Recruiting isn't an exact science, nor is it easy to pinpoint and evaluate.
One way to evaluate how a program is doing is to take a look at the relationships a college coaching staff has with the coaches of recruits.
On the Amateur Athletic Union – commonly called AAU – level, it's mostly good news for Northern Illinois. NIU coach Ricardo Patton and his staff have made significant inroads with some of the top programs and coaches in the area. The hiring of assistant Todd Townsend had a lot to do with that.
But to get a further understanding of relationships between NIU coaches and AAU and high school coaches, it's first necessary to explain the process NIU goes through in recruiting.
HOW IT WORKS
When it comes to starting out a recruiting season, Patton says he and the coaching staff identify their needs first, then target players that fit those needs. Multiple players who fit those needs are targeted because NIU isn't the only school that will compete for those players and the Huskies likely will not sign all of them.
The next step, Patton said, is establishing relationships. Patton prefers to establish that relationship with the player, his coaches and parents and anyone involved in the player's life and the college decision-making process.
From Patton's perspective, there's no rule of thumb about whether an AAU coach or high school coach is more valuable to the process.
"The kid is spending all summer with the AAU coach and all fall and spring with his high school coach and so it really boils down to who is going to steer that kid in a particular direction," Patton said.
How much time Patton and his staff spend with a high school coach or an AAU coach of a particular prospect is seasonal. During the high school basketball season, it trends more toward high school coaches. During other parts of the year, it trends the other way.
Patton also said he has an open-door policy that any high school or AAU coach can bring a player or a team to DeKalb if they wish.
NCAA rules restrict contact between college coaches and AAU coaches in the summer. Once students are on campus and school starts, one of the only ways to spend time with coaches is to invite them out to campus.
"It's not just for AAU coaches, but the rules have, I think, prohibited coaches from even getting to know the kids as much as you would like to," Patton said. "When I first started back in 87, there were no dead periods, no quiet periods. You could be gone for months at a time and you had a better opportunity to get to know the kid, get to know the kid's family and everyone involved.
"But because of the unscrupulous behavior of recruiting in the summer, the NCAA has put quite a few restrictions on that."
Patton's reputation regarding NCAA rules is beyond reproach among the 30 coaches the Daily Chronicle spoke to for this exploration. That is something he strives for.
"If you ask a guy that's had an opportunity to get to know me over a period of time, then I think he would say first of all I'm honest," Patton said. "Secondly, I'm not going to cheat. We're going to do things the right way."
But it's not all about the head coach. Assistant coaches play a large role in recruiting. They have to own an encyclopedia's worth of knowledge of the area, the player, the school and so much more to make accurate evaluations and recommendations for the head coach.
A GREAT HIRE
Assistant coach Todd Townsend, hired last summer, came aboard with a stellar reputation locally, especially on the AAU circuit.
AAU teams are critical to recruiting. They travel the country each summer and college coaches follow them because they can see 10-20 Division I athletes in one game rather than one, two or three in a high school game.
AAU coaches also can be a major influence on recruits.
In less than a year, Townsend seemingly has managed to exceed those expectations in terms of building relationships with those coaches.
"Todd has been nothing but 100 percent ever since I've met him," said Larnell Pillow, coach of the Illinois Ice. "If he says he's going to do something, he's going to do it. Todd is a stand-up guy. He's a heck of a recruiter. He has a lot of respect on the AAU circuit. Everybody knows him. All of the kids know him."
Larry Butler, coach of the Illinois Wolves, had similar platitudes for Townsend and the staff.
"I have a relationship with them very similar to other coaches in our state," Butler said. "Those guys are all good guys."
Townsend is a Chicago native who played three years at Morgan Park High School before graduating from New Trier. He went on to play at Marquette when the Golden Eagles made it to the Final Four in 2003.
Even though Townsend is not all that far removed from playing in the area, there has been a population explosion in AAU since his playing career ended.
"When I first came out in 2000, there weren't so many AAU teams," Townsend said. "Now you've got to know everybody. You've got to know every single AAU coach. You've got to know every single high school coach."
There has been some turnover on the AAU level in recent years, especially with the Mac Irvin Fire AAU club, which many coaches consider to be the top AAU program in the region. The program is now run by Irvin's sons.
"I grew up with the father, and Larry Butler, but now of course the sons have taken over. That's what has happened over the years," Patton said. "There's been a change of the guard, so to speak."
That change makes the Townsend hire more important considering the connections he seems to have.
Pillow said he sees Townsend all over the state on the AAU circuit along with assistant coach Sundance Wicks.
"I would love to see it turn around because those guys deserve it, hands-down," Pillow said. "Todd and Sundance, they bust their [rears] for coach. I don't know how much he appreciates it ... but they bust their [rears]. Those guys, they put the work in."
Townsend's recruiting reputation extends beyond AAU. Seton Academy coach Ken Stevenson, who coached NIU guard Tony Nixon in high school, said he has a great relationship with Townsend and the rest of the coaching staff.
Less than a year after the hire, it appears Patton has made the right choice in Townsend.
"I'm young," the 28-year-old Townsend said. "I've still only got one foot in the business. I've only been around a couple of years and I want to build up relationships. But you've still got to do it the right way if you want to win games. It's definitely a learning process every single day."
Pillow says NIU's reputation on the AAU level is very good. On a self-described scale of 1-10 with 10 being perfect, Pillow said he gives NIU a 9.
"I have no gripes with Northern," Pillow said. "I would recommend kids to go to Northern. I think the world of Todd."
NOT THE ISSUE?
Butler said he has a good relationship with Northern Illinois and has watched the Huskies play for a long time.
This past season, Butler said he saw NIU play 12 times, including some games on the road.
"Recruiting isn't the issue with them," Butler said. "I deal with all of the guys in the MAC. They have said they have the best personnel of any team in the MAC. But to my estimation, they just didn't have good chemistry. That was it."
The chemistry for next season will change. The Huskies have undergone heavy roster turnover. Five players are gone. Four recruits come in and guard Antone Christian, a player coaches have quietly been high on for months, comes off a redshirt season.
Patton said he knows what he needs in terms of talent to win at NIU – his record is 26-62 in three seasons with the Huskies – and compared his recruiting to putting together a puzzle.
"I think that this puzzle has taken some huge steps towards success," Patton said. "There is no time frame of when you turn it. There is no time frame of when you turn a program. Now everybody wants it to turn quick. It's not like putting it into a microwave."