Friday, January 27, 2012
Updated: January 30, 11:10 AM ET
Facebook, Twitter taking over
By Jake Trotter
Bill Curry spent only a decade away from coaching. But when Curry returned to coach Georgia State in 2008, in some ways it felt like it had been a century.
"I didn't know doodly-squat about Facebook and Twitter," the former Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky coach said.
Then Curry discovered that any one of his recruits could be reached at any time through social media. The next day, Curry had a Facebook page. Soon after that, a Twitter handle.
"Those things have affected recruiting enormously," said Curry, known on Twitter as @coachbillcurry. "You better be conversant with how to use it."
Social media has irreversibly transformed how recruiting works in college football. For coaches, it's another medium to contact, recruit and gather information about players. For players, it's a way to get recruited, control the message and interact with fans and other recruits at unprecedented levels.
"We are very involved with Facebook," said North Carolina coach Larry Fedora. "We are constantly messaging kids."
The NCAA limits how many phone calls coaches can make to recruits. Text messaging is banned altogether. Social media, meanwhile, is far less regulated.
Coaches can't write on a recruit's Facebook wall or instant message him, but are free to send private messages during contact periods. On Twitter, coaches can't publicly mention recruits, but they are allowed to send direct messages.
As a result, social media messaging has become the en-vogue method of communication between coaches and the players they recruit. Often, recruits even have Facebook and Twitter messages sent directly to their smartphones in the form of a text, one reason why there's an ongoing push to relax the rules on text messaging.
Social media "is an incredible tool," said former Stanford assistant Brian Polian, now tight ends coach at Texas A&M. "If you are not using it, you will fall way behind."
Through social media, coaches can learn who else is pursuing their recruits by whom they "friend" and "follow." It can also give them useful information on how to best recruit those players.
"Some guys that come on an official visit, they want to go see the town," Curry said. "Others want to go to an F.C.A. meeting. You need to know which is which."
Florida coach Will Muschamp said social media also provides another glimpse into a player's character, warning that "kids need to understand that they have to be very careful about what they do on social media."
Cornerback Yuri Wright found this out the hard way. Wright, No. 40 in the ESPNU 150, was kicked out of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., last week after several sexually graphic and racially explicit posts appeared on his Twitter account.
Wright initially had numerous scholarship offers, but several schools cooled on him after the Twitter posts went viral. Wright ended up committing to Colorado this week.
"If a kid posts something stupid on Facebook, it bothers you," Polian said. "You have to ask yourself, at what point is this a kid being a kid or is this what we will have to deal with?"
Wright told ESPN.com this week he's learned his lesson, and is "grateful" that Colorado coach Jon Embree gave him a second chance.
"Hopefully, other people will learn from what happened to me and make smarter choices," Wright said. "My days with social media are over, I promise. No more Twitter. No more Facebook. I have a phone, and if I want to talk to someone now, I'm just calling or texting them."
However, many recruits, like California center commitment Matt Cochran, have been using social media to their benefit.
As a junior, Cochran, from Atwater (Calif.) Buhach Colony, jump-started his recruitment by Facebook messaging coaches across the country a YouTube copy of his highlight film.
"Recruiting started out really slow for me," Cochran said. "I figured I'd message coaches to see if they'd be interested."
Cochran's recruitment was anything but slow after that. Especially when he committed to Auburn in the fall and didn't even know it. Turned out, Cochran was the victim of a practical joke by teammate Aziz Shittu, who signed on Cochran's Facebook account and posted that he had committed to Auburn.
"I found out two hours after he did it," said Cochran, who got out of school to find dozens of texts, voicemails and Facebook messages congratulating him on the commitment. "It was kind of funny. But it was a mess for a little while."
Real commitments -- and decommitments -- via social media have turned out to be equally as messy. South Carolina running back pledge Mike Davis stunned his 4,000-plus followers earlier this month when the Stone Mountain (Ga.) Stephenson star tweeted that he had decommitted from Florida. Many of those followers were Gators fans.
"A lot of them were like, 'We respect your decision, you have to do what's best for you,'" said Davis, the No. 62 player on the ESPNU 150. "But most of it was negative, people taking it the wrong way, attacking me. "
Auburn wide receiver commitment Ja'Quay Williams apparently took so much grief on Twitter from Tigers fans for taking a visit to Georgia last weekend, he actually handed off his account to a friend.
"It's bad thatmy boy Quay can't even run his twitter anymore," the friend tweeted, "cause you people won't even let the kid have fun and enjoy himself in HighSchool."
When fans aren't attacking recruits on social media, they often are trying to persuade them to come play for their schools.
"That part surprised me a lot," said Arkansas wide receiver commitment Keon Hatcher, a four-star prospect out of Owasso (Okla.) High School who flirted with Oklahoma State before reaffirming his pledge to the Razorbacks. "It felt good to be wanted."
Hatcher was also surprised at the outset of his recruitment by how many Facebook messages he would get from coaches.
"I got messages every day asking, 'How's it going?' and everything like that," Hatcher said. "But this is the Internet age. Almost every recruit is on Twitter and Facebook. It's a good way to get in touch with recruits."
Which is why -- to the lament of many veteran coaches -- social media in recruiting is here to stay. As new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien put it, "Social media is a huge part of our culture. It's the way most people communicate."
Even people like Curry, who turns 70 this year. Still, Curry hasn't given up on the handwritten letter. And every couple of weeks, he sends those letters to recruits.
"I'm not sure that's ever going to go out of style," Curry said, chuckling.
"But we're in the midst of a communication revolution, which is changing our culture, changing our government. It's changed a fundamental part of what we do, too, and it's not slowing down."
Jamie Newberg contributed to this report.
Jake Trotter joined ESPN.com in 2011 after four years with The (Oklahoma City) Oklahoman covering the University of Oklahoma and Big 12. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.