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Coaches turn to social media to recruit, evaluate future players
Jalen Ramsey is off the grid. Or at least as much as an incoming college freshman can be in 2013.
Nearly seven months before the Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy cornerback signed with Florida State, Ramsey decided he had had enough input on the recruiting process from the outside world, including the faceless and anonymous masses.
“I am Jalen Lattrell Ramsey and college is MY choice! MY choice only! No one elses!” Ramsey tweeted on June 28, 2012. “It’s ALL on me! Y’all will hear from ME...”
That was less than a month before Ramsey announced a commitment to USC. And by the time he changed his mind to sign with Florida State, the coveted prospect had retired his @jr7_eagles Twitter handle.
For Ramsey, that may have been for the best as he navigated the final months of the recruiting process. Before he shut down, his mentions column was filled with encouragement, pleas to attend certain schools, but also posts knocking some of the schools he considered.
“Some things were said that were just out of line,” Ramsey says. “Rumors started. Grown men talking about 17- and 18-year-old kids, it’s unneeded. It was just, ‘I’m done with that.’”
That’s one extreme of the way social media has changed recruiting in college sports. Ramsey’s teammate, quarterback Max Staver, had a different experience.
Granted, Staver was not as high-profile a recruit. And he picked Florida in June before his senior year and never wavered. After he committed to the Gators, dozens of fans welcomed him to the roster. As he exchanged tweets and direct messages with other Gator commitments, Florida coaches asked him to be an ambassador for the program, talking to recruits in ways they couldn’t.
“After I committed I was talking to a bunch of guys, I was probably texting guys 10 times a day and telling them to check out Florida,” Staver says. “I wasn’t trying to get in their face or be rude about it. But there were a lot of questions. Being a quarterback in the recruiting class, they want me to reach out.”
Few facets of the recruiting process have remained untouched by social media in the last four years. Coaches use Twitter and Facebook to communicate with recruits and evaluate prospects both on and off the field. Recruits use social media to get to know their future coaches and teammates and, at times, bask in the adoration of fans. Fans use it to follow the process while explaining all the reasons their school would be the right choice (and, sometimes, why other schools would be the wrong choice).
Bottom line: It’s inescapable.
“It’s an unstoppable force in recruiting,” Miami recruiting coordinator Brennan Carroll says. “You don’t really have a choice. If you’re not doing it, you’re probably wrong. That’s the way we look at it here.”
#WelcomeToTheU !!!!!!— Brennan Carroll (@brennanpcarroll) June 22, 2013
The initial catalyst for the social media revolution in recruiting wasn’t Twitter or Facebook or even social media relic MySpace. It started with texting.
When Carroll coached at USC with his father Pete Carroll, Trojans coaches visited high schools to meet with recruits only to find that their targets already had relationships established with other programs. The reason was text messaging. Prospects had been texting with USC’s recruiting rivals months before the Trojans could catch up.
USC was behind on that trend, but by 2008 that wouldn’t matter anyway when the NCAA banned text messaging with recruits. The lesson, though, was that the recruiting through email, phone calls, official visits and coach in-home visits weren’t enough anymore.
According to NCAA interpretations, Twitter direct messages and Facebook private messages are legislated the same way as emails, which is to say they are an unlimited form of communication. In practice, a Twitter or Facebook private message may as well be a text.
And from the coaches’ perspective, this is how recruits communicate with their friends anyway.
“You want to meet the prospects where they’re at,” says Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand, one of the most enthusiastic coaching voices on Twitter. “You can sit here and say, ‘I’m going to communicate with this guy in my way,’ and not get anywhere. You have to meet them where they are. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are how kids communicate. That’s the world we live in now.”
That new world is a fish bowl.
James Coley was one of the first college coaches to embrace Twitter and one of the first to turn it into a recruiting tool.
While the tight ends coach at Florida State, Coley started a Twitter account to break the stereotype that the Seminoles’ coaching staff under Bobby Bowden was old-school and stuffy.
