Lincoln Land’s Dietz on the stark realities of junior-college recruiting

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Bailey Rexroad-Lincoln Land-Junior College Recruiting
Bailey Rexroad attacks for Lincoln Land during the 2017 season

Jim Dietz has been the head coach at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Ill., since 2006. The Loggers have been to the last three NJCAA national semifinals and Dietz, who is also the technical director for the Capital Area Volleyball Club in Springfield, Ill., is the winningest coach in school history. Dietz has also written two coaching books — The Human Side of Coaching and Like Heck She Isn’t a Volleyball Player) — and several novels.

Junior College Recruiting-Jim Dietz-Lincoln Land-LLCC-two year college-TYC
Jim Dietz

By Jim Dietz for VolleyballMag.com

I must confess, and I know other two-year college (TYC) coaches who feel the same, that there are times I want to strangle coaches from NCAA Division I and D-II schools. 

You’ve seen those scenes in movies where Person A is talking, Person B punches them, then suddenly it turns out that Person B was daydreaming while they smile and nod. Now you know the mood. You see, every conversation with a D-I coach comes down to how busy they are with recruiting and don’t have time to go on vacation or buy scalped tickets to see Hamilton. 

If only they understood what a TYC coach goes through …

So I’m going to take this opportunity to tell you all about it.

With a TYC, the obvious difference is the critical one: Instead of having athletes in your program for four years, you only get them for two. With basic math, that means that instead of recruiting 25 percent of your roster annually, your turnover is 50 percent, and that’s before outside factors enter in, such as academic ineligibility, injury, or just plain quitting.  That’s twice the turnover and the thing is, the roster size required is usually the same (14-16). Instead of recruiting three or four per year, we’re recruiting seven or eight.  Right there, twice the work.

I’ll take a tangent for the second point here. Twice the work. That’s important because I don’t know many D-I coaches at this point who have full-time responsibilities other than supervising a program with assistant coaches, maybe a recruiting coordinator, and a director of volleyball operations to help out. Even low-budget D-I schools will bring in a grad student to be a third staff member. And don’t forget volunteer coaches.

All of this means that you’ve got a bunch of full-time people training kids and recruiting those three or four players per year.

At the TYC level, few people get to coach full-time, certainly not at the NJCAA D-II or D-III levels. Almost everyone has a second on-campus job that accounts for 60-80 percent of their employment, or, as is often the case, they have another job. Ditto for assistant coaches. Looking at the region, for example, that I coach in, no one is full-time. 

So you can see where my crankiness comes from.

Then you get the next problem. Recruiting for a D-I program is pretty easy. Look at the height, send them info if they are 6-foot-2 or taller, skip courts at national qualifiers if you don’t see anyone taller than 6-foot playing. Certainly there are some women playing at D-II or D-III, or in the the NAIA and NJCAA who are athletically gifted and committed enough to play Division I volleyball, but they aren’t common. With those other groups though, once the D-I athletes are off the board, all us other schools are looking at the same players and then it’s time to get down to the essentials of recruiting.

But, wait, there’s another problem (boy, do these pile up). 

Most two-year schools lack “prestige,” so that when you contact various clubs, the chance of a response isn’t good. The best I ever received was, “We don’t permit our athletes to play at JuCos. They are better than that.” Another didn’t acknowledge a kid we signed, but when she developed and moved on to play for a D-I school, suddenly she was front and center on that club’s webpage. 

OK, now we can get on to the critical stuff. 

How do you recruit kids into your program given the disadvantages I’ve listed above?  There are five that I think are universal and apply to all TYC. After that, the challenge for TYC coaches becomes to figure out the specific advantages of your own program.

Universal No. 1: D-I recruiting is silly with kids making verbal commitments when they are 13. Do kids really have any idea about college or what they want when they are in 7th grade? Of course not, but you also have kids on the other end of things, where they reach 17 or 18 and struggle with making choices and by the time they figure out what they want, their options have been involuntarily limited because recruiting and time are constant pressures.

Community colleges offer a chance to go through the recruiting process a second time (which likely sounds stressful to some of you), but this time with an idea of what you want already in mind. You will get quite a bit of playing time and have a track record of stats and video to pass on to those four-year colleges, and, best of all, you now have 12-24 more months to make a choice. If the athlete doesn’t procrastinate, the time pressure disappears.

Universal No. 2: For students looking below the NCAA Division I level, academic aid can be a critical factor. Many good players fall short of qualifying for academic money. Most people don’t realize that if a student attends a two-year college, the four-year schools will put a priority on those grades rather than the high school transcripts and GPA. Just as item No. 1 resets the recruiting clock, this one resets your grades. Actually graduating with the associate’s degree (and not just passing the requisite number of credit-hours) gets a student past a lot of NCAA hoops, and with many NAIA and NCAA D-II/III programs, means thousands of more dollars added to a scholarship offer.

Universal No. 3: Kids have a ton of reasons for playing sports and those reasons can change as often as what they think they want to do in life (i.e. daily). For an athlete unsure abut being a college athlete, a TYC gives them an out without quitting. They can play two years and decide to move on without continuing to be a college athlete. This may be because they want to focus on academics or sometimes, because just those two years of competition tax their bodies enough that the realize it’s time to wash those kneepads one last time.

