'Lunch is for cowards': Inside the grind of a day recruiting at the Peach Jam alongside a mid-major coach
To understand how recruiting is for most, you have to experience the crush up close when every day is a struggle
NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- The July 11-14 evaluation period had more than 1,400 Division I college basketball coaches recruiting thousands of prospects. The players they watched are the future of college basketball; a few will eventually go on to become NBA stars.
The Peach Jam -- Nike's annual tournament event for the company's grassroots basketball enterprise -- is the crown jewel of summer recruiting. It attracts the most media attention, the most fan attendance, the largest quantity of elite prospects and, in course, the highest influx of coaches.
But for all the buzz the best players and the biggest programs always generate here, the Peach Jam is as populated -- if not more so -- by smaller-school coaches. Question is, should it be? And is it that efficient of a recruiting venue for mid-major schools? Are hundreds of schools wasting thousands of dollars annually by scouting and courting prospects at this assembly?
On Friday, I linked up with a head coach of a mid-major program to tag along for an entire day, the goal being to understand the reality of what it's like to show up at the biggest event of the summer ... with the understanding that not one player you're recruiting there prefers to go to your school. Since coaches are not allowed to speak on the record about unsigned recruits due to NCAA rules -- and since the harsh truth and colorful quotes in this story would indict the subject at hand -- our accommodating coach will not be named. To protect the innocent, many other coaches who appear in the story, in addition to team names and specific recruits' identities, have been removed.
8:49 a.m.: "Ur late! Court 6. Center court man."
The text comes in after my Lyft driver takes a wrong left amid the similar streets of a North Augusta neighborhood. I was supposed to be in the gym at 8:45 a.m., 15 minutes prior to tip, when coaches settle in and send a message to the players they're recruiting: Not only am I here, I'm here early just for you.
But it's 8:49 a.m. and I'm still a couple of minutes out. Our coach has been awake for almost three hours. He woke up east of Atlanta, at a Courtyard by Marriott in Conyers, Georgia. He got in his rental car at 6:05 a.m., stopping at a McDonald's along the way for an Egg McMuffin sandwich and a coffee. As he got into Augusta, another stop for coffee at Starbucks. He was parked by 8:40 and in a black plastic folding chair by 8:49. Our coach is on less than six hours of sleep which, though unhealthy, is standard operating procedure.
For mid-major guys, here's the schlep: After leaving his house Wednesday -- with a connecting flight down to Florida -- our coach stayed at a Courtyard by Marriott next to Orlando International Airport. On Thursday, he woke up early and drove an hour to a JUCO recruiting event and stayed for eight hours. There were 48 players featured; 15 or so were mid-major types. Our coach estimates he was one of only five, six or seven head coaches who attended, but more than 100 assistants traveled there as well.
Our coach drove back to Orlando, flew to Atlanta and didn't get to his hotel until nearly midnight on Thursday. His eastward drive Friday morning took two hours and 15 minutes, coffee stops included. He won't truly rest again until after 12:20 a.m., when he's settled in at his next hotel, on the west side of Atlanta, more than 160 miles away.
9:02 a.m.: Glazed-eye coaches shuffle in and walk along the sideline as the game begins. Over the years, many have told me they never drank coffee before becoming a coach. Now half the profession seems addicted to the bean.
"You're going to help me evaluate today," our coach says as he opens up his glossy recruiting binder, which was impressively put together by a lower-level staffer. It's at least 60 pages, with multiple tabs for different events, age groups and separates some recruits by positions, sections, etc.
"There's a bunch of guys off the bench, is who I'm going to be looking at," he says.
For the next 12-plus hours, there will be more than 120 coaches here in the same position. Mid-major affiliation, tracking 10-15 recruits, hoping to get lucky in landing maybe one of them ... eventually. Ironically, few players ever commit at Peach Jam. Anyway, our coach points out that one target is the son of a former fairly good college player.
"I guess [he] played like trash yesterday," our coach says, relying on the word of his assistant, who was here then but isn't here now. "He's one of those guys, if he plays well I won't be able to get him, and if he doesn't play well, I won't want him."
9:29 a.m.: As a somewhat sloppy game plays on, conversation moves to the social science of offering in-state kids and making decisions, some of which might have to come after only two viewings/evaluations on this day. For instance, there's a guard playing in this game who had no offers entering the spring. If he plays well enough here, all it takes is for one power-conference school to offer him and his recruitment completely changes overnight. The player could be misevaluated based on on 20-minute span in which he plays abnormally well.
"It's all f----- up," our coach says.
