COVID-19 throws recruiting process, for Utah and everybody else, into disarray

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak speaks with the press during media day at the Ute basketball practice facility on Wed. Sept. 26, 2018.

The college sports world had already come to a complete and absolute stoppage when the NCAA decided to take a radical, but necessary step to keep everyone safe as COVID-19 pandemic fears were still rising.

On March 13, the college sports governing body instituted a recruiting dead period for in-person recruiting through April 15. That meant no face-to-face recruiting on or off campus, although phone calls, texting and video conferencing remain permissible.

The NCAA’s Division I Council has not officially announced an extension of the dead period, but is expected to do so in the coming days as COVID-19 continues to affect daily life. The expectation is that the dead period will drag into most, if not the entire month of May.

Already facing a myriad of challenges while navigating uncharted waters, a dead period extension guarantees that three of the University of Utah’s highest-profile head coaches will have an ever tougher time.

The women’s basketball recruiting calendar was in the middle of a contact period, which meant Utes coach Lynne Roberts was allowed to make in-person, off-campus, face-to-face contact with prospective recruits.

Two days before the NCAA’s March 13 decision, Roberts, whose Utes went 14-17 in her fifth season at the helm, was on an out-of-state home visit, with another handful of such trips booked in the coming few weeks.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah Utes head coach Lynne Roberts gives instructions to her players, in PAC-12 basketball action between the Utah Utes and the Stanford Cardinals at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Friday, February 14, 2020.

Those future trips were axed, and Roberts and her staff need to adjust to a new reality, which is set to last for an undetermined amount of time at this point.

“We’ve had to get creative, innovative during recruiting, figuring out ways to do home visits,” Roberts told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s a huge adjustment. Spring is obviously a major evaluation period, but those events are canceled.”

The recruiting calendars for women’s and men’s basketball vary, but Roberts and men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak face similar problems. While Roberts was in the middle of a contact period when everything went sideways, Krystkowiak was slated to have a recruiting period begin April 9, allowing for in-person, off-campus contact.

Both coaches have lost valuable evaluation-period time in April. On the men’s side, that coincides with high-profile AAU events run by Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas getting canceled during April evaluation periods.

Assuming the dead period does indeed get extended to at least the end of May, and with the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, it seems likely Nike will cancel two more grassroots events in May, with concern looming that all three sneaker giants will have July evaluation-period events threatened.

“You try to control what you can control,” Krystkowiak told The Tribune. “There is communication allowed right now, so you’re not completely limited and really, everybody is in the same boat.”

While basketball coaches have their own set of circumstances to deal with, football coaches like Kyle Whittingham have different concerns at this time.

When the dead period was instituted, the football calendar was in the middle of a quiet period, which allows for in-person, on-campus contact, but not off campus. For example, the Utes had a handful of high school recruits attend spring practices before they were indefinitely suspended.

April 15 through May 31 was supposed to be an evaluation period for football, but that would be off the table with a dead-period extension. Springtime evaluation days for football obviously don’t include games, but include camps and showcases where high school recruits are able to work out in front of coaching staffs.

“You can’t have any on-campus or off-campus recruiting going on right now, so the recruiting aspect of it is just mailings to the recruits, talking about the 2021 class, texts and all the ways the NCAA allows you to reach out to them,” Whittingham said last week. “They’re just getting pounded now. All these coaches have so much time on their hands, all these poor recruits are getting tons of material, so I guess it’s good and bad.”

Losing the spring evaluations is one thing, but there is growing concern that COVID-19 could drag into the summer and fall, therefore threatening high school sports in the new school year. If high school football is postponed, altered or even canceled, that would take away evaluation opportunities for Whittingham and his staff when kids are playing actual football, not just participating in camps and showcases.

Eventually, Whittingham is going to have to make decisions on scholarship offers for the Class of 2021. Doing so without the benefit of any sort of in-person evaluation isn’t ideal.

“If the season in fact does happen, obviously, we would have the opportunity to watch these kids in their senior year,” Whittingham said. “For us, not being able to go out in spring is going to be a big negative as far as getting your evaluations, going out and seeing the kids, talking to the coaches.

“The real dilemma will come into play if this football season coming up never happens. If that doesn’t happen, it’s going to really get interesting.”