By Grant Riggs, Editor-in-Chief
On Wednesday, February 1, at 6:30 a.m., Mike Babcock, 5th-year head football coach at McKendree University, walked into his office knowing the next five hours would determine the future of his program. The occasion? A day that would bring about the culmination of months of hard work – National Signing Day.
For Babcock and his nine-man coaching staff, the current day’s work began at 7 a.m., when high school seniors started faxing in their National Letters of Intent (NLI) to play football for McKendree. The preparation for this one day, however, required a countless amount of hours. “It’s not 8 to 5” Babcock said, “A lot of times, you’ll be up at 4:30 a.m. to be at a school at 7:30 a.m. because that’s the only time to talk to a kid. It’s a lot of hours for all the guys.” After scouting potential recruits and determining top targets, Babcock and his staff hit the road in May, nine months before Signing Day, to talk to high school coaches and gather transcripts in order to begin the process of determining which players will be the best fits for McKendree and the football program. Babcock and his staff travel anywhere from St. Louis to Chicago, as well as contacting student-athletes across the country by phone.
The coaching staff’s final recruiting board, which contains all 48 prospects in order of their signings.
During the summer, the Bearcat coaching staff will host their own camps, as well as attend camps hosted by Illinois State, the University of Illinois and the University of Missouri, in order to better evaluate players and make their first in-person contact with recruits. As fall rolls around, things become complicated. Babcock needs to focus on coaching his team, who is in season, while still maintaining the relationships he has built over the past four months with numerous recruits. When asked about in-season recruiting, Babcock said “We still carve out the time every week to talk to guys on the phone and send emails to invite them to our games. Every now and then, we’ll hit a player’s home game on a Friday night as well.”
When the actual season concludes, the recruiting season hits full swing. After formulating who their top recruits will be, Babcock and staff hit the road again, during December and January, for in-home visits with players and their families and will also set up campus visits for recruits. “It’s the big deal”, Babcock said. “We’re out 24/7. There’s really never an off day.” The hard-working staff could be visiting multiple recruits in Chicago on a Sunday, be back on campus Monday for a visit with another player, then back to Chicago on Tuesday for yet another visit. For instance, on the Sunday before signing day, the last day the NCAA allows coaches to be out recruiting, Babcock met with a recruit that morning, then traveled to Chicago with his defensive coordinator, Joe Bettasso, to finish up final recruiting efforts and arrived home at midnight.
Despite all of the hard work that goes into the recruiting process, there are no guarantees. Until a recruit signs his NLI, nothing is official and Babcock is well aware of this. “It’s extremely nerve-racking because you’ve spent all these hours and manpower and money, all these trips to Chicago and St. Louis but until that [letter] comes across the fax machine, it’s not official” Babcock said. In each of his five years at McKendree, Babcock has had at least one experience per year when one of his tops recruits for that season switches his commitment at the last minute to a different school. Speaking about this past signing day and losing out on a top recruit, Babcock said, “On Sunday, it was great. On Monday, he got an unbelievable offer to another school just down the road from where he lived. His parents were pissed, we were pissed. We tried to get him to come back but in the end, he ended up going to the other place. That’s the nature of the beast.”
While Signing Day marks the end of an arduous process, it is still just the beginning of the battle. The newly-signed recruits must get stronger and faster in order to contend with older athletes, keep their grades high enough to remain eligible to play and eventually guide the team to wins on Saturdays. Despite all the hype behind signing day and the recruits, it’s seemingly guaranteed that at least a few signees won’t follow through with their commitments. This is just one aspect of recruiting that makes the process frustrating. Of all the non-seniors that dressed for games last season for McKendree, twelve of them either quit or transferred schools. “It happens at every Division II school and we’ll probably have at least a few more guys quit. But the guys that do stay here and do stick it out [are] one of the reasons we are really successful”, Babcock said. “And that’s trickling down. At this time last year, we probably had twenty less people than we do right now. The guys that truly want to be here and be great are the guys that will be successful.”
And for Babcock, the process of finding the next guys to carry that torch will be in full swing again in a few short months.