Teaching an old dog new tricks: College coaches use social media to lure recruits

·Senior Writer

Swinging by high school games and making home visits are no longer foolproof ways for college recruiters to convince the best high school football players in the country to play for their teams.

These talented kids, like their less athletic peers, are hooked to smartphones and social networks, and coaches—many of whom are about as far from “digital natives” as you can imagine--increasingly are trying to reach them there. Advances in technology have led salty old coaches to embrace their smart phones as a tool equally important to victory as their playbook.

College football recruiting has always been fraught with potential minefields. The NCAA handbook is over 400 pages long, chock full of myriad bylaws just waiting to trip up coaches and players. There are “dead” periods that limit contact between high schoolers and coaches, which are not to be confused with “quiet” periods, which come with a whole different set of limitations. There’s even a specific bylaw forbidding coaches from providing fancy suites or Jacuzzis for visiting prospects. These rules were all tough to navigate and enforce before the explosion of social media, but now it’s even tougher.

College coaches are in an arms race each year to nab elite talent from high schools around the country. That talent comes in the form of blue chip high schoolers, who like every other high schooler, are attached to their phones and social networks. That means if you want to build a relationship with them in order to get them to commit to your school, you also need to be on those same social networks to keep up with your competitors. This new recruiting reality led to Boston College’s 57-year-old coach coining the hashtag #BeADude, as a way to goad his desired 2014 class of players to commit to the team. Then there’s the uniquely named wide receiver coach Joker Phillips, who uses his creative Photoshop skills to create memes to lure recruits for the Gators. It’s a veritable untamed Wild West of sports.

The NCAA is doing their best to keep up, but even when they pass regulations attempting to streamline the process they meet resistance from their member institutions. The governing body of college sports used to have to just regulate phone calls and regular mail. Then came e-mail and texts. Now they have to stay up to date on the latest social networks and decide where to draw the line. Obviously they need to keep an eye on Twitter and Facebook, but what about Instagram? What if coaches and recruits use SnapChat, a service designed to leave zero trace that a conversation took place?

One of the more Byzantine quirks of the NCAA rulebook is that while coaches can interact with players privately via Facebook and Twitter, they are not allowed to mention players publicly until they have signed their letter of intent. (Players can’t sign a letter of intent until February of their senior year. Athletes can verbally commit to a school any time they want, but these commitments can be broken with no repercussions and are not recognized by the NCAA.) Using a bit of ingenuity, coaches have found a creative way around that restriction.

When Kyle Allen, a top-rated quarterback from Arizona, verbally committed to Texas A&M, Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin was not allowed to mention the young blue chipper by name. What did he do instead? That same afternoon just after Allen made his choice, Sumlin tweeted a simple “YESSIR!”. Football obsessives knew exactly what Sumlin meant, but if he was ever asked about the tweet, the coach could just say he was having a great day and no one could prove otherwise.

Sumlin is definitely not the only coach dancing around this rule. Washington Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian uses a simple “WOOF!” when a top recruit signs on. Perhaps the master of the medium is Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who combines a catchphrase (“Yahtzee”) with photos of him catching fish any time he reels in a highly touted prospect. This is all perfectly by the book because nowhere in the tweet does it mention the name of the player.

Your average fan, however, is not subject to such rules. Most of these recruits have public accounts, and while they’re considering their decision, they get bombarded with love from fans of all the programs they’ve expressed interest in. If you ever want to feel better about your own life, check out the Twitter mentions of any top recruit, some of them coming from middle-aged men whose sole goal online seems to be to encourage 17-year-olds to attend their favorite college. Some fans have even taken to impersonating attractive co-eds in an attempt to lure recruits. It cannot be stressed how very, very weird this all is.

Most of those positive messages come to a halt when a prospect commits. At that point all of the flowery language directed at the player turns to vulgar epithets from fans of the school he didn’t choose. And lest you think fans are only bothering recruits, they also track the private plane routes of their university during coaching searches, as a way to game out who the team is recruiting. No one is safe.

Social media isn't just changing the recruiting game for the coaches; it can also have a big effect on the players' careers. Last year a top cornerback prospect was expelled from Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey for a series of lewd tweets, costing himself scholarship offers from schools like Michigan and Notre Dame. (He ended up at Colorado.) Just a few weeks ago the University of Houston dropped three recruits from the Class of 2014 for inappropriate remarks on social media. The most famous Twitter account is likely that of former Florida Gator Will Hill, who publicly tweeted out a long series of very, very Not Safe For Work missives. (You can see some the highlights here, but seriously, the language is not for the faint of heart.)

It would perhaps be wise of players to follow the lead of South Carolina superstar Jadeveon Clowney, who explained his philosophy at SEC Media Day in July: "Stay out of bars and stay off Twitter." Wise advice, but less than two weeks later, Clowney’s relationship with rapper Jay-Z was investigated due to an Instagram photo posted to the star’s account.

With every program now actively involved in Twitter and Facebook, some schools are getting extremely creative to gain any edge they can in the billion-dollar industry. Notre Dame social media manager Christianne Harder has published an ever-growing series of playlists created by Irish players and coaches on Spotify, giving fans and recruits insight into what the team is listening to at practice and in the locker room.

“It's a glimpse of what their potential future could be,” Harder told Yahoo News, discussing how the initiative might help attract talent to South Bend. “It breaks whatever stereotypes they have in their heads about what our team is all about.”

Harder hopes to discuss these tactics at SXSW—the Austin interactive festival--next year.

There is only one sure thing when it comes to technology and college football: If hypercompetitive coaches can use any new service to gain an edge over a rival, they’re going to. With money as no obstacle, fans more connected than ever before and NCAA regulations unable to keep up, expect things to just get weirder.

Explore the entire Born Digital series from Yahoo News:

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