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Mastering the Recruiting Process at the Small College Level

by: Tony Johnson
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At the NAIA level, recruiting student athletes takes on so much more than just a high school visit and a few recruiting weekends. We are not blessed in so many cases to just show up with our school names on our shirts and have recruits begging to come to our schools. We have to be more creative through phone calls and mail flow.

For us at Bethany College, we are very fortunate to have a lot of tradition based on what the previous Head Coach, Ted Kessinger, did here in his twenty-eight years. We are blessed to have a summer full-contact camp that allows many of the top players in the state to come to Bethany and show their skills. We have seen a lot of Division I-A, I-AA, and II talent, as well as NAIA/D-III athletes. The camp gets over 300 young men on our campus every summer. For Bethany, this is how the recruiting process starts.

Having some 300 names in a database is a great start; then, of course, every high school in our state, plus the states we feel are important to recruit, will get a prospect letter from our recruiting coordinator, Steve Tapley. Once Steve gets that information back, he enters the names in the database. We then start an intense mail flow system through the next four months of the student athlete’s season. Let me say here that the head coach should send at least 50 letters per week that are hand written. This adds a personal touch to your letter. Email is also important to these young men and we put all their emails in our database and send them notes once a week.

Our recruiting coordinator creates a master calendar in early June for mail flow. By June 20th, just before our camp, we will look back at the "juniors to be" listing, which most high school coaches will send back from the year before. We send a letter to the top junior prospects (fall seniors) and let them know we are going to be watching them. We start our ‘Friday Night Lights Program’ in which all of my coaches attend a different high school game each Friday night for at least a half.

In August we also send a letter to the top 30 who did not chose Bethany from the year before. One side note here is that it is important to keep those relationships with the one’s that got away, because you never know when they may want to come back. We keep a database on them for two years.

In August we also start the mail flow system to our Junior College prospects. Most JUCO kids will wait for the NCAA schools to make decisions first but if you stay on top of them you will have a chance later on. We will be aggressive with them as well. We also have two home games that we invite players to come take part in campus activities and learn about our program. Homecoming seems to be the best time for one of these events. We make sure they are met by a panel of alumni and current players, as well as admissions and academic counselors.

In late November, I will send out around 300 Christmas cards to all the top recruits from JUCO to high school athletes and wish them the best for the New Year. In January, I send out a “Why select Bethany letter”, which lists all the successes of our conference and our school. In early January we stop with the mail flow system and concentrate solely on the phone calls and visits. Occasionally we will still use the electronic letter flow.


When calling recruits I instruct my coaches to introduce themselves as a coach from Bethany. We tell them that we are calling because we are definitely interested in them as a student-athlete and they are a priority in the recruiting process. Remember, most of them have been receiving mail from you and your competitors. You should congratulate them on being a great player that was recommended for a college scholarship.

We have our student coaches call at first because they have a strong feel of what the young man is going through and they just finished playing the game. We have the student coaches humbly share our success on and off the field, as well as tell them what makes the program successful. We ask them to be enthusiastic, sincere and honest. Make sure they know they are a priority and we feel they can make a difference. Make sure they convey the message that we are looking for a National Championship! If the young man is not home ask to speak to a parent, but make it brief unless the parent pushes the conversation. Remind the parents about specific testing dates and visits and tell them how excited you are to be recruiting their son.

When recruiting the student athlete at the school we make sure we organize our daily schedule, date and time of visit. Make sure you have contacted the coach so you are not just a drop in. We have to remain flexible, as school administration may not let students out of class. Plan no more than 90 minutes at a school. If you have the whole day, plan for no more than five schools. Make sure you have mapped out your travel between schools so you do not waste time driving.

When you call the coach, ask him if he has a couple of minutes and be sure to ask permission to visit with his players. I have been a high school head coach and know how frustrating it is to find out later that a college recruiter was in our building without my knowing about it. You may already know who you are going to visit, but ask the coach if there is anyone else who might be a sleeper or just a bit undersized that wants to play. Sometimes you can get lucky with one. Sometimes coaches think they know what you need.

Call the coach the evening before you visit for confirmation and a reminder that you are coming. Get proper directions to his office if this is your first time in the building. You may need to sign in at the main office. If a problem arises at another school or you are running late, make sure you call the coach first and let him know. Then, when you return to your office, write him an apology letter.

When you meet with the player, either at his home or school, have lots of information about your school. If you don’t know the facts and figures of your school, don’t go! You must be able to answer all questions. A great salesman knows his client and their needs and he certainly knows his profession and product. Sometimes you may need to have extra questionnaires to have the players fill out.

Keep the meeting brief, no more than 30 minutes. Have a question and answer period afterward. We also hand out a paper with a graph that parents and students can fill out with Bethany and four other schools they are considering. It gives a point total for things like school, academics, goals of coaches, opportunity to play, cost, etc. This chart allows them to put the good and bad about lots of schools down on paper and lets them know that we are not trying to pressure them. They can add up the points and see where Bethany stands with their other choices.

We also stress winning in the classroom and on the field. We explain the advantages of a private, small school education. We talk about football expectations, community and support of our administration and town. We end by talking about applying and receiving scholarships and financial aid, which is very important at our level. We give out our business card should there be any other questions and our school web address. Kids today do more on email than anything else, so we try to write to their email as well.

We try to also have at least two more weekends in January and February for athletes and their parents to come and look at the school and visit with teachers and admissions, etc. We will have some of our current players host them for the night and take them to dinner and maybe a basketball game or campus event.

During this whole process, our football coaching staff will be watching and evaluating recruiting tape as a staff. I believe it is important to have everyone’s input. We watch recruiting tape on Wednesday and Sundays starting in early November. We use a grading system and then tally the numbers up and rank each recruit on a board. We tell each coach to always be honest and let the young man know where he stands in the recruiting process.

Last, but not least, we want to be professional – look sharp (all our coaches wear slacks and a button-down shirt), have class and be yourself. I have coached at every level of this game and understand that the process is long and many stones have to be overturned at the small college level. Keep your precious relationships with the high school coaches and keep in mind that they are the lifeblood of your program.

In closing, what we do is not a science but it is the best way I have found to stay active with a small budget and not a lot of resources.
Tony Johnson just completed his first season as head coach at Bethany College. He previously was a graduate assistant coach at TCU, head coach at Sacred Heart High School in Salina, Kansas, offensive coordinator at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, and a coach at Texas A & M- Kingsville. Johnson played football for MidAmerica Nazarene University and was named all-conference in the Heart of America Conference while receiving a Bachelor of Science. He also has a Masters Degree from TCU. He can be reached at


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