The Eighth Man

What a Bad College Football Team Can Teach Us About Building a Good Quidditch Team

Western Michigan University Coach P.J. Fleck's recruiting class was an absolute shock to many major programs and analysts. Credit:

Western Michigan University Coach P.J. Fleck’s recruiting class was an absolute shock to many major programs and analysts. Credit:

This past Wednesday was National Signing Day in college football, a day in which schools across the country lock in what recruits will be playing for them next season.  Recruits sign letters of intent, which are binding, leaving them only with the options of playing for that school or sitting out the season. Basically, it’s college football’s form of a draft, except it’s a free-for-all to see which schools can get the best prospects to sign with them.

Recruits are evaluated on a five-star system:  The best recruits are given a rating of five stars, while the worst might not even receiver a star. Five-star recruits are rare, and even top programs like Alabama only get a couple each year. The huge majority of “elite players” in college football are three-and-four-star recruits.

Historically, large, notable programs – like the University of Alabama – pull in the best recruits, while small programs without much history of success – think New Mexico State University –  are left with the scraps – players who nobody else wanted.  This all helps perpetuate a definitive power structure in the sport: the rich usually get richer, and the poor usually get poorer.

But something crazy happened this year: A small program with little recent success signed an incredibly impresive recruiting class.  Western Michigan University has gone 5-19 over the past two seasons, and plays in the Mid-American Conference.  The MAC is comprised of schools from the Midwest and Northeast who have a lot of pride and tradition, but not a whole lot of power or resources.  Simply put, the MAC schools are the have-nots of the top division of college football.

It is incredibly rare for a MAC team to get anything but the leftovers in the recruiting refrigerator. For reference, the team that won the MAC this past season, Bowling Green State University, garnered a recruiting class that consisted of four three-star recruits and 13 unrated recruits.

If that was what the best team in the conference could get, one would imagine that the expectations for what was one of the worst teams in the conference last season wouldn’t be very high.  Instead, Western Michigan went out and signed the highest-rated recruiting class in MAC history. The team signed two four-star recruits, twelve three-star recruits, one two-star recruit and twelve unranked recruits.  They beat out several  power programs for the commitments of many of these players including the likes of Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Florida, Oklahoma, Missouri, and current national champions Florida State.

So, you’re probably asking yourself, this is great for Western Michigan and all, but what exactly does this have to do with quidditch?

Like Western Michigan, most quidditch teams don’t have much of a natural recruiting draw.  While teams like the Lost Boys Quidditch Club, University of Texa, and Lone Star Quidditch Club pretty much sell themselves to potential recruits, most teams struggle to recruit both players that can make an impact on the highest level and enough players to fill out a roster. While our young sport does do a lot of training to produce good quidditch players, the difference between the successful quidditch teams and the ones who consistently struggle is mostly due to some teams being better than others at recruiting new players who can have a positive impact. Proper training is of course absolutely necessary to build a successful quidditch program, but effective recruiting also plays an incredibly large role.

By looking at how Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck was able to attract such quality recruits to a program that doesn’t have the resources or prestige usually needed to acquire such talent, we can establish a blueprint for quidditch teams to be more successful in recruiting. While most quidditch teams are not competing against other quidditch teams for recruits, they are competing against other clubs, organization, and possible free-time pursuits, most of which have a stronger tradition, reputation and overall draw than quidditch. So Fleck’s tactics for successful recruiting at WMU can be quite useful when it comes to recruiting in quidditch.

Many of the high-profile recruits who signed with WMU talked with local newspapers and news stations about why they signed with a school that is widely considered to be beneath their abilities, and an online Michigan news site compiled many of those interviews together here

In addition, major sports outlets such as ESPN interviewed some of the WMU recruits.  Our blueprint will be built largely from the comments in these interviews.

Javonte Seabury is a three-star athlete – the term used for a multi-position talent that coaches will have multiple options to utilize. He is one of the fastest players in the state of Florida, and had offers from several other schools, including power program Miami and the current National Champions, Florida State. When asked why he chose Western Michigan over those schools, he replied that Coach Fleck created a very energetic environment that made him feel like the team was family, even after just a short time getting to know them.

So, from Seabury’s commitment, we learn the importance of creating a positive, welcoming environment for potential recruits.  The fact that the whole team was close with one another and that there was a positive environment full of hope was enough to get Seabury to Kalamazoo.

When you invite potential recruits out to quidditch, is there an environment in place that would be attractive to them?  Does your team seem like they care about each other? Is everybody on the same page and working towards success, even if they haven’t had much success yet? Genuine care for one another and positivity are hard to fake.  Potential recruits can pick up on those things.  They want to know that quidditch will be worth their time, and that it will be more positive than negative.

