In 2006 while still coaching at Rutgers, Fred Hill was making his final recruiting pitch to St. Benedict’s Prep (N.J.) star Lance Thomas.
The 6-8 forward was a Top 50 national talent and the type of in-state recruit that Hill was looking to build his program around after a 19-14 season and an appearance in the NIT.
For Thomas, he had whittled down his list and was now set to choose between Hill and Rutgers or coach Mike Krzyzewski and Duke.
Over the course of Thomas’ recruitment, Hill had communicated with the New Jersey native through handwritten letters, something that had become a staple of his recruiting pitch to all of his top recruits. Some were shorter, some longer, most all included with information about the program or university.
So Hill had an idea for Thomas’ final visit to campus.
Hill, known as a high-level recruiter in the Northeast, brought Thomas to center court at The RAC, Rutgers’ 8,000-seat home arena, where he had a surprise.
“When Lance visited we took a copy of every note, close to 350, I would say, and laid them out at center court and we sat and talked about the relationship we had built,” Hill recalls. “I literally had written him five days a week.”
“There’s no rhyme or reason to the notes,” Hill continues. “There might be two or three notes at one time, but it could lead from a conversation that we had or just something that strikes me that’s pertinent to that young man’s life.“
Thomas ultimately chose Duke, eventually winning a national championship with the Blue Devils, but Hill continues his letter-writing to this day, now as an assistant under Bill Carmody at Northwestern.
And it has paid off.
This past week, the Wildcats reeled in their biggest recruit in nearly a decade, getting a commitment from Gill St. Bernard’s (N.J.) guard Jaren Sina.
Where Hill missed out on Thomas, he was able to secure Sina, a Top 75 player from the Class of 2013, who pledged his name to Northwestern on July 2. He cited Hill as a driving force behind the decision because, while Hill was at Rutgers, he was the first coach to offer Sina a scholarship.
“Overall, I thought it was the best school,” Sina told HoopGroup.com. “Most importantly academically and the system of play, I think I could be really successful.”
And Hill’s letter writing didn’t go unnoticed, either.
“I got a bunch of those [handwritten letters],” Sina says with a laugh. “I’d get a lot of letters from schools, but I’d have a stack of envelopes from Northwestern that would stick out.
“Sometimes I would get six or seven at a time. They would be about the school, how he feels like I would fit into the system.”
NCAA bylaw restricts Hill from speaking publicly about Sina or any other recruits until they have signed a national letter of intent, but he sticks by his handwritten letters as a key to his recruiting approach.
“It’s been something that I started very early in my career at Lehigh,” Hill explains. “Back then without the Internet and the texting, most people made phone calls. Now getting a personal note from someone every once in a while, it seems just that: personal.
“Guys know that I’m not sending out handwritten letters to 30 guys, so they know it takes time.”
And now, in the year that the NCAA has deregulated text message rules to allow coaches to communicate with players an unlimited amount, the novelty of a well-thought-out letter is worth more than the 45 cent-stamp it took to send it in the mail.
Hill maintains that he’ll stay away from Twitter and other social media, but the texts, phone calls, and, most importantly, letters will keep coming, all in hopes of building a team that can clinch Northwestern’s first-ever NCAA tournament berth, now with Sina as a centerpiece.
“It would be such a great opportunity for the program and I want to be part of it,” said Sina of possibly reaching the Big Dance. “It’s a great goal to strive for.”
Follow Daniel Martin on Twitter: @DanielJMartin_