"This is not tough. Sitting in a gym all day and watching games is not tough. This is the lifeline of your program. It's not the X's and O's. It's the Jimmys and Joes. "
--West Virginia assistant Billy Hahn
By Dana O'Neil
LAS VEGAS -- Before NCAA rules required coaches to come off the road during the July recruiting period, Billy Gillispie would pack his bags and go.
Not just a little carry-on. He'd pack up every last stitch of clothing in his closet, every personal memento or trinket. All of it.
A year ago, college basketball paused in shock and grief to bury former Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser. Many college basketball coaches had flown on the same red-eye that Prosser took -- in the endless search for new talent from the Las Vegas tournaments to the Orlando AAU event a day earlier -- and were sitting in the stands of Disney's Milk House when the news of Prosser's death began to spread.
Even miles away in Vegas, the mood shift was palpable. Coaches who still remained in town that Thursday looked haggard and worn, some still asking if the news was really true.
Sudden, shocking deaths often lead to promises of change and restructure. After Lyle Alzado's death, athletes vowed to avoid steroids; and Len Bias' untimely passing was supposed to scare people off cocaine.
Prosser's passing was no different. In the days immediately following his July 26, 2007, death from a heart attack, coaches nodded their heads and agreed that the recruiting cycle had become too demanding, that coaches were wearing themselves out with crazy travel calendars and unhealthy eating habits.
Yet last week, planes stuffed with coaches trying to see the last game in the desert and the first one in Orlando still left Las Vegas in the wee hours. The P.F. Chang's near the Strip remained jammed with coaches at 11 p.m., just then grabbing their dinners, and In-N-Out Burger drive-throughs saw a steady stream of rental cars, their drivers too busy to stop and actually get out of the car to eat.
Nothing has changed at all, and it's not just because the rules dictate it.
It's because coaches' hard wiring would be short-circuited if things ever really changed.
"We all secretly love it," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "Most of us have been doing this all of our lives. We don't know what a July vacation is and to be honest, I've never packed my bags with regret. I look forward to it, most of us do."
Spend the recruiting week in Vegas and you're bound to hear laments about the travel grind and faulty GPS systems to navigate from one gym to the next. Coaches will stuff themselves with hot dogs at gym concession stands and then wonder how in the world they came to Vegas, a town filled with top restaurants, and managed never to eat anything good.
Life on the summer recruiting trail is an endless, tiring month of games and cross-country travel. But good luck getting one coach to take an AAU tournament off.They will bemoan the nasty case of bleacher butt and wander aimlessly in parking lots, pointing their remotes in the hopes that their car will click back its location.
But they will also sit in the stands and tell war stories as they laugh and smile like kids reuniting at the annual summer camp jamboree.
This is as comfortable to them as putting together a game plan or drawing up an inbounds play.
"I think like all jobs, there are pluses and minuses," College of Charleston coach Bobby Cremins said. "But we love to be in the gyms. We love to be around good players and watch good games. I don't think this had anything to do with Skip's death. I really don't."
Competitive by nature, coaches view recruiting as just another season they have to win. They spend hours folded into the bleacher seats because they want to make sure they don't miss anything and (perhaps even more so) that the other guy doesn't find anything.
Just listen to the language: schools "lose out" on a prospect or get "beat out." The implication is obvious -- someone worked harder, went to more games, opted for more hoops over dinner.
You may not win a recruit, but you surely can lose one.
So they will spend hours in the gym babysitting kids from whom they already have commitments, lest it looks as if they've lost interest and thereby have opened the door for a competitor to swoop in and undo a verbal commitment.
They'll search for that undiscovered talent (Bob McKillop discovered Stephen Curry here and Beilein spied Joe Alexander) and salivate over unsigned kids who dangle like carrots (the star coach power quotient ratcheted up a few notches every time 2009 top talents Kenny Boynton and Renardo Sidney played in Vegas).
"Sometimes I think this is the most important thing we do, more important than coaching games," new South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said.
Back in the day, camps were smaller. Cremins remembered attending the old Nike camp in Princeton, where afternoons without games allowed for a tennis match against former Princeton coach Pete Carril.
