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The 'social' science of recruiting

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Social media matters in recruiting (3:04)

Top prospects at the Under Armour All-America Game discuss the importance social media played - and plays - in their high school football experience. (3:04)

Just hours after he arrived at Iowa State, new Cyclones football coach Matt Campbell assembled his small group of coaches for a first staff meeting. They discussed hashtags and emojis.

"If you want to be a good recruiter in today's college football, you have to be on [social media]," Iowa State director of scouting John Kuceyeski said. "If you're not doing it, you're going to get beat by somebody that's doing it. You have to be out there. You have to be different. You have to be completely visible and be accessible, and the best way to do that in today's recruiting world is through social media."

In that meeting, Kuceyeski threw out #AStormIsBrewing as the hashtag the Cyclone coaches would use when posting anything on Twitter that was recruiting-related, and #SoundTheSirens would be the tag they would use when landing a commitment. ISU recruiters were also encouraged by Kuceyeski to liberally use the tornado emoji when posting.

Both hashtags -- and especially the twister emojis -- are hits with fans and prospects, and have helped generate the positive recruiting momentum Campbell wanted for his new program. But in the larger picture, Iowa State's hashtag and emoji success symbolizes a social media revolution that has forever changed the way football coaches recruit.

"We're using social media to rebrand Iowa State football," Campbell said. "We have to brand to recruits what's our style of play, who our coaches are, and what's the culture we're trying to put in place here. We're trying to create a culture that young people say, 'Man, I want to be a part of something like that,' or 'Hey, I'm interested in going to see what's going on,' and 'Why is that place special right now?'

"I never thought I would have a meeting to talk about hashtags and emojis, let alone have it be a focus in our first staff meeting. ... but stuff like that creates excitement around your program. We wanted to make sure we were generating some excitement that was tied with the new hire and the new coaches, and hopefully create momentum going forward on the recruiting trail."

Whether it's through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter or some other app, social media has invaded every aspect of the recruiting process.

Social media also gives fans a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the process, as prospects live-tweet, Instagram or Vine their in-home and official visits. Plus, it tears down geographical barriers, as recruits from all corners of the country have access to coaches and recruits they never had before. Social media has become a vehicle for programs to build excitement around their recruiting efforts, as fans track the movements of coaches in late January as they jet from one destination to another in search of the next blue-chipper.

"Nothing has impacted recruiting more in the last 20 years than social media," Nebraska director of player personnel Ryan Gunderson said. "It has revolutionized recruiting. Sure, cell phones have had a huge influence in the process, allowing recruiters to go mobile with their communication. But with today's technology, cell phones are merely a vehicle for social media use."


But that visibility is a two-way street, and reveals the dark side of social media.

For one reason or another, many recruits forget their friends aren't the only ones with access to their accounts. Coaches can easily see what recruits post, retweet, favorite, like and share, and in many cases they can also see what a prospect's inner circle of friends is doing.

This past September, SMU defensive coordinator Van Malone tweeted a redacted dossier on one of the Mustangs' commitments that provided an example of how deep some schools go with their social media monitoring. Many recruiters say their school doesn't go to the same extreme that SMU does, but if recruits think somebody is not watching their every move, they are greatly mistaken.

"Every single school does it," Oregon State player personnel and on-campus recruiting coordinator Darrick Yray said. "You have to, especially since you're investing almost $500,000 in a player's development over a four- or five-year period."

No matter how the monitoring takes place, it's clear somebody is watching, and the picture they see is not always pretty.

There are numerous examples of recruits having scholarships pulled or being completely dropped because of social media entanglements, but perhaps the most well-known case involves former Ramsey (New Jersey) Don Bosco Prep defensive back Yuri Wright. Ranked as the No. 40 player in the 2012 class, Wright had double-digit scholarship offers but was dropped by several schools after being expelled for sexually graphic and racially charged Twitter posts.

Wright ended up at Colorado, and his social-media foul was pretty cut and dry. What he posted was clearly not appropriate, and one universal thing that will always turn off recruiters is foul language, TCU running backs coach Curtis Luper said. But other than that, many recruiters have a tough time making a call on what is and isn't over the line.

"It's very, very gray," Yray said. "I think that's something that makes this whole social media world with recruiting so fascinating, but also scary. What might be a red flag for us at Oregon State might not be a red flag for somebody else at a different school."

Gunderson said he believes the line of what is and isn't acceptable hasn't been defined yet, mainly because everything is moving at warp speed.