Universal No. 4: Know your level. A mistake I see made by new TYC coaches is they get caught up trying to talk to the 6-3 lefty setters or the big-name clubs. That’s wasting time— and you can’t waste time like that as a two-year coach. Use that time to better evaluate the 5-8 to 5-10 kids and which ones could be interested and which ones fit with the attitude you want your team to have.

Universal No. 5: My school charges $129.50 per credit hour. The state four-year school down the road charges $313.50. The private NCAA four-year down the interstate is $512.00 per credit hour. A nearby NAIA is $813.25 an hour. Since most of those schools don’t pay for everything, which is the better deal?

Unfair question, since we should also take in to account housing/food expenses. For this thought-experiment, I’m presuming a middle-class person, 3.3 high-school GPA, 22 ACT score, pretty much your normal kid. We’re going to have the student take 30 credit hours during the year and nothing during the summer (our scholarships cover summer, but few schools anywhere do that now, and I don’t want this to be too unfair…). She’s going to be a good player, but won’t be going pro. And again, there are reasons to choose these other schools (but this article is about how to recruit for two-year schools).

LLCC (Lincoln Land Community College): Tuition: $3,885 Housing/food: $3,500 Total: $7,385
Public 4-year: Tuition: $9,405 Housing/food: $9,760 Total: $19,165
Private 4-year: Tuition: $15,360 Housing/food: $7,400 Total: $22,760
NAIA: Tuition: $24,397 Housing/food: $8,110 Total: $32,507
Note: With LLCC housing/food, athletes are responsible for their own cooking and cleaning, unlike dormitories where that work is all done for the student.

Athletes, of course, don’t normally care about those numbers. They just want to go to college and play ball. Those numbers are for the parents to digest. Now consider the scholarships each can offer. LLCC’s scholarships cover all of that tuition, no matter what.  The other three programs have to mix and match grants, loans, financial need, and remember — NCAA D-II, etc, don’t get to offer as many scholarships as D-I programs. 

So why would you ignore us lil’ ol’ two-year programs?

The other thing to consider with two-year programs are things specific to a program.  That’s important for a coach to realize and for the athlete and parents to think about (and yes, parents absolutely play a crucial role in all of this).  If you can create a concrete vision and identity, it makes a big difference.  With Lincoln Land (LLCC), I try and emphasize several things about why we should be at the top of a recruit’s school list.  These are in no particular order:

-– At LLCC, we only have six teams, two active per season. It means the athletes all get to see one another play, get to know one another. It creates a family environment.

— Family environment? You can tell by how long our staff has been here. Four of six head coaches have been around at least 10 years, the fifth is going into year five, and the new guy actually coached at LLCC 20 years ago and came back because he missed the environment. Heck, even our administrative assistant’s been here 15 years! Basically, you come to Lincoln Land, you know things will be stable. Go take a look at the NJCAA Top 20 rankings then check coaching tenure for those programs: almost every one of the top programs has a coach who has been in place for an extended period of time.

— I’m not 25 anymore, though I remain handsome and charming. Age is an advantage. I know a bunch of coaches from my time at LLCC, from before that, working as a club director, and through USAV’s High Performance program, so I make it a point to recruits that I am happy, when they’re ready to move on, to pick up a phone to their dream school (presuming it’s a realistic possibility). If I don’t know the coach, chances are we have common friends, so they can check on my bona fides.

Now the parts where I shameless plug LLCC.

— I continue helping athletes after they leave the program. We try and keep the alumni in the loop. They are just extended family who don’t live in the house with us anymore. Since we move seven or eight out each year, we’ve built up a large network. It reinforces our family values. Of course, those athletes sometimes go on to become coaches and happily sing the praises of their alma mater to their own players. Now it’s not just part-time me and part-time assistant recruiting — it’s the networking power of the alumni rolling along!

Lincoln Land has a great location. We’re in Springfield, Illinois, so not too big, not small.  We’re within 90 minutes of St. Louis, a little over two hours to Chicago, and if you want to travel, Springfield’s got Amtrak and an airport. Any convenience you want, we’ve got.

— NJCAA Region XXIV. This is part of our location as well. We are in the middle of Illinois, blessed with access to St. Louis and Chicago for athletes, as well as everyone in between, but for recruiting great athletes, you need more. Great players want great challenges. Our region offers the best NJCAA D-II volleyball in the nation. For half of last year, three R-24 teams were in the NJCAA poll’s top six. For each of the past three years, two of the four final-four slots have been our teams (including two years where central Illinois teams faced one another in the title game, traveling thousands of miles to play a match that you normally drive an hour for…). You want to play with the best, come play Region 24.

But that’s not just bragging on the top three teams. A friend coaching at one of those other programs uses us and the other top teams for his own recruiting: “Look at who we play.  You come here, you’re playing top-10 teams weekly. You can help us break into those ranks. Are you up for the challenge?” 

I love that, and it pushes me to keep working to maintain our position.

Basically, there’s a lot more than meets the eye with two-year colleges and the opportunities and challenges available. As a coach, you have to maximize your advantages and accept the negatives.

 

1 COMMENT

  1. Apples and oranges. There is nothing to be gained by comparing DI recruiting with JCs because there is no comparison. I have yet to meet a JC coach who works as hard as a DI coach. Most JC coaches have a job for life regardless of win/loss record. There is not a constant demand to win.

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