ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Michigan assistant coaches heard the questions in the beginning. They understood. In some ways, they wondered themselves.
John Beilein revamped his coaching staff in 2010, hiring two new assistants and promoting a third. As he did this, Michigan’s head basketball coach explained his processes. Beilein has adapted throughout his career but has a plan for everything in his basketball life. This includes recruiting, where his strategy is different than most.
In the hare-paced world of college basketball recruiting, Beilein moved at a relative tortoise’s pace. This took some adjusting from then-newly hired Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan and promoted administrative staffer Jeff Meyer.
Beilein adhered to the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ recommendation of not offering a prospect until June 15 following the player’s sophomore season. Beilein also won’t offer a prospect until he’s seen him play in person and until the player has visited Michigan’s campus.
Initially, this meant his new assistants needed to do some explaining as they recruited.
“I wouldn’t say resistance,” Alexander said of the reaction on the recruiting trail. “But I would say a curiosity to why haven’t you offered my son yet or why haven’t you guys offered my player yet.”
“Especially when they have a list of [offers],” Jordan said. “That curiosity, when they have lists.”
Eventually, questioning turned to understanding as Beilein and his philosophy, which he adopted before he came to Michigan, became educational. Michigan’s assistants, who sat down as a group last week with ESPN.com to explain how their recruiting strategy works, now use it as another selling point.
As they evaluate a prospect, they explain what needs to happen. It doesn’t mean they won’t recruit a player earlier -- they were the among the first schools to recruit 2014 ESPN 100 guard Devin Booker (Moss Point, Miss./Moss Point) and 2015 ESPN 60 guard Luke Kennard (Franklin, Ohio/Franklin) -- but they won’t offer a scholarship until at least all the previously mentioned criteria have been met.
“That didn’t surprise [us],” said Mark Kennard, Luke’s father. “It wasn’t a surprise or disappointment or anything. We just appreciated that they were kind of the first team to really talk to Luke and recruit him. We were like, ‘Coach, that’s awesome.’ That didn’t bother us at all.
“I want schools to be honest with us.”
Honesty is part of the process. As Michigan has resisted the changes in college basketball recruiting, it has also thrived for the same reasons.
“I’ll throw this at people,” Jordan said. “‘What’s your mom’s name?’ Because there’s a curiosity of why haven’t you offered. ‘How many brothers? How many sisters? What’s your family like? Have you considered the fact that we don’t really know each other, but there is a desire for a scholarship offer?’
“So now it’s like, ‘OK.’ It’s the education.”
How Michigan recruits
Michigan finds prospects like every other program: through a series of recommendations, research and just being in the gym.
Where its strategy differs is in its evaluation style. Unlike at a lot of schools, Michigan’s staff does not work territories or positions. They favor a groupthink where all four coaches -- the three assistants and Beilein -- watch a player at different tournaments to determine a fit for what Michigan wants in skill, attitude and academics.
After watching a prospect, each assistant rates him using an internal numbers system they refuse to disclose. Those evaluations are given to Beilein, who averages out the results to aid his decisions.
“A lot of staffs get attached to a young man because of a relationship because it is your guy and you may be the point man in his recruitment,” Jordan said. “Here, we just don’t get involved in that. It’s what’s best for Michigan.”
The reason for the “cross evals” is the search for the right fit. Alexander describes the Michigan coaches as “throwbacks” because they use scouting systems and rankings only to cross-check their own numbers and evaluations.
What happens when their internal rankings don’t match with external opinion?
“That’s when we really get excited,” Alexander said.
“A lot of times it swings on the critical side,” Meyer said. “We are looking for kids that play the right way, body language, all the things that we expect out of our kids when they play. When you look at it through a lens, it’s almost a critical lens of, does he fit? Will he play the Michigan way, the right way?”
The evaluation goes beyond the prospect. Alexander made this clear through Twitter while sitting in the stands watching players during an evaluation period last July. He tweeted: “Parents need to be mindful that they’re evaluated in the stands ALSO!! #uconscious.”
Why? Part of this goes to program fit and understanding the dynamics of a prospect’s off-court life and situation. The rest, well, Alexander explains.
“Think about how that has changed,” Alexander said. “Why is that relevant? Well, now you have the Big Ten’s ‘Journey’ and have CBS Sports, ESPN, all these all-access deals in print or on television. Now what does that tell us?
“Parents have become ambassadors for your institution and they are not even aware of it.”
Part of the genesis of Beilein’s approach is rooted in academics. He wants to see a prospect’s freshman and sophomore transcripts to make sure he is trending correctly educationally. This, Meyer said, is “non-negotiable.”
