The college recruiting scene has long relied on media rankings, word-of-mouth, powerful AAU coaches and some degree of luck, but that could change soon. The inRecruit platform promises to bring the power of social networking to the recruiting scene in a way that it never has before.
Malik Allen spent a decade as a professional basketball player with various teams in the NBA after graduating from Villanova in 2000. As his professional career wound down, Allen began talking more seriously with his friend Joe Rocco about launching a business together.
Rocco and Allen go back to their days before Villanova, growing up in the same North Jersey community where they became friends and then attended college together as well. Rocco went on to Villanova law school and eventually launched his own business, NovaFantasySports.com, taking advantage of the growing popularity of Fantasy sports leagues. That experience positioned him to move on into the current venture.
"Just thinking about what the next thing is, and whether or not you want to put your coaching hat on, or if you want to try something else," Allen explained of his decision to launch inRecruit. "Once I was in my last year, I got hurt in the middle of the year and I was still rehabbing and the lockout was going on, and Joe and I had started this and it was just doing something that I wanted to do to try and get back in a different way.
"I looked at this as something that could potentially be a great way to get back to that space that I was in growing up being recruited and being part of that recruiting cycle."
Together, they have launched a service that brings together coaches from college, high school, and AAU as well as athletes, media and fans to create a digital recruiting platform that they hope will change the way recruiting works.
"At a high level, what it does is it gives college coaches the ability to form relationships and interact with high school coaches, AAU coaches, parents and student-athletes for the purpose of recruitment," Rocco said. "That is the number-one purpose of inRecruit and it took us almost 18 months to develop the technology.
"The coach side of the platform is very very sophisticated, it gives them the ability to organize their recruiting information, share information within staffs, across the platform, really do all of their recruiting through our technology."
"On the parents and kids side, it gives them the opportunity to use the platform in a similar way but with a more robust profile. The kids will have the ability for their parents, or anyone really, to help a kid out by posting a video. The platform gives them the ability to reach out to real verified coaches — and we verify all coaches on our platform both in high school and college through a verification process — and we give the kid the ability to get a scholarship or otherwise play a sport at a college they otherwise might not have been able to before this."
The idea grew out of discussions with college coaches as well as Allen's own experiences on the recruiting circuits back in the 1990s. One of the perks of being alumni was that throughout the development process they could reach out and pick the brains of various Villanova staff members to try and figure out how to make the platform more useful.
Rocco explained the role of 'Nova staffers as, our unofficial-slash-official partner for the last 18-months — what that means is, we could go in there and show [the coaching staff] wire-frames and they say, 'yup that works,' or 'no it doesn't,' and they showed us what they were using and gave us ideas on how to make it better, faster, quicker on the coaches side. They could give us an idea of what they were looking for and what other coaches might be looking for."
While the service aims to be a full-featured recruiting solution from the top of Division I to the bottom of the Division III. The goal being to bring college and high school programs together to find the right fit for the most kids, and to open doors for student-athletes that might be having a hard time finding interest through more traditional means.
"I was recruited pretty highly, but I also had friends on the other end of the spectrum that were trying to get seen," Allen recalled, "they didn't start playing and having success until their last year, so they were struggling."
When Allen was being recruited in the 1990s, the internet wasn't a big part of the process. Coaches, athletes and fans relied on the now-ailing print media to get information -- and it was harder for a prospect to blow up on the national scene. Now, technology and the expansion of media channels has caused an explosion on the recruiting scene that is changing the focus.
"Recruiting is a lot more social, first and foremost," explained Allen of how things have changed. "The use of the internet, online information and news on a kid, when I was coming up - I tell this story all the time - it was all newspapers, and you know, I played and the next day my mom would get the newspaper and to this day she still walks in my house for Sunday dinners with some article from high school that she found."
Interest in high school recruits has also changed since Allen's pre-college days.
"I remember when Greg Oden was playing [in High School] it was a big deal that Greg Oden is on ESPN, but now there's a game every week on TV. It's bigger. For us, it's a great thing for us to do, its a great tool for kids to get news written about them.
