'Do I get floor seats?' College coaches pass on athletes because of parents' behavior

Before UConn coach Dan Hurley reached the top of men’s college basketball for a second consecutive year, he had poignant advice about what it takes to get there.

Yes, he has to have measurable talent, he said, but he also has to take a hard look at you: the parents.

Parents, he says, can be destructive to his team if he lets them infiltrate its culture, poking and prodding and coddling in the selfish interest of their sons.

“Are they gonna be fans while they’re on campus or are they gonna be parents? Hurley told CBS earlier this month ahead of the men’s final with Purdue.  “Are they going to hold them accountable, have an expectation that, when something goes wrong, that it’s not the coach’s fault? That their son’s gotta work harder, he’s gotta do more, he’s gotta earn his role.”

“They tell on themselves,” he continued. “They drop hints. and (if) you’ve got the wrong type of people in that inner circle around your players, they’ll sink your program.’

Hurley’s comments, which drew national attention and continued to make the rounds on social media in the days after UConn’s decisive win over Purdue, serve as an instructive warning.

How we act at games, how we gripe and complain to coaches, how we influence our kids’ behavior to do the same (or not) can have a direct and long-term effect on their athletic experience. Hurley sounded the alert that colleges are willing to pass on “neon talent” to get a more team-centric player.

“I am so aligned with Danny on that and how he views that,” Howard men’s basketball Kenny Blakeney says. “The parents have become just as instrumental in the recruiting process as the kid.”

Blakeney, a guard on two national championship teams at Duke with Hurley’s older brother, Bobby, has learned that culture is what binds your team. In today’s world of the transfer portal and heavy parent involvement, it can just as easily blow it apart.

Blakeney and the three other division Division 1 men’s and women’s basketball coaches I have interviewed in the past year — Rutgers’ Steve Pikiell, Maryland’s Brenda Frese and UCLA’s Cori Close are the others — detailed how carefully they consider players’ parents when making up rosters.

It’s a process, Blakeney says, that’s like fitting together the intricate pieces of a puzzle while trying not to mess up the team's chemistry.

Howard basketball head coach Kenny Blakeney says he evaluates parents as much as players during the recruiting process.
Howard basketball head coach Kenny Blakeney says he evaluates parents as much as players during the recruiting process.

Blakeney said parents even seek favors from him, an understanding with coaches that began when their sons and daughters were young athletes.

“I push back,” says Blakeney, who led Howard to its first back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances the last two seasons. “I push back big time or we don't even move forward.”

His words, like Hurley’s, drive home a point for all parents who have aspirations for their kids to play collegiate sports: Coaches are watching you. In a wide-ranging interview with USA TODAY Sports, Blakeney shares what all sports parents need to know about the college recruiting landscape.

(Questions and responses are edited for length and clarity.)

1. 'Do I get floor seats?' Parental influence follows a kid

While you are sitting in the bleachers of an AAU basketball game, or speaking to other parents in the parking lot outside, Blakeney might be observing you. Yes, he wants to see that you support your child's teammates but he also wants to know about your relationship with the coach.

USA TODAY: Several DI basketball coaches have told me parents weigh pretty heavily into their thinking when they’re recruiting kids. I just was curious as to how you went about things.

Kenny Blakeney: In order for some of the better kids to play on some AAU teams, AAU directors, AAU coaches, will allow some of the parents to travel with the team, and now they feel like they have some ownership or partnership or some type of stake within that program because now (they) have some power.

That's where this all starts. And other AAU programs are calling around the parents and saying, "Hey, well they gave you guys this; we can offer this," and it becomes a negotiation. And now the parent even has more power.

And as you kind of matriculate through that process, from 12 or 10 or whatever age a kid starts until 17, 18, 19, when they complete their AAU journey, it's been a negotiation and having input. … Now, it's coming to college and it’s, "Hey, we've been able to do this our whole life and now we want a voice in your program." Everything has been a negotiation, so they see it as being a part of just a natural process.

Howard Bison head coach Kenny Blakeney says parents can create a power struggle because of bad habits learned during AAU.
Howard Bison head coach Kenny Blakeney says parents can create a power struggle because of bad habits learned during AAU.

USA TODAY: So they actually try to negotiate playing time with you?

KB: Negotiate position, playing time, NIL now … like, "Do I get floor seats? If we're traveling, how many tickets can we get?" And it's an entitlement that seeps into the kid, which seeps into the team. That can really damage and separate a team.

You just have to have very stern and non-negotiable conversations. And if they're willing to abide by conversations then you could possibly move on, depending on how you feel (about) the character of the parent and the (player).

But we've passed on kids and are passing on kids right now. I just passed on the kid yesterday who’s more talented than our level, because his guardians or family is demanding us that the kid plays the two or the three (position). And it’s like, “If that's what you're demanding now and you're not even here, what are going to be demands once you get here?"

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2. Value team, togetherness and what your coach can bring out in you, not just your NIL

Blakeney got to know Hurley, who played for Seton Hall, when he would come down to visit his brother at Duke. Blakeney and Bobby Hurley lived together. Danny crashed on their couch.

Blakeney learned he and Danny both grew up with firm, nurturing coaching role models. Hurley’s was his father, Bob Sr., at St. Anthony’s High in Jersey City. Blakeney’s was the late Morgan Wootten of DeMatha Catholic High.

