Jim O’Brien is in his fifth season (now 11th) as head women’s soccer coach at Fairfield University. His first four seasons have seen Fairfield return to the national scene with a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances and votes in the national polls. Success is no stranger to O’Brien when he took over the women’s soccer program at Fairfield prior to the 2005 season after nine seasons as the head coach of his alma mater’s program. The founding coach of the women’s program at Southern Connecticut State University, O’Brien posted a 105-56-8 record during his tenure. The Owls earned an NCAA Tournament berth, twice appeared in the ECAC Tournament and were ranked as high as seventh in the nation in Division II.
How many States do you actively recruit in?
We recruit mainly in the New York metropolitan area including Massachusetts, and well as parts of Pennsylvania. We also have two from Seattle Washington, one from Texas and a few from Florida. We also have a player from Nova Scotia.
Fairfield is a small school in the Northeast, how do you attract players from throughout the country?
Some of the players on our roster from far away have family ties in the Northeast, so while they may not be from our area, they are familiar with the New England and New York area and have a desire to attend school in this region of the country. A few of our players were recruits that contacted us and the rest were recruited via networks we have established throughout the country that help us find and evaluate talent that we otherwise might not be aware of because that recruit lives two or three thousand miles away.
Do you find a lot of high school players who just want to play D1 because its D1 or think they can play D1
Yes, most of the kids we come across might not be of D1 level but they think they are. We leave no stone unturned when it comes to any recruit and we will do our due diligence in evaluating anyone that we come across or that contacts us. But we will let recruits know we are looking in other directions and try to be honest with everyone if we believe a particular recruit doesn’t have the academic record to get into Fairfield or the soccer skills to compete at our program. If there simply isn’t a fit, it is best for the recruit to know we will not be pursuing them so they can move onto other opportunities.
What skills in particular are you looking for in players?
At the D1 level my two priorities are speed and athletic ability. However we are finding more and more that the technical aspect of the game is becoming more important. If we find a good “athlete”, we can teach the technical aspect of the game. So I have to be able to project if we can take a really good athlete and teach them the technical aspects of the game of soccer to make them that much better.
What are some important recruiting concepts that parents and students you meet with don’t have a grasp of?
Being educated on how process works. I would also say what the restrictions of the coaches are in terms of contact is as well as that is extremely important. If we get an email from a recruit but it isn’t in a time period when the NCAA says we can respond, we usually forward that email to the recruit’s high school coach to let them know we received a contact from one of their players. But we cannot respond to the email until the appropriate time which is Sept. 1st of a prospects junior year. On a side note, The NCAA is looking to push the contact rules up one year meaning a year earlier for everyone. As far as responding to emails go, we can send a generic response saying their email was received but that is about it. That is why we like to follow up with the coach if possible to say we received a contact from a particular player of theirs and will follow up when we have the ability to do so, so it is important to supply us with the contact information of your coach or coaches.
Has the growth of the Internet had any effect on your job?
I am glued to the computer. It helps, but often times you have to step away from your computer and phone at certain points during the day. Online video via tools like Youtube has helped us evaluating players as to whether I want to invest the time to see a particular player in person.
What role do recruiting services play in your recruiting process?
We don’t pay much attention to the mass emails or mail recruiting packages we receive. We get emails from recruiting services that have kids from far away states but we wonder how much interest that particular player has in coming all the way to the northeast. The recruiting process is a pretty personal process so it is important for potential recruits to have not only knowledge of our school and program but interest in our particular school and program.
Are there additional resources you can tap for recruiting assistance?
I have some close ties to the Pacific Northwest and that network has a strong soccer background and knows what types of athletes and soccer players our program is seeking. In this case, they can help me evaluate a potential recruit that I might not get to fly across the country to see.
Do you think soccer is more challenging to get recruited by because of the lack of offensive or defensive stats a recruit might have because of the nature of the game?
Yes, it’s a very gray sport and takes more of an eye for talent and potential. We have to forecast how a player might grow in college, and try to figure out how we going to improve that players skills both physically in the weight room and from a soccer standpoint. Skill is sometimes very difficult to judge in soccer.
How many high school games do you or your coaching staff get to each year?
Locally we get to a few games, and that is usually to see a specific player we have already begun to recruit or have interest in. And we often see a younger player by accident that we can recruit down the road simply as a result of going to that game. We don’t really have the time to go to random games however, as our season takes place the same time as a high school season.
What does your summer recruiting process consist of?
Summer is very important to us for recruiting purposes. We go to a few showcases in the spring. And then there are some tournaments after Memorial Day we try to attend. In July we are at several regional tournaments and our staff is extremely active in recruiting. Our summer camp is extremely important as well as it gives high school players a chance to see our school and gives us a chance to evaluate potential recruits for several days. While we never stop recruiting throughout the year, once August starts we take a break from recruiting as our season is starting and we are more focused on our team and the upcoming season.
Is the fact that Fairfield is a challenging academic school and a private school with a significant price tag cause you to concentrate on recruiting a certain type of student-athlete?