No more. Most camps feature rising sophomores, juniors and seniors. Pair that with a condensed NCAA recruiting calendar, and there's no choice but to pack a day with dawn-to-dusk hoops. At the Reebok All-American camp in Philadelphia, officials had to eliminate what was supposed to be a two-hour break between sessions because the camp drew more players than expected.In Las Vegas, games tip off between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., sometimes in gyms as far apart as 45 minutes.
"There are days where I walk into a gym and think, 'Do I eat or do I go to the bathroom?'" Beilein said. "Three hours will go by, and I realize I've done neither."
Coaches wear their dietary blunders like badges of courage. Gillispie ate at a McDonald's. Beilein showed off his crunchy peanut butter protein bar before putting it back in his pocket. It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and he still hadn't had lunch.
Like a creepy subspecies of hoops zombies, they all have survival tricks and proudly share them like insider tips on stocks. Villanova associate head coach Brett Gunning found an all-you-can eat sushi spot that fills you up fast and is conveniently located near a couple gyms. Texas coach Rick Barnes' scout pre-scouted a yoga place for him. Beilein never leaves his room, not even to fill an ice bucket, without his ID.
"You'll have your key but the problem is you don't remember what room number it's for," he said. "Is it 306 or 406 or 506? They all run together, so you have to bring your ID. That way you can go down to the front desk and tell them, 'I have my room key, I just don't know where to go.'"
Without fail, the conversation will turn to where have you been and where are you going as coaches discuss itineraries made by sociopathic travel agents. Las Vegas isn't exactly close to Orlando, yet the two mega tourneys bump right into one another, turning late-week red-eyes into coaches' express jets.
It is only then, when they crisscross the country, that they give pause to think about Prosser. It is a momentary reflection at best.
"You can't dwell on it," McKillop said. "You just can't because you can't change it."
At the beginning of July, West Virginia assistant Billy Hahn drove to Bethany Beach, Del., for a two-day vacation. On July 4, a Friday, he drove from Delaware to the Philadelphia airport and boarded a flight to Akron, Ohio, for the LeBron James Skills Academy. Three days later, on Monday morning, he drove from Akron back to Morgantown to "pass the baton" (NCAA rules allow only three coaches on the road at one time, so one coach literally has to come off the road so another can go out).That night, July 7, Hahn drove from Morgantown to the Pittsburgh airport and flew back to Philadelphia. He fetched his car that had been sitting in long-term parking since he got back from Bethany Beach. The next morning, he checked in at the Reebok All-American Camp. Technically he stayed in Philly three days, but one day he watched the morning sessions in Philly, drove to Ewing, N.J., for the Eastern Invitational team camp in the afternoon and drove back to Philadelphia for the night games. When the Philly camp ended, he headed to Lawrenceville, N.J., for the Summer Classic.
On July 13, the following Sunday, Hahn then drove back to Morgantown for the last two days of Jamfest in West Virginia. NCAA rules took him off the road for a week, but on July 21, he drove to Pittsburgh where he boarded a flight to Las Vegas. On the morning of July 24, he flew out of Vegas so he could pass the baton in Morgantown again. That night, he went back to the Pittsburgh airport so he could fly to Orlando. Hahn was back on duty through the weekend there. On Monday, he flew back into Pittsburgh and drove back to Morgantown. But on Tuesday, he headed back to New Jersey.
That's 8,490 miles, seven states, a handful of five-hour car rides and two cross-country flights.
And West Virginia already had its incoming class for 2009 completed.
Yet you never met a man giddier than Hahn.
"This is the best thing in the world," he said as he sat in the stands alongside his son, Matt, an assistant at Vermont who clearly has the hoops gene in his blood. "This is not tough. Sitting in a gym all day and watching games is not tough. This is the lifeline of your program. It's not the X's and O's. It's the Jimmys and Joes."
Certainly not everyone is quite as ebullient as Hahn and Gillispie. McKillop admitted he is more "immune" to the schedule than in love with it, and Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli believes in the need for balance. He'll send his assistant coaches home every third or fourth day so they can reconnect with their families.
But as the anniversary of Prosser's death passed, the coaches were still out there. The recruiting season ends on July 31, and there are still gyms to visit.
Frankly, there is nowhere these guys would rather be.
"If this is work, then life is pretty good," Texas' Barnes said. "I'm sitting in a gym, talking with my friends, watching games. How awful can it be?"