With 8:17 left in a 21-point game, evaluating for this one is essentially done.
"I've reached the point in this game, I've had enough," he says. "But I never leave. I stay and watch these games all the way through even though they don't matter. We know they don't matter. I know can leave, and I know I should, but I never do."
10:41 a.m.: Our coach fiddles with his neon-orange Nike bracelet. It is stretched, crinkled, abused. One of his assistants came yesterday and paid for the bracelet, which allows coaches to attend the games. The assistant used it for most of Thursday, then collapsed the bones in his hand like a mouse trying to squeeze through a hole, manipulated the bracelet off his wrist and left it at the hotel front desk for his boss. Our coach proceeded to bust the bracelet earlier this morning while trying to snap the white pin clip. He's haphazardly repaired it with scotch tape (thank you, front desk, for the assist).
See, one Peach Jam bracelet costs $500. Our coach was not allotting $1,000 or $1,500 out of his modest recruiting budget. So he will game the system, like many a mid- and low-major coach.
About 30 feet away, UNC Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams sits and scouts.
"You could sit next to Roy Williams and get a good story," our coach says. "But he hasn't slid off an arm band in his f------ career."
10:54 a.m.: We're watching a 17s game. Our coach points to a rising senior who played at a top-100 camp in June and was offered by our coach's school then. His best offers come from similar programs in the region. No one was recruiting him above a mid-major level heading into July. But Thursday, a recruiting analyst wrote a quick story, highlighting the player's recent rise. Nice exposure for the kid, but it's the mid-major coach's nightmare, because the word is now out.
"I immediately wanted to puke when I saw the article," our coach says.
On hand at this game, among plenty of others: North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis, Kentucky, Oregon, Michigan.
11:36 a.m.: "The evaluation is as important as the recruiting," our coach says. "All my guys are like unrestricted free agents, basically. And it's a damn near crapshoot. Whereas [a power-conference coach] is chasing first- and second-round picks."
In the meantime, there's a top-five recruit playing in this game. That's why the glitterati are here.
"The Kansases and Kentuckys are done evaluating by this point," our coach says of that player and basically any five-star kid in 2020. "They're strictly recruiting."
The chase is on. I learn plenty about the cat-and-mouse game that happens with coaches and recruits. For example, there's a coach from a major conference sitting to the left of us. He's one of the more aggressive ones when it comes to handing out scholarship offers like candy.
"I'm like the desperate guy at the bar at 2 in the morning," he says.
But an offer is only a real offer if you're willing to take a commitment without hesitation. And, naturally, many coaches dish out offers that are not real offers. They have to, because no school lands every player it offers, not even Duke and Kentucky. The power-conference coach sitting next to us lays out his strategy, noting he has 30 offers out to kids now, but is truly recruiting only six players in the Class of 2020.
"All 30 think they're being recruited seriously, but I've got this next game here, I hit this kid up and his mom every day," he says.
He's a big-school coach. He can do that. Maybe he should. Our coach?
"I text four guys ... but these mother------- don't want to hear from me," he says.
"It's a chess game," he says.
The kids play it almost as much as the coaches do. As recruiting has evolved, it's why fewer and fewer players commit before November of their senior season. They're hoping for any chance to get a call from that school that's a little better than the ones that have been recruiting them for the past 12-24 months.
Our coach has 15 offers out right now and will have 20-plus out to 2020 recruits by the end of July. For the 2021 players, it will be about five initial offers, then wait and see how those ferment over the next year.
He'll miss on most if not all of his top targets.
"It's like being a gambling addict," he says.
12:06 p.m.: There is no specific target here. Our coach's assistant gave him a player to maybe target. He averaged 40-plus points last season in high school. That player is going up against one of the better teams at Peach Jam.
"We're going to watch them. We're going to probably like them. Then they'll get better and they will not be coming to play for us." A mid-major coach recruiting at Peach Jam
We sit next to a Big 12 coach who, like our coach, is on the move. This new recruiting calendar has localized the weekend, which is a help to big schools and an annoyance to small ones. Nike's premier event is in North Augusta; Under Armour's is in Atlanta and Adidas' is in Birmingham, Alabama. Then there are the smaller events elsewhere in neighboring states. But whereas our coach is driving, this coach -- like about 60 others -- has the benefit of a private plane. He'll fly up to Cartersville, Georgia, in an hour, watch three games, then fly back for Peach Jam games at night.
"And does any of it matter?" he rhetorically asks our coach. "Do you ever ask any of your players after they're on your team if you seeing them all those times made a difference?"
