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Unique Challenges for Cross Country & Swimming Recruiting

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Rivals Top 100, 247Sports Top 150, ESPN Recruiting Nation, these are just some of the more popular websites that have full time staff dedicated to high school football and basketball coverage. The competitiveness in that industry has never been higher, these are two of the most popular sports in America and there is nothing that is going to slow that train down. But for sports such as swimming and track and field/cross country, they are constantly having to fight for their moment in the spot light.

"Cross country is the most highly participated sport in the United States,’ says Villanova track and cross country coach Marcus O’Sullivan, "however it doesn’t get, what I would call, the high profile media. It doesn't need to have the high profile image, it would be nice, but it doesn't have it."

The competition of getting US based athletes in this sport is incredibly cut-throat. -Villanova Swim coach, Rick Simpson

Villanova Track and Cross Country have a rich tradition. Villanova’s women have won the NCAA Championship nine times while the men have won four times. For swimming, both teams have won numerous Big East Championships and they continue to contend in the Big East.

Villanova has a storied athletic program, but all the attention seems to go towards the basketball and football team.

Recruitment in college athletics has transformed into a 24/7 cycle. There are hundreds of websites that track every high school sport. New jobs have formed where all the reporters do is talk about where a particular athlete is leaning towards attending college next fall. There has even been a channel, ESPNU, dedicated to college athletics.

With recruitment in college athletics blowing up it has made recruitment easier for coaches, but at the same time it has leveled the playing field. Where in the past coaches had to be continuously traveling to go see a high school kids play, now all they have to do is sit down at their computer and watch youtube.

Recruitment in basketball and football can be extremely difficult. In every Division 1 sport recruiting is hard and there is no room for the weak.

"The competition of getting US based athletes in this sport is incredibly cut-throat," says Villanova Swim coach, Rick Simpson.

There is no room for those who aren’t go-getters. But for football and basketball there is an even greater spot light on their particular sports. More people look at those websites and that leaves the coaches open to be critiqued by the public.

For swimming and track there is less public scrutiny, but there is still a ton of competition. With coaches looking to gain an edge, both swimming and track have done something that football and basketball coaches don’t really do, and that is go abroad.

"It started with the general idea of that we wanted to start branching out in terms of the area of diversity," says Rick Simpson. "Global diversity, not being a local school that is limited to school in this area. We have an advantage in terms of looking at the quality of an athlete who is in Finland and see whether or not she would be a good fit here. Nothing more then broadening the net that you are casting, get the athletes that you need to get."

It is very difficult to just focus on athletes in the United States. Coach Simpson realizes this, "If you limit yourself to just the United States you limit yourself abroad because there is such an interest from people abroad who want to come here and study and live here, along with competing here."

But for Villanova athletics the idea to go abroad from international students started way back when the school was founded. Coach Mark O’Sullivan is well versed in getting students from abroad, considering that he was one.

Recruiting is never glorious but the coaches love to do it
"Villanova has a long standing tradition for track and field. Irish priest came over to Ireland and part of the schools mission was to create an opportunity for education for Irish immigrants who came over. That was the kind of conveyer belt back in the 40s that started out with Irish immigrant athletes. It is part of our tradition, but the tradition ultimately stemmed out of it was part of the mission of the university."

But Villanova is not unique in going abroad. Coach O’Sullivan believes capturing international students has opened up a new world and has allowed the sport of track and cross-country to develop across the world.

"More and more schools are going abroad. If you look at the NCAA Men and Women's National championship, from both the men and women’s side, to see how many Olympic medals are on that pool deck is just amazing. How many Olympians are on that pool deck from a variety of different countries; I don't think people realize how many of those athletes from every country are United States trained athletes from the NCAA."

Having international students makes both swimming and track unique compared to basketball and football. But there are some benefits that are more difficult to over come. Villanova basketball has 15 scholarship athletes on the team at one time. While in 2011-2012 season, Villanova athletics spent over $5.3 million dollars on the football program. That number does include scholarships as well. This is where both swim and track do get the short end of the stick.

Villanova track and cross country are able to offer 12 full scholarships for men and 18 full scholarships for women. For the swim team they are allowed to give out 14 scholarships to women.

