Social media grows as big recruiting tool
When T.J. Burrell found himself one of the top college football prospects in the state, he also found a lot of new friends on Facebook.
"Yeah, I had a lot coaches who friended me," said Burrell, a senior linebacker at Goose Creek High School who committed to Clemson over the summer. "They let you know when they are going to give you a call, they check on you to make sure you are doing good in school, how your grades are. They are on there a lot."
Increasingly, college coaches are relying on social media such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate with recruits, to build relationships and tout the merits of their schools and programs. And it's a two-way street -- coaches say they can learn a lot about prospects through their Facebook posts and Twitter feeds.
Throw in YouTube highlights, and coaches are spending more time than ever in front of their computer screens.
"If you are not evolving with technology today and how kids are communicating, then you are not going to build a relationship like someone else might be able to," said Mark Byington, assistant basketball coach at College of Charleston.
High-profile recruits still get shoeboxes full of letters from schools, and for a few years texting was the prime form of communication between coaches and recruits. But the NCAA cracked down on texting four years ago after cellphone bills of prospects skyrocketed.
These days, coaches "direct message" recruits in 140-character bites on Twitter, or "inbox" prospects on their Facebook pages. By NCAA rule, coaches cannot "instant chat" with recruits or send them public messages via either media.
But it beats the one phone call per week to high school juniors (two per week for seniors) that the NCAA permits.
"It's hard to build a relationship with one or two calls a week," said Rob Burke, assistant basketball coach at The Citadel. "You're limited to one campus visit, and you've got 48 hours to get to know a kid, and for him to get to know you.
"Through something like Facebook, you can do some of that legwork and get ahead of the game."
When coaches come across the name of a potential player, they often type in his name on YouTube to see if a highlight reel is available. One highlight tape of South Carolina freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney racked up more than 344,000 views.
"A recruiter or scout tells you a name, and you say, 'Let me go YouTube this guy real quick,' " the Bulldogs' Burke said. "It's not the same as watching a kid in person, but it's a good quick reference."
Facebook and Twitter can also aid in recruiting international players.
"I'm Facebook friends with the No. 1 player in Europe right now," Burke said. "He has no idea who I am, but I can drop him a note now and then, attach a link to our website or to an article about the program, and it's on his phone if he wants to read it."
And through Facebook and Twitter, coaches can learn about a prospect's character -- sometimes too much, at least from the recruit's perspective.
"I followed the Twitter account of one kid we were recruiting, and we stopped recruiting the kid because of what he posted," said the Cougars' Byington. "Seemed like he was out until 3 or 4 in the morning all the time. Another kid I followed, it just didn't seem like he would fit in at College of Charleston. I don't know if they know that's why we stopped recruiting them, but it was a turnoff for us."
The more coaches and players can learn about each other, the better the chance for a long-term relationship, coaches say. In 2009, there were 442 players who transferred from Division I basketball programs, and Byington said that number was probably over 500 last year.
"A lot of times, that comes from a lack of communication," he said. "The coaches didn't know everything about a kid, or he might have committed to a program that he didn't know about. The more communication allowed, the fewer transfers there will be."
And the NCAA seems to be moving in that direction. The NCAA's Division I Leadership Council has proposed "deregulating communication between coaches and prospects (including text messaging and other forms of electronic communication)" and "allowing unlimited communication after Aug. 1 before the junior year in high school."
For all the technology available now, coaches find the old-school touch still means a lot.
"We still try to do a lot of handwritten letters," the Cougars' Byington said. "You can send a link on Facebook or Twitter, but it's just as important to spend sometime and write a letter. You've got to do it all."