They go on to discuss positionless basketball, its vogue nature in the NBA and how it works in contrast with how many young players still think about positions. The Big 12 coach recalls a story he heard from one player who was being recruited by many power-conference programs, and in fact really wanted to play for his big home state school. But he played at a top-10 program instead. And why? Because the coach promised him he'd play as a small forward, not a power forward. That was the only reason.
For plenty of players, the commitment can be all about the sell of playing time and role -- and so often that sell can be misleading.
12:45 p.m.: I ask our coach about the player he was sent to inspect. Any shot here?
"There is a better chance of me walking on the moon than him playing for us," he says, and it's not because the player is too good. Just the opposite. "That was a 30-second evaluation."
We basically just wasted 90 minutes.
2:01 p.m.: Lunch? Apparently not. Unthinkably, our coach does not go up to the second floor of the Riverview Park Activities Center to indulge in the famous, irresistible peaches and homemade sandwiches. Luxuries such as "lunch" or "food" will wait until tonight. For the grinders and coaching plebs, eating lunch is the loser's way out. Our coach is going to go more than 14 hours without nourishment.
"No f------ lunch," he says. "We fast. Lunch is for cowards. I've had a lot of former players and guys who have worked for me, they understand that at this point on the calendar it's about going to work. It's four days. That's what we're here to do."
Our coach takes a sick pride in this approach. But if you want to see as many players as possible, and sometimes seeing that one game you wouldn't have otherwise seen can lead to a commitment, then it's no f------ lunch.
2:06 p.m.: Like clockwork, a former player of his -- now an assistant at an SEC school -- walks in.
"Lunch today?" our coach asks.
"No, no lunch," the assistant says with a knowing smile.
"If you're Jim Boeheim and you want to go to lunch, hey, you're entitled to that," our coach says. "That level of a guy, he's allowed to do whatever the hell he wants."
So that's settled.
[I leave for 15 minutes and eat peaches. I am not trying to find diamonds in the rough or out-recruit schools from the Southland, CAA, MAC, WCC, Horizon League, etc. I'm eating something.]
2:25 p.m.: With the 17s done until 6 p.m., it's now it's about scouting the 16-and-under teams. And with plenty of guys dipping out for lunch, this game has maybe 15 coaches -- I spy New Orleans, Washington State, DePaul, Pepperdine -- on hand at the start.
"Now we're gonna watch kids I'm never gonna get," our coach says with a twisted enthusiasm. "We're going to watch them. We're going to probably like them. Then they'll get better and they will not be coming to play for us."
He scans the book and checks the players and, though the Peach Jam is regarded as the best-run event in grassroots basketball, there are mistakes with jersey numbers and missing names. Part of the recruiting reality. Former Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy, who is not employed as a coach anywhere currently, sits in the stands. I have no idea why, and I do not go and ask him.
"That will not be me, I promise you," our coach says of Kennedy's appearance. Credit to him. Clearly he's still invested.
As for the game, it's immediately noticeable the difference and inferiority between 16s and 17s. But there is no clear recruiting prey on hand here.
2:22 p.m.: Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton walks in.
"He's another one," our coach says with complete respect to his recruiting prowess. "Monster. He's a monster."
We sit next to an assistant coach from a midwest mid-major that's been better in recruiting in the past three-to-four years. He's watching a player that he's been keyed in on for a long time. Our coach interjects and lays out the situation as it is now and what they fear it could be.
"Here's how this goes," he says. "He's probably seen him play at least seven times, has visited high school twice. Right now, he's got a good shot. But the kid's probably going to get better and eventually he's going to go to a Notre Dame football game. From there, it's over. He's gonna have to hope that Notre Dame and Northwestern don't think he's good enough if it gets to that point."
The assistant can't help but agree. He has to root against the player's best interests to serve his own. This is the essence of recruiting for all but the top 10-15 schools in college basketball. Our coach has some well-deserved cynicism about the process, but he is genuine in how he recruits these players in that he always undersells so that it doesn't bite him after the players get to campus.
"I feel like if I promise too much and don't deliver, they and their families can tell people, 'That guy lied to me.'"
3:15 p.m.: A rival head coach from our coach's conference walks by.
"If his house burned down there'd be 11 suspects," our coach says. "He's that guy."
College basketball's coaching fraternity has as widespread of a net with more connections and congeniality than you'll find in any sport. But there are still black sheep, and this coach is evidently one of them. Many any enemy. Go ahead, get your guesses in.
3:28 p.m.: We're watching a 16s game between a team from the East Coast and one from the Midwest.