As a child, Blakeney had been diagnosed with a learning disability. He was told he would never get a grade of above a C. Wootten helped him believe in his own potential.

“He had one of the largest influences on my life,” Blakeney says.

Blakeney’s mother, Bobbie, fully entrusted her son’s care to Wootten, and later Mike Kryzewski. A coach can have a life-changing impact on a player, but today’s sports landscape, and the parents that often drive it, can make it challenging to establish such bonds.

Howard Bison head coach Kenny Blakeney and players sit for the Nation Anthem before the game against the Wagner Seahawks at UD Arena.
Howard Bison head coach Kenny Blakeney and players sit for the Nation Anthem before the game against the Wagner Seahawks at UD Arena.

USA TODAY: Dawn Staley and Cori Close do semiregular Zoom meetings with parents. Do you do anything like that?

KB: We have done some initial Zooms with parents … we call it the State of the Program. We typically try to have those conversations during the recruiting period, and certainly in person.

Just last night, I had to have a really direct and transparent conversation with a parent that I know and love. But parents become such an issue and a factor, like with this young man.

If things are getting tough and the (player) is calling home and saying, "Coach made us run extra hard today." If the parent is like, "Well, why is he doing that?" And, "That's not right and that's not fair," now that (player) has some doubt. It starts to seep into their psyche. And now, does that seep into our team? Does it grow like a cancer? Does it start to spread and morph? Because it can start just like that.

The parent needs to say, "Well, son, maybe those things are good for you. Maybe those things are good for your team. Maybe those things are the things that he sees that you guys need to do to be successful. Stop complaining and embrace it."

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USAT: I’m sure you can’t even imagine Coach K having to deal with parents the way you’re dealing with them today,

KB: He didn’t. All of us stayed in school for four years. And we stayed at the same school, pretty much, for four years. So it wasn't about NIL, it wasn't about my personal stats. … And I'm pretty sure it was with programs that probably did not win. But programs that won, it was about continuity.

It was about getting a terrific education. It was about the student experience, it was about the bonding that you can have with your teammates and the overall experience of being a college student and what you can make from that opportunity for yourself.

3. Be a parent, not a 'momager.' Value education and sports as an experience itself, not just as a means to make money

Maryland’s Brenda Frese said in an interview last year she always tries to remember she’s coaching someone else’s daughter. At some point in her long, successful coaching run, she realized, she says, the winning takes care of itself.

“My job is to mentor,” she says. “I think that’s when it becomes even more enjoyable is when you understand that.”

We want our kids to have life experiences through sports and education, an idea Blakeney finds is getting lost when he recruits players.

Blakeney uses Howard University, a prestigious HBCU, as a selling point. His players have been on Capitol Hill, had audiences with the Congressional Black Caucus and frequently visit with Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard alum. They have chosen Black maternal health as a social justice project and partnered with an on-the-ground organization in Washington that provides care and support for expectant mothers.

“When you're talking about what that should mean to families, to have their kids in those type of rooms, the value of that weighs certainly more than whatever NIL demand they may have or want with playing time, positional time or anything monetarily wise,” Blakeney says, “because you can't pay to get in those rooms.”

USA TODAY: Are a lot of parents looking for a well-rounded experience like that or do you find people are focused on basketball only?

KB: It's gotten to the point where it's, just, "What’s my NIL? And how many minutes am I gonna play and what what position am I gonna play?"

Where have we lost sight of like, graduation? Where have we lost sight of internships? Where have we lost sight of, "Can we find mentors on campus and in the community that can help my son grow and develop contacts and resources to position him for the next 40 to 50 years of his life?"

Those are the things that I'm concerned with that I have a deep interest in to seeing these young men and, for us, young women succeed.

USA TODAY: Your daughter’s young, but are there things you and your wife think about and do to make sure that’s she’s seeking out those things on her own?

KB: One of the things that we talked about yesterday was that parents are like, "Well, my son is in the transfer portal, and he's 20 years old. He's grown. He can make his own decisions." And we're like, "No, he can't." Some parents really don't understand who their kids are. And that the kids aren't capable of making the right decision and the right choice for them and their future.

We have a seven year old, and I've never wanted to be that parent. At 18 years old, I really feel that our daughter, Naomi, will have every tool that she needs in order to make a great decision, but because we have more worldly experience, more life experience, we're going to have some input on that decision as well.

And I just think parents, because at 18 you can go serve in the Army or you can buy cigarettes, or at 21 you can buy beer, they assume your mindset is one of an adult to make those decisions. And it's not. And that's one reason we have so many different people in the transfer portal.

USA TODAY: I think the message for parents is, the sooner you let your kid be their own person as an athlete, the better off they’re gonna be.

KB: But it's also the sooner the parent can just be a parent and not be a "momager" or a "dadager," or a mom that’s an agent or a dad that’s an agent. Now you have this false sense of power that you think you can manipulate and negotiate and supersede yourself and programs to have some power for yourself or for your kid. What happens when your kid’s done? Where's your value at, then?

Some of these parents are super involved and then their kid doesn't reach the mountaintop they think they should reach and they just kind of, their sense of purpose, their sense of who they are is now gone and thrown out the window. Instead of just supporting, loving and being a parent. That should be your sense of worth.

Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler. His column is posted weekly. For his past columns, click here.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College sports recruiting advice for parents: Stop making demands