Varsity recruiting rights and wrongs

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The idea of student athlete recruitment probably brings to mind images of NCAA big money recruitment, but many of our varsity teams recruit the student athletes that represent UW in their respective sports. Each sport is unique in its approach to recruitment based on the different characteristics of the sport. The one similarity we found across sports is the attraction of UW for its academic excellence.</p>

We took a look at the recruitment process for the men’s hockey team, the swimming team and the football team. When interviewing the coaches, one of the first things they mentioned was that the high academic benchmarks at UW made recruiting at our institution different from many others. Men’s hockey coach Brian Bourque said, “My very first contact always includes asking them about academics because we are such a strong school and our admission standards are high. I want to go and find good students, so sometimes that stops the discussion right there.”

Bourque starts out his recruitment process by mapping out his returning players to place them in their ideal positions. From this, he identifies the needs of the team and prioritizes those positions. Depending on the number of students graduating, the recruitment targets fluctuate: “The typical number is five to seven, if we get on our cycle. It may change if we bring in a player that has played professionally, and so they only have two years of eligibility,” explained Bourque. Hockey is unique in their recruitment because most of the players are coming out of the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) or even from professional hockey, making them older than most other incoming students. This means that Bourque spends time watching CHL hockey to scout potential recruits. 

Initial contact is often made during the season, but nothing really moves forward until their seasons are over. Bourque usually sends out a text that goes along the lines of “Hey sorry for contacting you so close to your season being done, but…” and that starts the real recruitment process. This includes a conversation that often involves the player’s family and visits to campus where they can look at the facilities, talk to academic advisors and spend some time with current players to get a feel for the program.

Waterloo competes with universities across the country and many of the top recruits make several campus visits before finalizing their decision. UNB and Alberta are some of the strongest programs, with Queen’s being one of the main challengers in Ontario. In terms of facilities, Bourque explained that “our rink is a concern, but we have a very good dressing room and a lounge area … being on campus is excellent. There are a number of teams where they come to practice then drive fifteen minutes to get to class.” The men’s hockey program can also offer its recruits athletic scholarships of up to $4,000, a limit that is in place only in Ontario schools. Schools in other provinces can provide full scholarships. At the end of the process, Bourque often gets about one in 10 players. Often, their decisions are made based on things out of Bourque’s control.

The swimming program is quite different. Initial contact with students might be made while they are in grade 11, and, swimming times being readily available, everyone knows who the top talent is. In addition to this, there are also national training centres across the country that are based on university campuses and often attract the top talent. Swimming looks to recruit six to 10 swimmers every year. 

Swimming coach Jeff Slater also goes to meets to see potential recruits in person, and they are also invited to campus for visits. The swimming recruitment process can take a long time: “For some kids, we will have a year or 18-month relationship prior to them committing, but the majority of them, it is about six months,” said Slater.

Like other athletic programs on our campus, the student part of student athlete is key to who they recruit. “Generally, we are recruiting really good students who are interested in the programs we offer here, and they happen to swim,” explained Slater. 

According to Slater, Waterloo is on the second tier of recruitment, partly as a result of the aging facilities and partly because of the funding for the program. Many of the top-tier recruits look to get funding for things like Olympic tryouts and other competitions, which the UW swimming program cannot offer. Apart from the work done by Slater, the connections of current team members are key. “The best recruiters are actually the swimmers when they go back to their clubs,” said Slater.

The world of CIS football recruiting is drastically different from any other sport at UW. Instead of a recruiting class under 10, the Warrior football program is bringing in at least 40 new athletes. Football teams are very large, and the orientation of Waterloo’s team towards the future means that recruiting takes up an incredibly large portion of the staff’s energy and time. Head coach Chris Bertoia was hired by UW athletics specifically for his expertise in scouting and recruitment, previously having woked as recruitment co-ordinator for the very successful Western Mustangs. Bertoia won two Yates Cups playing for the Warriors in 1997 and 1999, and points to that as proof that Waterloo can find success on the field regardless of the university’s stringent academic standards.

Recruiting in football is a constant, long-term and cyclical process. “We’re already moving on and moving forward to our class of 2016 and identifying the class of 2017,” said Bertoia. “My philosophy with recruiting is that it’s a three-pronged process: identification, qualifying and personalizing.”

The process takes more than a year, with the team searching out players with tantalizing talent and good academics, making sure they’re a good fit for UW and the team, and working to create the best impression of the school and team. The first step involves casting a wide net for talent. “Going to camps, going to provincial tryouts, going to high school games … [talking] to high school coaches. Identifying [happens] on YouTube now,” said Bertoia.

“Qualification is based on academics, but it’s also based on doing a little bit of background research on the student athlete themselves,” said Bertoia. “Finding out what kind of person they are, finding out if they’re a team guy, finding out if they’re coachable.”

The final step is one of Bertoia’s strengths and central to his goals for the team. Personalizing the program requires regular contact with players and inviting them to get to know the team, the school, and the people involved. “Personalizing is text messaging, Facebook messaging, Instagram, Twitter, calling on the phone, speaking to parents,” said Bertoia. “Having them on campus for a visit, having them to a game, having them come to our high school camp. A face-to-face process.” Bertoia’s plan for Warrior football is to build it into a national brand, trading in on the school’s reputation as a centre for innovation and strong academics.

“It’s not like we have to go out and sell to kids that this is a great institution; people know that it is,” said Bertoia. “What we have to do is get the merit of our football program to where we are academically, and then we’ll have the best of both worlds.”

One of the strategies used to entice top prospects to Waterloo is the promise of playing time, something that few other schools can offer young players during their early years in CIS football. This year’s class was recruited in a much shorter time frame than Bertoia will be using on future students. The class still exceeded his expectations, providing that first glimpse of light for the long-embattled team.

The problems facing the football team, like entrance averages and scholarships (which, unlike hockey, face no limits but are very competitive), do persist, but Bertoia hopes to increase the team’s funding through corporate partnerships and redoubled alumni fundraising efforts, itself a kind of recruitment.

There are undoubtedly challenges that all Waterloo varsity teams encounter when attracting new student athletes to the school, but each team has its own particular hurdles to jump. Whether dealing with aging facilities, competing with generous programs or rebuilding a program, teams recruit and account for their recruiting ecosystems in different ways.

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