CHICAGO — Northwestern coach Chris Collins has fixed up his garage. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey has taken up Pilates.
Loyola coach Porter Moser is journaling. Bradley coach Brian Wardle takes his kids on bike rides.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood plans to unpack a storage closet. He goes on daily walks with his wife and watches his son play the video game “Call of Duty” against friends.
College basketball coaches are adjusting to a life that doesn’t require a frantic 24-hour spin cycle of spring recruiting since the NCAA put a halt to college sports to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The moratorium on sports means no in-person recruiting, no hosting recruits on campus and no face-to-face coaching.
Coaches are coping and finding silver linings — such as having time for routine family dinners.
But truthfully? “It’s brutal,” Underwood said.
Turning off that internal engine simply feels unnatural.
“It’s really hard,” Underwood continued. “I’ve had friends who have gotten out of the profession or gotten fired or retired. The one thing they say is it’s so hard to slow down. We run at 100 mph all year. What helps me get over the last game (of the season) is I don’t have time to sit and dwell on it.
“It’s, ‘Where’s the state tournament? Where can I go see this kid play? Who’s coming in this weekend?’ Then I’m back out (on the road) again going to see two more kids. And then you’re planning AAU weekends. You’re checking the transfer portal every day. You’re making four phone calls every night to kids who popped up on the portal.”
It’s like a monsoon turned into a drought at the snap of a finger.
“Now it’s stopped,” Underwood said. “It’s forced you to rethink how you want to do some things.”
Like everyone, coaches are grappling with this unprecedented era. They’re brainstorming how to influence recruits via technology, motivate current players from afar and keep their families safe and healthy.
“It’s been weird,” Collins said. “Usually this is a real hectic time for us. We’re all homebound.”
The NCAA extended its recruiting dead period — which bars face-to-face recruiting on and off campus — through May 31 for Division I and II teams.
That doesn’t mean coaches have taken a foot off the pedal when it comes to recruiting. “It’s just different,” Wardle said.
It adds more layers of uncertainty to the annual guessing game, making recruiting as mysterious as ever. Instead of hosting recruits on campus or sitting in their living rooms, coaches are limited to calls, texts and old-fashioned mail.
The transfer portal is filling quickly, with coaches hitting the refresh button several times a day to check on new names to target.
Coaches said some players are being told falsely that a one-time transfer waiver rule is bound to pass. The NCAA delayed the vote until late June, and Brey said there’s a chance the potential rule might not go into effect until 2021.
Some recruits feel pressured to commit without taking an official visit.
“We’ve heard of some schools out there that are calling grad transfers and saying, ‘You have 24 hours or we’re out,’ ” Underwood said. “There are so many kids in the portal that they can do that. We’re not doing that. We can be selective.”
If the recruiting limitations remain for a lengthy period, more prospects — high school players and transfers — might wind up signing with programs having never met with a coach or future teammates or seen the campus.
“We’re lucky we’re not in a boat to sign four or five right now,” Moser said. “Some (coaches) are in a scary boat. Some of these kids just announced they’re transferring, and like two weeks later you see they’re committing and they haven’t been able to go (visit) anywhere. I can’t imagine bringing someone into your program and not having met them. That’s just crazy to me.”
Coaches speculated that the summer AAU circuit, during which they fill gyms for a critical evaluation period, might be canceled as well. Relying on video of prospects would be an insufficient alternative.
In 20 seasons at Notre Dame, Brey said he has signed only two players without watching them compete live, and that was on strong recommendations of trusted coaching associates.
Tony Sanders, a three-star high school forward from Miami, received a scholarship offer last week from the Irish and accepted after Brey presented a virtual campus tour via Zoom.
Brey never saw Sanders play live, but Sanders said Irish assistant coach Ryan Humphrey watched him compete about three times. Sanders never visited Notre Dame or met Brey in person.
“What stood out was the equipment they had and how he broke down the education part,” Sanders said of Brey’s online recruiting pitch. “It was about basketball but more about academics. It definitely is a strange time right now. But it didn’t feel weird. It felt like the right opportunity.”
This won’t be something coaches do casually.
“That’s when we really have to do our work and get our eyes out,” Brey said of summer evaluation periods. “I really get to see them and watch for things. I see their parents across the gym and how they cheer — or not cheer. Or how they might get on the refs. Everything. We’re going to lose all of that.”
Underwood said recruits shouldn’t bother sending him a highlight tape. He “hates” them. He wants to see the intangibles, the mistakes and how players react after a bad play or a loss. That’s all possible only from in-person assessments.
“You don’t hear how kids talk during a game and communicate (on video),” Underwood said. “Some of the intangible leadership things get lost. We can all evaluate the running, the jumping, the shooting on film. I really try to focus on IQ. I want to see if you jumped to the ball, if you back cut when you’re supposed to, how your reads are on ball screens.”
But recruiting is twofold: Players try to impress coaches. Coaches work to impress athletes.
