U devotes time, money to woo top high school athletes

Megan Kadrmas

Every year the University’s athletics coaches travel throughout the country, tracking between 500 and 1,000 promising high school athletes.

When the process is done, about 150 of these student-athletes will sign letters of intent with the University.

This year, almost $1 million of the athletics department’s budget was for the recruiting process.

This money is disbursed throughout the University’s 25 varsity teams, but not evenly, according to Elizabeth Eull, chief financial officer for University athletics.

Frank Kara, director of athletics compliance, said the teams have different recruiting needs.

“Football looks to fill about 20 or 25 spots each year while men’s golf is looking to fill two. The number you have to start with to fill these spots is greatly different,” he said.

Athletics Director Joel Maturi said the football recruiting budget is about $300,000, whereas golf and some other sports receive less than $10,000.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association regulates recruiting around the country.

Students are “off limits” before their junior year of high school, Kara said. After junior year, students can go on an official visit to the campus.

However, in some sports such as men’s hockey, unofficial scouting starts as early as ninth grade, said men’s hockey coach Don Lucia.

“More and more, it’s becoming unofficial visits because (prospective athletes) are coming at younger ages. Most of the kids are even committed (to a college) before they take an official visit,” he said.

Coaches like Lucia visit high schools and development camps to watch eligible recruits but keep unofficial tabs on younger players.

On their official visits to campus, prospective students travel, lodge and eat on the University’s dollar, Kara said.

“There are certain things that can and cannot happen on an official visit, so there are forms for where (recruits) stayed, where they ate, what happened on that visit,” Kara said.

The NCAA tightened its recruiting laws in 2002, Kara said.

“After a lot of different things going on across the country, the NCAA came out and said, OK, we’re really going to crack down on excessive entertainment during visits (to campus),” he said.

These issues included recruits being taken to venues deemed inappropriate for minors. The Gophers were no exception to these problems, Maturi said.

“If you remember a couple of years ago, a couple of athletes were taken to Déjà Vu (strip club). We continue to do all we can to educate our student-athletes to what is acceptable,” he said.

Men’s hockey players are the focus of an underage drinking investigation at Blarney Pub and Grill in Dinkytown that was triggered by a Fox 9 News undercover report. Some of the undercover footage released showed what the channel identified as two recruits drinking with team members.

Lucia said his program is cutting the time of official visits to 36 hours. This is reduced from NCAA rules restricting visits to 48 hours to keep students safe, Lucia said.

“I think now, in light of what’s happened the last few years, we don’t want kids to get in trouble while they’re on a visit.”