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June 6, 2009

Technology changing the face of recruiting

MORE: New technology a double-edged sword | Coaches adjust to generation gap

In Facebook lingo, football coaches would like to add hot-shot wide receiver Markeith Ambles as a friend. And if he wanted to, Ambles could update his Facebook status on any given night to "listening to recruiting pitches."

Ambles, a Rivals100 member from McDonough (Ga.) Henry County, said he has received Facebook messages from coaches at Clemson, UCLA, Florida State and Auburn in recent weeks, after the NCAA decided coaches can contact recruits through social networking sites.

"Some of the coaches, I haven't even talked to," Ambles says. "It's cool. I'm on it anyway. If I want to talk, I talk to them."

On the other side of the screen, Clemson wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott didn't have any trouble convincing the rest of the staff that Facebook and Twitter could change recruiting. In the past, it sometimes took recruits three or four days to answer Scott with email; Scott's messages to recruits on Facebook usually receive replies by the end of the day.

Half of Clemson's recruits in the Class of 2010 have Facebook accounts, and seven of Clemson's nine assistants coaches are on Facebook. Coach Dabo Swinney also has started a Twitter page, with other assistants to follow.

"You have to stay up with the times to be competitive," says Scott, 28, one of the youngest assistants in major-college football.

Forget the future of recruiting. This is its present for now at least.

Football and basketball coaches spent the offseason increasing their presence in cyberspace at a furious pace. By the end of May, dozens of head coaches and assistants in both sports had established Twitter pages. A few more had beefed-up their presence on Facebook. And that was before many of them knew the NCAA considered email-based correspondence on social networking sites to fall under the same rules as email, meaning they basically can be unlimited in nature.

Under NCAA rules, coaches in Division I and II can communicate with prospects via one-on-one messaging from social networking sites even if a recruit wants to receive the coach's message as a text. Phone-to-phone text messages and instant messaging, even through a social networking site, remain off-limits. In 2007, Division III prohibited social networking in recruiting along with text messages.

The exception for direct messaging via social networking sites is a change of pace for coaches, who have seen their ability to contact and evaluate prospects curtailed in recent years. The NCAA banned coach-to-recruit text messaging in 2007. And last year, the NCAA barred head coaches from leaving campus to recruit during the spring evaluation period.

Coaches, though, question how long Facebook and Twitter will be permissible as a recruiting tool. Illinois coach Ron Zook, for one, wondered if social networking could be effectively policed or legislated.

"I'm not sure the NCAA understands exactly what it is," he says. "I sure don't."

The ban on text messaging came after recruits complained the constant messages from coaches became too intrusive and too costly. The NCAA looks favorably on direct messaging on social networking sites since it allows prospects to avoid those two concerns. Setting up accounts on Twitter, Facebook and MySpace is free, and users can control how they want to receive messages through the site, by email or by text message. A user also can elect whether to receive messages from particular users.

I'm not sure the NCAA understands exactly what it is. I sure don't.
Illinois head football coach Ron Zook
Dan Tudor is a high school football coach in California and also president of Selling for Coaches, a consulting business for recruiting. He worked in corporate sales and management before venturing into college sports recruiting, and he has consulted coaches, parents and athletes in recruiting for more than a decade. Before the NCAA ruling, he had urged coaches to use Twitter to build a rapport with recruits and fans. Now, using Twitter is a must for coaches, he says.

"For years coaches complained about having text messaging taken away from them," Tudor says. "[Twitter] looks and feels and acts like a text message, but it's by phone that's tied to a Twitter account."

But Tudor, who works with coaches in all sports in Division I, II and III, cautions against using Facebook or MySpace, even though it is within the rules. During interviews with Tudor, he says athletes have said they felt coaches using Facebook was "kind of creepy."

"One student said it's the equivalent of being on the phone in your room with a parent with their ear on the door trying to listen," Tudor says. "It's not so much a legality thing; it's a best-practices issue. It's too much of an intrusion into their world."

