"Ni-hao!" That's hello in Chinese, and it's how John Calipari greets people who ask about his unprecedented campaign to recruit Chinese basketball players to the University of Memphis.
Mr. Calipari, who is in his eighth season as the Tigers' head coach, has been practicing Mandarin for a half-hour each day with a Chinese basketball coach who is shadowing the Memphis program this season. In the spring, Mr. Calipari will take his team to Beijing.
It is all part of his ambitious plan to persuade the Chinese government to let its athletes play in the United States. "I'd love to get a basketball player from there," he says.
For decades, college coaches in many sports have been recruiting internationally to stock their teams with the best players they can find. But the breadth of the Memphis effort makes it one of the most sophisticated campaigns yet to get access to international athletes. That it is happening at Memphis, a perennial powerhouse already chock-full of top American players, shows just how ubiquitous foreign recruitment has become in college sports.
The proportion of foreign players in many Division I sports has doubled since the beginning of the decade. In tennis, 30 percent of the male players were from outside the United States in 2005-6, as were 23 percent of male ice-hockey players, 14 percent of female golfers, 13 percent of all skiers, and 10 percent of male soccer players. And although the numbers are not as high, they are growing fast in basketball, gymnastics, swimming, and track. Some teams are even made up entirely of foreign players.
The athletes come from all over the world: Africa, Australia, Europe, and South America are the most common places, but it is hard to find a country that has not sent players to the United States.
Coaches argue that they need to look abroad because there are not enough elite American players to go around. Some coaches travel overseas or use scouting services to find athletes, although the Internet is making it easier to work right from their campus offices. The growth of sports academies is also bringing foreign athletes to this country at younger ages, making them easier for American college coaches to find.
But some coaches believe American teams are becoming all too reliant on foreigners, shutting out potential American athletes and denying them scholarships in the process. "Every time a school gives a scholarship to a foreign athlete, that's one less scholarship an American athlete could have," says Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, the sport's governing body.
The influx of foreign athletes has prompted the NCAA to get involved in certifying their eligibility. Last fall the association established a clearinghouse to screen foreign players, who must prove they have not earned enough money to be considered professional.
The new system has stirred controversy on both sides, from coaches who call it onerous to athletics officials who contend it is ineffective (see article, Page A32).
One thing is clear: The number of foreign players will continue to rise. Ross Greenstein is the chief executive of Scholarship for Athletes, a company that helps American and foreign students land scholarships. "The number of international athletes is going to grow and grow," he predicts, "until they're the majority."
The Need to Win
Foreign athletes began making their way into American college programs in significant numbers in the 1960s and 70s, primarily in sports like tennis and track and field. Between 1940 and 1970, for example, only eight NCAA men's singles champions in tennis came from outside this country. Now about half of the top 125 singles players in Division I every year are foreign.
What's driving the trend? Simply put: the need to win. Athletic directors earn their keep by winning national championships, and they increasingly pressure coaches to fill their rosters with the most talented athletes they can find. Whether they are from Massachusetts or Mumbai rarely matters.
While most coaches try to sign the best American athletes, the top U.S. players are inundated with offers. And more blue-chip players in golf, tennis, and soccer are turning pro right out of high school, leading to a shortage of American talent. With 6,000 teams in Division I, there are just not enough of the best American athletes to go around.
"Only 40 to 50 guys are impact players in American tennis, and by the time the Dukes and the Stanfords get their picks, you've got no choice but to go international," says Billy Pate, head coach of the University of Alabama men's tennis team, where six of the 12 players come from other countries.
Foreign athletes, meanwhile, seem more eager than ever to attend American colleges. The United States is the only country where students can get an education and compete in sports at the same time. In most others, athletes must choose between higher education and pursuing their sport professionally. Amateur athletes abroad have no access to the kind of high-level coaching, training facilities, and competition that exist on campuses in the United States.
"In so many countries in Eastern Europe, the economy is such that it is very hard for them to go to college," says Jeff Jones, the men's basketball coach at American University, who has traveled to Lithuania, Hungary, and Slovenia to recruit players. "They are very grateful for an opportunity to come to the U.S. and get three meals a day and live in a nice dorm and be able to play basketball and get a free education."
Foreign sports federations and coaches, who in the past were reluctant to give up control of their best players, are also warming to the idea of sending their athletes to colleges here. That's happened as American colleges have helped groom international champions, American sports facilities have improved, and college coaches have built relationships with their foreign counterparts.
