Missed Shots: Part 2 of 3
It's a Whole New Ballgame, and Maryland's Williams Isn't Playing
Friday, February 13, 2009
When Gary Williams considered Rudy Gay in 2003, the Maryland men's basketball coach saw his chance to win a second national title in a long and athletic forward who could help keep the Terrapins at an elite level after reaching back-to-back Final Fours.
When Gay considered Maryland, the emerging star at Archbishop Spalding High saw a group of players he had grown up rooting for, a new arena in which he could excel and a rabid fan base that might one day view him as an icon.
But when it came time to select a college after a fierce recruiting battle, Gay chose Connecticut, ignoring the dozens of signs posted at his high school urging him to sign with Maryland.
It was merely one player, one recruiting battle lost by Williams amid hundreds that coaches routinely lose throughout their careers. But those closely familiar with the veteran coach's recruiting say Gay's decision was a turning point. Gay's recruitment, so scrutinized that it appeared to be the impetus for an NCAA rule change in its aftermath, cemented Williams's belief that signing the most sought-after recruits in the current climate often depends on practices he is unwilling to undertake. As a result of that experience, they say Williams has steadfastly avoided pursuing relationships with many of the most influential power brokers in the recruiting world.
If he needs validation for such a stance, Williams can point to a display case on a concourse at Comcast Center that holds the 2002 national championship trophy. After all, it was won by Williams with a cast of players who mostly were unheralded out of high school.
"If [Gay] wanted to come here, and we recruited him, and we offered him a scholarship, why didn't he come here?" Williams said during an hour-long interview last week. "It had to be for another reason, right?"
Williams's detractors argue that it's still possible to follow NCAA rules and recruit successfully. They say his stance is one reason Maryland has regressed faster than any national champion in the past 18 years, according to NCAA records.
Said Curtis Malone, whose talent-rich D.C. Assault summer league basketball program garners national attention, "A guy like Gary, he is not a big AAU guy, and everyone knows that."
The AAU's Growing Influence
The recruiting scene has changed markedly since Williams began the second half of his 20-year tenure at his alma mater. Like today, shoe company-sponsored summer camps and tournaments were part of the landscape, but the ability to woo parents with promises of diplomas and strong education still mattered. As the money involved in basketball increased exponentially -- in 1999, CBS paid $6 billion for the rights to broadcast the NCAA tournament through the 2013 season, and shoe company endorsement deals can extend into the tens of millions -- the search for the next LeBron James has intensified the recruiting game, as parents and coaches aim to put players on a fast track for stardom. Recruiting analysts now rank 10-year-olds, and organizers conduct national tournaments for 8-year-olds, some of them so short their shorts reach their socks.
Long ago, summer basketball was under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Union, and even today, many people use the term "AAU" to refer to competition by independent travel teams that are sponsored by major shoe companies. In reality, it has been well documented that the teams face no oversight from any national governing body and are free to behave almost any way they see fit. Many of the top teams are set up as nonprofits, whose financial disclosure rules are rarely policed, making it very difficult to uncover violations of NCAA rules on improper inducements to players.
In recent years, attempts by the NCAA to control the summer league teams have largely failed, and their power has only increased. In recruiting, the independent travel team coaches are now viewed as being more influential than most high school coaches. Without strong AAU ties, recruiting at an elite level becomes difficult, if not impossible, according to college assistant coaches.
"The last five or six years, I would say that was the dramatic change," Williams said. "With the change in the AAU has come incredible influence over the player, even the players with parents there. The AAU in the last five years has gained a phenomenal foothold with a lot of families in terms of directing their kid where he winds up going to school."