Coaches must figure out how to differentiate themselves to prospects among the sea of competitive FaceTime calls and texts they receive from other coaches.
Underwood’s staff sends drone footage of campus, tailoring videos to athletes’ interests. For instance, a potential business major might receive a virtual tour of the Gies College of Business.
Brey shares videos of Notre Dame’s new basketball training facility, organizes Zoom video calls with academic advisers and recruits and texts highlight clips showcasing the Irish’s uptempo style.
Moser said he might see a social media post of an NBA play that reminds him of something a recruit excels at and share it with the player. “You’ve just got to be creative,” he said.
But coaches have to be careful not to turn off recruits with an overabundance of messages.
“Right now, because coaches feel like they should be working hard, there’s more phone calls and texts,” Collins said. “To me, it’s gone to a higher level because it’s all we can do. If you talk to recruits, they can tell you how oversaturated it’s getting. You just have to be yourself.”
Coaches sound more concerned about their players’ morale than their jump shots. Keeping players motivated and connected to the program, Brey said, is his top priority.
“Your most important recruits are your current players,” he said last week. “I’m really worried. I think it’s going to start hitting them next week. They’re going to start bouncing off the walls.”
Notre Dame players ask often when they might be able to return to campus. Brey tries to avoid speculating and focuses on future bright spots.
“I talk about our schedule next year,” he said. “I say, ‘We may add so-and-so’ or ‘Remember the ACC tournament is in D.C. this year’ or ‘We’re playing in Brooklyn in November. Won’t that be cool?’ ”
He hopes to boost their spirits by hosting the annual team awards banquet on Twitter this week.
Bradley was preparing for its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time in 65 years before March Madness was canceled. The Braves won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament the last time they were on the court together.
That memory can be a salve. “I tell them, you finished the season holding a trophy and cutting down nets,” Wardle said.
Every Loyola player has a copy of and is expected to read Kobe Bryant’s book “Mamba Mentality.” The Ramblers also have accountability partners they keep in touch with throughout the week, helping players remain connected and focused on improving.
Life can feel heavy with news of a spreading pandemic and few outside contacts. Coaches try to keep it light during team Zoom conferences.
“It gives us a chance to get on there and not just be about serious business,” Collins said. “We goof around a little bit, build team chemistry and camaraderie.”
The workouts are less of a concern for basketball players than football players. They can stay at least moderately conditioned through running, body-weight exercises and, for some, shooting hoops in their driveways.
“Maybe in this age of overtraining, a break might not be a bad thing,” Brey said.
Coaches admittedly are not the best with downtime.
Their calendars are packed nearly year-round with recruiting, practices, games and clinics. Quality time with loved ones usually is rushed. And who can waste precious hours with personal hobbies or simply relaxing?
Asked for his favorite show, Underwood said, “Probably something on the Big Ten Network.”
While they’re on the phone more than ever in this era of social distancing, coaches are learning to live like so-called normal people — watching TV, exercising, completing home repairs.
“I’m a sports junkie,” Collins said. “The family’s happy I’ve been able to watch TV shows and movies and not just watch games. I’m doing some puzzles with the kids. It’s been nice having family time. We get so caught up in our jobs.”
Coaches sound especially dedicated to exercise.
Moser and Collins are obsessed with their daily Peloton bike workouts. Underwood practices nightly yoga with his wife and two children.
Brey, who famously bared his belly celebrating with players after winning the 2017 Maui Invitational, has an improved diet and a new devotion to Pilates.
“My core has never been in better shape,” Brey said. “You’re not on the road having a piece of pizza at night. I’ve been in OK shape. Now how about getting in great shape? There’s no excuses right now.”
He joked: “(Coaches) are going to be in great shape. Strength coaches are going to be all pissed off at the players.”
Coaches have been completing neglected home projects, too, from cleaning closets to home repairs.
“The honey-do list from many years is getting done,” Collins said. “I’ve become a handyman. I didn’t know I had those talents.”
Perhaps nobody is as productive during quarantine time as Moser, known in his athletic department for his boundless energy.
He said he listens to self-improvement and sports podcasts. He journals lessons he has learned from them, and he has appeared as a guest on several podcasts.
He and a group of 12 coaches formed a Zoom coaches clinic, taking turns lecturing about an aspect of their jobs, such as the 1-3-1 defense. He assigned his assistants to watch other teams’ videos and glean ideas.
He plays Spikeball with his four teenage kids, a game he thought was simple but learned can be brutally competitive. He even had a video conference happy hour with his college teammates.
“Everyone keeps saying to me, ‘You must really be going crazy,’ ” Moser said with a laugh. “But it’s a great time for self-improvement.”
He recently learned David Edwards, a player he coached while on staff at Texas A&M in the early 1990s, died from the coronavirus. “That hit me,” Moser said.
Coaches are eager to return to their hectic schedules and, of course, basketball. But Moser said they’ll adjust.
“It’s about positivity and gratefulness,” he said. “We’re healthy. You don’t want to complain.”
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