Admissions and varsity football: closely intertwined at Amherst

“We [the NESCAC] are the most restrictive conference in terms of recruiting in the United States and I am very glad about that,” said Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Tom Parker. “There is a place for football in the NESCAC, but it must be a restricted place.”

Division III rules prohibit colleges from financing the campus visits of potential recruits, while NESCAC rules prohibit coaches from conducting off-campus recruiting. Head Coach E.J. Mills and his staff are allowed only to “strictly observe” a student-athlete off-campus. This restriction saves Amherst’s travel budget, but it puts coach Mills at a competitive disadvantage with his counterparts in the Ivy League who do not have to adhere to such a restriction. Moreover, in a recent agreement between Little III schools which took effect with the Class of 2006, no college in the Little III may matriculate more than 14 students who have gained admission to the college in part due to their football abilities. These various rules, combined with the high academic standards of the College, present Mills with a formidable challenge in his effort to field a successful football team.

Scouting the juniors

The initial mailing list used by the football program is drawn from a compilation of information that the coaches have gleaned from various scouting services and other sources that collect both football and academic data. “Initially, the bigger the pool we can draw from, the better,” said Mills.

This first letter asks the high school juniors to fill out some basic academic and athletic information. Students are asked about things like their height, weight and board scores. “We are especially trying to get as much academic information up front as we can,” said Mills.

Roughly 25 percent of the students respond to this letter and, with this basic information, Mills and his fellow coaches can begin to weed out individuals who are not qualified either academically or athletically. The remaining recruits are sent another letter from the coaches which outlines the recruiting process and asks them to proffer some game film and an unofficial transcript.

While recruits may meet with coach Mills informally as they are taking an independent tour of campus, twice a year the football staff hosts a more formal gathering. Potential recruits who live within driving distance of the College are invited to visit the campus and meet with the coaching staff on one Sunday in May and one in August. Usually 50 to 60 people attend these strictly informational sessions. The group is given a tour of campus and an opportunity to talk with the coaching staff. “I have been to the information sessions that the admissions office gives and my talk to the kids is similar to that; my job is to sell the school and the opportunity to play college football in a nurturing environment.” said Mills. “They are evaluating us as much as we are evaluating them.”

In the summer, the recruiting process takes up most of the football coaches’ time. The coaches can call players at home once the potential applicants have completed their junior year of high school.

The summer also provides the coaching staff with an opportunity to see their recruits perform in person at football camps. Amherst hosts its own five-day football camp in late June and, for much of the rest of the summer, Mills and his colleagues work at as many different football camps as possible. Some football camps, like the one at Boston College, attract as many as 500 high school football players, providing college football coaches with a wealth of information about the players they are recruiting.

Perhaps the most valuable resources to the Amherst football staff are the high school football coaches around the country, who are called by Mills and his staff throughout the recruiting process.

Each coach is assigned a particular region of the country and calls the high school coaches in his area to inquire about players that Amherst may be interested in athletically and academically. It is important that the Amherst coaching staff cultivate good relationships with its high school counterparts; the high school coaches are in the best position to evaluate the talent on their team, especially since the Amherst coaches cannot recruit off campus. If a high school coach misleads Amherst about the abilities of his player, Mills could wind up supporting a player who is unable to compete at the college level. Over time, Mills and his assistants learn to trust the judgment and veracity of some coaches more than others.

Offensive Coordinator Don Faulstick is responsible for Eastern Massachusetts, a region that has yielded many prominent players for the Jeffs, including quad-captains Dan Lalli ’02 and Pat McGee ’02. “I was recruited by [Faulstick]; he and the rest of the coaches here were a big reason I chose Amherst,” said McGee, who chose Amherst over Georgetown, Cornell and Harvard Universities. “They showed a real interest in me as a student, as an athlete and as a person. The other schools really only seemed interested in my abilities as a football player.”

During the fall, the Amherst football staff is chiefly concerned with the current football season, but the potential recruits, who are now seniors, are invited to attend games at Pratt Field and are encouraged to send more game tapes. The coaching staff is also able to narrow its search. Amherst is relatively unique in its position as a top academic school in Division III and, thus, in many ways, the football recruits at Amherst are self-selecting. Amherst recruits are generally also interested in a very finite list of schools which include other NESCAC schools, Williams in particular, and the Ivy League schools, who play in Division I-AA.

From the time the initial letters go out on March 1 until applications are due on Dec. 31, Mills is trying to get as many students from this elite pool to apply to Amherst as he can. Ultimately, he wants his final 14 matriculating ball players to be drawn from as large a pool as possible.

Dealing with the admissions process is the most challenging aspect of recruiting. Mills must get the students he is interested in to apply to the College, the College must then accept them and the students must then choose to matriculate. On a given year, the college receives about 150 to 200 applications from individuals whom Mills believes have at least a chance of playing football and succeeding academically at Amherst. “I am not in the admissions office, but I have a rough idea of what it takes to be in the ballpark,” said Mills.

