For athletes who find themselves in the recruiting process, there are few--if any--sources of more confusion than the rules surrounding visits and coach contacts. I admit that I sometimes have trouble sorting it all out myself.
The detail of when contacts can be made, what constitutes a contact, what are dead periods versus quiet periods versus contact periods versus evaluation periods, and the like can get a little overwhelming at times.
There is a lot of detail we could step through here, but the rules are all nicely summarized in the guides for college-bound student-athletes published by the NCAA and NAIA:
It's worth pointing out here that the NAIA has very few restrictions on recruiting practices for their programs. It's the NCAA rules that get long and complex. For the remainder of this article, therefore, our discussion will assume a context of working with NCAA member institutions.
Part of what makes the NCAA contact and visit rules so confusing is that there are different rules for Divisions I, II, and III of the NCAA structure (and the rules for service academies and Ivy League schools are different, at points, than for other Division I schools because of the nature of these institutions and the fact that these schools do not offer athletic scholarships). I would refer you to the NCAA Guide for the particulars of the rules applying to each of the various divisions. If you are being recruited by a service academy or Ivy League school, it's fair to ask the school what the differences in the NCAA requirements are for those institutions.
This much isn't published in any guides for college-bound athletes, but it's worth knowing: The recruiting regulations, up to and including the recruiting calendar itself, were written with the blue-chip football or basketball player in mind. I would venture as far as to say it never would have come to all these rules and regulations if track and field were the only sport in view. But, track and field does have to recruit by the same set of rules as the other NCAA sports. If the procedures seem like overkill for track and field, make your peace with that. They probably are, but where football and basketball are concerned, there are some mighty big stakes in the game and therefore a lot of rules to govern the game.
So, let's make a few observations here that will help you to understand your last couple years of high school as it pertains to recruiting for track and field.
The Recruiting Calendar
Bring up your NCAA Guide for the College-Bound Student-Athlete that you downloaded above and open it in another viewing window. Go to pages 23 - 25.
Probably the biggest thing you're going to be concerned about here is that a Division I coach may not initiate a contact with you until July 1 between your junior and senior year (I have heard some rumblings of this date changing, but it hasn't happened yet). Even after July 1, the coach-initiated contact is limited to one call per week. A Division II coach, on the other hand, may start calling as often as he/she likes starting June 15 before your junior year.
The reality is that if you're a 5:20 1600 (female) or a 4:35 1600 (male) athlete interested in running for a DII school, the coach can call you at his/her own initiative after the June 15 before your junior year, but it simply isn't going to happen. It's the same if you're a 120-0 discus (female) or 140-0 discus (male). Good marks? Sure, but nothing that a college coach is going to lose track of any tasks currently at hand over.
13 years of experience as a high school track and cross country coach tells me it's very difficult to predict just when that first call will come. We have had several athletes sign Division I Letters of Intent, but, with the exception of service academy and Ivy League contacts, only one I know of who received a call from a college coach as early as the July before her senior year. Even if your marks are considerably better than the examples given above, it's still hard to predict, and still subject to a lot of variables.
One of those variables is the personal preference of the college coach in question. Some coaches jump on the annual recruiting circuit sooner than others.
Another variable is just how good your marks are and where those marks fit into the needs of a particular program. We mentioned in an earlier article in this series that a college coach works first on the top tier of prospects, the ones they most want to bring in with the scholarship money they have available for the next school year. If you're not on that list, you're not likely to be receiving any calls until at least after the winter holiday break of your senior year, but some coaches will maintain better contact with second tier prospects than others.
Another variable, and one you definitely should have taken care of long before the timing of any calls becomes a question, is whether you've completed a prospect athlete questionnaire with the school's athletic office, received your NCAA Eligibility Center early certification of eligibility, and made sure you've sent all necessary test scores and copies of transcripts to the schools your are hoping to hear from. Often college coaches want at least unofficial copies of these transcripts and test scores sent directly to them at the athletic office because negotiating the paper trails between the school's admissions office and the NCAA Eligibility Center can be long and arduous. It's worth a call to--and it's not a bad excuse to call--the college coach or recruiting coordinator to see if it's at all helpful for you to send them copies of your transcripts and test scores directly.
Timing of when the coach contacts you may also be influenced by whether you are a distance runner or a specialist in another track and field event area. For most colleges, cross country is up and running by the time school starts, if not sooner. Other track and field disciplines wait a little longer to get going. So, it makes some sense that distance recruiting tends to get started a little sooner. A distance coach can bring in a high school senior distance runner early in the fall for a campus visit (more on this later) with the expectation that there's an already-functioning community of team members to whom to introduce the prospective student-athlete.