The unofficial visit piece allows for everyone to become acquainted. For Michigan, there is interaction, observation and more informed opinion from non-recruiters like graduate assistants, trainers and strength coaches. For the families, it allows an opportunity to ask any questions they want without the pressure of a commitment.
“How are you going to come here, how are you going to choose Michigan, if you’ve never been to Michigan,” Jordan said. “You’ve got to know the people.”
More than on-court skill
When Alexander visits a player’s school, he searches for “indicators” about a player. To do so, he seeks out three people: the academic advisor, who can often give a broader-based picture of a player’s academics and family situation; the cafeteria worker; and the custodial staff.
More than any other people in the school, the latter two often silently observe prospects among their peers. They see a player interact when no one is watching. Alexander’s best example: Mitch McGary at Brewster Academy (N.H.).
Alexander spoke to Brewster’s groundskeeper and was told a story about a freshman bawling when his parents dropped him off the first day of school. McGary spotted the kid from a distance, stopped his conversation and ran to him, consoled him and brought him into school with his group of friends.
“Now if that is not a testament to a young man’s character,” Alexander said. “Where he’s the life of the gathering and is unselfish enough to notice somebody is in need of comfort. To do that was very telling to the groundskeeper.
“As a result, it was very telling to us.”
With McGary, who was one of the top prospects in the country at Brewster, it was another sign he would mesh with Beilein’s philosophy and locker room, which centers around the tenets of integrity, unity, passion, diligence and appreciation.
The way Michigan recruits forces prospects to display almost all those traits before committing.
When did it click?
While the recruiting strategy is nice, is it practical? Michigan received its answer while recruiting highly rated 2013 prospect Zak Irvin. The Wolverines recruited Irvin out of Indianapolis, with Indiana and Purdue, among many others, offering.
Irvin had teammates who committed early to other schools. Michigan stuck to its deadline.
“The first challenge for us, because it was a little bit of a point of being anxious, was Zak Irvin,” Meyer said. “We’re thinking if we do not go out of character with our formula, we may be left at the station with a player that [Jordan] had already done a great job with the family and building relationships.
“Coach Beilein stayed the course, went four semesters of academic work, had been to campus several times.”
Irvin said Michigan’s staff explained things up front. Not enamored by offers, he didn’t mind. If anything, the process strengthened Irvin’s opinion of Michigan. The Wolverines recruited him for a year before offering. Some programs offered him after viewing him once.
Irvin eventually received his Michigan offer. He committed six weeks later.
“It turned the whole thing from my perspective,” Meyer said. “I think from all of our perspectives. If we’re doing our due diligence through the recruiting process, a young man speaks very, very loudly through his actions if he’s willing to wait. And they kind of look forward to that date.”
There’s another, almost unintentional, byproduct. By having prospects wait for an offer and go through myriad steps, Michigan has created more perceived value around an offer from the school. Instead of just another scholarship offer on a list, it is one the player had to work for.
“To see that they still wanted to offer me, it meant a lot after recruiting me for a year and seeing how well I developed and saw how much potential I had,” Irvin said. “That was really special to me.”
The extra time taken has an added effect when prospects hit campus as well. It is something, however, the current Michigan assistants couldn’t see until those recruits they got to know started to hit campus last year.
“It meant a lot to them to get the offer and going through things to make that decision,” Jordan said. “So when they get here, getting them to play hard isn’t part of the deal. It’s about fundamentally getting them to play better and more skilled. Developing and growing them as young men.
“But it isn’t going to be a deal of getting them to play hard because that was part of it.”
The other secret
Michigan’s staff won’t divulge everything. Specifics of the internal grading system is one thing. The value of a prospect’s birth date is another. The latter is a topic Beilein often brings up in discussing his young players. Asked about it, the three assistants all laughed.
“No comment,” Alexander said. “That, we can’t tell you.”
Michigan’s assistants said Beilein brought birth dates into the evaluation process, but that’s all they’ll say. Consider this: In past interviews, Beilein has mentioned the late birthdays or relatively young starting ages of 2013 commit Mark Donnal and current players Max Bielfeldt, Caris LeVert and Jordan Morgan. (Beilein, who is preparing for his first stint as an assistant coach with USA Basketball, was unavailable to comment for the story.)
It isn’t a determining factor, but it is yet another piece that makes Michigan unique.
“He’s way ahead of the curve on this stuff,” Meyer said.
In some ways, yes. But in others, Michigan’s somewhat unique recruiting process has elements of a different, older time. And suddenly, what used to be standard is innovative again.