But the biggest disadvantage the swim program has is not being able to offer the men swimmers any scholarships. There are over 15 male swimmers who have to pay their way through Villanova, which puts them at a major disadvantage. Coach Simpson has to deal with that challenge whenever he recruits male swimmers. "This dramatically effects recruiting, it's very, very tough. This is not the cheapest place to go to school; the academic requirements are very high, the level of competition, the Big East, is very high. So by the time you find the individual that you are looking for, someone who is fast enough to compete in our league, smart enough to get in, that guy is attractive to a lot of different schools, many that can assist scholarship wise."

Swimming is not the only sport that is affected by lack of scholarships. Due to Title 9 the number of scholarships that male and women receive have to be equal. So when the whole basketball team and a large majority of the football team receive their scholarships, it leaves sports like swimming and track in a difficult place.

"With well over 100 athletes on the women’s and men’s track team there are only so many scholarships that we can give out. So we have to pick and choose who we want to give these out to. But even with that disadvantage, we have a big advantage in how we recruit compared to the big time sports," reflects Coach O’Sullivan as he leans back in his chair in his office. "For a majority of the students all we have to do is look at their track time and see if they qualify as a Division 1 athlete."

Swimming is similar in the sense of determining if an athlete is good enough to compete on a Division 1 level. "Our sport is really easy since it’s a timed sport. So we peruse all of the popular meets, national championships, junior championships, state championships, that is where we have an advantage over a football or basketball coach because we can just look on paper and see the time."

For Coach Simpson, the way that athletes come to Villanova has been split between referrals and students coming to him. "We do what we call cold calling every year, several times of the year sending a line cold call to athletes that we have profiles on or that we have investigated or would be good fits for us. The other 50 percent are athletes that say hey, I am from Alaska and I want to go to Villanova. So sure, maybe we would have not found that athlete if that athlete didn't come to us and express an interest."

But there is a big handicap when you are able to contact student athletes. Big time basketball and football schools have been known to contact athletes at a very young age, freshman year and in some cases 8th their school. While for swimming and track you are not able to be in contact with them before their junior year.

For swimming you are able to mail them when they are in the 9th that junior year, there can be no contact. "As Far as recruiting dialogue, you can have that dialogue can be email or US mail starting at the junior year of HS. Cannot have any phone contact, and face-to-face contact is simply limited to them walking in your door.

If there is a junior on campus who wants to come in and chat with you they can do that, grade, and offer them full scholarships to play at we cannot actively go out and meet with them, we cant go out and call them or arrange pre determined meetings, all of that takes place after July 1 after the completion of their junior year."

Track is in the same boat as the swim team. "You can email or text them before their senior year. If they call us as juniors and leave a message, we can't call them back. We are not allowed to make any initialing calls. A lot of times the kids will write, they are savvy, and we can write back to them." While athletes in the United States do not begin to be contacted till their junior year, students abroad start even later.

Abroad the process to choosing a college really depends on the relationship with the coach for track. "From a foreign standpoint is about them finding a coach. That is very, very important, they are not going to come so far if the coach is not what they want. In the US I find that it is all about the school first, then the coach. Totally different and very interesting in how they operate."

For the foreign students, education is free at the college level. For some of the countries, the cost of school is minimal. So there has to be a strong desire to go abroad. With Villanova having such a rich tradition, the transition is easier than other schools.

In both football and basketball, there rarely do athletes have to come to them to express interest. These coaches know what they are looking for and go out and scout the athletes. For all sports though, there are numerous websites that are consulted to see who could be the best fit for a particular team. For swim and track it is much simpler to evaluate talent.

"Other coaches have to spend countless number of hours, days and weeks evaluating talent. They have to watch whom they play against and evaluate the talent. We have a benchmark if that Division 1 athlete is at our level," says Coach Simpson as he looks out on the pool deck as his swimmers continue their laps.

Recruiting is never glorious but the coaches love to do it. There rarely comes a day when either coach doesn’t relish being on that pool deck or standing on that track, looking for the next best student-athlete to walk though Villanova’s doors.