Welcome to the U!!!!— James Coley (@CoachColey) June 22, 2013
A few years later, and it’s almost a given that recruits will be visible on Twitter. Reporters often mention recruits’ Twitter handles in updates. Prospects tweet about the process. One network of team recruiting sites lists the Twitter handles of prospects making official visits in its weekend recruiting previews.
Coley’s energetic bursts, frequently in all caps with plenty of exclamation points, trended throughout the Seminoles’ fan base on Twitter. When Coley started hearing one of his top phrases — “FEAR THE SPEAR” — from high school prospects, a light bulb went off.
Recruits followed him, and then fans on Twitter used Coley’s list of followers to find recruits.
“I’d tell kids to follow me on Twitter and pretty soon you’re going to have a thousand followers,” says Coley, now the offensive coordinator at Miami.
As a result, fans are more clued into the recruiting process than ever before.
Shane Morris, a quarterback from Warren (Mich.) De La Salle, committed to Michigan in May 2011. One of the top quarterback recruits in the country, Morris also tweets like one of the biggest Michigan fans in the country. Most of his nearly 25,000 followers responded to the positivity in kind.
“When you have fans like Michigan, a fan base that shows them love, kids like that,” Morris says.
That’s the experience of a top recruit who spent his entire senior season committed to the same school.
Fans of schools who watch recruits change their minds through the process vent their frustrations on Twitter, often directly to the recruit.
Auburn (Ala.) linebacker Reuben Foster, a top-10 player nationally, first committed to Alabama, but changed his mind the summer before his senior season. He switched to hometown Auburn in a move that he made more official by getting a tattoo of the Tigers’ logo inside his right forearm.
There was no need to imagine the reaction when Foster switched back to Alabama shortly before Signing Day.
It was laid bare on Twitter.
Alabama fans welcomed him with open arms. Some Auburn fans wished him well at his new school. Others weren’t quite so charitable. Among the reactions mentioning Foster that day that we can mention: (right)
As much as navigating social media is an issue for recruits and coaches, the revelations can be a headache for administrators.
In a trend that’s become all too common, Laquon Treadwell, one of the nation’s top wide receiver prospects, posted a picture to Instagram of him holding $100 bills days before signing day. The Ole Miss commitment out of Crete (Ill.) Crete-Monee also posted a picture to Twitter of two women kissing him on the cheek with the caption “Oxford is the best place I’ve ever been.” Treadwell deleted the photo of cash, but not before it made the rounds through fans and media. He later told The Chicago Tribune he was goofing around and he received no money from Ole Miss to sign with the Rebels.
And it’s not just the recruits who lack a filter on social media. Two Florida International players tweeted in January about taking a recruit to a strip club. If any of FIU’s recruiting budget was used to take a recruit to a strip club, then it’s an NCAA violation. Even if that was not the case, the episode isn’t great publicity.
NCAA bylaws also prohibit representatives of the program’s athletic interests from contacting recruits. This primarily means boosters, but more broadly the definition could include many fans.
Anonymity and the sheer volume of social media messages directed to recruits make any sort of action on offenders near impossible. Instead, many athletic departments actively try to discourage such contact.
Notre Dame put out a YouTube video (below) with athletic personnel saying, “Leave the Recruiting to Us.” Texas A&M’s Brad Barnes is one of many compliance directors active and available on Twitter to clear up compliance issues for fans. Some fans respond when he asks them to steer clear of the process on social media. For those who don’t heed Barnes’ advice, there’s not much Texas A&M — or any school — can do to stop it.
“From a practical standpoint, you don’t see a great deal of reporting on that unless it’s a situation where they say, ‘We know who this individual is, this was brought to our attention, they are who they say they are, or we found out who they are and we know who they are,’” Barnes says. “I don’t know of a lot of institutions that go out actively looking for it.”
Of course, no one tells recruits they have to be on Twitter or Facebook, sharing details of their recruitment. Just don’t expect that level of openness to change.
“It’s changed the mindset of a lot of kids compared to the old days, because if a kid got offers, he’d keep it to himself,” Vanderbilt wide receivers coach and offensive recruiting coordinator Josh Gattis says. “Now kids get offers and tweet about it. They’re trying to get attention to themselves.”