"It has become bigger and it's bigger business as well."
With more and more recruiting information flowing through the internet, it can be difficult for coaches to manage everything thrown at them, and to manage the relationships they are trying to build with recruits from both inside their home regions and from further away. The inRecruit platform hopes to make it easier for coaches to find athletes that fit their needs through media and search functionality as well as through direct communication -- coaches can text message recruits directly through the service.
Even better is that Allen and Rocco have designed their service with the NCAA's recruiting rules in-mind, creating an environment where coaches won't have to worry about accidentally getting into trouble.
"We definitely built this thing with 110% NCAA compliance," Allen noted. "Before we even pushed a key on the keyboard in terms of trying to build something, we wanted to make sure we were compliant with the rules."
It helped them a lot that the NCAA lifted its limits on text messaging recruits or sending private messages through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. All of the photos and videos will also be made public to comply with NCAA rules, as well.
"We never wanted to walk a fine line," Allen said. The inRecruit partners held meetings with Villanova's compliance officers during the early stages of development to get their input and have been meeting with NCAA officials regularly as well. Those NCAA meetings led them to redesign portions of the service to ensure compatibility with those rules.
"It is on the coaches to do the right thing, but we tried to design this so that they can't screw up," Rocco added.
inRecruit isn't just for coaches and players, however, the service also encourages media and fans to sign up -- and each category of user has different privileges on the site.
"We got a lot of requests during the process from the media universe to give them something as well, where they could establish those relationships with coaches and players as need be, and do interviews," Rocco added. "So what we built was a platform, pretty much, its your average publishing platform that you'd see on any website, where writers can come on and publish content to our site and coaches have the ability to track sportswriters.
"That wasn't the number-one intent of inRecruit at the beginning, but like with any other business, you don't really know what you're building until you build it and you release. That side of our platform has taken off just as quickly as the coaches' side has. We have like, maybe 60 or 70 sportswriters on our platform who are posting content and looking to interact and build relationships with people in the industry -- other writers, coaches, athletes."
Fans can also join up and take a look at athlete profiles, watch highlight reels and see sportswriter content. The idea is that fan accounts' interest in recruits can help the service to measure the degree of "hype" for certain athletes (through their videos and articles) and feed that into the information being offered to coaches. The platform also provides a news stream of articles and videos related to the writers, coaches and players that a fan might follow on the service.
"We have very sophisticated technology to offer up to coaches who are the better players on the platform," explained Rocco, "say Villanova and Jay [Wright] are looking for a point guard over 6-2 and one really has some buzz around him, you can search that."
The platform has taken off quickly since launching at the end of April 2013. Villanova's coaches were among the first to step on board, but Penn and Eastern University are other local schools that have jumped on the platform early. Other schools, both inside and outside of the Philadelphia area, are working with inRecruit right now to get onto the platform as well.
On the high-school side, the service is looking to sign up coaches from schools and AAU programs who will add value in the recruiting process. Montverde Academy, last season's top high school team, has already signed up with high school coach of the year Kevin Boyle logging into the service.
"Our business model is nailing down not just what works for Villanova or St. Joe's, but also what also works for Eastern [University] as well," claimed Allen. "From a college standpoint, that's the goal, we're looking for something that can touch all schools and help the kids who might struggle to be seen when its all said and done."
It is a big change for Malik Allen to go from the basketball court to the world of business, but as his career wound down, Allen knew that he had to learn something new.
"It's been a crash course in learning this side of the work, but I love it and we're still going at it every day and learning as a company, but we've got something where we think we can be an impact."
As for his future in basketball, it seems that Allen isn't likely to leave the boardroom to go back to the locker room as a coach. He is excited about his venture at inRecruit, and the possibilities that brings.
"What the future brings, I don't know, but right now, I'm enjoying it and we're knee deep in trying to make a good company here and that's where we're at. I coach from my couch all the time, coach from the stands, coach my young son, but that's it."