Jason Butts: ‘We Keep Working Hard. That’s What Mountaineers Do’
For every college athletic program, recruiting is the pathway to success.
But the actual path taken to secure those recruits can vary greatly from sport to sport.
Football puts a lot of emphasis on the spring contact period and then summer camps.
The value of most basketball prospects is usually judged on the AAU circuit.
Gymnastics doesn’t have nearly as many high school-sponsored programs as most other NCAA teams, so college coaches have to develop an intimate knowledge of the private clubs that are the instructional foundation of that sport.
“We have great relationships with hundreds of clubs around the country,” explained WVU gymnastics coach Jason Butts. “They’ll send out emails when their gymnasts are getting close to the age where they can be actively recruited. At that point, it’s done mainly through video clips, as they send us their training videos. From there, we follow up with their competitions that are usually hosted by the private clubs. We will travel to those.
“Then at this time of year, we would be gearing up to go our junior Olympic national championships, which are sponsored by USA Gymnastics,” he added of the spring and summer evaluations. “Obviously that has been cancelled this year, but that normally is the best opportunity we have to see the prime recruits in the country. Also you have the Olympic Trials, which would have been this year, and the national championships, which is focused on the senior level athletes. We would have been at most of those events.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed recruiting for all college athletic programs, including gymnastics. The biggest events for that sport, which are major showcases for prospects, were slated for May and June – the Junior Olympic Level 9 Eastern Championships in Battle Creek, Michigan on May 8-10; the Junior Olympic Level 9 Western Championships in Roseville, California on the same three days; the Junior Olympic Level 10 National Championships in Tacoma, Washington, May 15-17; the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, June 4-7; and the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in St. Louis, June 25-28. All have been outright cancelled or at least postponed until next year because of the virus.
It’s all changed gymnastics recruiting.
“The dead period, which prevents athletes from visiting campus, has changed things,” explained Butts, who has been WVU’s head coach since 2012. “We had several on-campus visits that were lined up, a couple who were coming to our last home meet (March 13) and others who were coming to the Big 12 Championships (March 21 at the Coliseum). We had to cancel those visits, and this has definitely thrown a wrench into recruiting for us and every other program. We’re all on equal footing in that regard.”
The stay-at-home orders may have changed recruiting, but they haven’t stopped it. While meets were cancelled and in-person visits are currently prohibited, Butts and his staff are still making connections with prospects.
“Now it’s about being creative when it comes to recruiting,” Butts noted. “We’re staying within the rule. We’re talking to a lot of club coaches.
“When you take into account we’re already recruiting into the 2023 class and in some cases 2024, this is a lot to keep up with normally. Now with the restrictions, it makes it a little more challenging to get the West Virginia name out there and sell what we’re doing here.”
The Mountaineers’ short-term needs could have been different if the NCAA had approved a proposal to grant 2020 winter-sport seniors an additional year of eligibility in 2021 since their final college seasons had been cut short. WVU’s final regular season meet was cancelled, and its entire postseason eliminated in response to the coronavirus, and fate denied West Virginia’s four seniors – Chloe Cluchey, Erica Fontaine, Abby Kaufman and Julia Merwin – their final collegiate moments.
Spring sport athletes, who for the most part were just starting their seasons, were granted an additional year of eligibility if they and their colleges want to use it. There was a proposal to allow winter-sport athletes an extra year as well, but that was eventually turned down.
“When that was brought up, one of the first things that came to my mind was that by the time a gymnast comes to the end of their senior year at 21 or 22 years old, they are fairly beat up,” noted Butts of the additional year proposal. “A lot of them are mentally prepared to make that push through their senior year and are ready to move on. I wondered if it was something that could be accomplished safely for the athlete.
“My second thought was, in a perfect world it would have been great to give people another chance at something that was taken away against their will.
“To me it had to be done fairly across the board for all sports,” Butts added. “It was going to screw up recruiting. We recruit years ahead. It was going to open up a whole can of worms. It was happening very fast, and when people started thinking all the details through, we couldn’t rush into that kind of situation. My heart breaks for those seniors, especially this class who cried in the gym when they found out. They’ll be OK, though. They’re a resilient group. I think the right decision was made from a coaching and planning standpoint. That would have been a lose-lose situation.”
In the end, many college student-athletes had their seasons – and in some case careers – brought to a sudden halt by COVID-19.
“A quote I read from an American track runner after the Olympics were postponed is ‘We’re not owed our dreams.’ I thought that was a great way of putting it,” said Butts.
“We didn’t quite get to the dreams we had this year, but that doesn’t mean we give up and stop climbing. We keep working hard. That’s what Mountaineers do.”