For Clemson, at least, that's not such a bad thing. Even though Scott said he heard some recruits say they'd prefer coaches stay away from their Facebook pages, it may be a tool that's too irresistible to give up. In the recruiting cycle that ended in February, Scott says the Tigers backed off recruiting at least one prospect when they took a closer look at his Facebook page and saw the photographs he posted and the people in his friends list.

"We get on Facebook and look up prospects and look at what's on their page," Scott says. "It tells you about them, and you want to know about young man before you offer him a scholarship. If we see things that worry us, we might slow down [recruiting him] or call his coach and ask questions about the young man."

How many programs have contacted recruits through social networking sites is unclear. Michigan confirmed its coaches used social networking to contact recruits, and coach Rich Rodriguez maintains Twitter and Facebook accounts.

And UCLA says its representatives have responded on Facebook to recruits who have contacted coach Rick Neuheisel's page. But UCLA prefers its own email system for speaking to recruits.

USC coach Pete Carroll has been one of the most active coaches online, with accounts on Twitter and Facebook as well as online videos, but he hasn't ventured into using social networking to contact recruits, says Ben Malcolmson, USC's director of online media.

"That's not our intention," says Malcolmson, a former walk-on player at USC who has been instrumental in Carroll's ventures into cyberspace. "Honestly, I don't know how many 16-, 17-year-olds are on Twitter. I think it's the older generation or the college generation."

Illinois is playing it safe, too.

Zook "tweeted" about the NCAA's ruling on direct messaging for recruits, but officials say the Illini aren't ready to dive into social networking sites until the recruiting coordinator, compliance department and sports information department figure out what the NCAA will allow and what it won't.

Many of the same recruiting rules apply. Coaches may not comment on a prospect or communicate publicly with a recruit (i.e., on a Facebook wall or a Twitter @reply, which would be visible to any visitor to the coach's or athlete's page). A coach and recruit are permitted to be Facebook "friends" or Twitter "followers" since that information is viewed as the coach merely confirming recruitment of a prospect, which the NCAA allows.

Still, the use of Twitter and Facebook already has led to some trouble. Tennessee reported a secondary violation when coach Lane Kiffin's pages on both sites announced the commitment of LaGrange (Ga.) Troup defensive end J.C. Copeland who will be a high school senior this fall to the Volunteers.

The post read, "It's a beautiful day in Knoxville, Tennessee today. I was so exited [sic] to hear that J.C. Copeland committed to play for the Vols today!"

Under NCAA rules, coaches aren't allowed to comment on prospects until they have signed. Tennessee blamed the gaffe on Kiffin's new personal assistant.

Some coaches are wary of getting too fond of the new rules. What is legal today might not be legal a year from now, as coaches learned when text messaging was banned.

"I would not be surprised in a year or so if it's completely banned," Scott says. "Now it's time for them to gather information. That's usually the way this stuff happens: Coaches find out about it before the NCAA is able to research and find out what's really going on."

Before the NCAA's interpretation on social networking sites and recruiting, coaches already had latched onto Twitter as a public-relations tool. Most used their pages to talk about speaking engagements, congratulate graduates and pro draftees or post inspirational quotes, but some are having fun with the new technology.

Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean and Kentucky counterpart John Calipari traded friendly barbs and competed for followers on Twitter; Calipari has a sizable lead, with more than 135,000 to Crean's 6,800.

Carroll, who has more than 22,000 followers, implored his fans to persuade comedian Will Ferrell to join Twitter, and Carroll has tweeted back and forth with the Lakers during the NBA playoffs. Recently, he polled fans on which USC player's number should appear on jerseys for sale during the upcoming season.

More than a third of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches have Twitter pages, which they maintain to varying degrees.

"It's hard to stay up with technology as fast as things are moving," Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora says. "I'm learning as I go. But I do see where the future is. In this business, we're obviously recruiting 17- and 18-year-old kids and they're up to date on everything out there. We have to stick with them or fall behind."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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