February 11, 2007

College Recruiting: How Early is Too Early?

KALISPELL, Mont. -- He's savvy. He's skilled. He's scrutinized by college basketball and football coaches.

He's also taken.

On a late-summer evening, Brock Osweiler, 15, folds his 6-foot-8 frame into the compact rental car of a visitor, who wonders how the conversation might lag on a 15-minute drive from a pizza parlor to the contemporary home of his parents.

But no worries. This isn't your average mid-teenager. Osweiler is chatty and mature, pointing out landmarks through town and onto the outskirts of the sprawling community hard by Flathead Lake.

Back at the house, Osweiler is joined by his folks and his girlfriend Olivia, a 3.9 grade-point-average student who plays on the Flathead High volleyball team.

In a few days, Brock will begin practice for the football season, one in which he will be named an all-state quarterback and lead his team to a third-place finish. In basketball, he has already played in the hot spots where young AAU teams compete in front of college coaches -- Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Orlando, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles.

At that point, before setting foot in a sophomore class, Osweiler had accepted a scholarship offer to play basketball at Gonzaga.

Fifteen was never like this.

The offers come early

Not so long ago, college basketball recruiting took place on the basis of what happened in a high-school season. Then summer AAU teams began to proliferate, fueled by dollars from shoe companies.

As recently as a decade ago, a typical prospect might start getting serious about recruiting sometime near the end of his junior year. He might attend a high-profile summer camp, host college coaches at his home in September, take some campus visits shortly thereafter, and make a college choice in the fall.

In today's blink-of-an-eye world, that's all so yesterday.

Listen to Josh Pastner, an assistant coach at Arizona, recalling his first contact with Wildcats freshman guard Nic Wise:

"I knew him since he was in the fourth grade," Pastner says.

Pastner was coach of an AAU team, the Houston Hoops, and thus was born his connection with the Texas-bred Wise, who committed to Arizona after his ninth-grade season. Not every liaison between college coach and prospect begins so early, but this much is certain: Today's recruiting compares to that of the 1990s as text-messaging compares to letter-writing.

"I've done this recruiting thing as long as anybody," says Frank Burlison, a veteran Long Beach Press-Telegram writer who has tracked prospects for decades. "Up until five, six, seven years ago, you never heard of juniors committing early.

"Now you see freshmen and sophomores committing constantly. Now if you haven't committed by letter-of-intent time [November] of your senior year, there are probably extenuating circumstances."

This is the way it is in 21st century recruiting: Players 13, 14 or younger compete on AAU teams, or take part in summer camps on a college campus.

Basketball coaches are restricted by NCAA rule from calling recruits until June 15 after their sophomore year. But that's hardly an impediment. Text-messaging is permissible, though currently a matter of NCAA debate, and some schools drown prospects in them.

It's also entirely proper for the prospect to initiate contact with the coaches, who can host a recruit and his family in his office to express interest, or send an intermediary into a gym to request a call. The recruiting process thus begins several years before a prospect picks up his high-school diploma.

None of it's binding until that week in November of a recruit's senior year when he signs a letter of intent, but the colleges are dead serious about it, and in most cases, so are the prospects. With scholarships limited to 13 per program, a commitment means the school won't recruit elsewhere to fill a particular need.

"It's a binding process in our eyes," Pastner says.

Burlison doesn't like the trend, and believes it has been fed by the Internet, with its recruiting Web sites and rankings.

"I think guys want to read about themselves," he says.

No school has been more front and center in the game of early commitments than Gonzaga, starting with David Pendergraft -- now a Zags junior -- who committed just before his sophomore year at Brewster High. But Osweiler topped Pendergraft by five months, which gives Gonzaga four future entrants who committed to the school before their junior years, including guard Steven Gray of Bainbridge.

Coaches cannot comment on recruits until they sign, but Gonzaga is known to value toughness and character in early commitments, believing those to be attributes that will endure even if height and talent level off.

Under Lorenzo Romar, Washington hasn't played the game of early commitments heavily, although it gained one from guard Elston Turner of Roseville, Calif., before his junior year. The Huskies are also known to be ardently tracking Franklin sophomore guard Peyton Siva.

"You've got to come to a point where you believe it's a can't-miss prospect," Romar says. "At 15 or 16 years old, you're taking a little bit of a risk if the kid doesn't develop. What if you didn't do your homework? What about the kid's character? Kids make mistakes. If you accept his commitment, you don't want to have to go back on it if you can help it."

Indeed, if there's risk involved, it seems heavier to the school than the recruit. In the Internet age, word travels fast on the program that might renege on a scholarship offer.

Still, Pastner insists, "I think there's a lot of positives to committing early. You can concentrate on your academics, you can focus on your individual game and working to get better. The recruiting process can almost get harassing to the kids."

As for the coaches, Pastner says, "The only downside is, you've got to really speed up the process of evaluating early on. People are now asking us, 'Why don't you have your 2008 class finished already?' "

Improving with age -- or not

In Mason City, Iowa, they're used to the phenomenon of the early commitment. Way back in 1995, when the local point guard, Dean Oliver, was a high-school sophomore playing for coach Bob Horner, he committed to the University of Iowa, something virtually unheard of then.

Oliver had a successful career under coach Tom Davis at Iowa. Meanwhile, Horner was developing another accomplished point guard -- his son Jeff, who attended camps at Iowa and played on AAU teams as a youngster.

In the spring of 1999, Steve Alford took over for Davis at Iowa, and the Horner family was sitting in Alford's office when the coach offered Jeff a scholarship. He was 15, a freshman in high school.

