Cabin fever-stricken recruits pick up their phones now. Often on the first ring.
For Virginia Tech men’s basketball coach Mike Young — a man who likes to seek silver linings — that is one. Communication is still possible during the COVID-19 ordeal. It’s just not nearly as fun.
We were reminded of that this week, as Young held a wide-ranging news conference with reporters via Zoom. He cracked a few jokes but couldn’t hear us laughing, as our lines were muted unless it was our turn to ask a question.
“That’s a beautiful cat!” Young said when one reporter’s pet nosed its way into the camera shot.
The reporter could not properly thank him.
That’s a silly example, of course, but it also provides a small glimpse the challenges Young and other coaches face as they try to run major basketball programs from their homes. The personal touch — a great strength of Young, one that’s endeared him to players and fans alike — still comes through, but it’s diluted.
Young spent much of the 40-minute media session breaking down his roster overhaul, which was reported in detail by beat writer Mark Berman earlier this week. But the second-year coach also addressed the challenges of evaluating prospects and keeping his players active and sane as they wait out the pandemic.
“Oh, it’s awful,” Young said of recruiting under these conditions. “You take great pride in doing the work and getting out and seeing people and looking people in the eye and talking to parents and talking to high school coaches, having kids on your campus and letting them interact with your team to get a real feel for Virginia Tech and the basketball program here. And all of that is out.
“The thought of bringing someone into your program without visiting is very uncomfortable for me, but that’s what we’re faced with. That’s what we’re all faced with right now.”
Young does stay in constant contact with prospects via phone. Meanwhile, recruiting services such as HUDL and Synergy Sports Technology allow him to view countless hours of video of players — something that wouldn’t have been possible 15 years ago.
Still, his thirst for evaluating players live is unquenchable now.
“There’s a lot of things that you’re not going to see on film,” Young said. “I want to see him interact with teammates. I want to see their body language when their coach rips their hind end for turning the ball over. I want to see how they respond when they’re down six with a minute to play.
“I want to see how they warm up. I want to see what they look like at 8 in the morning prior to an AAU game, knowing that they’ve got two more that day. I want to see how they play at 10 o’clock at night. Just do the best we can.
“All of us as coaches have had to adjust and adapt and hope like crazy we get it right.”
The same is true with handling players already on his roster. Young holds weekly Zoom meetings with the Hokies, often bringing on guest speakers to help them stay motivated.
He encourages players to go outside, run some hills, ride their bikes. If they have weights in their garage, lift them. If they have access to a hoop, shoot. At the very least, pick up a ball and work on your handling.
“I do think some of our kids are getting a bit stir crazy, but they’re respectful of the crisis and are doing what is necessary,” said Young, whose own daughter Cooper is home taking online classes at Sewanee. “I think their parents are really strict on them, not being around others and coming back to the house. But you talk to some that are having a really hard time finding a basketball court, an outdoor court.
“I talked to two some time ago that were going down the street to the playground like so many of us did as young people. And then kids start to congregate, and then the city parks and recreation comes and takes the rim off the backboard, so there goes that opportunity.”
As for what practices will look like in the near future, Young admitted that he did not know.
“I do know this: This is my 35th year in college athletics,” he said. “There are much bigger issues than college athletics, obviously. But that ol’ football needs to be being tossed around come the fall.
“I think of schools like Emory & Henry, Radford University. I just pray to goodness that we can get these students back on our campuses in late August, early September and get the thing up and running again. But there are so many issues and so many things to consider as we deal with this unprecedented crisis.”
At the end of the news conference, Young wished everybody well. He said he looked forward to seeing all of us on the other side of this.
We all said the same.
Alas, we’re not sure if he could hear us.