Submitted: The Two Sides Team February 23, 2014
As College Football's Signing Day Arrives, Low-Tech Recruiting Techniques Are Still Key
by Ben Cohen
The Wall Street Journal
February 4th, 2014
There are more ways than ever now for college-football coaches to contact the high-school players they are recruiting. When they really want to grab a teenager's attention, though, they set aside their smartphones and do something completely ridiculous. They send a handwritten letter.
Wednesday is college football's signing day for high-school seniors, marking the end of another recruitment cycle loaded with texts and tweets, the methods that even Luddite football coaches have had to adopt to communicate with tech-savvy high-schoolers. But college coaches say every player they sign Wednesday will also have received a letter in the past year, if not hundreds or thousands.
The contents are often milquetoast motivational messages or congratulatory notes on dominating a big game or a biology test. That may seem trivial, but many coaching staffs still begin or end their daily meetings by reaching their letter quotas. Coaches say their goal is a more personal reminder to recruits that they are thinking of them, and to give the players yet another reason to think of them.
Quantity counts as much as quality. Bob Wager, a high-school coach in Arlington, Texas, gets so many notes for his players that his mailbox at school is jumbo-sized. "When you start getting handwritten letters from coaches, they're serious," he said.
One day last April, Kentucky bombarded Matt Elam, a 340-pound tackle from Elizabethtown, Ky., with 69 letters. It followed up several months later with 182 letters. Not to be outdone, Notre Dame shipped Elam 270 letters in November, a postage ploy that Fighting Irish recruiters call a "pot of gold."
The outsize attention paid off for Kentucky last week when Elam, who said he received 50 letters on a normal day, chose the Wildcats over not only Notre Dame but also Alabama, which has won three of the last five national titles and is expected to land the nation's top recruiting class this year.
"It shows them the staff will do whatever we have to do," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. "We're willing to go overboard."
Some players keep their notes private, hanging them up on refrigerators and bedroom walls. Others share them on social media, a sign for coaches that their messages are hitting home and a hint for rival coaches that they are in the market for more. In one letter publicized by a recruit, Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins had doodled a "can of swag," which resembled a 12-ounce soda with the Coca-Cola label replaced by "swag," a catchphrase popular among teens. For others, Collins whips up "swag-o-meters," a device that "measures the amount of swag that someone might have," he said.
To keep up with the way teens use technology, Collins subscribes to Wired magazine. When Facebook disclosed on an earnings call in October that younger teens were using the service less, some coaches said it was hardly news to them. They've since familiarized themselves with hipper social networks such as Instagram and Vine.
Nevertheless, coaches give low-tech letters their stamp of approval. Collins said players appreciate the lack of pressure on them to respond right away to his missives. Besides, he said, "sometimes it's just nice to get a letter."
For all of the NCAA's recruiting rules, there are few limitations on printed material and no restrictions on how much schools spend on mail, an NCAA spokesman said. Top prospects often are inundated with brochures and questionnaires when they are sophomores, then buried by personal letters from Sept. 1 of their junior year until they sign February as seniors. The public universities ranked in the final top-25 poll this season spent an average of $470,584 on recruiting expenses last year, according to NCAA financial reports. Southeastern Conference champion Auburn spent a staggering $1.1 million on recruiting.
Letter-writing can be such a competitive business that coaches are known to gossip about colleagues who use ghostwriters and chew them out when they catch them cheating. They are ribbed by recruits about their chicken scratch, and they can scribble enough to land them on the injured list. "I don't write cursive very neat, so I'm a printer," said Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads. "That makes your hand a little more tired."
To make their notes tougher to ignore, some coaches prefer postcards. Nevada coach Brian Polian sends his assistants on recruiting trips with a stack of customized postcards and a roll of stamps, an idea he took from Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean. "The beauty of a postcard is that they get it and they don't open anything," Polian said. Written notes, he said, prove to a recruit that "you're invested him in personally and he's not just a pawn on a chess board."
There's some evidence that all these letters are producing diminishing returns. Chris Partridge, a high-school coach in New Jersey, stacks the mail his players receive on a table outside his office. Last week, he said, it was covered by a mountain of 10,000 letters, all of which went unread. "They throw them in the garbage if they even open them," Partridge said. "If one of those is a handwritten letter from Nick Saban, it's going to get lost in the pile."
High-school football players don't make the best pen pals, either. Some letter-happy college coaches, like Kentucky's Stoops, write hundreds of notes and still have empty mailboxes.
"I haven't gotten a handwritten note back," he said.