Vanderbilt under James Franklin has been among the top staffs in the country in using social media to interact with fans, players and recruits.
Gattis and his receivers use the hashtag #FlyBoyz to keep up with each other. Hand, on Twitter since he was at Tulsa in 2009, is a favorite follow for media members with his sense of humor. As for recruits, Hand says he’ll send 10-15 messages to recruits each day with photos from practice or the athletic facility. Franklin tweets about building the Commodores program with his hashtag #VanderBUILD.
But for all its efforts, Vanderbilt isn’t Alabama, LSU, Florida or Georgia.
The Commodores still need to unearth prospects other teams miss to stay competitive in the SEC. Social media makes that much more difficult. Recruits tweet about the recruiting process, who’s calling, who’s been by to see them. Besides highlight videos being readily available on sites that cover recruiting, prospects can upload highlight videos to YouTube and Hudl, a video service tailored exclusively to coaches.
“It’s very hard to keep a gem a gem,” Gattis says. “These days finding a diamond in the rough is really tough because sooner or later someone is going to be exposed to that player.”
Coaches also have a way to find out which recruits might not be worth the risk.
Many coaches admit they’ve stopped recruiting a prospect because of concerns raised by their social media accounts, whether it’s language, compromising photos, comments demeaning to women or simply tweeting at late hours on weeknights.
Hand says he’s talked to some recruits about changing their tones on Twitter. If they don’t, that’s another strike — they’re uncoachable.
Vanderbilt isn’t alone. After Signing Day, Tennessee coach Butch Jones remarked that the Vols had withheld scholarships because of concerns raised by Twitter and Facebook.
But at the same time, social media enabled the first-year coach in Knoxville to build momentum in his first recruiting cycle. When he was hired at Tennessee, Jones’ Twitter account was briefly suspended after a deluge of Volunteers fan followed the former Cincinnati coach.
“When we were coming in here, in a short period of time we had to develop those relationships,” Jones says. “At the end of the day, recruiting is all about relationships. That was a way to expedite getting to know these players.”
For example, Jones, who requires all his assistants to be on Twitter, used social media to endear himself to fans, but also to become quickly acclimated with recruits.
Late in the process, the Volunteers badly wanted to sign Joshua Dobbs, a quarterback out of Alpharetta, Ga. Through Twitter and Facebook, Jones and his staff learned of his favorite foods, the importance of playing baseball, his favorite classes and his focus on engineering programs. Guess what became the focus of his ultimately successful recruitment to Tennessee?
“You’re always looking for that information, what people are important to him, what are his hot buttons,” Jones says.
Whether it’s a red flag that tells coaches to stay away or a nugget that shows that a prospect will be a good student and teammate, recruiters will find it if it’s on their Twitter or Facebook accounts.
“It’s information they’re giving us whether they know it or not,” Brennan Carroll says. “We won’t miss a thing. … These kids are just flat-out telling you.”
As much as social media has sped up the recruiting process, it’s also sped up the bonding process.
Meeting a college roommate on the first day of class is long gone. So is exchanging emails or cell phone calls. Chemistry can be built before a freshman class steps on campus. Prospects meet at camps, all-star games or visits, and from there they exchange phone numbers and find each other on Twitter and Facebook.
Before he takes a snap at Michigan, Morris is already showing the characteristics of leading the Wolverines in the huddle. He’s organized unofficial visits to Michigan and kept in touch with his future teammates long before practice starts.
“Our recruiting class is probably the closest class in the nation,” Morris says. “Most of us have iPhones and we’re in group chats and keep up with each other. When we take visits we make sure everyone’s taking them together.”
But not every prospect is spending his days on Twitter talking to coaches and teammates, even though signing day has come and gone.
Ramsey, the Florida State-bound cornerback, stuck by his self-imposed Twitter exile.
“I just have Instagram. I put up pictures of my nephews and nieces and pictures of my family,” Ramsey says. “I thought about bringing (Twitter) back, but I haven’t missed it one bit. I might make a Facebook page with coaches and friends, but I’m not worrying about it, to be honest.”
This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 Regional Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 college football season.
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