Until recently, the NCAA's general policy toward the coach/prospective recruit relationship was to shelter the player whenever possible. When landlines were the only way to get in touch, coaches had limits on how many times they could ring the house phone in a given month. When mobiles and text messages first arrived, the NCAA restricted that, too. It wasn't until the rise of social media, the ubiquity of smartphones and the spread of unlimited text-messaging plans obviated most (if not all) of the distinctions of modern communication that the NCAA membership finally stepped back and realized that restricting different modes of contact that all filter into one device was kind of pointless. Also: High school kids know how to screen calls and ignore texts. They're pretty good at those things.
Before the post-PC revolution did its work, though, the through line in the NCAA's rules was the idea that players and their families don't like to be bombarded. Sheer costs were easiest to point to -- remember how expensive long-distance calling used to be, and how when you were little you had to get off the phone with your grandpa because you were running up his phone bill? -- and easiest to quantify. But there was also the fuzzier notion that college prospects are still just high school kids and their families are trying to live a normal life. You shouldn't be able to call them 85 times a day. Let them breathe, you know?
But what if the recruiting contacts were letters? And what if the letters were actually welcome?
Stephen Zimmerman (Las Vegas/Bishop Gorman), the No. 7-ranked player in the Class of 2015, is a big-time target for a host of the nation's elite programs. Even with two years of high school left to finish, he's already a wisened veteran of the recruiting scene; players that talented hear it all. That is why UNLV's old-fashioned strategy to entice Zimmerman -- best described as "semi-jokingly flooding his family's mailbox with hundreds of recruiting mailers" -- might be the surprise recruiting win of the year.
— Stephen Zimmerman Jr (@BIGG_ZIMM) September 11, 2013
Stephen's father opened the family's mailbox on Wednesday afternoon and discovered 96 envelopes stuffed inside, 86 of which were from UNLV. There were so many envelopes that he startled Stephen and Lori when some of them fell out of his hands as he walked into the house to show them.
"We heard a crash, we looked over and the letters were all over the kitchen floor," Lori said Thursday. "I was like, 'What the heck is that?' And he said, 'That's from UNLV.' We just started laughing."
This is not a completely original strategy; football coaches have used it to noted effect and Colorado coach Tad Boyle went to the well when he was recruiting guard Spencer Dinwiddie (successfully) in 2010. But it is a pretty great one. In a world drenched in disposable digital communication, taking it back to the good old analog days makes for a clever reversal. It's old-school. It might even be ironic!
UNLV didn't just throw a bunch of generic brochures in Zimmerman's inbox. All of the letters were different, Eisenberg reports: "Some contained handwritten letters from the UNLV coaches explaining how excited they were to recruit Stephen. Others included fliers and pamphlets highlighting UNLV's basketball facilities or their track record of producing NBA players. One even had a card for Stephen, who celebrated his birthday Monday."
Handled poorly, sending a recruit 86 letters would seem like a joke at best, or an insensitive bombardment at worst. Handled well, it proves both funny and flattering. The Zimmerman's certainly didn't seem to mind:
"I think the letters show some ingenuity," Lori said. "They know us pretty well, and I think they knew it was going to get a laugh at least. It also goes to show that he is a priority for them – either that or they have a really good mailing service."
Therein lies the essential difficulty of recruiting. How do you as a respected, accomplished, (probably) middle-aged college basketball coach express your undying love for a high school kid without seeming pushy, creepy or cold? How do you turn extreme gestures of interest into endearing moments of flattery? How do you win families over when every family is different? Or, as UNLV coach Dave Rice put it to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it's a matter of finding "that perfect balance for each recruit so he knows what a priority he is without over-recruiting."
That's why I'm glad I don't persuade high school kids to make life-changing decisions for a living. But Rice and the Rebels seem to be on the right track.