We always look to recruit high quality student-athletes because those are kids that not only can gain acceptance to our school but will succeed at our school. My team GPA is almost 4.0. If you have a strong recruit academically that is going to help that recruit possibly qualify for more financial aid from our school. And, like any sport, being a talented athlete interested in a particular school can help if you might be on the bubble academically for admission to a particular school. As an added benefit to recruiting high academic achievers, we can give those recruits additional institutional aid that does not count towards our equivalency scholarship limit.
Do you run any summer camps? And how do those play a role in recruiting?
Almost 80% of my roster has attended. It’s an overnight camp and plays a huge role in our recruiting efforts as it not only gives us a chance to see high school soccer players play for several days, but it gives those kids a chance to see and feel not only what our soccer program is like but what our college is like.
Do you find many parents and students who started the recruiting process too late?
50 percent are over proactive as resumes and emails are coming from freshman in high school and it’s pretty challenging for any coach in any sport to be able to project that student’s interest or skill that early in high school. But then we have juniors in high school who are just starting the process and just reaching out to us now and that is a little late. Those kids (the late group) really need to come to our camp so we can have a chance to evaluate them over a several day period. It’s really our last opportunity to see them. Late summer before junior year is really when the process should get going because we can start to communicate with recruits via email September 1st. There are a few showcases in November and December we attend and that is an opportunity to see recruits we have heard from. After Memorial day there are also some major events we attend.
Do you receive a lot of videos from players?
A fair amount and video is becoming better. We like to see a 4 to 8 minute clip which is a good chance for us to evaluate a player. We do not recruit players solely off of video, it’s really a tool for us to decide whether we want to pursue a recruit further and try to see that recruit in person. So the first step is video and then working with that recruit to see where we can see her play, whether it’s a particular showcase we are attending, a specific game or getting that recruit to come to our summer camp. I recruited one player solely off of video and it didn’t work out, so it is really important for me to be able to see a player in person or to tap into our network for evaluations.
Do you have any programs in place to help incoming freshman adjust to the college environment?
Yes, all across Division 1 athletics at most colleges freshman will have seminars, academic advisement, mandatory study hall, and faculty evaluations. The services are quite extensive. Our players also have access to sports nutritionists, sports psychologist, and recruiters that handles financial aid in our athletic department.
Do you find a lot of high school coaches willing to assist their players in their recruiting efforts?
Yes and no. I think across college athletics there has been a trend in communicating with club coaches because those coaches are involved with more potential recruits that have serious interest in continuing their sport in college. We have relationships with several high school coaches that we have developed throughout the years as well.
At the peak of your recruiting efforts, how many players might you be evaluating?
That can depend on how many team members we are replacing. Last year we graduated 8 players from our team so we were extremely active in recruiting a higher number of players for our team. This year we will graduate only 2 players so our recruiting needs next year will change. As a general rule, we might start with a pool of 300 recruits and reduce that down to 30 or so recruits that we have interest in and that have potential interest in our school and program. Out of that pool of 30, we may get 4 or 5 recruits ultimately to join our program.
Coming from a state school (Southern Connecticut State University), are there differences to recruiting for a private school?
Yes, mainly we are looking at a slightly different demographic. Soccer allows us to get kids that might not be able to gain acceptance to our school academically otherwise. We need to find players with a more academic mentality. We have a great business school at Fairfield, so we are naturally going to attract kids that are probably interested in studying business. SCSU had very strong programs and degrees in education, so many of the recruits there were interested in working in education after graduation.
A student’s ability to communicate with a coach shows a certain level of maturity, are you finding more students reaching out to you rather than having their parents involved?
We can tell by the wording of an email who is sending it and we factor that into the recruiting process. We try to make the recruiting process between us and the student athlete and not the parent.
Do players have the ability to try out for your team?
We don’t really do tryouts. Our team and roster is pretty set when the fall season starts. We have had two girls make our team by participating in our spring practice.
What role to athletic scholarships play a role in your recruiting?
We have 11 athletic scholarships to offer out of the NCAA maximum of 14 for women’s D1 soccer. The school has provided us with an outstanding opportunity to be able to recruit top soccer talent through athletic scholarships which helps us be very competitive.
Do you communicate with other coaches when it comes to players you are recruiting?
It’s a small world and coaches communicate with each other. Obviously we are not really going to discuss a recruit that we are competing for with another school with that schools coach. But there are instances where coaches will recommend a player that is interested in their program who will not be a fit for their program from a skill standpoint or academically, but might be a fit for ours and vice versa.
Families seem to be starting the recruiting process earlier and earlier. What advice would you give someone that is a freshman or sophomore in high school that felt pressure or the need to start to contact college coaches that early?
That’s a hot topic right now with the NCAA as they are considering changing the contact period for athletes in all sports to a year earlier. Families are feeling that pressure right now at a younger age. Club and travel teams are contributing to this by recruiting kids by promising them recruiting services as well. From our standpoint, it’s challenging to recruit a player from a greater distance from our school, so most of the success we have with recruits contacting us earlier in high school are with local players that play for established programs which allow us the ability to see those players at a younger age.