Indeed, it is not uncommon now for top foreign sports officials to tour colleges in the United States to help determine where they should point their top players. Peter Svallin, the Swedish national golf coach, flew to the University of Minnesota in the fall to meet with coaches there, check on one of his country's best young players, and evaluate the university's renovated sports facilities. Sweden has produced numerous golfing prodigies, including Victor Almstrom, a junior and an all-American at Minnesota who has helped the Gophers become one of the country's premier programs.
Dipping into the large pool of foreign athletes has helped American coaches resurrect floundering sports programs and transform losers into winners.
Nine years ago, the men's soccer team at the University of California at Santa Barbara went 2-17 and was ranked near the bottom of all Division I programs. Then Tim Vom Steeg, the team's coach, watched New Zealand's under-17 team play the United States and nearly upset the favored Americans. "I said, you know, if I could get the entire back line of New Zealand to come here, I could get going right away," he recalls.
That didn't happen. But Mr. Vom Steeg did start recruiting internationally — in New Zealand, Ghana, Canada, England, Jamaica, Ireland, and Mexico, cherry-picking elite players. In 2006 his team won the national championship with a starting lineup of nearly half international players.
Sue Bower, former women's golf coach at Tulane University, would like to have filled her team with American players. "The problem is," she says, "Suzy American is writing the same love letters to you that she's writing to 35 other college coaches."
So Ms. Bower started sending e-mail messages to athletics governing bodies all over the world, dangling the possibility of college scholarships in front of their best athletes. "I'm basically saying: Free money!" she recalls. "If you can hit the golf ball straight and do it in 75 blows or less, I want you." She adds, "I threw bullets on every continent and eventually built a top-10 program." Ms. Bower left coaching in 2005 to become an assistant athletic director at Tulane.
Success stories like those abound in college sports. Take the women's swim team at Southern Methodist University, which with a heavy international roster has never finished lower than 20th in the country over the last decade. This year nine of the team's 20 swimmers are foreign. The men's basketball program at Saint Mary's College of California broke into the top 25 this season with four Australian players. And on the women's golf team at Arizona State University, four of the five starters are from abroad: Argentina, Colombia, Spain, and Sweden. The Sun Devils have finished among the country's top-10 teams the past three seasons and appeared in 15 consecutive NCAA tournaments.
"You don't turn away a great player just because she was born in another country," says Melissa Luellen, the team's head coach.
The surest way for American coaches to find international players is to watch the athletes compete on their home turf. Some international players expect to meet the American coaches before they will commit to playing for them. "You've got to show face and prove that you're amicable and open to our culture," says Lili Alvarez, who grew up in Mexico and played golf at Northwestern and Tulane Universities.
As a result, some coaches travel extensively. "I've recruited students from Lithuania, Croatia, Finland, Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Africa, and I've personally been to most of those places," says Scott Drew, who coaches men's basketball at Baylor University, a national power in some sports thanks to its foreign players.
Not every sports program can afford $1,500 plane tickets, though, so those coaches typically rely on scouts, DVD's, the Internet, and word of mouth. Rob Meurs runs a scouting service in Europe, Africa, and Asia, primarily for professional basketball teams. But he also puts out reports on prospective college players, for which he charges institutions $450 a year. He lists a player's size, his strengths and weaknesses, the kind of game he plays, and how he would fit in on a team. Mr. Meurs says he has sent his newsletter to universities including Baylor, American, Gonzaga, and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
Another kind of scout is Dan Aronovic, who works in Israel for Scholarship for Athletes. For a fee, he helps prospective players identify colleges they would like to attend, showing them how to contact American coaches. He hangs around where Israeli students take the SAT and hands out fliers telling them they might have a chance to get a free education if they are accomplished athletes. In the last two years, Mr. Aronovic has helped guide a swimmer and a gymnast to Ohio State University, a gymnast to Pennsylvania State University, and a tennis player to the University of Maryland.
The rise of sports academies in the United States, where many foreign players come to practice their sport while seeking a U.S. high-school diploma, has also given college coaches easy entrée to international athletes without having to travel. IMG Academy, one of the largest athlete training grounds, has doubled its enrollment in the last 10 years to more than 700 high-school players, 40 percent of whom come from other countries. It trains athletes in basketball, baseball, golf, soccer, and tennis. "We're a great tool for international athletes, helping them acclimate before they go to college," says Ted Meekma, director of the academy, which is based in Florida. "When they get through here, they're ready."
