Petros Kyprianou’s philosophy when it comes to recruiting for the University of Georgia track and field team is quality over quantity.
When Kyprianou became UGA’s head coach in 2015, the team had 104 members. The size of the team has been steadily shrinking ever since and now stands at 73 athletes.
This new approach has hurt the Bulldogs’ finishes at Southeastern Conference championships but increased their success at NCAA championships. Last year, UGA’s men won their first NCAA outdoor national title, and the women won their first NCAA indoor title.
“It is a battle which I choose to fight,” Kyprianou said. “The last time I checked, an NCAA title is better than an SEC title.”
The Bulldogs’ path to this year’s NCAA outdoor championships starts at an NCAA preliminary meet today through Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla.
The SEC championships encourage bigger teams because coaches can bring as many athletes as they want, and each athlete that places in an event earns team points. Only the top 24 athletes in each event get to compete at the NCAA championships.
At this year’s SEC championships, the UGA men finished ninth and the women were 10th. When Kyprianou arrived in 2015, the teams had been consistently finishing in the top five at SECs.
In 2015, the team was made up of athletes on small, partial scholarships and plenty of walk-ons. Kyprianou made it his mission to recruit better and smarter.
The NCAA mandates that all Division I track and field programs be allowed 18 women’s scholarships and 12.5 men’s according to ncaa.org. Scholarships for cross country athletes must be included in those totals.
Five-star athletes are who Kyprianou wants at Georgia, he said, adding that they usually will not come for anything less than a full scholarship.
“The record that he [Kyprianou] has and the people that are here is why I chose Georgia,” said Kennesaw State transfer Aliyah Whisby, a sophomore who finished seventh in the pentathlon at this year’s NCAA indoor championships. “The athletes here are world-class athletes. I see myself being a world-class athlete, so why not come join these people.”
The smaller size of the team also allows for more one-on-one coaching and individualized training.
“I definitely think that is a big thing,” freshman hurdler Ziggy Zoller said. “During your training time you may have one or two other people there with you, so you get the one-on-one training time that you need.”
Said Althea Thomas, who coaches sprints, hurdles and relays at UGA: “If you are able to concentrate your effort into a smaller group of people, you can get better results.”
When looking at prospective athletes, the staff looks at their most recent marks, their growth over the last five to six years, and the event in which they compete, said Thomas, who is also the team’s recruiting coordinator. The amount of scholarship that UGA offers is based on the evaluation of those factors, not need.
“We have people who have a need for a scholarship and we have people who, quite frankly, could pay for five people to go to school. But, if their marks indicate scholarship, then they are on scholarship,” Thomas said.
The need factor comes into play when recruiting international athletes, as Kyprianou has been known to do. Just over 12 percent of the team is currently made up of international athletes, with home countries ranging from Qatar to Bermuda to Norway. There would likely be more but the cost to the athlete is so high that most cannot accept anything less than a full scholarship, according to Thomas.
Kyprianou, a native of Greece, started using his international connections to recruit top athletes when he became head coach.
In 2015, the team was not performing well enough and did not have the eye-catching facilities to attract top American athletes, according to Kyprianou. So, the coaches had to go farther afield. The strategy worked.
International recruits like Johannes Erm are now drawn to Athens because they feel that they will have a community here.
“Georgia had two Estonians here before me, and I felt like I needed to speak Estonian or I would get too homesick. I think that is why I chose Georgia,” said Erm, who finished third in the decathlon at last year’s NCAA outdoor championships.
The team currently has 24.7 percent out-of-state athletes and 63 percent in-state athletes.
The HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships play a big part in attracting the in-state athletes. They make it easier for a student to accept a smaller athletic scholarship or to walk-on. The coaching staff can use that extra money for a top international or out-of-state athlete who may not have those resources available.
“Both the quality and reputation of Georgia’s academic program and the quality and reputation of the track team has made it a viable option for [in-state] athletes who are both very serious about being a good student and athlete,” Thomas said.
Zoller, a 2018 Georgia high school champion in the 300-meter hurdles who is on the Zell Miller scholarship, said that UGA’s reputation for academic excellence played a part in his college decision.
This all contributes to Kyprianou’s “quality over quantity” motto and UGA’s upward trend in success at NCAAs.
“Being able to grow with coach Kyprianou throughout the past four years has been awesome,” senior high jumper Mary Terry said. “He has revolutionized this program.”
This story was written by Hayden Chambless of the Grady Sports Bureau, part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.