Modern technology and social media solve some recruiting problems, create others
March 1, 2013
By FOSTER LANDER
Having dealt with the media circus surrounding Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 football player in the country for the class of 2013, for two seasons, Grayson High School’s Mickey Conn is all too familiar with the hazards of social media and recruiting.
“I wouldn’t mind if the gossip message board sites, where people don’t have to sign their names, and Twitter and Facebook, went away forever,” Conn said. “It was a huge distraction for our team. Everybody wants to be a part of success, and these poor kids don’t know the types of people they’re dealing with.”
Twitter, Facebook, and video-sharing services like Hudl and Youtube allow college coaches easier access to recruits and, in theory, to build deeper relationships with the teenagers. The catch, though, is that seventeen-and-eighteen-year-olds face more scrutiny than ever before.
NCAA regulations permit coaches to begin electronic contact on September 1 of a recruit’s junior year; the contact can only take place privately, through email, Twitter’s direct message feature, or Facebook messaging.
Coaches are only permitted to call a recruit once a week, but a coach can get in touch with a recruit electronically and tell the player to call them. No limits exist on the number of times a recruit can initiate contact with coaches.
Radi Nabulsi of ESPN Dawgnation calls this electronic facetime. “That one-on-one time over the phone is still the most valuable form of contact,” he said. “But the way you facilitate more phone calls is through electronic media.”
University of Georgia baseball assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Allen Osborne echoed that sentiment. “Social media allows coaches to hide behind their cell phones,” he said. “They don’t develop a relationship via phone or in person, but we’ve had success doing that.”
The UGA football staff has used Facebook for recruiting purposes for several years, but Twitter remained an afterthought until recently. Wide receivers coach Tony Ball first tweeted Jan. 10, tight ends coach John Lilly’s first tweet appeared Jan. 28, while offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham did not tweet until Feb. 4 and 16, respectively.
“They’re just now starting to figure out that the more you use Twitter, the more contact you can have with kids, and the more contact you can have with them, the better,” said Ben Brandenburg, who joined the football staff as a full-time recruiting assistant in 2011 after serving as a recruiting graduate assistant and a student defensive assistant coach with the program.
Coaches also use social media as a sleuthing tool. “What we do quite a bit is follow kids on Twitter and on Facebook so you really know what kind of kid you’re getting,” Osborne said. “Sometimes they don’t know who’s watching and you can get a true sense of who they are.”
“I’ve seen plenty of coaches who have rescinded offers based on what they see on social media,” Nabulsi said. “Kids will tell me, ‘I’m no longer looking at school X,’ but later we hear — usually from their coach — that school X pulled their offer.”
The operative word in social media — social — means it’s an interactive forum, with the flow of information moving in both directions.
“What I’ve noticed more of lately is recruits looking for followers from individual schools, then telling those followers to tweet at other recruits to try to get them to attend UGA, or Alabama, or Clemson,” Nabulsi said. “That will eventually be standard operating procedure.”
Recruits have for years now had coaches, teammates, friends and family in their ear during the process. Add in a new dynamic — fans on Twitter and Facebook — and the attention can be overwhelming.
“Even when there’s not bad stuff on [social networks], it’s still the distraction of having thousands of people following you, with some yahoo out there saying you’re the greatest and another one saying you’re terrible,” Conn said. “It’s like they have a phone glued to their hand and they have to sit there reading every message that comes through — there is so much useless talk out there, it’s disgusting.”
“When you build up a kid to be the greatest, then he makes a mistake in a ballgame, it’s on him,” Conn added. “It hurts you to be blown up that much because that’s when people want to see you fail.”
Increased attention means Conn and his staff at Grayson have to proactively limit distractions, requiring constant vigilance and a staff member who spends his time monitoring social media activity of the program’s players.
“What we’ve got to do as coaches is to say phones need to be gone when it’s football time,” Conn said. “We keep phones out of the weight room, out of the field house, and discipline players that way.”
AS FOR VIDEO…
Hudl, a website conceived in 2006 to allow football coaches to share highlights and game film with one another, is rendering physical discs obsolete in coaching circles.
“I don’t know of many coaches alive who aren’t on Hudl,” Nabulsi said. “I spoke to two kids recently who UGA offered based solely on their highlight tape. When you think about the potential cost involved in offering a scholarship — up to half a million dollars — that’s a big commitment to make.”
Efficient video scouting is good news for recruits, too. “[Hudl] has become a way for kids in lower recruiting traffic areas to get more attention,” Brandenburg said. “There are less hidden gems. If there’s some freak out there, and a recruiting guru posts his tape on Twitter, and someone sees it in California, all of a sudden the kid is blowing up.”
“You can’t make up good plays,” Nabulsi said. “Before, coaches would go through stacks of DVDs. Now, they sit there on their iPads and it’s so much cleaner and faster, so they see more kids. You see offers going out all over the place.”
Osborne takes a different stance when it comes to baseball scouting. “Now, everybody can cut and paste and take out their bad swings or pitches and leave in their good swings or pitches,” he said. “We have to consider the source of the video. Really, we prefer to put our eyes on ‘em in the summer and fall and try to compare where they fit in with our program.”
When it comes down to recruiting a player and recruiting them as a person, little has changed since the pre-Twitter and Facebook days.
“We choose our method and stick with it,” Osborne said. “It’s still bare-knuckle-type deals when you’re trying to get a kid. The hardest thing in the world for these kids to do is to tell you ‘no.’”