You can make unofficial visits to a college campus at any time you like during high school. You can even call ahead and see if there is a good time while you're there to drop in at the office of the cross country and/or track and field coach. The coach can talk to you under these circumstances, but it's a simple courtesy to have at least filled out a prospect athlete questionnaire with the school before making any overtures in this direction. It would be my personal suggestion that you not try to drop in on a college coach at least until sometime during your junior year. The coach is under no obligation to set aside time to meet with you, but most coaches don't go out of their way to avoid contact with potential student-athletes under these circumstances.
If you are currently a high school junior, plan to make your visit brief, have a few questions ready to ask, make a good impression, respect the coach's time, and be on your way. If you're a senior or between your junior and senior year, it's possible you may want to plan to make this visit a little longer, but there should be some basis for that from prior conversations with the coach.
Also plan to use this unofficial visit to learn all you can about the school itself. Is it in a place you want to spend four or five years of your life? Are class sizes of a nature you are comfortable with? Set up a campus tour and get as complete of a picture as you can as long as you're there.
Coaches may extend invitations for official visits only to current high school seniors. The college may cover travel expenses for your official visit, but my experience is that they frequently don't cover travel expenses (and especially so for travel over in-state kind of distances). An official visit may not last any longer than 48 hours and will normally involve ample time to visit with the coaching staff, tour the campus extensively, and socialize some with current team members. During this time, you may want to get one or two workouts in, but the college coach is not allowed to observe or direct your workouts, though he/she may make provision for a current team member to run with you.
If you are invited to take an official visit with the school, it's a fair inference that school has a pretty strong interest in bringing you there as a scholarship athlete. It is often, but not invariably, on these visits that coaches sit down with an athlete (and parents, if they are present) and discuss the particulars of the scholarship offer they are willing to make with the athlete. Other coaches may wait until they've had a chance to discuss impressions with their staff--and potentially some of the athletes on the team as well--before making a scholarship offer. These things vary from program to program, but I've seen both approaches used extensively with athletes we've sent on official visits.
You may be brought to campus as the only prospective student-athlete those two days, or you may be part of a group of PSAs there for those two days. Different schools handle these situations differently.
You are allowed to take up to five official visits to DI schools, and an unlimited number to DII and DIII schools. That said, you probably want to keep the number five in mind as a maximum number of official visits. If you're taking more than that, you simply haven't done enough homework on your end to narrow down the possibilities. Downsides of taking a large number of official visits may include: excessive fatigue from the travel, academic pressure back at high school due to accumulated time out of class, and--if any college coaches happen to get wind of your visits--diminished interest from the college coaches recruiting you. I advise my top-tier athletes to make every effort to plan for no more than three or four official visits. If you're not a top-tier kind of recruit, you probably will not have the opportunity to take even that many official visits.
You may not combine official visits to two different schools on one trip if your transportation expenses are being covered. In this case, transportation for an official visit must be directly to and from the school bringing you out for the trip. If you travel by air, only your transportation expenses can be covered, not those of your parents if they come along with you. Lodging and meal expenses for your parents may or may not be covered during your visit.
Whether your visit is an unofficial or official visit, you are not allowed to receive any gifts from the school other than up to three free tickets to an athletic event. The school may also cover three meals per day and overnight lodging. If this is done, it will most frequently be done in campus housing and campus cafeteria services with a strong possibility of one meal out with the team, or selected members of the team, at a local establishment. If you want a school hat or sweatshirt to take home and wear back at school, fit in a trip to the campus bookstore and figure on paying for that with your own money.
College Visits and Scheduling Considerations
It is definitely a worthwhile acitivity to sit down with your high school coach and identify best weekends to take campus visits during your senior year. Most coaches are willing, perhaps even eager, to open up a couple of weekends in the invitational schedule (whether fall, winter, or spring) of competition for you to visit prospective colleges.
Between the state-sanctioned cross country season and a week or two following (in most states), it's possible to wedge in up to about three official visits if you're the type of athlete who is in that high of demand that early in the school year. After early November, however, college teams tend to be either in championship mode, on break, or functionally disbanded so far as formal team activities are concerned until school resumes in January. None of these options make for the best of times to learn about what the team atmosphere is like at that school. That said, colleges may still bring you in during this time if they're interested enough and that is the only time period that is working.
If you need to take an ACT or SAT test to improve a score, make sure you're not scheduling a campus visit for that weekend. The fall season of your senior year can be a stressful, high-demand kind of time for a top-tier distance runner if you don't take the time to plan and manage it carefully.