International athletes who cannot afford IMG's $25,000 annual tuition, or the cost of a scouting service, call or e-mail coaches directly. Many coaches have seen a sharp rise in those calls in recent years. A decade ago, Mark Berson, the men's soccer coach at the University of South Carolina, got a letter a week from international students. Now foreign athletes send him two or three e-mail messages a day.
Sometimes the exchanges pay off. In the mid-1990s, a family in Minnesota who had been host to a high-school exchange student from Mexico, delivered a videotape of the student's sister to the University of Minnesota's gymnastics coach. The coach, Meg Stephenson, left the tape on her desk for a couple of weeks before popping it into a VCR. "We were blown away," she recalls. The athlete, Judith Cavazos, had competed in six world championships for Mexico and won in 1991. Minnesota recruited her, and as a freshman in 1997, she helped the team make it to the national championship for the first time. Now Minnesota has another young Mexican gymnast on its team who followed in Ms. Cavazos's footsteps.
"You bring one player, and they have a friend, then you bring that friend, and that one ends up bringing in another," says Cid Carvalho, head coach of the men's tennis team at Winthrop University, which has a long history of recruiting from his home country of Brazil.
Easier to Handle
College coaches say they like international athletes not only because they enhance a team's chances of winning, but also because they can be easier to coach. Most are not used to training at top-notch facilities and are grateful for the opportunity. They are often focused, both on their sport and on their studies, and need less guidance than American college athletes. Americans, by contrast, have grown up competing on state-of-the-art fields and courts under the watchful eyes of their parents, who frequently treat them like hothouse flowers.
International players may get homesick, but the majority are mature and well behaved. If they are not, the consequences can be harsh: Not only will they lose their scholarship and a chance at an American education, but they may also have to leave the country.
Athletes from abroad also help colleges diversify their student populations. "Recruiting foreign athletes may well help attract nonathlete students from the same countries," says Matt Mitten, a professor of law at Marquette University who directs the National Sports Law Institute there.
Limiting the influx of foreign athletes would not be fair, some coaches and scholars say. It might also be illegal, violating federal antidiscrimination laws.
"International kids should have just as much opportunity to compete as American players," says Constantine Ananiadis, who left his native Greece to play tennis for Stetson University and became head women's tennis coach at Oberlin College last summer. "Isn't this the land of opportunity?"
But a handful of coaches and scholars say it is American athletes who lose out when universities recruit foreign players: If a scholarship goes to an international student, that is one less available for an American.
That concerns Mark Wetmore, who coaches track and field at the University of Colorado. He knows he might win more meets if he recruited international athletes. But he doesn't do it.
"As a state institution, we have a responsibility to Colorado and U.S. taxpayers to make sure their sons and daughters have first priority," he says. "Imagine if after 18 years of paying taxes in the state of Colorado, or Maine, or Florida, your daughter has been able to throw the shot put 42 feet, but your state institution does not make an athletics scholarship available to her because they can get someone from Iceland who can throw 43 feet."
Paul H. Haagen, a Duke University law professor who specializes in sports, agrees. "What is the purpose of an athletic program that doesn't benefit the people who are paying for it directly?" he asks. Mr. Haagen says universities could also raise the academic profiles of their undergraduate populations by recruiting overseas. "We could probably win more prizes for the chemistry department if they were recruiting really heavily from elite high schools in Beijing," he says. "We're not doing that."
At Memphis, Mr. Calipari is careful to point out that he does not want a team full of Chinese basketball players. He would be happy with just one, preferably with professional potential.
At a sports-business conference in New York last month, he described his vision for the program he has established with China, telling 200 top athletics officials what's in it for them. If he cracks open the Chinese market for basketball players, he assured them, other universities could recruit there as well. And the NCAA, which has never broadcast a tournament game on Chinese television, stands to see a substantial payout from rights fees if the Memphis coach has his way. "If we can start changing the culture of what they do with their young players," Mr. Calipari says of the Chinese government, "it can help us all."
Meanwhile, Mr. Calipari knows exactly what he's going to say if he gets a Chinese player: "Xie xie." That's thank you in Chinese.