North Carolina basketball Coach Dean Smith was on the phone in late November talking about the basketball-mad fans along Tobacco Road. The Tarheels had yet to play a game on their 1986-87 schedule, but the people Smith described had little interest in how the team would fare against UCLA, Atlantic Coast Conference opponents or anyone else it might meet in the NCAA Final Four.
These fans were already getting fired up for the next season--the recruiting season.
"In this area and across the country, it's almost become another sport," Smith said. "People are more concerned with who you're getting rather than how the team is doing."
The key players in the recruiting game are the college coaching staffs and the high school prospects and their parents. It is a game that pits the savvy of the recruiters against the relative naivete of most recruits. The two sides approach from different perspectives, but each manipulates the other to a degree in order to achieve its end.
It is a process that begins for a player as early as junior high and ultimately ends with the signing of a letter of intent as a high school senior. Along the way, there will be letters and telephone calls, home visits, more letters and telephone calls, campus visits, and more letters and telephone calls.
The NCAA allows coaches to make in-person contact with recruits from Sept. 1 to Oct. 1 and from March 1 or the player's last official contest to May 15. There is, however, no limit on the number of phone calls or letters a college program can generate.
Prospects and coaches agree that it is often an arduous process. The romanticism of wooing and being wooed wears quickly.
Fairfax High senior Sean Higgins signed with UCLA in November after being contacted by most of the Division I programs in the country.
"Recruitment's a drag," Higgins told Times staff writer Robert Yount. "When it starts, it's all happy-go-lucky, you're being recruited and everything, but when it gets down to crunch time, you get headaches. I had more headaches this, my senior year, than all the rest of my life."
Said Cal State Fullerton Coach George McQuarn: "It gets old after a while. The idea of taking planes from one city to another and seeing kids play sounds great to most people. But you have to remember you're dealing with 17- and 18-year-olds. Sometimes they change their minds in a minute."
McQuarn, like most coaches, has firsthand experience in the one-that-got-away department. As an assistant coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 1979, McQuarn recruited Laker guard Byron Scott, then a senior at Morningside High.
At a press conference, Scott announced that he was going to UNLV. McQuarn was thrilled. The Runnin' Rebels' boosters were ecstatic.
Scott signed a letter of intent with Arizona State.
"I made a tactical mistake," McQuarn said. "I spent too much time with the kid and the school principal and not enough time with the mother."
The players aren't the only ones guilty of surprising changes of heart and priority.
"There are kids that will say, 'I really like school A and want to go there, but I'm going to wait and see if I can go to school B," Pepperdine Coach Jim Harrick said. "But I can't really fault them because there are schools that do the same thing."
There are also hundreds of boys and girls playing high school basketball who are under the delusion that they are being seriously recruited by some of the biggest basketball schools in the nation because they received a form letter or information card in the mail.
Those mailings are culled from all-star camp sign-up sheets, scouting service evaluations and other sources. The letter is one of the first steps in the paring down process coaching staffs annually conduct to fill the limited number of scholarships available for the next season.
During the summer, leading up to November's early signing period for seniors, a college program will consider as many as 30 candidates for three scholarships, according to Arizona Coach Lute Olson.
"It changes as your program gets more established," said Olson, in his fourth year at Arizona. "When your program is down, you need to attract a lot more kids."
Olson took over an Arizona program that had gone 4-24 in 1982-83. In his first season the Wildcats went 11-17 and Olson had five scholarships available for the next year.
Olson made 25 home visits after his first year, hoping to get the NCAA-allowed maximum 18 players to check out the campus. Sixteen players eventually came to Tucson before the scholarships were filled.
Last season, coming off a 21-10 record, Olson visited 11 homes with three scholarships to give. Eight of the players agreed to make campus visits. Three of the first five who journeyed to Tucson committed to the school. The rest had to find another place to play.
"That will be more typical now that our program is established," Olson said. "I would be surprised if we go into more than 10 homes next year."