Rick Barnes hadn't even seen Kevin Durant play when Texas offered the high school sophomore a scholarship. The offer actually came from an excited assistant coach.
"I got off the phone and thought: Lord have mercy, what have I done?" Russell Springmann said with a chuckle. "I better let coach know."
Though Springmann admits he got a little ahead of himself that day after seeing the future NBA star, when it comes recruiting, he and an army of relatively unknown assistants have to be out front.
In a sport built around recruiting the next can't-miss prospect, that responsibility falls to a group of no-name coaches hardly anyone would recognize. But when it comes to prospects, those assistants usually pave the way with the Caliparis, Krzyzewskis and the Barneses often playing the role of closers.
The assistants are making the first handshake, spending months selling recruits on a school and its head coach, and befriending any and every one — from coaches to family members to principals and even guidance counselors — to help get ahead of the competition.
"A head coach, like everyone else, only has X amount of hours in the day," said Barry Rohrssen, a well-regarded recruiter in seven years as an assistant under Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh. "It's the role and responsibility of a good assistant coach to always be a step ahead and leading their head coach to the next great and best available player."
Rohrssen, who later spent five years as head coach at Manhattan, said a good assistant serves as "the bridge" between a recruit and a head coach.
Scott Pera, Arizona State's recruiting coordinator, said it's about much more than just who can play.
"Our job is to find prospects that fit the type of kid (head coach Herb Sendek) wants in our program," Pera said. "That's a big part of it — not just any kid, not just every kid. There are certain things that are important to him and over time you certainly get to understand that more."
That level of trust is why Springmann said Barnes was OK with his early offer to Durant, though Barnes did go watch Durant shortly afterward. Or why assistants like Ohio State's Jeff Boals, Michigan State's Dwayne Stephens or UNC's Steve Robinson have developed reputations as top recruiters.
The assistants are often making that first phone call or appearance at a recruit's game. They're the ones staying in contact afterward, ready to put almost everything in their personal lives on hold the moment the phone rings.
When they evaluate a prospect, they focus on every detail — even as small as a kid's body language during a timeout — and report back to the head coach and the rest of the staff. They're checking on the recruit's grades and getting a copy of his transcript to make sure he's ready for college. And they have to be humble enough to ignore ego every time the headlines focus on how the head coach just reeled in another big recruit.
At Butler, assistant Matthew Graves can remember when he and fellow assistant Brad Stevens used to tell former head coach Todd Lickliter he needed to see a recruit. Now Stevens is the head coach, and Graves is still bringing him names.
"I think the first impression can certainly make a lasting impression, good or bad," Graves said. "But I don't think it's the be-all or end-all because the first time you see them, it might be in an open gym setting or something and all you get to do is shake their hand."
Graves said he views the first campus visit — which offers the most time for Stevens to visit with a prospect — as critical.
"I think the head coach is probably the final closer but it still goes back to building relationships and feeling comfortable," Graves said. "And the assistant has as much responsibility for that as the head coach in closing the deal and to make the recruit feel as comfortable as he can."
At Texas, Springmann said sometimes the decision on which coaches take the lead on a recruit can be a matter of pairing the personality of a Longhorns assistant with that of a parent. Or maybe it comes down to which assistant has had a previous relationship with the recruit's high school or AAU coach.
When dealing with elite talents, those decisions also include how soon to get the head coach more involved.
"You say, 'Coach, we're in a good spot, but in order to stay in this kid's top three, it's going to be important for you to communicate with this kid and this family more," Springmann said. "Sometimes they might get tired of talking to me and you've got to make an adjustment. We all need a breath of fresh air. It's good for a kid and his family to hear from someone else."
In the case of UNC preseason All-American Harrison Barnes, he said Robinson was the first to talk with him and served as his primary contact for several months before head coach Roy Williams took the lead in the recruiting battle for his services.
"Usually the assistant coach would start off by making the contact, kind of laying the groundwork and establishing the relationship," the sophomore said of his early recruitment. "Then I started hearing a little from coach Williams as the process went on. He would call me, I would call him, but it was mostly through coach Robinson.1 comment on this story
"Coach Rob, he was very relaxed, very cool. So it made it a lot easier for us to communicate."
That's one of the assistant's primary goals, to make the recruit comfortable. Do it well enough, and the prospect will put his name on the dotted line. Botch the handoff to the head coach, well, all that's left is to swallow that hollow feeling and start calling the next names on the list.
"Sometimes it's not just coordinating who you're recruiting — it's making sure you're spending your head coach's time efficiently," Rohrssen said. "The worst place in the world to be in recruiting is runner-up, because that means you've just logged a lot of time, miles, energy and expense not to cross the finish line."
AP Basketball Writer John Marshall in Tempe, Ariz., and AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.