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Athletic Director Mollie Marcoux Samaan ’91 on recruiting during a pandemic

<h6>Lauren Fromkin and Akaneh Wang / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Lauren Fromkin and Akaneh Wang / The Daily Princetonian

Although the Ivy League has not held any athletic competitions this school year, recruitment — one of the most important processes in collegiate athletics — has chugged along at the University, despite the obvious challenges the pandemic has presented.

“Like everything during COVID, the recruiting process has required a lot of creativity and flexibility and sort of rethinking how you do your work,” said Mollie Marcoux Samaan ’91, Princeton’s Director of Athletics. “Coaches have had to sort of step back and say, ‘How do we get to know prospective student athletes?’”

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The cancellation of high school sports seasons nationwide has been one of the challenges causing coaches to restructure their evaluation processes, especially for fall and winter sports, as many states had to either delay or cancel the season last year. Because of cancellations in their home states, many athletes were unable to produce game film or statistics for coaches.

In a typical recruitment cycle, coaches would not rely solely on game film to get a sense of their most preferred recruits. Instead, they would be watching recruits at games and showcases nationwide. However, many of these events have been canceled due to COVID-19. Even in places where they are being held, the NCAA recruiting dead period — which prevents coaches from conducting in-person visits with recruits — has made attending these events impossible. The dead period has been in place since the start of the pandemic and was recently extended through May 31, 2021.

“Coaches have had recruits go on virtual tours sponsored by the admissions office,” Marcoux Samaan said, in reference to work-arounds that coaches have relied upon during the dead period. “Coaches have been watching a lot of videos high school athletes have been sending in,” she added. Some athletes are able to send in film from their 2020–21 school season, while others may have footage from club showcases or previous seasons.

Furthermore, the status of Princeton’s summer athletic camps, which many coaches use to evaluate recruits, remains unknown. “We’re very hopeful that we can run some camps this summer … [but] we want to make sure that our community is healthy and safe,” Marcoux Samaan said. The University has not yet made a final decision on whether or not it will allow for any camps to be held this summer.

In a November interview with the ‘Prince,’ men’s soccer head coach Jim Barlow referenced the challenges of handling this level of film, saying that his staff is “inundated.” Marcoux Samaan commented that although coaches have been handling a lot of film, the sheer number of recruits contacting teams has given coaches insight into recruiting from different areas that they hadn’t previously looked into.

“They have a little more time on their hands, so they can scour the country more aggressively,” she said. “We have had coach calls every week, and they share ideas on finding recruits in different pockets, not just going back to the same places,” she added.

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Marcoux Samaan also applauded coaches for being flexible and resilient in the past year.

“Coaches work seven days a week until late hours, and they are still working really hard to support their student-athletes,” she remarked. Instead of planning for competitions, coaches have instead directed that energy towards recruiting, as well as virtual team activities.

The recruiting challenges that coaches have faced during the pandemic have varied from sport to sport. “We have 37 sports, and each one is slightly different … in the way they recruit,” Marcoux Samaan explained. “For some sports, [recruiting] is a little bit easier because you have a finite metric of what their times are … or what their golf scores are. For those types of sports … the measures are just a bit more objective,” she added.

Despite differences in obstacles between sports, there are principles that have uniformly shaped recruiting across the entire University coaching community. “We’re looking for how a student-athlete would grow,” Marcoux Samaan said. “It’s just about finding the student, the athlete, and the person … These [principles] are really constant throughout the recruiting process.”

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Challenges in domestic recruitment presented themselves in international recruitment, too. Coaches have had to deal with changing travel restrictions and uncertainty with respect to when prospective students may be able to come to campus. “There are still some unknowns on what international travel will look like in the future,” she explained. “I think the numbers of [international recruits] are down slightly compared to what they’ve been.”

Aside from dealing with the dead period and international recruitment, another common problem is trying to calculate the number of recruits coaches would like to admit. “Each coach has a number of student-athletes they can support through the process,” Marcoux Samaan shared. “Admissions makes the decisions, and so the number of athletes fluctuates [for each sport] from year to year.” In a normal year, this process would be fairly simple; coaches would simply replace graduating seniors and other players planning on leaving the team with incoming first-years and transfers. However, this process has been greatly complicated across all sports by the number of athletes who have decided to take leaves of absence. In the fall, approximately 13 percent of the University’s student body took a leave of absence.

“The percentage of student-athletes that have taken a leave of absence is slightly higher than the percentage of non-athletes,” Marcoux Samaan said. “We didn’t put the athletes under any pressure to not take a gap year or to take a gap year. We said, ‘Do what makes the most sense for you as a student, as an athlete, and as a person.’”

Marcoux Samaan clarified that for many athletes, the decision to take a leave was not solely influenced by a desire to avoid season cancellations. “A lot of people made decisions based on academics … based on their personal situations,” she remarked.

Nonetheless, leaves of absence have caused varying levels of recruiting complications among the coaching ranks. Some coaches, like Barlow, have been lucky; the team’s leave numbers have been even across classes. Other coaches have seen a large disparity in leave numbers across classes. “We want to make sure that when [athletes on leave] return next year, that we don’t have huge roster sizes,” Marcoux Samaan said. “When prospective student athletes come in, [we want to ensure] they're walking into a situation where they have the opportunity to thrive and reach their peak performance.”

Though the department is working with coaches to ensure balanced class sizes on their teams, that flexibility is limited. “It’s not a coach’s choice to say ‘I’m going to do it this way,’ but we worked with them really specifically … to make sure they had what they needed,” she clarified. She cited constraints on the number of athletes the department can support at once, as well as the fact that the admissions department is ultimately in charge of which athletes can be admitted.

Aside from these restrictions on recruitment, another concern recruits may have when looking at the University is the Ivy League’s regulations on athletic activity during the pandemic, compared to other Division I schools. However, Marcoux Samaan said that the Ivy League’s caution in the athletic arena has not affected recruitment in any noticeable way. “I think coaches will tell you they’re having really good recruiting years … They have been impressed with the students they have found who are interested in Princeton,” she said. “We're very hopeful that [COVID-19] is a finite short-term challenge for the whole country,” she added. “We’ll be back in action, hopefully sooner rather than later.”

“We’re very strong and committed to who we are as a league,” she continued. “While it’s been wildly disappointing not to be able to compete … [The Ivy League] will come out better in the end.”

The long-term financial viability of many athletic competitions across the Ivy League and the potential impact on the interest of recruits has been a hot topic in the league recently. Brown’s decision to cut 11 varsity teams for financial reasons in 2020 grabbed headlines and raised concerns among athletes at other institutions in the conference, who worried they would be next. This concern heightened when Dartmouth eliminated five varsity teams last July and many other NCAA colleges cut sports during the pandemic.

Marcoux Samaan said that Princeton would not be cutting any teams in the near future. “Princeton does not have any plans to cut any of our sports, and we are moving forward as we have moved forward,” she explained.

Marcoux Samaan also stated that she believes the cuts will not deter recruits from wanting to compete in Ivy League athletics. “[The cuts] just make [recruiting] that much more competitive,” she remarked. “Our coaches have done a great job of trying to support [the recruits] ... They’re giving really honest answers,” she added, referencing potential concerns recruits may have about remaining varsity athletes during their time at Princeton.

While she said she cannot speak for other programs, Marcoux Samaan recognizes the challenges that all athletic departments, including the University’s, have faced during the last year. “Everyone is trying to figure out this crazy pandemic and make sure they are providing the best experience for their student-athletes,” she reflected. “Our approach has just been to be really thoughtful: Put students first, and play the long game with all of it.”

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