When Jerry Kill took his first coaching job at a BCS-level school last December, he walked in the door at Minnesota with his eyes wide open to the demands of a recruiting environment vastly more competitive than what he experienced at Northern Illinois and Emporia State.
Still, he couldn't anticipate the explosion of early commitments for the Class of 2012 that has occurred this football offseason.
Pledges in June of this year exceeded the number delivered in January, surely a first. June commits in 2011 are up 64 percent over 2010, according to data gathered by ESPN.com, and have more than quadrupled over the past nine seasons.
The trend correlates directly with the rising importance of the unofficial visit. As a result, official visits -- with expenses paid by the school -- are losing out as the traditional method to show prospects a college campus.
It means college coaches must remain on call to entertain prospects -- or miss losing premier targets.
It's turned into a 12-month, nonstop deal. Coaches aren't getting any time off. And at the end of the day, we have to think about [how] this game's about the kids. There's a lot of money, but it's still about the players. What's best for the players? What's best in recruiting the players? What's best when you get them on campus?
”Minnesota coach Jerry Kill
Kill, a 26-year coaching veteran, and others aren't thrilled with this movement.
"It's turned into a 12-month, nonstop deal," Kill said. "Coaches aren't getting any time off. And at the end of the day, we have to think about [how] this game's about the kids. There's a lot of money, but it's still about the players.
"What's best for the players? What's best in recruiting the players? What's best when you get them on campus?"
Like it or not, the rise of the unofficial visit isn't likely to stop without changes to the recruiting model.
Prospects are not allowed to take official visits until the start of their senior seasons; unofficials can occur anytime other than the weeklong dead periods in January and February. Prospects can take five official visits, on which the school pays for travel, lodging and meals. Schools are allotted 70 officials per recruiting year, though many programs utilize no more half this number.
Most top schools, in today's accelerated recruiting cycle, collect a dozen or more commitments before the NCAA allows official visits to commence.
Of the 24 quarterbacks to attend the Elite 11 finals in July, for instance, 23 pledged to a school before the start of preseason practice this month.
"The unofficial visit is treated like an official visit," said Auburn running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Curtis Luper. "You have to treat it like it, [because] it may be the only time they are ever on your campus."
Greg Adkins, offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator at Syracuse, said if a recruit doesn't visit the New York campus at least once before July 1 after his junior year, he's as good as gone.
Of LSU's 25 commitments last year, 23 attended an LSU camp in Baton Rouge. Similarly, 21 of 29 Clemson signees last February camped at the school.
Even at Duke, an academic giant forced to recruit with standards different than other ACC schools, the unofficial visit has surpassed the official in importance. The school signed 20 players last season and used only 22 official visits.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe said the official visit has developed into "a celebration at the end of the process."
Real recruiting happens when the kids pay their own way to campus.
Former Florida coach Urban Meyer described the shift in recruiting tactics as a necessary evil. The primary advantage to an unofficial visit, Meyer said, involves time.
Coaches can spend hours with a prospect on campus in the summer. During an official visit in the fall, particularly over a game weekend, Meyer said, he is lucky to get an hour with a recruit.
Meyer, who resigned at age 46 to devote more time to his family and his health, recognizes the downside of such a schedule.
"I'd want to go on vacation but would never go too far away," Meyer said. "If a kid came on an unofficial visit, I had to be there. Alabama's coach would be there. Florida State's coach would be there, so I didn't want to miss it."
Same thing at Stanford, where recruiting coordinator Brian Polian would much prefer to slow the flood of summer commitments.
"We are fighting tooth and nail to get kids to wait and visit [in October], while kids are getting squeezed by SEC, ACC and Big Ten schools," Polian said. "Kids are worried."
Polian dealt with the same concerns as an assistant at Notre Dame from 2004 to 2007. Once, he said, he received short notice to cut short a family vacation in Cape Cod to spend a day with a visiting recruit in South Bend.
Really, it's a chicken-and-egg issue. Schools push players to commit early. Uncommitted prospects then feel the urgency to pick a school, perhaps before they're comfortable with the decision.
More decommitments occur late in the process, no doubt. But what's the answer?
Meyer said he believes an early signing period, similar to the basketball model, would help by limiting early commitments to recruits who are ready to sign.
Of course, an early signing period might only further accelerate matters. For coaches, no relief appears in sight.
"The unofficial is now A to Z and more important than the official visit," said LSU running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson. "You have to be on call. The wheels have to be in motion. It's off and running as long as they are here on our campus."
Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ESPN Recruiting's Jamie Newberg contributed to this story.
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