"I keep texting my boss," a high-major assistant in good spirits says. "He's probably sitting at an Arby's right now, plotting."
Meantime, our coach is drawing up a drill on a scratch piece of paper for a Big 12 coach sitting next to him.
3:41: p.m.: "No one cares that I'm here," our coach, without prompting, says. The day is approaching a self-loathing stage, which is why I wanted to do this story in the first place. Recruiting can be a profitless bore. In fact, it most often is.
4:01 p.m.: In an incredible display of swagger, a coach from a top-25 program struts through -- Air Pods still in, Starbucks cup in hand -- fresh off having evaluated a game at a different site. He's in time for the final 10 minutes of this game. He'll probably eventually land at least one player here. Just how the game works.
A couple of minutes later, I ask our coach who he's looking at.
"Honestly, I have no idea," he says.
We shuffle out of Gym 2 and head back to Gym 1.
4:26 p.m.: We scoot in and notice there's a high-level player at this one, as Kansas and Tennessee are dutifully scouting this 16s game. This kid may well become a top-15 prospect in the Class of 2021 a year from now. Our coach notes that Kansas coach Bill Self is as dogged of an evaluator as any top-10-level coach in the game.
4:56 p.m.: Malaise has set in.
"I've hit the wall," our coach says.
We're more than four and a half hours deep into evaluating 15- and 16-year-olds, and there's still nearly five hours to go before the day is done. RECRUITING STINKS. This game is completely uneventful and conversation has hit a standstill for the time being. The building is starting to crowd up because a) it's the end of the work day on a summer Friday and b) the fact most coaches who will recruit here for the night have returned from lunch.
6:01 p.m.: The 17s are back on, so things get interesting and energy returns to the proceedings. After checking out the first half of one game, our coach leaves that gym for another viewing of a team and two players he was watching during the morning. You watch the same team twice in a day and you get a good feel in terms of evaluation and whether or not a kid is a recruiting fit. But the other game provided interesting opportunities.
"Both those two kids were good," our coach says. "I don't know if either will want to come to us, but after a half of looking at them, there's no question we will offer them."
It's a nice jolt in the arm. July is about hope for coaches and prospects alike, it feels like. The offers will be formally extended Sunday night, after the evaluation period is done and the coach and his staff have arranged which players are worth pursuing. He'd never previously seen those players, never had a conversation with them.
"If it only takes me a half to know they're good enough, they're probably too good," he says.
6:32 p.m.: Back in Gym 3. A few minutes in, a power-conference coach hired this past spring walks in with another coach at a top-25 program. As our game plays out, there's another prospect with mid-major attributes.
"He looks young, he has a long way to go to ever impact a game," our coach says. "My only thing about him: he floats to the 3-point line too much. He's a 6-9 center with no ball skills that wants to be a 3."
7:22 p.m.: The game ends, and our recently hired power-conference coach is understandably bitching about the new recruiting calendar.
"It's July 12 and his team is done," he says of his prized recruiting target. "I'm not going to see him again the rest of the summer. They're done. Doesn't make any sense. It's terrible."
And this is a power-conference coach saying this, someone with a lot of opportunities and an elevated status. How do you think our coach feels about it?
We make our way out. Being it's Friday night, it's a total cram with spectators, players, families. We worm past coaches and exchange stock acknowledgements. It's impossible to believe that the building hasn't exceeded fire-code guidelines. It's impossible to not believe 10 percent of the people in the building are security guards hired by Nike.
7:30 p.m.: Our final game of the day. We're watching the same team in the same gym as the 9 a.m. tip. We sit alongside a head coach and one of his assistants, who rep a top-10 program. That coach is here to recruit a player well out of his geographic region, but when you're a top-10 school you recruit whoever, wherever. There are, in fact, four top-25 schools in the gym for this one.
It's now when our coach lays out the game within the game of recruiting. One top-25 coach here is not recruiting a particular in-state player who's highly rated and playing in this game. Reason being is the staff initially hemmed and hawed on whether to offer the player. That pissed the player off. And so now the coach -- who runs the best program in his state -- doesn't want to offer the No. 2-ranked player in his state only to be turned down. That would be a bad look.
"They do not want to actually recruit an elite [state name] kid and get a 'no,' so they're off him," our coach says.
Recruiting is all too often political.
This game is the most loaded and important for our coach. He's explicitly evaluating a couple of players, outright recruiting a few more and most interestingly monitoring one stud in particular. Our coach points out one of the players he's recruiting.
"He's a kid who's always looking to see who's here and watching," our coach says.
"You ready for this to end?" our coach asks me.
