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In this strange season, emphasize recruiting and evaluation

The athletes’ worlds have been turned upside down, yes, but what about the coaching staffs and their newfound time? How do they remain focused on “getting better” in the absence of competition? How do they manage their players and inspire growth?

With nothing to “win,” a coach’s focus is just not the same. There is no trend or roadmap of history to follow … no playbook, no precedent. I can’t imagine being in this position, as the industry has never seen anything of the likes of COVID-19. 

The coaches I know are racking their brains to solve for just how to lead their teams and staffs through this tumultuous time. If I were in the athletic director’s seat today — and I’ve thought a lot about this — I would advise my coaches to turn their focus to recruiting. 

Why? Well, it’s pretty much all we’ve got right now, and there is no time like the present to hone and evolve the way we attract and retain top talent.

As we navigate this reality together, here are some specific areas where coaches can focus.

Retool and retrain evaluators

Recruiting is the lifeline to a successful football program, and if I were in charge of a college program right now, I would focus on refining my coach’s skills in evaluating players. I would want to make sure my team is recruiting the right players to fit our system. This means going back to the basics for everybody in recruiting departments — all the way up to full time position coaches — to get everyone on the same page as far as the ability to identify the characteristics we are looking for on video. 

Coaches take for granted, at times, that everyone knows how to identify the skills needed to play the game. There are things that make certain people better evaluators than others, but everyone has the ability to contribute.

Re-evaluate your position criteria

Those of us who have evaluated talent for a living for any amount of time know that each position in football comes with a certain set of criteria that must be identified and projected. These criteria must be prioritized by each position. This is different from program to program and scheme to scheme. Evaluating requires a totally different mindset from what a coach does on the day-to-day with his or her players. A coach has to be able to sequence and compare all of these criteria, in detail. 

New England’s Bill Belichick has built a dynasty with the Patriots by having a specific job description for everyone’s job on the field. Teams must create their own criteria. He has shown the rare discipline to stick to this plan, which takes effort and focus from a totally different perspective. This can be done at the collegiate level before any player is offered a scholarship. 

Reimagine and hold an evaluation clinic

Mike Riley, former NFL head coach of the Chargers and former head coach at Oregon State and Nebraska, has seen both the NFL and college world of evaluating: “Before you get to the recruiting, you have to know the kind of player you want and how to look for it," he said. "The evaluation clinic we did at Oregon State in 2018 was beneficial for us all.”

Very few programs have the luxury of recruiting all five-star recruits, so identifying the players that best fit a particular program is key. Many three- and foru-star recruits become difference makers because they fit with a particular scheme. 

Coaches are always looking for a good clinic to improve their techniques and ideas, why not do the same and have an evaluator clinic? What better time to reassess one’s own evaluative skills and those of each staff member? Even experienced college coaches can use a refresher on evaluating. Learn new tips and descriptive terms to describe what you see on film.  

Prioritize and continue the emphasis on evaluating

There are fundamentals to evaluating, roster building and team building that are just as important as the correct technique for a 3-technique defensive lineman who is trying to defeat a double team. These fundamentals have carry-over from the NFL to college football to amateur leagues and teams. 

While evaluating is something that is talked about a lot, and while a scout’s role has been glamorized in the media, it is not an area of the business that gets nearly enough attention from within a program or team organization. This is a time to focus on it — to get it right. With some renewed direction and a bit more practice, we can all get better as the world gets better. And if COVID teaches us a new skill or two, perhaps one of them will be how to evaluate and build better teams.

Randy Mueller (@randymueller), former NFL GM and 2000 NFL Executive of the Year, is founder and CEO of Mueller Football Advising, a search and advisory firm specializing in elite football program development.

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