For recruits, hope sells
Struggling programs look to rebuild by pitching future success to local prospects
Despite being two of the most highly recruited players in the history of high school football in Virginia, Brown, the nation's top defensive tackle, and Blanding, the No. 1 safety, pledged to UVa, a team that finished 2-10 and has won only six games over the last two seasons. Their decisions -- turning down offers from Alabama, Florida State, Auburn, Ohio State and a host of other respected programs -- still draws inquiries from their friends at school and even from some extended family members.
Brown (Chesapeake/Oscar Smith), the No. 5 overall player in the ESPN 300, said he's had to learn to "tune the noise out from all of the UVa haters."
Recruiting is easy when you're a tradition-rich program with great facilities and a rabid fan base and you're playing in bowl games every season. But how do programs that are trying to get to that next level lure players to their programs? The answer is a combination of winning in your own backyard, having a head coach who can sell the message differently than the other guys, a lot of sleepless nights, and always, always remaining positive.
Every coach will tell you one of the most important ingredients in a successful recruiting class is locking down the borders of their home state. It's one of the things you'll always hear at a new coach's introductory news conference. Coaches trying to turn a program around will dedicate a lot of time visiting with local high school coaches, listening to their concerns, earning their trust and getting them to believe the program is committed to winning. If done right, that trust will translate to local recruits staying home. It's one thing that played a large role in both Blanding's and Brown's recruitments. They said they leaned heavily on their high school coaches throughout the decision-making process, and both said their coaches believed in the Cavaliers' program. Once they saw the commitment to building with local talent, they believed, too.
"One of the first things [Virginia coach] Mike London told me when they started to recruit me was the Virginia program is built on Virginia players," Brown said. "It certainly makes it easier to believe in the program's future when you look out on the field or look at the recruiting class and see guys you played against or know about from reading the newspaper."
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops knew when he arrived in Lexington he wasn't going to be able to just walk into the living rooms of the top prospects in the Southeast. The Wildcats were coming off a 2-10 (0-8 SEC) season. So to combat the struggles on the field, he formulated a recruiting plan that saw him become just as much of a public relations specialist as head coach.
"Changing the culture of a program in recruits' eyes isn't done overnight," Stoops said. "That's why we came in and tried to do things a little bit different than the other guys. We have used social media a lot in recruiting to sell our message and use the other neat ways like sending recruits a lot of letters at once to get out there in front of prospects.
"We know prospects read Twitter every waking second of the day, so we had to use that to our advantage. Just being different with how we've approached things has helped us a lot. We're not going to get them all, but the response has been tremendous."
More and more schools trying to turn their programs around are employing many of the same techniques. The official Twitter handles of programs all over the country now are almost entirely dedicated to recruiting in some fashion. For example, Minnesota's handle, @GopherFootball, posted about former Gopher Eric Decker making it to the Super Bowl, and it also retweeted a post from NBC's "Today Show" about how Minneapolis is America's fittest city. @KU_Football produced a graphic representing how Kansas had the second-highest amount of players playing in the NFL conference championship games.
"Social media helps level the playing field for programs like us trying to turn the corner," one Big 12 assistant said. "You can basically produce whatever message you want to recruits with little cost. And if your head coach is active in the social space, it's an even bigger advantage for your school. I truly believe the schools that use their head coaches out there definitely connect better with recruits."
One thing coaches at programs trying to turn things around all agree on is that they can't be afraid to burn the candle at both ends. Sure, even the Alabamas, Texas A&Ms and Florida States of the recruiting world have to work hard to land recruits, but when you're selling a program that hasn't been to a bowl game in years or has a new head coach, you better be ready to roll your sleeves up.
"The work ethic has to be there and the desire to get great kids can never be quenched whether you're 12-0, 0-12 or anywhere in between," Southern Miss director of high school relations Dayne Brown said. "When you're winning a lot of games or recruit for a powerhouse program, sometimes things can come easier for you on the recruiting trail. That's why when you're down, you have to be the staff that's there working at 11 p.m. at night.
"You have to want to want it and be sincere about it. Recruits will pick up on those things. They will notice if you're still around to answer questions when they have them at all kinds of hours. You have to be tireless with your effort."
And most importantly, you have to sell hope.
"When you put quality people in front of them and show them what you're going to do, recruits respond to that," Stoops said. "Maybe we haven't had the tradition of some of these schools, but what's to say we're not going to have that in the future? Somebody had to build it at those other schools, right? And that hope for the future is something recruits really get fired up about."
Just ask Brown and Blanding.
"Quinn and I want to be the foundation that leads Virginia back to the top," Brown said. "That's our biggest hope. It's why we ignore everybody when they question what we're doing. Despite all the struggles that they had this season, we believe in the future of the program."
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