Senior Writer

Coaches learn when 'no' is a good answer


Adonis Thomas is a 6-foot-6 wing from Memphis, a consensus top 10 national prospect, and only a couple of months away from signing day remains a recruiting target of five programs: Arkansas, Florida, Memphis, Tennessee and UCLA. I've privately talked with at least one coach from each of those staffs about Thomas at one point or another, and they all agree he's a terrific prospect, an awesome kid and the type of player who helps you win.

They also agree on this: He's probably not leaving home.

Thomas won't announce anything for another month, of course. He'll visit Fayetteville and Gainesville and Los Angeles, this after visiting Knoxville two weekends ago. He'll consider his options, enjoy himself, be wined and dined and adored. But when pen eventually hits paper, everybody I've spoken with agrees, the smart money has this certain McDonald's All-American signing with Josh Pastner's Tigers, and all other schools are probably wasting their time.

In fact, two coaches asked me this exact question recently: Why am I wasting my time?

My answer: I have no idea.

But the situation is hardly unique in the recruiting game, which got me thinking about a larger question: Why do so many college coaches -- head coaches and assistants alike -- spend so much time recruiting prospects they know, deep down, they don't have any real shot at signing? It can be an incredible waste of money and energy, and it can also cost guys jobs because while one coach is out scrapping to finish third for a future pro he was never going to get, another coach -- i.e., a smarter coach -- is focused on a more realistic target, locked in and building a program.

"I've had so many coaches make comments to me about it looking good to be on [an elite prospect's] list," said recruiting analyst Evan Daniels. "That's bogus. Quit wasting your time and be realistic. Half of recruiting is knowing when to move on and making the right decisions."

With that in mind, I introduce John Costigan to the column.

Costigan conducts motivational speeches and sales training classes around the world for a list of clients that includes Hewlett Packard, Oracle, Tommy Hilfiger, and IBM. I met him at a coaching clinic at Florida last month. He was invited by Billy Donovan and Larry Shyatt and asked to help coaches understand how many of the same principles he teaches in the world of sales translate to college basketball recruiting because, let's face it, that's a sales job, too.

It was fascinating stuff.

Among the first things Costigan did was ask the coaches -- everybody from Butler's Brad Stevens to Purdue's Matt Painter to Oklahoma State's Travis Ford -- if they typically knew "in their gut" whether they could really get a particular kid or not, and almost all of them said they did. Granted, in some cases circumstances change -- maybe an opposing coach gets fired or an opposing program takes a recruit at the same position -- and a school might end up landing a prospect previously considered a stretch. But for the most part, coaches know whether they realistically can expect to sign somebody, which is why Costigan told the assembled coaches to go for the 'No' early when they believe they're going to get the 'No' late anyway.

It's a counterintuitive approach.

But it's also smart.

"Coaches have got to get out of 'Hope Alley,'" Costigan said. "Hope is not a strategy. If coaches can get out of 'Hope Alley' quicker, then they can focus their efforts on the folks who are realistic possibilities to help their programs. That's why I say 'Yes' is a great answer and 'No' is a good answer as long as you get 'No' early on. 'Maybe' is terrible, and a late 'No' is the worst because if you get a 'No' after visits and phone calls and time and energy and resources, then you'll say, 'Damn, I should've focused my efforts on somebody else who I really did have a shot at.'"

And by the time you get around to saying that, that somebody else has typically been scooped up.

Perhaps by somebody like Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon.

Multiple coaches told me over the past few weeks that Dixon is one of the best at distinguishing between what's realistic and what's not, and that he doesn't waste much time with what's not. That's why Pitt rarely finishes third for an elite recruit. Dixon has no interest in finishing third. In baseball terms, he only swings at strikes, and he's happy to let others battle North Carolina and Duke each July. While that's happening, Dixon is in a gym focused on signing the next Ashton Gibbs, getting ready to win another 25 games.

"It's not about who you can get to visit," said former Pitt assistant Tom Herrion, now the head coach at Marshall. "It's about who you can get to commit and sign."

Costigan agrees.

So do I.

"I love when a coach tells me he's 'involved' with four top 50 recruits," Costigan said. "When a coach says that, I say, 'Great. Define involved. And which one would you bet your salary on?' A coach should always ask, 'Would I bet my salary on this kid [signing with me]?' The answer to that question is usually a pretty good indicator of whether you should spend more time recruiting this person. ... But what happens is everybody thinks they have to play the game, and some people confuse hard work with intelligence. People love to tell you how they've really been out there and seen this kid so many times. But in the end, I think your gut is usually right, and the coaches who stay out of 'Hope Alley' are usually better off."

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.

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