Husker A.D. Shawn Eichorst had big hand in shaping NCAA recruiting reform
LINCOLN — As Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst stood on the sidelines last week at Nebraska’s spring game, football prospects and their parents mingled around him. Each of those prospects, including national top-100 cornerback commit Brendan Radley-Hiles, paid his own way to attend NU’s spring game.
How much bigger might the turnout have been if Nebraska could have paid for prospects and their parents’ travel, lodging and meals? If NU had at its disposal the ability to bring in prospects for spring official visits?
Thanks in part to Eichorst’s work on an NCAA committee over the last two years, Nebraska coach Mike Riley and his assistants will be able to ask — and answer — those questions in 2018.
Eichorst was a key architect of a massive recruiting reform package passed April 14 by the NCAA Division I Council. Eichorst worked on the NCAA Football Oversight Committee and was co-chairman, along with Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, of a Division I Football Working Group committee that helped create the reform that the Council approved. The NCAA Board of Directors will finalize the reform package on April 26.
“There wasn’t a day that has gone by in two years where I haven’t been working on this, whether it’s a phone call, research, floating ideas,” Eichorst said. “It was a labor of love, there’s no doubt.”
April, May and June official visits are in. Summer football camp rules have been drastically changed. Colleges can no longer hire individuals — such as a high school coach or a personal trainer — associated with a current prospect unless that individual becomes a full-time, on-field assistant coach. Starting in January, programs can employ a 10th full-time assistant who works with players and can recruit on the road. Most notably, the council paved the way to a December signing date that still must be approved by the Collegiate Commissioners Association this summer.
For Eichorst, who started work on the Oversight Committee in spring 2015, it was a “full team effort” — including dogged work by Todd Berry, American Football Coaches Association executive director; Mullen, a high-profile coach from the SEC; and several other administrators. Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, chairman of the Football Oversight Committee, called the reform “long overdue” legislation. Eichorst said Berry, a former head coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe, helped get AFCA members on board.
“They tried to advance a lot of causes over the years that never got off the ground for one reason or another,” Eichorst said. “And I think everybody felt — the structure and the people were in place — that we might actually be able to get something done for the betterment of the game and for prospects, their families and coaches.”
Eichorst agreed reforms would be good for the team in red, too.
“I think they’re game-changers for a place like Nebraska,” Eichorst said.
Riley said he talked often with Eichorst about progress on reform. The two attended the AFCA’s annual board meeting in Phoenix last spring. Riley is on the AFCA board. Eichorst, who has worked in three Power Five conferences, also conducted monthly teleconferences with Big Ten coaches to keep them abreast of developments. Over two years, Eichorst said, he heard every perspective.
“Not everybody agreed,” Eichorst said. “There were times when we were floating ideas out there and certain coaches reacted, and they certainly have the right to do that.”
Changes to satellite camps might be the least controversial piece of the reform. A pioneer in using satellite camps to help recruit at Oregon State, Riley said he’d nevertheless grown concerned with their proliferation and new iterations. Though Riley didn’t mention Michigan, coach Jim Harbaugh’s monthlong satellite camp tour of the nation in 2016, which included a stop in Kansas City, set off alarm bells for many coaches.
Now, schools can only work 10 days’ worth of camps held at NCAA institutions, spread out over June and July. Third parties — such as high school coaches or personal trainers looking for a cash payout to assemble a slew of top-flight prospects at some rented field — have been cut out.
“It was out of control,” said Riley, who is still likely to team up with other schools outfitted by Adidas, such as Texas A&M and Miami, at some camps in June. “It’s a good step. It was crazy. There were a lot of people making money on it, teaming up with colleges. The colleges could help high schools make money. It wasn’t good. The regulation is smart.”
Eichorst and Riley agreed rule changes related to individuals associated with prospects were important, too. Although Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told USA Today that the change was “a death sentence to any high school coach wanting to coach college,” Bowlsby was forceful about needing to change football’s “IAWP” rule so it mirrored college basketball. Now, a high school coach cannot be hired as a football office worker, such as an analyst or player personnel director, for two years before or two years after an associated prospect signs with a school.
Bowlsby cited satellite camp “shenanigans” and “a quid pro quo” system in which high school coaches or family members were benefiting from being part of a prospect’s decision-making process.
“There isn’t anything in this piece of legislation that keeps people moving from one job to the other — either from a high school position or from one college position to another college position,” Bowlsby said. “What it does do, however, is put restrictions on a high school coach that would take a non-coaching position with a university and then bring two or three prospects with him.”
The change that gets the most attention, however, is the new spring official visit period and the likely December signing date. Both would go into effect for the 2019 recruiting cycle.
The Football Oversight Committee originally wanted a late June signing date, which would have been six months before the traditional February signing date. This proposal would have been similar to college basketball, where there is a signing period — Nebraska signed guard Nana Akenten in early November — before a prospect’s senior season begins. June would have functioned in the same way for college football.
But, in January, Berry said the AFCA had too many concerns, such as uncertainty about a prospect’s academic progress, to support a June signing date.
So the Football Oversight Committee supported the December date.
Riley would have preferred the June signing date if there’s any early signing date.
“If you’re going to have early visits, which were just passed, I think that you should have a real early signing date, June 30, so you could get your visits, get guys signed and see what you have to do during the season,” Riley said. “That would alleviate some of the juggling you have to do during the season with recruiting and football … a lot of people get on the bandwagon about an early signing period and when it actually comes up, they don’t know what that’s actually going to look like, so they’re nervous about it.”
Said Eichorst: “Maybe it’s just the unknown. But most of the data, most of the people I’ve talked to — particularly the prospects — would like an opportunity to say, ‘I’m out, I want to commit before I start my senior year. I want to go play ball.’ ”
The NCAA will “monitor” a December signing date for a few years, Eichorst said, as it examines whether a June date would work better.
In the meantime, spring official visits start in April 2018.
Bowlsby said 70 percent of prospects make their commitment decisions before the middle of their senior football seasons, which generally falls somewhere in October. For years — and again in 2017 — prospects basically won’t be able to take official visits until September, when the college football season begins.
In numerous recruiting interviews and conversations conducted by The World-Herald over several years, coaches and prospects alike have indicated a desire to make their college decisions before their senior years so they can focus on their senior seasons of high school football, even if some revisit the decision during or after the season.
But some prospects also can’t afford summer unofficial visits — the flights, the gas money, the food, the hotels.
“If I talked to three former players, I talked to 20 who’d say, ‘I would have liked to have taken that visit to Nebraska, Stanford or Michigan, but we didn’t have the money to do it,’” Eichorst said. “How many times have you heard that story? It’s common.”
Riley said spring official visits will be “a good thing for families.”
It now becomes a strategy session for Riley and his coaches. Without the June signing date, paying for players to officially visit in the spring — say, for a spring game — could come with risks.
“Do we really want a guy to visit in April and then not be able to see him again when we know he’s going to sign in December or February?” Riley asked rhetorically. “A regular-season game is a pretty good recruiting day. So there’s some strategy that’s going to be involved. If you think you can get a guy committed, bring ’em in early — April, May, June — get ’em committed and hang on. You’re going to have to know the player and know where you are.”
Eichorst is confident that Riley will make the best of those options. Allowing spring official visits benefits Nebraska — a school that lacks the in-state talent of a Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia or Tennessee, much less Texas and California.
“Mike, with his great vision and plan — and relationships he’s building with prospects — these rules will assist him in a more fair-balanced way to get things done,” Eichorst said. “The relationships he’s built are allowing him to recruit at the highest level. Now, the rules will actually match reality and should put folks like him in a better situation.”