The early decision process would seem the football program’s preferred avenue of accepting its most coveted recruits, as admission is binding. However, it is usually the case that the best high school football players like to keep their options open and thus decline to apply early. This year, Amherst only accepted two football recruits via early decision.

The Role of Parker

After Dec. 31, Mills and his staff start the process of deciding which applicants they most want to play for the Lord Jeffs. Mills and the admissions office must work together to decide which players will be admitted to the College. The admissions office designates a member of its staff to acts as a liaison to each sport.

Parker is the liaison for the football team. Mills and Parker speak regularly throughout the year and often during admissions cycles. “There are two things about football that make recruiting particularly intense,” said Parker. “There is the sheer size of the squad and the degree of specialization involved.”

Mills writes an evaluation for the admissions office about every applicant he has an interest in. These evaluations discuss the applicant’s ability as a football player and serve as a character reference. “We try to bounce as many players [off of] the admissions office as possible,” said Mills. “If they say no, we just move on.”

“It is very important that E.J. and I have a trusting, honest relationship,” said Parker. While the admissions office plays no role in evaluating the football talents of an applicant, it is important for Parker to have a reasonable amount of football knowledge so he can be better aware of the value each applicant presents to the College.

In deciding whom he wants to admit to Amherst, Parker must weigh both the applicants’ scholarly and athletic accomplishments and also must be mindful of each applicant’s chance of matriculating to the College. Since Parker does not watch game tapes and is not in direct communication with the applicants, he must have confidence in Mills’ ability to find individuals who can contribute to the football team and will matriculate. Since the College accepts most of its football recruits from the regular decision pool, Mills faces an extra challenge; he must cultivate honest relationships with the student athletes he is interested in to determine if Amherst is their top choice.

All the NESCAC schools, with the exception of Amherst and Williams, have a binding Early Decision II program, where applicants are accepted in February, after they have sent out their other regular decision applications. The Ivy League also has an early signing day for applicants in February. The coaches at these Ivy League and NESCAC schools pressure the recruits they are interested in to commit to their respective schools through these programs in February. While Amherst does not offer Early Decision II or early notification, Mills tries to get unbinding commitments from the applicants he is interested in. In an odd way, Amherst’s competitors’ use of early commitment programs in February makes it easier for Mills to determine which applicants have Amherst as their top choice.

In January and February, the football team hosts four to five weekends where their 40 to 50 top recruits are invited to come to Amherst with their families so they can get an opportunity to meet with Mills and his staff.

These individuals are applicants whom Mills believes stand a good chance of meeting the academic requirements necessary to gain admission to Amherst. It is during these meetings that Mills is able to better determine which of the potential recruits have Amherst as their top choice. “I don’t make any promises about football, like how much playing time a kid is going to get,” said Mills. “I only guarantee the kids and their families that I will take an interest in the individual as a person, as a student, and as an athlete.”

“The recruiting process is difficult for the student-athlete because all the coaches are going to tell you that you are their number one recruit and they really want you, but they are saying that to many of their recruits,” said Lalli. “Coach Mills and Faulstick were very honest, however, and made me feel very comfortable with the way Amherst football ran things. After meeting with Coach Mills I immediately knew that this was the place for me. I trusted him and knew that he was in the process of building an excellent program here.”

Mills tries hard to look out for the interests of all the football student-athletes who apply to Amherst, even those whom the College will not ultimately choose to accept. After his repeated meetings with Parker in January and February, Mills has a better idea of which applicants the admissions office will accept. Therefore, when recruits call him in January and February after they have gotten offers from other schools, Mills can give them an approximate idea of their chances of getting into Amherst.

In many instances, Mills may advise the applicants to accept the offer made by one of his rival coaches. Mills’ forthright relationship with his recruits and the early signing practice undertaken by many of his competitors allow Amherst to have an astoundingly high yield of accepted football recruits who will matriculate to the College. This year, the admissions office will admit 15 applicants who have been designated as football recruits in order to matriculate the 14 mandated by Little III rules.

A fairly high percentage of the football recruits who matriculate to the College will go on to play for Mills for all four years of their collegiate career, although there is some attrition due to injury, loss of interest or insufficient talent. Football ability is incredibly difficult to evaluate. Mills points out the fact that NFL clubs spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours analyzing college football players, and yet the NFL Draft is notoriously unpredictable.

Many people on this campus and around the country question whether football has too prominent a place in college admissions, but Parker recognizes that football has a place at Amherst. “There’s no doubt that football is a part of the texture of College life in the fall in New England,” said Parker. “It is also certainly a rallying point for the alumni.”