"I think it's whatever you're comfortable with, and even figuring that out is hard," Gunderson said. "At what point do you say, 'That's not acceptable?' That's what you have to make up your mind as a staff. 'This isn't something you want to represent our program.' Some people say, 'Would you want your grandmother to read it out loud?' Probably a bunch of times the stuff they put on there, nobody would want to read out loud. But is it enough to drop him altogether? That's a tough question to answer."

Another tough question coaches struggle with is who is responsible for educating prospects on the rules of social media and recruiters? Those recruiters think help should be coming from coaches at both the college and high school level.

"If it's somebody we're really actively recruiting, we'll have an exchange with them, and all coaches should do the same," Luper said. "Something as simple as, 'Be careful about what you retweet. Be careful what you tweet. Be careful with how you say these things.' Almost every time, we get a response back, 'Oh, Coach I'm sorry,' and we'll see a difference right away.

"I think high school coaches and us college coaches need to do a better job of just making sure that recruits understand that once you put something negative out there, there is no going back. They might think you can delete it, but if one person retweets it or screen-shots it, it's there forever. They just don't have an idea of how far-reaching it is, because it is. They don't know everyone is watching and every day is an interview. Every day they're interviewing for us, and coaches want to see the kids get the job."


The murkiest area in recruiting and social media is the fan's interaction with prospects. For decades, recruiting was done behind closed doors and fans would be lucky to know what prospects were being targeted by a program. Those days are long gone, for better or worse, as prospects now give play-by-play of their recruitments for everyone to see.

"The whole process was honestly so negative," former Oklahoma State QB commit Nick Starkel said. "Fans hop onto social media and take shots at high school kids who are being asked to make the biggest decision of their lives so far. Some fans don't realize that we're just kids making a huge decision. It's very disrespectful when you get tweets saying, 'I hope you never succeed.'"

When a prospect shares that he has picked up an offer from a school, fans from that program flood his timeline with encouraging comments; some even spend hours creating graphic mock-ups of the recruit in that school's uniforms or colors. Those "edits" are a virtual we-want-you card that can be quickly spread over a social network. That sparks a counteroffensive from rival fans who do everything they can to trash that program, prop up theirs and create their own edits.

When a prospect schedules a visit or commits, another round of well-wishes, good lucks and attaboys come in with their mandatory "that school sucks" replies from the fans of the school that got left at the altar. And when a recruit backs away from a pledge, it can get downright nasty.

In Starkel's situation, the four-star quarterback backed away from a longtime pledge to the Cowboys in mid-December with a classy tweet that thanked Oklahoma State for recruiting him but also indicated his situation had changed after lengthy discussions and prayer with his family. His news was regrettably greeted by some of the worst venom ever thrown at a recruit, most of which is not suitable to print.

Three-star defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour is now going through a similar experience. Dwumfour, a longtime commitment to Penn State, backed away from his pledge to the Nittany Lions on Sunday after taking an official visit to Michigan. Let's just say his decision didn't make folks in Happy Valley too happy. Dwumfour committed to Michigan on Monday.

"You can't police it," Yray said. "It's hard. It's hard. That's one of the big downsides of social media. Any one fan now has access to these kids because they're out there. When a kid makes a decision for whatever reasons he made it, you see these fans say, 'You made the wrong choice. You're an idiot.' That's hard to swallow. The kid is 17 or 18 years old. That's not right."

But it's not just Penn State or Oklahoma State fans who do it.

Even though it's against NCAA rules for athletic boosters to communicate with recruits over social media -- and compliance offices across the country send out stern warning after stern warning -- every fan base does its best job to recruit prospects via social media.

They do it because sometimes their social media pitches work.

RecruitingNation surveyed 80 of the nation's top high school football players at the Under Armour All-America Game earlier this month. Of those surveyed, 23 percent said fans on social media influenced their recruiting process. While the majority said they tuned out the noise from the fans, it is still somewhat startling that 1-in-4 admitted it impacted their decision. It's a big enough number to persuade fans to continue to pursue prospects.

"If recruits tell you that it doesn't play some sort of role, they're probably lying," uncommitted ESPN 300 cornerback Kristian Fulton of Metairie (Louisiana) Archbishop Rummel said. "For me, it's not going to be a big thing I'm making my decision on, but I've learned a lot about the different programs from fans on Twitter. Some of those things were never mentioned by recruiters, and it was helpful to learn about them. Plus, it's cool to have fans from all the different schools showing you the love. You get a chance to see how they'll support you if you went to that school."