For Sean Miller, the West Coast is the best coast.
Specifically, his recruiting pipeline runs through California.
UA football coach Rich Rodriguez combs the same area, with a little bit of Arizona and Texas mixed in.
It’s a little bit different for Rick DeMont and the swimming program, for Fred Harvey and track and field and for Tad Berkowitz and men’s tennis.
DeMont often digs into South Africa.
Australia has been good to Berkowitz.
Some of Harvey’s best athletes hail from Kenya.
Outside of Rodriguez’s football and Miller’s basketball, UA athletics has developed quite the international flavor.
In total, there are 20 countries represented across 15 programs at the UA.
“I’ve been around the world, all on my own deck,” said DeMont, who’s been a UA coach for 25 years.
Miller’s California “pipeline” started with Derrick Williams. DeMont’s South Africa inroads began 18 years ago, when he was an assistant coach for Frank Busch.
The object of Busch’s affection was Ryk Neethling, a 19-year-old Olympian from Bloemfontein, South Africa.
He had placed fifth in 1,500-meter freestyle at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, which is where Busch — a longtime UA coach and current USA National Swim Team director — met him, and made a connection.
Neethling was good enough to turn pro in South Africa, start making the big bucks.
But, instead, Busch convinced him to travel nearly 10,000 miles away from home and swim for the Wildcats. Neethling never even visited the Old Pueblo before signing.
“Coach Frank Busch is the best long-distance coach in the world,” Neethling said at the time. “He has a great reputation, and so does Rick DeMont. There was no other choice to be made.”
It certainly worked out. Neethling wound up a 9-time NCAA champion and, arguably, the greatest swimmer in UA history.
“He was the beginning of the pipeline,” DeMont said. The Wildcats currently have two male swimmers from South Africa.
But the process of getting Neethling stateside wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Busch has called it as difficult as anything he’d ever done.
Applying his high school transcripts in South Africa to those that the NCAA requires was a complicated mess that took months.
In the end, though, it worked out. But the process of getting a student-athlete from overseas to the Old Pueblo can still be troublesome.
The Star spoke with numerous UA coaches, athletes and faculty members to break down the process, step-by-step, for bringing over an international student-athlete.
Step 1: Identifying recruits
Identifying prospective, high-level student-athletes in 50 states is hard enough.
Try sorting through hundreds of countries.
It depends upon connections, and word of mouth.
Berkowitz has them from his playing days — he was a student-athlete at Kentucky and New Mexico.
“I keep in touch with coaches that I used to play with that are coaching in different countries,” Berkowitz said. “They get in touch with me and say ‘hey I’ve got this Japanese kid you really need to look at, or I’ve got this guy from Australia you need to check out, and he’s interested in playing college tennis.’ ”
If it’s affordable, he’ll fly out to see a recruit. But, it rarely is. Particularly for, like he said, far-away countries like Japan and Australia. Instead, Berkowitz — like the other UA coaches recruiting overseas — communicates more via email and Skype than anything else.
Those connections are key, as are domestic tournaments, and it is how Berkowitz was able to lock up Kieren Thompson, from Brisbane, Australia.
A contact in Australia spoke with Thompson and then after some communication with Berkowitz, he quickly committed to the UA, sight unseen.
For track and field, and swimming, it’s a little bit different than your typical team sport. Those sports are gauged on recorded times. Track and field has the IAAF at its disposal, which lists legitimate times for athletes all around the world.
“If a kid runs 10 flat in Alaska, that’s 10 flat in China,” Harvey said. “10 flat is 10 flat, it’s the same timing system, so that definitely helps.”
Harvey was able to secure Lawi Lalang, a star runner from Kenya, because his associate head coach James Li had previously coached his brother. Every 2-3 years, Li travels to Kenya to maintain connections there. The Wildcats currently have three track athletes from Kenya, including Lalang.
For Michael Meyer, a swimmer from South Africa, once he decided he wanted to come to America, he started sending emails to coaches at universities nationwide, told them his times and what he’s accomplished.
“Most of the coaches responded, they just want to know about you and your times and stuff,” he said. “Most of the feedback I got back was from Arizona, so I decided to come here.”
Step 2: The paperwork, and the tests
Before a recruit even decides on the UA, the compliance department is tasked with looking into their background, specifically their academic records.
Each student, domestic or foreign, is required to take a certain number of courses over their time in high school, achieve a minimum GPA required by that athletic program, and it’s coinciding SAT or ACT score.
So, for example, if an athlete achieves a 3.0 GPA, the NCAA scale requires that they score at least a 620 (out of 1600) on the SAT, 52 on the ACT.
Now, not all grades and classes translate exactly to American equivalents, so the NCAA has guides for evaluating recruits from each country.
Some countries are more difficult to evaluate than others, though.
“Some like Kenya, and a lot in Africa, they have rampant academic fraud,” said Gretchen Bouton, the associate director of compliance. “So you don’t always know what you’re getting.”
Also, the university looks into whether or not an athlete has accepted money or professionalized him or herself already, which would make them ineligible for the NCAA. Once the UA determines an athlete is valid, and he or she eventually signs a letter of intent, they must then go through the NCAA’s Eligibility Center, who takes a thorough look into their background.
Once that’s all settled, the recruit is sent an I-20 form so they can apply for a student visa.
Also, at the UA, it is required for all international students to take the TOEFL, which measures a students ability to read and understand English at the university level. That’s not an NCAA requirement, just a university one.
Step 3: Coming to America
Like Prince Akeem in the 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America,” these student-athletes don’t exactly know what they’re getting into when they fly thousands of miles away from their families to a place they’ve never been.
So, for the coaches, it’s important to help them acclimate.
For Thompson, after his 17ƒ-hour flight from Australia, he landed in Arizona, and Berkowitz was waiting for him at the bottom of the escalator.
He showed Thompson around campus, around the tennis facilities, brought him to the academic advisor, and to the training room for a physical.
“That’s important to me,” Berkowitz said. “It’s just basically taking them by the hand. Once they arrive, it’s important they feel comfortable. It’s something I take pride in because their families and parents are trusting me to look after their kid.”
After that, it’s the teammates that help with the transition.
It took Meyer, a sophomore, 30 hours to get to Tucson from South Africa — with stops in Atlanta and Dallas — but once he finally arrived, he was stress-free.
“It’s surreal sitting on the plane, thinking I can’t go back now,” he said. “But once I got here, I had an easy time fitting in because the guys were so welcoming.
“Driving on the other side of the road freaks me out,” he added, laughing. “But I’ve adjusted.”
He certainly did — Meyer was a two-time All-American as a freshman.
Ultimately, the goal for an international recruit is the same as a domestic one — compete at the highest level, get a good education and move on to greener pastures.
“It’s a big risk for those guys to go halfway around the world to something they’ve never seen,” DeMont said. “But I’ll tell you this, most of the guys recognize the opportunity and really take advantage of it.”
Added Harvey: “To represent your country at the highest level has to be a priority. For an international athlete, if that’s not the case, you’re going to have a tough time getting them here. I view my job No. 1 as an instructor in terms of athletic performance, of development in building great citizens of the world.
“To have our athletes represent their country and the UA is very, very satisfying for me.”