A couple of days ago LSU released a video highlighting the 2012 "Impact Freshmen". LSU is one of the programs that is blessed to be able to do this every year (see 2012, 2011 and 2010 versions). Not only do they recruit great players, they also get those players to not just contribute but to make an impact in their first year on the field.
Yesterday, I went to LSU and spent an hour with LSU assistant head coach/running backs/recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson. Entering his fourth year at LSU, Wilson is known as one of the best recruiters in the country. He also prides himself on doing a great job coaching his position group as well.
Over the course of our time together I asked Frank a number of questions and found his answers to not only be revealing, but also found his responses to truly show his passion for being a great overall football coach.
I asked Frank what advice he gives to young coaches trying to get their first college job or those looking to advance their career.
Wilson: First, you have to be totally invested in your players. It starts with recruiting them, getting to know them, their parents, the key decision makers...knowing what is important to each of them. Then you examine whether they are a good fit for your program. If so, you show them why LSU is the right place for them...not just tell them, you show them. If you aren't totally invested the recruits will see through you and you won't get the best players. Then you have to nurture and develop those players once they are on the roster. You have to love them, treat them as family. It's the only way to truly be successful.
Interestingly enough, as we're talking Frank's cell phone rings and he asks if I'd mind if he took one quick call...it was a player who had just finished up at LSU who had just arrived in Indy for the Combine. Wilson said, "I left that message earlier, just wanted to check on you, to see that you made it up there okay. Wanted to let you know I'm proud of you and know that you will do a great job up there and in your career at the next level." Through the phone, I could hear the player respond, "Oh coach man, I'm good. Up here and excited to be here. Couldn't have done any of this without you, my team and my family at LSU." That's the bond that has to form for you to truly be considered an elite coach.
Back to advice for other coaches, I asked Frank to summarize what he tells brand new college coaches...
Wilson: Be yourself. Give everything to your players. Care about them and show them that. Be truthful. Always talk with your players. Out-recruit your competition and coach your position group up as best you can, I mean really get them to dominate, and you will succeed.
Wilson thinks about that call and then says, "You know the NFL draft is coming up. Those organizations invest a tremendous amount of personnel and resources into identifying the right players and then selecting them and then integrating them into their team. The draft is the lifeblood of that organization and a great draft will produce great players and eventually a very successful team. In college, it's the same. It's recruiting. You have to devote time and resources to it. Identify the right players for your team, get them to commit to your program, get them on campus and develop them and let them flourish into great players."
I asked Frank about how often the staff visits with prospects and he opened a book which was sitting on his desk and showed me their plan...
Wilson: For in state prospects, and you know we like to build a wall around this great state, we like to see them every month, either on their campus or on ours and we have a detailed plan to do that. It's all about building that personal relationship, and the entire staff has to be on the same page. When a prospect comes to our campus, everyone on this staff knows them on sight. Everyone. From the people helping them to find their parking spot and welcoming them into the building, to the administrative staff, all of us coaches, etc...and I don't just mean, "Hey John", I'm talking about, "Johnnie, good to see you. How's your family? I remember last time we saw you ..." you have to engage them and show them the real you and it has to be genuine.
I asked Frank if pure "X&O" guys can succeed as college coaches. Guys that don't have the passion for recruiting...
Wilson: I don't think so. If you don't have a passion for helping improve the lives of young men, I don't think you can be a great college football coach. If you can't be a great teacher, I don't think you can succeed in this profession. Guys who are great at Xs & Os but who can't get deliver that information in a way that the players embrace will not be successful. I've seen guys like that who say the college game isn't for them (because they don't want to recruit) and they go get a job in the NFL but they stall out because, even in the league, you have to be able to convey information to your room in a way they can process and embrace, it's teaching, and if you can't do that you won't be successful. You have to earn these players' respect and the only way to do that is to show them who you truly are.
I asked Frank how many players they evaluate every year...
Wilson: Oh, thousands. Thousands. Thousands. We're blessed to have an excellent operation across the hall (player personnel). They screen thousands of players and make recommendations to me about which players are "our type" of guys. That allows the coaching staff to not have to watch ten thousand; but maybe only one thousand. But it's still a lot of evaluations. And that's something that a lot of people don't understand, people think "recruiting" is the most important thing; but really it starts with talent evaluation. You have to be really good at evaluating which players are right for your program and then you go recruit them...and you have to do that talent evaluation yourself. You can't rely on third party services for that stuff, you have to see them yourself and say that guy would be a great fit on our team. Once you have identified a prospect that you really want for your program, the entire staff has to create and buy in to a detailed plan to recruit that individual. The whole staff has to know the plan and be on the same page. Takes a lot of time; but it's the only way to get the best players for your program and the only way to take your program to the top.
Wilson referenced and demonstrated for me the custom iPad software (from Overtime Software) they use to evaluate prospects (see iPad in the picture above). Wilson said when he joined the staff at LSU, he and director of player personnel Sherman Morris worked closely with Overtime to create this scouting platform and he says it has changed his life. "Great, great, great software here. I evaluate a player at his school, take some video myself, type in, or record my notes and push it up to the cloud and within minutes the guys back at the office can see everything and take action. Makes us far more efficient as a staff."
I asked Frank to talk me through what a prospect does on a visit to campus and the thing that really resonated with me was how much Wilson recognized that it takes the entire program to successfully recruit a prospect. Wilson spoke at length about how important of a role both current and former players have. He added that when speaking with prospects he always encourages them to speak with current and former players from their position group. He wants them to hear from their peers how much they enjoyed attending LSU and he wants them to form bonds. Frank also brought it back to the "impact freshmen" concept, saying when prospects are around and after the commit and then join the team, he always hears the older players chatting up the young guys, challenging them to be one of those "impact" guys. "It's part of who we are now. Go back and look at the last three or four freshman classes. Guys know they are going to come here and play and that's important."
Wilson also spoke about how important a role the people who are with the recruits during games have. "We're focused on winning the game. Other people are with the prospects during the game and they play a very important role. Everyone has to be on the same page. This is why it's so important that everyone who works for football, not just the coaches, is a great person. Hire great people. People that you are proud to say are part of your organization. People that you know will represent your team and university with pride and the right way. People that will treat others the way you want them to be treated."
I finally got back to asking Frank about all of the great videos that LSU football puts out, often on a weekly basis, and his response was somewhat surprising. Frank told me that Sherman found a student worker a few years ago, Derek Ochoa, and he now does almost all of those videos on his own. "From time to time Sherman and I give him some direction but really he picks out the clips and the music. He's been with us for a few years, he spends time with the players and around the program and he knows what message we want to deliver."
Stepping back and thinking about that, this is something that I'm surprised more programs haven't embraced. Music and video are a young man's world, especially when trying to resonate with teenage players. Every campus in America probably has some student who is a video whiz that would love the opportunity to make a few dollars while creating videos for their football program. Reach out and find this person!
One last nugget Frank left me with, "Tell those guys out there they need to trust their own evaluations." He referenced a number of "2 star" guys that they found early in the recruiting process in whom they recognized the potential for greatness (think Mo Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu, etc...). "Be true to yourself, develop relationships with those high school coaches and you'll hear about those that "could be great". See them for yourself and trust your own eyes."
Leaving LSU I stopped to think and honestly don't recall every having a conversation with anyone where their passion for what they do resonated so much. Frank Wilson loves what he does and it shows. Want to get to the top of the game? Be true to yourself, be passionate about being the best wherever you are, invest in your players and great things will happen for you just like they have for Frank Wilson.