When the pandemic forced Cornell to shut down athletic competition in March 2020, it forced recruitment for Cornell teams online and made Cornell a tougher sell for coaches trying to attract top prospects.
The Big Red football coaches usually hit the road and visit recruits in May, but when the pandemic cancelled those plans, the coaching staff had to get creative.
“We had a really good recruitment process that we had developed over many years — and then the coronavirus hit,” said Satyen Bhakta, football’s director of recruiting operations. “We had to determine how we could replicate everything.”
Like many activities on campus, coaches opted for virtual alternatives to their normal recruitment. Bhakta said the teams used a speed dating-like event so that prospects could meet all of their potential coaches while trying to keep it quick and fun.
Coaches also tapped current players to help the recruitment process and give recruits a sense of life as a student-athlete at Cornell.
“Our players are our best recruiters,” Bhakta said. “We had virtual player panels and their only job was to be completely open, honest and transparent with any questions that prospects had.”
Men’s ice hockey head coach Mike Schafer ’86 had players call prospects to tell them about their time at Cornell. “That’s had a huge impact on prospects because they get a chance to ask what it’s like from a player’s perspective,” he said.
These new virtual programs could not completely replicate the advantages of seeing a recruit in person, making coaches’ jobs harder in making offer decisions. For Schafer, watching game film was not as useful as seeing a player live: “Watching video is really different because in hockey, a lot of the action we are looking for is taking place away from the camera.”
Similarly, Bhakta found it harder to analyze a prospect’s athleticism virtually — teams were forced to evaluate players through videos uploaded to Youtube.
The team relied on research that pointed to wingspan as a predictor of athleticism and looked for prospects who were long and tall and could put on weight through training. Bhakta had prospects send the team photos that showed their heights, wingspans and foot and hand sizes.
The biggest challenge for coaches, though, was sealing the deal. Coaches worried about not being able to show prospects Cornell’s campus and athletic facilities, for example.
“We have a lot of game footage where kids can see our crowd and the atmosphere, but the true impact of being on one of the most beautiful campuses in the country or being at Lynah Rink when it’s really loud can never be duplicated virtually,” Schafer said.
The football team’s solution was for Bhatka to walk around campus and the broader Ithaca community to film tours for prospects, head coach David Archer ’05 said.
But the Ivy League’s decision to cancel all fall and winter sports while much of the rest of the country played on also made coaches’ pitch to prospects a much harder sell.
Despite finishing last season ranked first in the nation and often competing for the country’s top prospects, men’s hockey had to address questions about the Ivy League’s commitment to athletics.
“Those questions come from recruits: ‘How important are athletics to the Ivy League?’” Schafer said. “That stings because when you’re on campus, you know the students love hockey. The Lynah faithful love hockey and our athletic administration does a good job of supporting both men’s and women’s ice hockey.”
Coaches hope the new virtual recruitment methods may continue to be useful after the pandemic ends — with one upside being the ability to prioritize socioeconomic equity in the recruitment process, according to Archer and Bhakta.
“If you can’t afford to visit Ithaca, we get that. It doesn’t mean you can’t play here,” Bhakta said. “We had to adapt, we had to learn, but I think our systems improved because of it.”