If you didn’t know the inner workings of a college football program, you might think January would be a good month for the coaching staff to take a vacation.
You’d be wrong if you thought that.
At the IUP football offices inside Memorial Field House, coach Paul Tortorella and his staff are working just as hard this week as they would be if they were preparing to play California or Slippery Rock.
They’re in the thick of recruiting season, the time of year that will have a huge impact on the fall. Tortorella and his staff are setting up visits by high school players, dozens of whom will be coming to campus over the next few weekends. They’re poring over game films, taking a last look at some players who might have been overlooked.
And Tortorella is busy doing some math.
“In Division II, the head coach is like the general manager of a pro team with a salary cap,” Tortorella said. “You’ve got to know how much you can spend, and you have to do a lot of planning.”
At the Division I level, recruiting isn’t as complicated. In FBS, teams have 85 full scholarships, while FCS programs have a maximum of 63. But in Division II, the maximum allowed is 36, although few teams have that many.
At IUP, the scholarship money Tortorella has fluctuates every year. Pennsylvania laws dictate that state tax dollars cannot be used for scholarships, so each Division II team must raise the money itself.
IUP’s scholarship total is a little more than half the maximum allowed. Most teams in the PSAC have fewer than 18, creating a landscape much like Major League Baseball, where teams outspend each other in order to buy a winning roster.
Tortorella takes his scholarship money and divides it among his roughly 90 players, and they are left to make up the rest of their tuition bill using either out-of-pocket cash or financial aid. That means teams must be creative with their money.
“You’ve got to prioritize what positions you’re looking for,” Tortorella said. “There’s many years we’re not recruiting any running backs, and if the best running back in the state called us, we might have to pass because we have other needs.”
The process starts with coaches looking at film of players from across Pennsylvania, as well as some nearby states. They then spend a few weeks on the road, meeting with the players they’ve identified as a potential match.
But the courting process is more than just a talent evaluation.
“You better look at their academic transcript,” Tortorella said. “Guys who are in school all the time and they’re never late, even if they don’t have great grades, we know they’re going to do it here academically. If you get a guy who’s a pretty good student but he’s late to school a lot or misses school a lot, there’s some red flags there.”
One thing that helped Division II schools is the decision a couple years ago by the NCAA to create an earlier signing date for Division I teams. Last month, a week before Christmas, the premier high school players in the country began signing their national letters of intent, which thinned things out for the teams at lower levels.
“That’s really helped us,” Tortorella said. “When we’re talking to guys, they can’t be saying, ‘Well, I’m still waiting for Towson or Delaware to call me’ because those teams have already signed the guys they want. Because of (the early signing period), we know who’s still in the pool.”
The coaches take their list of players and narrow it down to the ones they think will best fit their needs. Those will be invited to campus for one of three January recruiting weekends. Tortorella said they usually invite roughly twice the number of players they can afford, knowing several of these recruits will be visiting other schools and could spurn IUP’s offer.
The players come with their families and spend Friday evening and most of Saturday with the team, meeting some of the players, taking a tour of the campus and athletic facilities, and ending with a sit-down in Tortorella’s office. It is there that Tortorella makes the player an offer and hopes it’s enough to entice him to choose IUP.
“They leave here understanding where they’re at in our minds,” Tortorella said. “You don’t want a guy leaving here not sure if we want him or not. I try to be as specific as possible. I want them to leave here with a really good idea of where everything stands.”
Sometimes, Tortorella makes an offer he believes to be fair, but the player ends up picking another program.
“You never know what can happen when guys visit someplace else,” he said. “You just hope he wants to come back here.”
In the past, IUP coaches would sometimes get into bidding wars for players, but Tortorella said he won’t do that anymore. There’s no paper trail to ensure either side is being truthful, so he makes an offer and leaves it at that.
“I don’t even ask them where else they’ve visited,” he said. “I say, ‘Here’s our offer. We want you think about it. There’s no deadline right now, but there might be one down the road because we are bringing in other guys at your position. But that’s what our offer is, and it is what it is.’”
After that, it’s a waiting game. Some players give the coaches a verbal commitment, and many of those announce it on social media. Then on the Feb. 5 signing day, the players make the decision official.
“For both sides, it’s got to be the right fit,” Tortorella said. “They’ve got to want to be here, and we’ve got to want them. That’s the best chance for this to work and for us to have a good recruiting class.”