Skip to main content

Social Media Changes Face of College Football Recruiting

RamseyJ1301050244.jpg

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.”

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!!!!

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.