Over the past decade or so, the Rider University basketball program led by Tommy Dempsey and subsequently Kevin Baggett has been very successful in landing local prospects. Arguably, the Rider coaches have recruited the Greater Philadelphia region more effectively than any other staff. At minimum, the Broncs have outperformed expectations on the recruiting trail.
On the face of it, this makes no sense… Rider shouldn’t be able to get so many good local players. After all, there are some things just assumed to be true…
For example, it is expected that the frequency of top student-athlete commitments increases with higher Cost of Attendance stipends and other cash considerations. In other words, more money spent results in more frequent and higher ranked recruit commitments. While Rider offers a modest stipend to basketball players, Rider is NOT a High Major program and does not even field a football team. Financially, Rider cannot compete with big boys.
It is also assumed that the frequency of top student-athlete athlete commitments increase with better living arrangements. Private apartment style housing with single bedrooms and private bathrooms are preferred to traditional dormitory-style housing. Rider does NOT offer such luxurious accommodations.
The frequency of top student-athlete commitments increases with participation in a High Major or Power Conference (ACC, Big 12, Big 10, SEC, PAC 12 and Big East). Rider plays in the decidedly mid-major MAAC Conference.
The frequency of elite student-athlete commitments increases with higher numbers of NBA players from the college program. Rider has had one player, Jason Thompson, go on to play in the NBA.
Lastly, the frequency of top student-athlete commitments are supposed to increase with higher numbers of NCAA tournament appearances. Dempsey and Baggett have ZERO (0) NCAA tournament appearances. Baggett did win the regular season MAAC title and play in the NIT last season.
Despite their inherent disadvantages, Rider basketball coaches have convinced more than 25 area players to commit to playing for the Broncs in recent years.
How? Why? What gives?
Based on my personal observations of their recruiting strategy over the past decade, I’ve come to some conclusions about the way Rider goes about the business of recruiting.
They aren’t intimidated by bigger programs from bigger conferences. Rather than assuming kids will go with the biggest name, Rider coaches view student-athletes as satisficers — as young people who choose the option that will satisfy their needs and wants without putting too much emphasis on making sure they access every possible benefit and potential amenity.
The Rider coaches know their program is “good enough” and they make sure the kids and their people understand that fact.
This is a significant point for Rider basketball coaches. More specifically, Rider coaches have strong and trusting relationships with multiple AAU/grassroots programs and most area high school coaches. This allows the Rider staff to enlist these stakeholders to ensure complete unfettered access is granted during the recruitment process. This is especially helpful if competing programs offer significantly higher COA stipends and other cash considerations, upgraded living accommodations, play in a high major conference or has a much higher number of NBA players. Rider coaches rely, almost exclusively, on relationship building.
Although the Broncs have considerably upgraded the basketball facilities, Rider coaches still sell their family environment and commitment to graduating kids. When competing against Big 5, Atlantic 10 and CAA programs, they identify targets early in the process (10th and 11th grade), establish relationships with key stakeholders (parents, mentors, AAU/grassroots coaches and HS coaches) and enlist them to facilitate the informational flow to the targeted student-athlete. Then the focus becomes gaining widespread understanding and acceptance of the fact that Rider Basketball will satisfy their desire to get a college education and prepare them to play professional basketball.
Additionally, Rider coaches have incorporated an understanding of “frustrated behavior” into their pitch to the family and stakeholders. The list of area student-athletes that returned to Philadelphia after experiencing failure and frustration at Power 5 schools is extensive. Jaylen Bond struggled at Texas (Big 12) before he returned home to rebuild his career at Temple. Devin Coleman barely played at Clemson (ACC) before becoming a key member of some strong Owl squads. Likewise, Dalton Pepper was a deep reserve at West Virginia (Big 12) before emerging as a star at Temple.
City-wide the list long. Tyrone Garland started at Virginia Tech (ACC) before returning home to La Salle. BJ Johnson spent 2 seasons at Syracuse (ACC) before piling up more than a 1,000 points in 2 years at La Salle. Tasheed Carr was at Iowa State (Big 12) before returning play point guard at Saint Joseph’s.
In most cases, the stakeholders around a student-athlete are from the same low-income environment. They likely have similar uncertainties and fears. Rider coaches explicitly acknowledge the pattern. They note that for decades a significant number of Philly kids have chosen to attend high major programs only to return to Rider, La Salle, Temple and other local schools.
Rider coaches establish among the families, stakeholders and the student-athlete a firm understanding of the precarious nature of signing with high major programs in distant cities. The coaches at those high major programs do not necessarily have to come back to the Philadelphia area for additional players. If they do not give the targeted student-athlete a fair opportunity, there is no natural consequence for the program. If the student-athlete leaves out of frustration, the coaching staff does not have to answer to members of the community in the player’s hometown. Indeed, if there is competition for playing time between the targeted player and a player from the area where the college is located, the local player will likely win out.
The question becomes: Why take chance on a program with an unproven record of developing and educating players from Philadelphia?
Located in the leafy, safe and low-stress suburban enclave of Lawrenceville, New Jersey, Rider provides a nearby alternative to the urban setting of some area colleges. Moreover, with over 100 victories and 3 post-season appearances in 6 years, Kevin Baggett has built a highly competitive basketball program.
Rider coaches work diligently to ensure that student-athletes and stakeholders visit campus regularly to become familiar with life in the Rider program. They make sure the message is conveyed that all the needs of Rider student-athletes are met while at Rider and beyond.
Philly kids have been listening closely… See current freshman, Ajiri Johnson (Bonner/WeRone Hoops) and 2019 commit Chris Ings (Neumann-Goretti/K-Low Elite)… I strongly suspect they will continue to do so…