"I'm getting there," I say.
"I'm beyond there," he says.
And just then, the head coach of a nearby, superior school comes in and sits two seats over. Our coach postulates he's here to evaluate one or two targets that we're here to see.
"So now I want No. 11 to play like shit," our coach quietly tells me.
8:25 p.m.: The "rival" coach walks out, mid-game.
"Should I take a picture of this?" our coach half-jokingly asks, referencing that it could be used for negative recruiting. "Some people would."
With even bigger schools here to recruit players, this is not a power move from the exiting coach. This is some sort of surrender. Either the coach knows the player(s) he came to see are too good, or they are too bad.
8:40 p.m.: As the game plays on, another interesting anecdote: our coach informs me that his top target in this game does not have a working cell phone. There will be no calls or texts to him for communication. Instead, he'll send emails. It's not clear to our coach how many other schools recruiting the kid are aware of this. They could be pointlessly sending texts to no avail. He hopes that's the case.
8:46 p.m.: There's another player, a pudgy big, who is a mid-major's recruiting ideal. Here's the quick scout from our coach: "He's been to our campus for seven unofficial visits. He's a good kid, a little immature. I don't know if he's going to pan out at the highest level. He's lazy. But he's the type of big guy we want."
Meaning: if he gets in shape and gets his act together, he could be a meaningful, top-20 mid-major player by the time he's a junior. But with a lot of bigger schools on hand to watch this game, his head might well already be in a spot where he's set on playing in a major league. Our coach might not have any chance, despite the fact this kid has unofficially visited our coach's campus by far more than any other.
Our coach estimates he's had 12 unofficial visits combined from players playing in this game. Two of those players will wind up getting scholarship offers by the end of the weekend. A third will get more than that.
"And No. 21 I'm going to beg," our coach says with a laugh. "He's going to get the beg tonight."
Amid all this, though, pragmatism and practicality from our coach. Here's how pointless Peach Jam can be for dozens of schools who play in one-bid leagues.
"In November, when I sign someone who played in EYBL, it will not be someone who's played in this tournament," our coach says.
In fact, in the past seven years, he's thinks he's had maybe four commitments total from former prospects who played at Peach Jam. More than half his roster last season was comprised of transfers and former junior college players. His incoming class that features one player who played on the Adidas circuit, one from Under Armour and two freshmen who didn't play on teams considered good enough to have shoe-company affiliation. Is this worth it?
His school has a $100,000 annual recruiting budget, which our coach estimates is middle-of-the-road for his league. This five-day window of recruiting and travel will run about $10,000 for our coach and his three assistants.
"There are a lot of players here who should be playing at the mid-major level," our coach says. "But they'll go to high-majors. You see high-major coaches here, spending the day -- they'll have another staff member or two with them. Part of the problem is seeing all the big schools here. You've got approximately 200 seniors playing in this event. Let's say 175 qualify right away for college. My guess is at least 100 of those will play above my league's level."
As the game winds down, the coach awaits word on whether or not his first prospect to watch on Friday in Birmingham will be an early tip or not.
"I'm praying I don't have an 8 or 9 a.m. game," he says.
But he does. At 8 a.m.
"This totally sucks."
Our game needlessly drags on and doesn't end until 9:27 p.m. -- almost a full two hours after it started, which is about 30 minutes longer than a normal game. Fouls pile up and coaches are openly rooting for the game not to go to overtime, a July recruiting tradition. Thankfully, we're spared.
9:30 p.m.: Our coach has zero commitments for 2020 right now and has five players who will graduate next May, meaning he'll need to fill those spots with 2020 kids and graduate transfers. The commitments will come, but at this point there's no certainty whatsoever on which of his 20-plus targets he'll get. Many if not all of our coach's commitments will be from players who give up on bigger-conference dreams and resign themselves to life as a mid-major guy.
Our coach's school dedicated more than $1,000 to sending him here today, and it's almost certainly for nothing. The amount of money annually poured into D-I hoops recruiting is in the tens of millions, and it's hard to figure how at least 75 percent of it isn't essentially wasted on chasing chimera. Crazy to think about.
And now, our coach has a two-hour-and-22-minute drive back across Georgia awaiting him. He'll get to his hotel after midnight and will be up before 6 a.m. again to drive two hours and 15 minutes to Birmingham for Adidas' tournament. On Sunday, he'll double back to Atlanta to wrap up at Under Armour which, oh by the way, features our coach's top recruiting target.
But first, the time has finally come to eat. It's been a long day, so it's time to splurge: Chick-fil-A.
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