The Dotted Line

I am pretty sure that most people feel the bulk of stress in a basketball coaches’ job is the games.  It is true that it can be a stressful time, but the real stress came in signing recruits.

There are so many factors in signing high school players to play for your program. A coach can spend hours and hours on one single recruit.  You can feel confident in that high schooler committing to your school.  Then, in one phone call, it all falls apart.  All those hours wasted.

Recruiting, like a all sales jobs, require that your ego isn’t affected too badly when you hear the word, “No!”  It can come in waves.  If I would be on the phone in the evening calling recruits and my first couple of recruits gave me negative feedback, I’d hang up the phone for the night.  It’s probably superstition, but it would be like a snowball rolling downhill.  Get one no and then all the calls turn to nos.

Every coach has stories about recruiting. There are some I’ll never forget.  My first recruiting class at Northwest had two memorable events.  Jenna Wolfe was a tall, mobile player from Clay Center, Kansas.  She played on a high school team with four starters over 6-0, with one of them committed to Kansas State.  I liked Jenna as much as the player headed to Kansas State.

Jenna and her family stopped in one Saturday just to take a look.  She was about to commit to the University of Nebraska-Kearney but thought she would take a look.  Later, she came back on an official visit, but the word was she was still going to sign with Kearney in the early signing period.  If I could just get her to wait until after the season, I thought I had a chance.

I knew bad news was calling when Jenna called me just before the early signing date in November.  She informed me she was signing early.  I could hear it coming, the commit to Kearney.  Then she shocked me by committing to Northwest. I had my first major recruit coming to Maryville.

During that first season, which ended 4 – 22, Tanesha Fields, a guard from Blue Valley North, came to visit with her dad, Rick.  They are African American, which is important to the story.  Rick and Tanesha took the tour and then sat in on a practice.  Believe me, the practice wasn’t impressive.

During the practice, Rick called me over. I won’t say the exact words he used, but he mentioned the lack of black players on the team, which was zero.  I said the only thing I could think, “Tanesha could help me with that.”

Blue Valley North was a very successful team.  I thought the fact we had no black players and a horrible record would knock us out.  Again, I was shocked when Tanesha committed to us that spring.

Jenna and Tanesha played a huge role in bring the team from four wins to 24 wins their senior season.  That team won their first conference tournament and trip to the NCAA Tournament in 20 years.  Both are now in California with very successful careers.  Rick is a good friend of mine.

One player I lost that year came to visit with her mom.  They drove down in a new Jaguar.  After the visit, they found they had locked the keys in the car.  Her dad had to come from Kansas City with spare keys.  He showed up in a new Escalade.  I lost her when they were offended with my half-scholarship offer. Go figure.

Recruiting to Doane College was different than at Northwest.  We didn’t offer any full scholarships.  I had to piece scholarships together, constantly go to the recruit’s games and constantly write them letters and post cards.  Then I hoped they liked me better than the schools offering bigger scholarships.  

At Doane, we could drive to the recruit’s homes to get their names on the dotted lines.  That led to some very interesting visits.  During my second year at Doane, I had a chance at a great recruiting class. However, everything had to fall into place.

With the help of volleyball, we signed Staci Hass and Merri Nienkamp from eastern Nebraska.  That was pretty good in itself, but Kim Crider, Karin Rief and Mary Rainforth from central Nebraska could make it a great class.

Kim and Karin were the first two to commit and the admission’s counselor, Cody Vance and I had scheduled a visit to see Mary.  There was no way we were going to get Mary to Doane.  She had a great offer from Kearney.  Also, if she signed, I would be way over my scholarship budget.  

I’ll never forget sitting around that kitchen table with mom, dad and all Mary’s brothers and sisters.  Mary was sitting between her mother and me.  Cody had done a great job explaining the package.  After a couple of cookies, I figured we would head back to Crete with a blank scholarship contract.

While Cody and the family were eating some very tasty homemade chocolate chip cookies, Mary picked up a pen and wrote her first name on the contract.  Only Mary’s mother and I saw it.  It seemed like forever before she wrote her last name on the contract.  Later, she told me she had intended to sign all the time. My budget was busted, but no one cared.

Kim, Karin and Mary all were a huge part of leading Doane to a 30-win season their senior season.  Mary has two of her children going to Doane University now and they play sports.  I wonder if she offered those Doane coaches chocolate chip cookies.

Sometimes, the direct approach works the best.  Doane had twin, female admission counselors.  Their last name was Hawk and I can’t remember which was with me when we went to sign Laurel Stoehr, a guard from Sutton, Nebraska.  

I wasn’t really confident in our ability to sign Laurel, but the Hawk twin assured me she would get her name on the dotted line.  After going over the package, the parents told us they wanted to talk it over.  I assumed that was a way of getting us on the road.

That’s when the Hawk twin pulled an ingenious trick.  She said, “No problem. Coach and I will just go out on the porch.”  Everyone knew that wasn’t the Stoehr’s had in mind, but they were too nice to tell the Hawk twin that wasn’t what they had in mind.

It was cold that night and the Hawk twin and I about froze in our 10 minutes on that porch.  We were laughing about what she had just pulled off.  It was worth it.  After that freezing 10 minutes, Laurel signed on the dotted line.  She became one of the all-time three-point shooters at Doane College.

There are many recruiting stories over the 28 years I spent in college athletics. The one I probably remember the most was near Genoa, Nebraska and involved the recruiting of Pam Sorensen.  

It was Cody Vance again that went with me to attempt to sign Pam.  Pam had not received much interest until her team won the state championship with Pam as the star player.  I had seen her in summer camp and knew she was a sure-thing as a college player.

Cody and I were shocked when we drove on their place in the country.  It was a dirt, deeply rutted lane.  There was an abandoned car in the yard and farm animals were all over the grounds.

The house was pretty beat up with the linoleum worn to the hard-wood floors where the Sorensen’s had walked the most.  It was pretty obvious they weren’t a wealthy family.  Pam’s mother was great, but Pam looked a little sullen, a bad sign.

We had to wait until Pam’s dad was finished with his bath.  He came out shirtless and rolled a cigarette, something I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. Cody did a great job with the contract, but I didn’t think we had a chance.

That was enhanced when Pam told us Midland College had shown sudden interest and had a big scholarship offer.  “Besides,” Pam said, “All my friends are going to Midland.”

That’s when Pam’s mother took control. She was very stern when she told Pam that I was the only coach that had shown any interest during the season and she wasn’t going to let me down now.

The mother stuck the pen in Pam’s had and said, “Sign it.”  Pam did as her mother instructed, without the dad saying a word.

Good things came from that signing.  Pam went on to score more than 1,000 points and became an All-American. Pam’s mother left the farm and became a success in the health industry.  Pam is in Colorado and doing great.  We just had to get her name on the dotted line.