit of 12 for men’s basketball. Additionally or alternatively, you could give prospects two sets of visits, five as a junior and five as a senior and allow them to visit a school twice, once each year.
Second, move the start of correspondence up to following the freshman year. If moving official visits to the junior year is acknowledging when prospects commit, then correspondence (phone, text, and email) needs to be moved up as well. This would create some progression in recruiting even if the timing is not ideal: evaluation as freshmen, talking as sophomores, visits and commitments as juniors.
Third, eliminate the early signing period in basketball. If the November signing period is compressing the recruiting schedule too much, one option is to push the end of recruiting back rather than allow the start to creep forward.
And finally, prohibit prospects from taking visits after they sign or commit. This uses the allure of the official visit to get prospects to delay their commitments. Want to get Florida to fly you down to see them play Kentucky? You have to keep your options open until then to be allowed to go. This was proposed by the NCAA Recruiting Cabinet in 2010 but was defeated.
Taken together, these rules would draw out the recruiting process as long as possible, which should (in theory) lead to better decisions. It removes unofficial visits from the equation but still gives prospects plenty of time to build relationships with coaches and visit enough colleges. And it gives prospects an incentive to delay any binding commitment until the end of their senior year, which in theory should lead to better decisions about where to go to school.