Gophers coaches weigh in on recruiting

by Mark Heller

Pretend you’re Minnesota men’s basketball coach Dan Monson.

Almost three years after perhaps the worst case of academic fraud in NCAA history, how do you, the person forced to play maid to Clem Haskins’ mess, land Rick Rickert, the most prized in-state basketball recruit since Kevin McHale?

You also signed highly-touted Aliou Kane and Stanley Gaines to letters of intent for next season. You think they would fit nicely alongside Rickert, Jerry Holman and Michael Bauer to provide a foundation to build on.

Gaines was an honorable mention All-American last season. He chose the Gophers over Seton Hall and Purdue. Kane is a consensus top-100 player in the country. North Carolina sought him out, and so did Iowa and SMU.

“He cleaned house there and laid down the law with little breathing room for error,” said Bob Gibbons, who runs All-Star Report, a basketball recruiting publication. “Then once Rickert signed on, others caught on and saw the chance to make Minnesota a national power and be the first to really make a difference.”

Monson’s no-nonsense approach with Joel Przybilla’s lack of academic commitment in 2000 led to his opting for the NBA. But Monson’s point rang loud and clear: Things players got away with under Haskins weren’t going to happen anymore. This policy was further vindicated before last season when Mitch Ohnstad was dismissed for violating team rules.

Although the program remains far from completely transformed, two years of playing with violations, bad circumstances and no depth are on the way out. Entering Monson’s third season only Bauer, Dusty Rychart and Kevin Burleson were recruited by Haskins.

The most remarkable aspect: It’s only taken two years.

Oldfield does a 180

Let’s say you’re Minnesota women’s basketball coach Brenda Oldfield.

Your new program entered this season 29-81 under the Cheryl Littlejohn regime, and then the University slapped some self-sanctions on your program after Littlejohn was found guilty of several minor NCAA violations.

So how were you the first Division I school in the country to have next year’s verbal commitments done before official visits began in September? And all three were in-state recruits Littlejohn probably wouldn’t have signed.

“When we walked in every player’s house, the first conversation was, ‘Hey, we just inherited the program. These are the self-imposed sanctions, then we’ll wait for the NCAA,'” Oldfield said. “They really liked the fact we were open and honest from day one. The past was the past and we’re not a part of that.”

Now 8-1, the Gophers look nothing like the past either. This is the best start in team history, though the upcoming Big Ten season should provide the true test.

All this, and Oldfield’s significant recruiting work won’t show up until next season at the earliest.

“We got everyone we wanted,” she said. “And we didn’t have to sell our program short or settle for someone who wasn’t going to make a difference.”

Lucia cracks the ice

You can’t talk about quick turnarounds of programs without mentioning coach Don Lucia and the men’s hockey team.

Former coach Doug Woog excelled from 1985-1997, going 358-147 (.709) and finished first or second in the WCHA every season except one. The Gophers always had first dibs on in-state talent – Woog’s only recruits. Robb Stauber, Brian Bonin and Mike Crowley headlined the scores of solid players to don the Maroon and Gold.

But Woog went 32-41 his last two seasons before stepping aside. Minnesota lost its luster as a hockey heavyweight and Woog’s in-state-only recruiting practices became heavily criticized.

“Guys like Crowley and (Ben) Clymer – skilled offensive defensemen – leave early for the pros and your goalie (Erik Day) has a career-ending injury,” said Lucia. “It hurts the program.

“People don’t understand that three or four guys make all the difference in the world. The top seven or eight guys determine where you’ll finish, and that’s almost half your team.”

Enter Lucia, who came back to Minnesota after playing high school hockey in Grand Rapids, Minn., college hockey at Notre Dame and coaching stints at Alaska-Fairbanks and Colorado College.

Rule 1: We’re going to recruit out-of-state players.

Rule 2: We’re going to send most high school players to juniors first.

In November, Lucia, who received little flack for recruiting out-of-state, signed four players for next season: Gino Guyer from Coleraine, Minn., Chris Harrington, who is playing juniors for Omaha, Andy Sertich, Guyer’s teammate from Greenway High School and Thomas Vanek from Austria — the first European ever to join the Gophers.

In addition, Minnesota recently received a verbal commitment from Peter Kennedy, the Gophers first Canadian in almost two decades.

“When we went to western Canada the first year, it was, ‘What are you doing here?’ or, ‘It’s about time you came here,'” Lucia said. “We’re never going to be in a situation where we have 15 non-Minnesotans on our team, but I don’t see why it matters, and I don’t think it matters, if we have three or five non-Minnesotans if it’s going to make us better.”

Wilson versus weather

Now, you’re Gary Wilson, Minnesota women’s cross country and track coach. Flash back to the mid-80s, when you’ve got a potential recruit from Ohio all but ready to join Minnesota. She’s already visited. She likes what she sees.

One day back in Ohio, she’s running with her club coach. It’s cold – Minnesota cold. We’re talking five degrees below zero.

“Man it’s cold out here,” she says.

“Do you want to run in this every day in Minnesota?” her coach says.

Her mind was made up. Not even the hour-and-a-half talk with Wilson made a difference.

Scratch Minnesota off her list.

“It’s winter here, it’s going to be cold. Hello? Figure it out,” said Wilson, who says he rarely bothers recruiting in Florida or Texas.

Weather is Wilson’s Achilles heel in recruiting – he estimates recruiting 200 women for every 100 other schools do – but due to cross country’s northern-dominated success, Wilson can afford to stay in the Upper Midwest or overseas.

Wilson’s most recent first-team All-Big Ten runners were Lithuanian Rasa Michniovaite and Minnesotan Elaine Eggleston.

“We – and I mean all men’s and women’s coaches – are some of the best in the nation at recruiting,” Wilson said. “We know what our obstacles are here. If you can succeed here, you can rule almost anywhere else.”