Tim Ryan, the head coach at the College of Central Florida, is one of the most successful junior college coaches in the country. Over ten seasons with the Patriots he's compiled a record of 232-94, winning the NJCAA national title and Coach of the Year award in 2013. He'll have ten former players playing Division I basketball next season. Coach Ryan was kind enough to talk earlier this week about what happens behinds the scenes at a junior college and with recruiting in general.
Recruiting for a junior college and a Division I school are completely different tasks. The biggest difference?
"Money." Ryan explained, "Division I schools have more money to spend on recruiting services."
Ryan added that they have assistant coaches that can spend much more time on recruiting as well.
"They’re recruiting process starts much earlier than ours. They’re looking at [high school] juniors and sophomores...There isn't a junior out there that thinks they're going to play JUCO."
Once they start recruiting a player, the two biggest factors they look at are character and talent. He said it's easy to see from watching game film if a recruit has talent, but character is harder. The college coaches will call high school or AAU coaches and ask about their grades, their practice habits, their toughness, and whether or not they "love the game."
The process of recruiting differs among all levels of basketball and all different types of coaches. For Ryan at the College of Central Florida it usually starts with a call from a Division I coach about a player that might be a fit. They'll do research online, looking at articles and video clips to establish if it's a player they want to pursue. After that, they'll call around to former coaches, opposing coaches or anyone that might have information on the player. If they get a good review, they'll set up a visit.
"We try to sell the visit," Ryan said. "We like to get them to play with the guys and sell him on the school...We have more structure in our program than any junior college in the country."
The next part is the trickiest. How do coaches know how much pressure to put on a recruit they covet? There are always stories about players getting numerous letters, phone calls and texts every day from a program.
"Everyone handles it differently," said Ryan, "Guys believe if they keep bombarding him it will work, but it has a negative effect a lot of time...I don't think it really means that much to the kid, personally."
He talked about one of his best players, two-time NJCAA All-American Ricardo Ratliff, who received five or six letters a day from schools that "weren't even recruiting him that hard." Ratliff eventually ended up at Missouri, where he was the 2011 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and a 2012 Second Team All-Big 12 selection.
Ryan said the decision about where a player goes comes down mostly to personal preference and what their advisors tell them. Even though we see it occasionally, the impact of where other players go, he says, "has very little to do with it." They also want to go somewhere they know they can win and at the same time make a name for themselves enough to get to the next level, whatever that may be.
On the balance of creating a program at Central Florida while also providing a stepping stone for his players to greater things, Ryan says:
"I think we want to be a stepping stone. I don't know if you can find a program with the stability and winning we've had. Our mission here is help take these kids and get them to the next level, not just prepared from basketball side but academic and social side.
"We're here because this is the stuff we like to do. JUCO is a great second chance to get on the right track. That's our goal, to put these kids on the right track. They grew up saying I want to go to Notre Dame, Duke or Florida, not JUCO. We understand that."
The biggest challenge to this process, according to Ryan, is a simple one.
"Maturity...It's not just on the, court it's the off the court that helps them on the court," he said. "70% of the kids here are here because they failed in some area. They don't understand how important this is...the 17-18 year old kids don’t understand that yet."
Ryan worked with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski at the USA Basketball Under-19 team last summer. He said that Coach K called guys like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant, "geniuses" because they understand that basketball is just for a limited time. They do all they can to extend and take advantage of their opportunity, while at the same time understanding what's most important in their lives.
With transfer and player movement as common as it is in college basketball, Ryan says he gets calls "every day of the week" from other coaches inquiring about his players, even if they don't have a scholarship available. He says they'll tell a player that there might be space opening up and ask if they'd be interested, without ever promising anything.
The process of making space for a player they want comes down to the relationship the coach has with his players. If there's a player breaking team rules, it's easy to explain why his scholarship will not continue into the next season. Fans often aren't privy to this kind of information.
"Fans see the guys on the court and assume they are doing everything right but don't know behind the scenes," explained Ryan.
Then there are the players that just aren't good enough for the level they're currently playing. Most of the time, in that case, the player is aware of it and the coach can recommend a lower-level program where they'll get more playing time and feel more comfortable.
Basketball recruiting is a complicated and multilayered process. A coach has to try and identify exactly the type of young player that not only fits his program now, but will grow and improve his program later. A player has to find the right program for his needs, while at the same time striving for something more. Sometimes these needs mesh, while other times they're at odds. That's the balance a coach must strike, and it has been done successfully by Tim Ryan.