CHICAGO -- Steve Pappas has crossed basketball's version of the Dan Ryan at rush hour and survived, but that doesn't mean he wants to try it again. So the Gordon Tech coach is glad the NCAA is applying the brakes to that high-powered vehicle known as college recruiting.
"It's gotten out of hand," says Pappas, who should know. He has three heavily recruited seniors in Tom Kleinschmidt and Jason Bey, who signed with colleges in November, and Antoine Gillespie, who will sign in April. Having walked those players and others through the recruiting process, Pappas is familiar with the problems representatives at the recent NCAA convention were grappling with.
The basic one is that the process starts too soon and gets too intense. Top freshmen in basketball and football already have begun receiving mail from colleges. Promising sophomores are getting phone calls at home and drawing recruiters to practices and games. By spring of their junior years, outstanding players get a barrage of phone calls and enough mail to put their postmen on permanent disability.
That's why Pappas is applauding the rules changes the NCAA approved this month in an attempt to rein in recruiting.
"We've just gone through the process, and now some of our sophomores are getting letters and queries," he said. "The whole process is out of control, and the NCAA is at least trying to make a stand. For the sanity of the high school coaches and the kids, and for the kids' keeping things in balance and perspective, I think the NCAA is going in the right direction."
Among the biggest rules changes is a reduction in phone calls and mail, which now have practically no restrictions. Starting this summer, recruiters will not be able to call or visit a prospect until July 1 before the player's senior year. They will not be allowed to provide recruiting material to a prospect until Sept. 1 of his junior year.
Other changes will reduce the number of times a recruiter can visit a prospect's school as well as watch him practice or compete. The number of in-person off-campus contacts also has been cut. So has the number of coaches allowed to recruit off-campus.
The NCAA did all this to save money, allow college coaches to spend more time with the players they already have and make the process less burdensome for recruits.
Make no mistake, it can be a burden.
"I think it affected our team," said Pappas, whose club is 14-2. "One kid gets so much attention that another thinks he should get more. All of a sudden, everyone wants more. Relationships change between teammates. It takes a heck of a lot to keep things in perspective. When you have kids being constantly told and written about how great they are, it has an affect. To our kids' credit, they sorted it out and straightened it out on their own."
Many college coaches agree that the NCAA reform movement is headed in the right direction but contend that recruiting changes have been too drastic. While some of their complaints can be dismissed as resistance to change, there's no doubt that the changes will make some problems worse for athletes even while they are making others better.
A particularly troublesome one is that more players will wind up in the wrong programs. Recruiters, with their opportunities to evaluate a player reduced, will increasingly misjudge a prospect's ability and wind up stuck with someone who can't contribute.
Some of those players will seek greener pastures, increasing what already is a glut of transfers. Others will be shown the door. Most coaches have been willing to keep a non-producer or two around, but by 1993-94, scholarships will have shrunk from the current 15 to 13 in basketball (and from 95 to 85 in football by '94-95), leaving coaches in a less charitable mood.
Players have little protection against being "run off" because a rule the NCAA didn't change was the one making scholarships renewable annually at the pleasure of the college. Combine that with the reality of coaching -- you still have to win to keep your job -- and there's a situation ripe for abuse.
"I think these changes put more pressure on coaches not to make mistakes in recruiting and more pressure on coaches that if they do make mistakes to do something to rectify those mistakes," said Marquette coach Kevin O'Neill. "Not that coaches want to [run players off]. But if you come into a program with 11 or 12 players and they've been losing and losing, you have no flexibility in recruiting."
Of course, a lot fewer kids would be run off if college sports wasn't such a win-or-else pursuit. Coaches in losing programs know their jobs are hanging by a thread, and the new NCAA rules won't make them feel any more secure. That's because the restrictions on mail, phone calls and off-campus recruiting take away one means the have-nots have of closing the gap on the haves: the ability to outwork them.
"The bottom-floor-up jobs are tough to change around when you are limited as to how hard you can work," said O'Neill, one of basketball's most energetic recruiters. "I think the rich will get richer. If all the [new] rules stay in, you'll see the same top 25 every year."
While coaches want the scholarship limit kept at 15 players, a program can run quite nicely with 13. What the NCAA should do instead is pass legislation giving both players and coaches increased job security. But as long as the bottom line in collegiate athletics is winning, those are rules changes we're unlikely to see.