Jeff Horner surprised his parents by saying yes.

"We didn't talk about it very much," says Bob Horner. "All of a sudden, he made his decision."

The Horners don't have a lot of regrets. Jeff went on to become a starter for four years at Iowa, and is now playing in Belgium.

"Jeff was a pretty mature kid for his age, pretty loyal to what he says," says the senior Horner. "I give him credit. And they [the Hawkeyes] stuck by their guns.

"A college coach really has to do his homework -- not only for the kind of ballplayer he's getting, but the kind of kid."

Wise committed at roughly the same juncture as Horner, at 15. And this is how advanced the recruiting process was: He says he already had scholarship offers from not only Arizona, but Oklahoma State, Tennessee, Texas and Texas A&M. His father was his high-school coach, so Nic was always aware of the suitors.

"I just got tired of the recruiting process," Wise says. "All the coaches calling ... I just wanted to get it out of the way early so I could focus on my high-school career and really gear to whatever school I was going to."

A lot of things can happen between a commitment and a signature. Rainier Beach's Emeka Iweka committed to Oregon State for basketball as a freshman. Later, he became a better football prospect and has signed with Washington to play that sport.

It might be no coincidence that the earliest known commitment is also a cautionary tale.

Taylor King was a precocious basketball player a long time ago. As a sixth-grader in Southern California, he was in pickup games with UCLA players. A 6-6 forward, he was in the national ABCD camp just after finishing eighth grade, and he became widely known.

The new staff of Ben Howland at UCLA was all over it, and that was fine with the King family. Steve King, Taylor's dad, had attended John Wooden's camps as a kid. Steve's dad had gone to UCLA.

"Coach Howland said he wanted to make Taylor the youngest recruit ever to UCLA," said Steve King. "It sounded real cool to Taylor and real cool to us.

"The next day, he called Ben back and said, 'I want to go there.' "

Taylor King wasn't even a high-school freshman yet.

Slowly, it all changed. King averaged 15 points as a freshman at respected Mater Dei High.

"During the period before the [next] summer, April to June, he kind of started to gain some weight," says Steve King. "He legitimately got a little slower. People were starting to say, 'He's not the same player. He's changing.' "

The text-messages from UCLA had diminished. By then, the Kings had also had a chance to assess the Bruins under Howland on a steady basis. They weren't sure the all-out defensive style and the methodical offense made a great fit.

"He wouldn't tell you this," says Steve King, "but I think he was watching some of the other kids on our team getting recruited, and coaches coming to practice. I think he kind of missed having the attention."

By the end of his sophomore year, Taylor King called Howland and told him he'd like to reopen the recruiting process. Midway through his junior year, King committed to Duke and signed for the Blue Devils last November.

Today, Steve King says, "Committing in eighth grade, before you've played a minute of high-school basketball, is pretty premature. I don't think I would recommend a kid do that. Even though the recruiting process is not fun, I don't know that kids can make an accurate assessment of a school until their second to third year of high school, at best."

The player he's going to be

Over pizza in Kalispell, the Osweiler family marvels at how it all happened so fast. Brock began playing on Northwest AAU teams in seventh grade -- Spokane, Yakima, Seattle -- and in the winter, they'd occasionally make the three-hour drive west to see Gonzaga play.

One night, somebody came up to their seats at the McCarthey Athletic Center and invited them to the locker room afterward. They struck up a relationship with the Gonzaga coaches, and assistant Leon Rice came to watch Brock play. Usually the biggest player on the floor, Brock was regularly a target of opposing teams and fans, which only seemed to bring out more tenacity.

Last June, Brock and his dad John were in Spokane on the way to a Nike camp, when Gonzaga coach Mark Few popped the question.

"There's a scholarship waiting for you whenever you want," Few said.

Brock asked if they could go into a hallway and talk. Few scoffed and told them there was no hurry; this wasn't a car-lot negotiation. But the Osweilers went to the school bookstore and to lunch, called the coaches and Brock gave them his word.

"By the time I was a senior, I knew I could choose pretty much what school I could go to," Brock said. "But I mean, everything I want, basketball-wise, was at Gonzaga.

"It's close to home, they're always on TV, it's got a family environment, there's no pro franchise in town, the way they travel -- they've got two private jets -- the style of play, the coaching staff. There's nothing you could ask for that they don't have."

Osweiler, who averages 16.2 points and 10.4 rebounds, won't graduate from Flathead until 2009. For all the things that have already come his way -- Colorado State football coach Sonny Lubick flew into town last spring and offered a scholarship -- much more could happen.

Brock gets kidded that someday, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski will come to Kalispell and change his mind, or that he might regret not seeing the recruiting process through.

"I still think about that," he admits, a little wistfully. "I won't get to experience that, I guess. I always thought it would be great: 'Let's go to North Carolina, go check out Indiana.' "

But he swallows that reverie easily. It's apparent a stable family and a mature prospect were factors in Gonzaga's offer. And so was Osweiler's pledge to keep working.

He recalls Rice's outline of the terms: "We agreed on the commitment on the player you're going to be, not the player you are now."

That's exactly what Arizona was thinking when it made another recruiting pitch not long ago, this one to 7-foot-2 Loren Woods, the center on its 2001 Final Four team.

"He has a son, Colin Anthony, and his son's mother is 6-4," Pastner says whimsically. "When she was pregnant with him, we sent him two Federal Express letters. Loren promised us we got an early commitment.

"That might set the record. He was in the womb and committed to us."

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or [email protected]


Copyright (c) 2007, Seattle Times

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