ROCHESTER, Minn. — Coaching junior college sports isn’t for the faint of heart.
Or for the people who enjoy security, routine and serenity.
It’s a task that’s usually filled with grueling hours and little pay. Just ask Derek Hahn, who wears three hats for the Riverland Community College athletics department in Austin, Minn.: Head basketball coach, head baseball coach, oh, and athletic director.
No big deal.
“If you’re trying to get sleep at night, I don’t think jumping into junior college coaching is the profession for you,” Hahn said.
Rochester Community & Technical College head football coach Derrick Hintz teaches at Byron High School. RCTC’s offensive coordinator Stan Bedwell coaches and plays quarterback professionally in Europe during the Yellowjackets’ offseason in order to pay the bills.
The grind never ends. And recruiting is a constant, never-ending challenge. Both RCTC and Riverland have no recruiting budgets, literally they are a whopping $0.
Even though they have limited resources, it’s their job to go out and find talented players who fit their system.
So, how do you recruit when you have a whole lot less money to work with than most other college coaches?
You use every single resource at your disposal.
Social media buzz
The explosion of social media has made life a little easier for Hahn. Before, it’d be nearly impossible to get any game footage of basketball players unless a high school coach handed out game film. But now, highlight tapes are easily accessible on social media and Hudl.
But connecting with players on social media used to be frowned upon. Those in-person, face-to-face conversations seemed to be vital. Now, the entire game has changed and the COVID-19 pandemic has made face-to-face recruiting nearly impossible. The conversations after games, or outside the dugout have ceased. So, Hahn has had to get far more creative.
“Using social media was kind of a joke among some coaches, but all the titans in our league and all the teams in our league have gone onto social media to do some recruiting,” Hahn said. “We’ve relied on it heavily.”
"At first, it was Facebook, then it transitioned to Twitter and now it’s heavily on Instagram,” Hahn continued. “That’s how we’re trying to change and be a chameleon so that whatever is going to best work for us to generate that first contact. Whatever is going to be the best first contact for us is so important for us to connect with that player.”
The same thing applies to RCTC football. Hintz and Bedwell send out a recruiting questionnaire to every potential prospect.
But they find a ton of their talent on Twitter.
“Twitter has become the biggest recruiting tool in the country,” Bedwell said. “If they wanted to cash out a side venture and call it like, ‘Twitter Recruit,’ that would be a big-time, multi-million tool. Every coach would use it. I’ve never used Twitter unless I’m on a college football staff.”
COVID-19 forced Riverland and RCTC to adapt. But some of the same principles they were already using actually helped them have a leg up over some other places.
Hahn and Riverland developed a 20-minute virtual tour of the campus to show to potential additions. It detailed what Riverland’s campus looks like, the gymnasium, the soccer field, the baseball field, the weight room, the housing and even the academics.
“You can talk on the phone as much as you want,” Hahn said. “You can text a few times. You can have them look at your website 100 times. But until they actually see stuff, you’re kind of wasting time blowing hot air into the phone. That visual tour made our recruitment process even stronger. So when a random guy hits me up from Florida or Texas or California, I have that at my disposal to share with them to get the ball moving forward. That was the approach we took and I think it’s made our approach even stronger.
"A lot of kids that we get at the junior college level, they’re coming from a less fortunate background. Maybe they don’t have the ability to Zoom. I’ve been doing a lot more FaceTiming that I’m not always the most comfortable with.”
RCTC has a 25-page packet that details everything a prospect needs to know about the Yellowjackets. But even if they like the prospect, they’re never going to push for a commitment until they’ve talked with mom, dad or a guardian.
That’s just not what they do.
“Most JUCOs aren’t doing that conversation with mom,” Bedwell said. “They go, ‘Oh, he’s a really good player, let’s sign him.’”
Bedwell and Hintz want the entire family to be all-in on the recruitment. They don’t want there to be any surprises. RCTC cannot offer full-ride scholarships. Sometimes, recruits think that if they’re offered a spot on the roster, that means it’s a full scholarship.
“If we offer them a spot on the phone, we’ll never take it there,” Bedwell said. “We’ll let them take a few days and call us back. We’ve lost a lot of big-time guys who were ready to commit on the phone that we let wait a few days to decide and he changed his mind. But we look at it, like this, ‘Hey, he probably would’ve changed his mind anyway.’”
'He's too good'
Recruiting at Riverland and RCTC isn’t easy. There are so many pitfalls and disappointments. But Hahn has done a tremendous job of shaping Riverland’s basketball team into one of the most athletic teams in the conference. The same goes for RCTC men’s basketball coach Brian LaPlante.
RCTC and Riverland both finished with at least 24 wins and 11 conference wins in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference (MCAC).
Their rosters were filled with elite talent, such as RCTC’s Kong Kong, who signed with NCAA Division II Emporia State (Kansas) after the season.
“I’ll hear comments like, ‘He’s too good for your guys’ school’ when a guy is coming up through the high school ranks,” Hahn said. “But I’ll say to the individual, ‘When was the last time you saw us play?’ Because I don’t think you understand the type of athleticism in our basketball program.’ It’s an eye-opening experience for those individuals for sure.”
RCTC’s football program is one of the best in the country among Division III Junior Colleges. The Yellowjackets are a family. They stay together. If Hintz and Bedwell don’t love a guy’s personality, they won’t offer him a spot, even if he’s a terrific talent.
“For us, it’s important that we bring in really good kids,” Bedwell said. “And really good people. There’s always some you miss out on. We can live with him not being the best player. You never know what you’re going to get no matter how good the film looks. But we don’t want to miss out on character.”
Hahn, Hintz, LaPlante and Bedwell are at the top of their games when it comes to recruiting. They’ve mastered the art of knowing which players they should invest time in and which players they should leave for the bigger programs. They’ve made their programs attractive because they can prepare them for the next level.
Even with a nonexistent recruiting budget and zero athletic scholarships, Riverland and RCTC are finding and developing stars.
“Sometimes, you’re taking a chance on a kid,” Hahn said. “Coaches at this level know that. Whether they like to admit it or not, they do. Sometimes, we take a risk and they end up being our best kids. It’s kind of a big risk-or-reward game sometimes. That’s why I love this. As a coach, I like to reference, dartboard recruiting. But at the same time, we’re sports people and having that desire to be a part of competition, this is an early stepping stone.”