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Recruiting in an iPod world

Gary Caruso | Thursday, February 5, 2009

This week has been a hectic one. First, the Pittsburgh Steelers mastered the art of winning the ultimate football game in the Super Bowl. Then, Punxsutawney Phil cursed us once more with another six weeks of winter weather. Later we steamrolled through college football’s national signing day which blessed Notre Dame with at least one impact player from the nation’s top five recruits. Tragically, the third and sixth ranked college basketball teams gasped through 27-point losses. Tomorrow, the week culminates when “Equus” closes off Broadway signaling the departure of Daniel Radcliffe, a.k.a. Harry Potter, back across the Atlantic. What on the surface appears to be a chaotic week, is in fact, the norm in the iPod world.

Interestingly, the events of this week intertwine to explain the nuances college coaches must master to successfully recruit and instruct players so that they perform as winners during competition. Why does a lowly Syracuse football team beat Notre Dame on its home field? How can the mighty Duke basketball team suffer its worst loss in 15 years and second worst loss ever by 27 points? How can Notre Dame’s basketball team fall completely out of the top 25 teams from a perch among the top ten?

Radio personality Anita Marks of Baltimore’s “The Fan” sports radio commented this week on University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams’ harsh treatment of his players. Marks said, “Today’s athletes are more sensitive and want to be respected. But to be honest, the coaches who were tough on me during the heat of battle got the most out of me.”

Are athletes today sensitive as Marks suggests or are they spoiled, unfocused and too dependent upon technological devices? Steelers wide receiver and Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes mentioned that he had more than 200 text messages after the Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was almost literally attached to his digital recorder from the time he exited the plane in Tampa to the end of the victory parade in Pittsburgh. How did they overcome our iPod world experiences like elementary school competitions where nobody won and everyone played an equal share of the game to playing the NFL’s toughest schedule and claiming the Lombardi Trophy? They focused, concentrated, performed according to game plan and maintained a mental toughness.

The Broadhurst Theatre on 44th Street offers unique seating in a balcony around the stage. From a reverse angle, patrons watch what the rest of the audience cannot. During many scenes in “Equus,” the teenage Radcliffe sits atop a box with his back to the main audience representing his confinement in a hospital room. Only the two dozen stage seat occupants see his boredom as he picks off the box’s paint with his fingernails. As the play concludes its run this weekend, the box exhibits gaping scars where Radcliffe has removed paint over the past few months. If only the author could have written an iPod into the script.

Whether it is Duke basketball players, Notre Dame football players or the Arizona Cardinals defensive players who committed several personal foul penalties during the Super Bowl, successful coaches need to recognize the consequences of our iPod world. The lesson to recall is one best dramatized two decades ago in the Tom Cruise film, “All the Right Moves.” The small town Pennsylvania football star is instructed on how to defend a particular pass in practice drill after drill. However, during the big rivalry game, Cruise decides to attempt an interception rather than make the tackle according to the coaching plan in practice. Of course he misses, and his team loses because of his mental collapse.

College football’s signing day this week demonstrated more of a courtship than a recruitment. Winning in the college ranks today requires a coach to be half game tactician and half psychologist to focus and mentally prepare players for each opponent. Last season, Alabama’s football team only collapsed in their bowl game with 16 freshmen and 9 seniors as regular starters. Having scored atop Wednesday’s football recruitment class, their proven mental toughness and focus will keep Alabama among the elite programs nationally.

Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward sums up the element he attributes for a successful athlete by saying, “Hats off to our scouts. They do a lot of diligence as far as looking over the draft picks, making sure they’re great character guys. That’s the one thing about Pittsburgh, you won’t find too many character issues about the guys they draft.”

Whether the key is character or concentration, coaches may eventually decide to convey game plans through podcasts to assure themselves that their players are focused on game day.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be

contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.