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Reflections on Recruiting - and on Being Recruited
by Kathy Sell Smith, 30 November 2009
"Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting".
In an obvious allusion to the popular housing mantra, "location, location, location," these words found my ears repeatedly during my first interview with Princeton. Certainly, it was not my biggest concern in considering a head coaching position, but it became increasingly clear that it was one of theirs: "Could I recruit?" As they posed the question and stressed the importance of the answer, I was forced to confront the question head-on.
Well, for one, some eight years before I faced this panel of Ivy League administrators in central New Jersey, I had been recruited myself as a junior tennis player. I had also fulfilled a four-year scholarship as a varsity tennis player, the fourth (of four) children to do so in my family. And I did some recruiting myself as an assistant coach in the PAC-10. So I was familiar with many aspects of the process.
Perhaps it was a tribute to those experiences that I felt qualified at the time of my interview, but, nonetheless, my experience recruiting for a college program was scarce. I could see why there was concern about my ability to succeed in that aspect of the job. Moreover, many university administrators, coaches, parents, and prospects would agree that success in recruiting is essential for any athletic program. Truly, it is one of the most competitive aspects of the job for a head tennis coach - or for any coach.
Step away from tennis and you will see plenty of references in business and leadership publications to the significance of "recruiting the right people" in the quest for success. Jim Collins writes in Good to Great that "leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with 'where' but with 'who.' They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline - first the people, then the direction."
John Wooden, one of the most revered coaches amongst all sports, writes in The Essential John Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership, "I never forgot that a great player who couldn't make the team great wasn't so great after all."
As it turned out, recruiting was one of the highlights of my job at Princeton. Not only because we were successful, but also because the travel, attention to detail, personal relationships, and discipline of following rules and being organized suited my personality. The overall challenge of recruiting players to a non-scholarship, extremely academic University speaks for itself; after all, fully-funded women's tennis programs offer eight full scholarships (the men offer 4 1/2), so the distinction between my recruiting pitch and those of most other coaches was overshadowed by a $200,000 price tag.
After five years of coaching for Princeton, I can reflect on the recruiting successes and disappointments - as all coaches can. But I am assured that my approach to recruiting was not driven by financial incentives but was rather focused upon the big picture: to find the best fit for each player, using my experience in college tennis and at the University to act as both a coach and as resource throughout the process.