If they don’t feel welcome or don’t feel like as thought they’ll get much enjoyment from quidditch, they won’t be very likely to join.  Telling these recruits what they want to hear is one thing, but letting them see these things in action is the real selling point. Don’t be stiff and impersonal when you are recruiting new players.  Get to know them, let them get to know the team.  Let them see your team enjoying one another’s company. Practice, recruiting sessions and demos don’t have to be all serious business. Develop a positive relationship amongst your team, and let potential recruits see that relationship.

Seabury’s commitment also teaches the importance of positivity in recruiting.  WMU was coming off of an absolutely terrible season, but you wouldn’t know that from the vibe around the team.  The players and coaches all truly believe that they can be successful, and that their past failures don’t necessarily doom them to future failure.  Recruits pick up on that. Fleck isn’t lying and saying that the team will win the National Championship this season.  He is simply teaching his players not to dwell completely on the negative.  Had a terrible season last year? Let your team know that if they work for it, future success is very much an attainable goal.  Have them dwell on the positive, not the negative.

If your team is a bunch of gloomy nay-sayers, recruits aren’t going to be very interested in joining. Most people don’t want to be surrounded by constant negativity.  This doesn’t mean that you just ignore your team’s flaws.  Rather, it means that you address them practically and move on, emphasizing the positive results that can come from improvement in those flawed areas.

Which brings us to the next principle of successful recruiting that Fleck teaches us.  Emphasizing the importance of hard work and sincere effort in your team will attract recruits. Several of Western Michigan’s high-profile recruits reported that they were attracted by Fleck emphasizing to them that he wouldn’t promise them anything as far as playing time goes, but that they would have every possible opportunity to earn it.  He told them that if they put in the effort, he would give them their fair chance.

Not only did Fleck tell them this, he showed them.  Deontae Brown was Western Michigan’s two-star recruit, and because he graduated high school early, he enrolled at WMU before signing day. While he played wide receiver in high school, he was switched over to the defensive side of the ball to play safety for Western Michigan. During his time with the team so far, he has quickly risen up the depth chart.  He put in a lot of work to learn his new position, and the coaches are rewarding that. The recruits can see that, and that helped to attract several of them to the team.

Any prospective quidditch recruit with the potential to have a positive impact on your team’s play wants to know that playing time is earned.  While bad players often loathe fair competition, good ones require it. Recruits want to know that if they put the work in, they will get a fair shot to play.  If your team focuses more on favoritism than on actual abilities and work ethic, you aren’t going to attract very many recruits, especially not good ones.  But if you make your players hungry for success, if you dangle that carrot of earned playing time out in front of them, the good ones will absolutely flourish. They will also trust you a lot more, as no athlete likes to feel like their coaches and captains play favorites and fail to give everybody a fair shot.

One final piece of the blueprint comes courtesy of ESPN recruiting specialist Tom Luginbill.  He reported that much of Western Michigan’s recruiting success came as a result of Fleck’s hard work.  He analyzed a massive amount of film early on, and contacted many of these recruits towards the beginning of the recruiting process. He got to know these recruits early, and kept that relationship up for the whole duration of the recruiting process.  Recruits trusted him, and that relationship paid massive dividends for Fleck.

The same principle holds true for successful quidditch recruiting.  You have to put in the work, early and often. For college teams especially, each new school year presents a major recruiting opportunity.  There are thousands of new students looking for something to help make their college experience positive. Go heavy on recruiting tables, playing demos and open practices, especially early in the school year.  Give students as many opportunities as possible to be exposed to quidditch. Like Fleck, you will have to put in an abnormally large amount of work at the beginning., but it will pay dividends.

At the beginning of each new school year, you are basically a salesman, trying to convince people to buy your product, which in this case is membership on a quidditch team.  The best salesmen are those who work hard to establish relationships with their prospective customers.  So get the word about quidditch out there as much as possible, and get to know each person who shows even the slightest bit of interest. Getting people interested in quidditch when they are most open to trying something new is the most effective recruiting tool we have.

Whether or not Western Michigan has a successful season depends now on how well they coach and train their players.  But a lack of personnel or talent won’t be amongst their issues, because of the tactics that Coach Fleck employed in recruiting.  Likewise, successful recruiting in quidditch doesn’t equal automatic success, but it does give you the best chance at attaining it.  Fleck’s tactics can help put you in a position to do just that.

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