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College Recruiting in the Pandemic Era

Greg Kwasnik
If your child is a standout hockey player, or skis competitively, or excels on the lacrosse field, you might be wondering how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the college recruiting process. Harry Sheehy has been wondering the exact same thing - and he’s the director of athletics at Dartmouth College.
A member of the NCAA Championship Cabinet and former longtime men’s basketball coach at Williams College, Harry is uniquely plugged into the world of collegiate athletics. He’s also on the Holderness School Board of Trustees, and was kind enough to spend an hour talking with us about the current state of pandemic-era college recruiting. In our wide-ranging conversation, Harry shared a number of insights, reasons for hope, and advice for how high school athletes can improve, grow, and prepare for college during this unprecedented time.

At Dartmouth, and across the Ivy League in general, fall athletic competitions have been cancelled. The same goes for many high schools across the country. How does that affect college recruiting?
This is clearly going to be a year unlike any other in the recruiting world. Then you couple that with probably shaky high school seasons, shaky college seasons. We already know we’re not going to play anything in the fall [at Dartmouth]. We may or may not play anything in the winter, and frankly it wouldn’t shock me if the whole year went by the wayside. So this is unprecedented in terms of what we’re going through now.

So it seems like the future of college athletics is fairly uncertain – at least for the upcoming year.
You know, the frustrating thing is coaches, and probably athletic administrators, are among the people in the country who most desire certainty – some type of normalcy and certainty. They want to be able to count on certain things. There is no clean option here. That’s the thing that makes this so very, very challenging. We all want answers. I told my senior leadership team in the department about a week ago that I’ve never had more questions asked of me where the only answer was ‘I don’t know.’ It humbles you beyond belief. We all want control over certain things and we just simply don’t control this. 

How has the pandemic affected how you recruit high school athletes?
I will say this, that in the future we will save money recruiting because Zoom has become something where you can really learn about student-athletes. I always felt, as a basketball coach, that film was great but there was nothing like seeing a kid live to determine things like quickness and work ethic – and frankly what kind of competition he or she is playing against… I think there’s more danger of coaches making mistakes and young people making mistakes in this year than probably any other year we’ve ever had. It’s hard enough when you actually see them live, to be able to project those young people into a college program at a certain college level. Without that, it becomes really difficult.

If I’m a high school athlete and who wants to play in college, what should I be doing right now – especially if I won’t get to play many games this year?
Use all the things you do have at your advantage in terms of communicating with coaches, Zooming, film work. You know, I was the head softball coach at Williams for a few years. I could watch a kid’s pitch on a video and tell pretty much whether or not they could play at the college level. So there are some sports – if you watch a pitcher warm up and you see the ball move and you see the speed that they have, you can make some judgments. It’s just not going to be as clean as we normally would like it to be. I say that knowing it’s not a clean process anyway. If 75 percent of my recruits over a 17-year college career worked out within a standard deviation of how I wanted them to, that would be a very high percentage.

It sounds like you’re saying students should be more proactive in the recruiting process right now.
This is a really critical time for the student-athlete to take control of the recruiting process – not Mom and not Dad. I used to use that time to get to know a kid, and when Mom and Dad did everything for them, I never got to know the kid. You should be coming home and telling your folks “Hey, I got the coach at Bowdoin today, here’s when I’m visiting,” that type of thing. We don’t see that very much, unfortunately…These kids are going to fail sometimes, and you’ve got to let them fail – and then you’ve got to see how they pick themselves up. They’ve just been kind of rescued. That’s why I love the student leadership structure at Holderness, because there’s some responsibility there and I think that’s a really healthy thing for a young person to develop.
What three pieces of advice would you give to a high school athlete involved in the college recruiting process?
Number one is fit. Find the right fit, if you’re being recruited. Fit doesn’t mean the coach you like the best, necessarily. Find the right institution with an academic, social, and athletic fit. I think that’s number one. I don’t think enough people pay attention to it, and that’s why, for some kids, a place like Dartmouth might be a stretch, and Dad and Mom might want them to go there, but the better fit might be Trinity. It just might be. You just have to really pay attention to fit.

Number two, hammer the academic piece, because the better you are academically, the more options you’re going to have no matter what happens.

And then three is don’t waste your training opportunity here. There is a training opportunity. For me, if I had taken that year and not gone to prep school where I could play, that would have been a crucial year for me to train and up my skill level and my physical attributes of strength, all those things. So it’s only a waste if you let it be, and if you don’t let it be a waste, it won’t be a waste. You’ll find some good out of it. And you know what? This will not be the biggest challenge of these young people’s lives. You’d like to think it might be, but this is not going to be their biggest challenge in life. It may be a current that sets your life on a certain path or takes it off other paths, but that’s not your life. You get to make your life. You can’t just let life happen to you.

It's funny that you mentioned finding the right college fit. At Holderness, we talk about how important it is for students to find the right college fit. Why do you think that’s so important – especially now?
Look, if you’re going to go to school, pick the school that you would go to if you went there and then blew out your knee and then were not going to be able to play for two or more years – and maybe never the same again. What school would you go to? That’s the school where you want to invest yourself academically and otherwise. Even if you look at the Division III level and you look at the data, it says that a high percentage of the kids choose the school because of who the coaches are. That’s almost 100 percent at the Division I level. It’s not the best way to make your choice, because the coach could get another job, the coach could be fired, the coach could become ill, maybe your relationship with the coach didn’t turn out like you thought when you were on your honeymoon being recruited. There are all kinds of things that happen, but if you’re a good fit academically and socially, and it’s a place you actually want to be, then chances are you’re going to get set up for your life and be able to move forward after you graduate and have a productive life.

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