The revolution will be recruited
Social media, NCAA's loosening of communication restrictions change the game
For Tyus Jones -- and so many other elite, teenage basketball prospects -- a smartphone is a life source.
It's the device the Minnesota prep star (@Tyusjones06) uses to tweet quick thoughts such as, "Bout to see what all this batman hype is about..." to nearly 7,000 followers.
It's the camera that snapped the photo Jones took with LeBron James when his national 17-and-under squad met the Olympians in Las Vegas last month. And it's also a music hub that offers easy access to his favorite tracks off rap star Tyga's latest album.
But the coaches that make his smartphone buzz throughout the day, via private tweets and text messages, recognize it as a crucial connection to the top-ranked point guard in RecruitingNation's rankings for the 2014 class.
And while the traditional avenues of recruiting remain pertinent for Jones and other high-major prospects, new rules and new technology have dramatically changed the landscape in a short stretch. The kid that valued a handwritten letter or home visit in 2002 may prefer a text message or tweet from a coach in 2012.
"I think a text message is probably easier just because kids, we're always on our phones and always texting," said Jones, a standout for Apple Valley High School. "If they just text us real quick, it takes two seconds to text back. I know me personally, if you send out a lot of letters, it takes some time to open all those up. Sometimes talking on the phone takes a long time."
Since the NCAA took the restraints off coach-to-recruit communications this year -- unlimited phone calls, text messages and direct messages are now permitted after a prospect completes his sophomore season -- coaches have attempted to find the proper balance for each prospect.
Do you write a note or will the memo get lost in the pile that Jones and his blue-chip colleagues receive by the truckload each week? Do you attempt to out-text your rivals or back off so that you don't overwhelm the kid?
Whatever the case, the opportunity to build relationships in different ways seems to offset the potential drawbacks for many coaches who want to convey their interest in whatever format top prospects desire. So the significance of texting and tweeting in recruiting has surged.
"I just think that's what kids today are most comfortable with," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "That's their form of communication."
Recruiting in the 21st century
In the movie "Blue Chips," college coach Pete Bell, played by Nick Nolte, goes to the hometown of stud recruit Butch McRae (Anfernee Hardaway) and makes his pitch. He even walks into Neon's church and joins the worshippers in song. Anything to woo a top talent.
In reality, those trips no longer anchor the recruiting effort for many coaches.
Kids take more unofficial visits now, so they meet coaches and see campuses long before they're allotted the official visits that can now begin Jan. 1 of a prospect's junior season. Text messaging and social media direct messaging have increased the stream of communication too, so players and coaches know more about one another prior to their first face-to-face meeting.
"I haven't made a home visit in I can't remember how long," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "Our recruiting has been one of commitments early on. Official visits have almost been like celebratory things."
The value of a letter has changed, too.
On Sunday, Jones and his mother sorted through the endless letters he's received in recent years. They used to keep the mailings in a shoebox. By the time they finished organizing everything over the weekend, however, they'd filled an eight-gallon bin.
"I think a call and text seems to be more personal than a letter," said Jones' mother, Deb Jones. "When a letter comes, it's not really a letter, it's a flier."
Jones -- who has offers from Duke, Kentucky, Ohio State and Michigan State among others -- said he reads some of the letters, but views most as informational brochures. He's more strategic, however, about filtering electronic communication.
Jones and his mother spoke to coaches prior to the NCAA's rule change on electronic communication and asked them to respect his time and adolescence. In other words, don't blow up his phone.
When Jones returned from the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championship in Lithuania last month, he still worried coaches would overwhelm him. But they've respected his wishes thus far.
"It hasn't been too bad," Jones said. "The schools that we've been talking to, we kind of communicated with them beforehand and they respected that and said they wouldn't be over the top."
The conversation that Jones and his mother had with coaching staffs has become more common, as coaches cater recruiting plans toward each player. Sometimes that demands more contact. But it can also warrant less.
Personality can dictate the means of communication. A shy kid might not like to talk on the phone. Another prospect might prefer phone calls because he's sick of letters. And some kids just want to see a direct message in their Twitter inboxes.
"It's almost specific now to the kid involved, to his family, to his support system," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said.
These days, in his comfortable spot as head coach at Tennessee, Cuonzo Martin can laugh about it.
Martin, then an assistant at Purdue, thought a top recruit lacked effort during an AAU tournament. He sent his general assessment to another Boilermaker assistant via text message. Then, in a moment of horror, he realized he'd accidentally forwarded the same message to another person: the very prospect he was criticizing.
"He never responded but you know he got it," Martin said. "We didn't get him."
The influx of social media and do-everything phones has not come without complications in the recruiting game.
Pushing "send" has proved problematic in recent years. The coaches that bombard prospects through social media and texting today will tell the same players to use caution with electronic communication once they reach campus. But coaches aren't immune to hiccups.
On Friday, Indiana's Tom Crean tweeted to his 81,000 followers, "I am doing great. I have been thinking about you alot since last weekend. A whole lot. How are you doing?"
It was quickly deleted and replaced with, "Sorry. That was to a new recruit. Wish I could tell you who. Sent it by mistake. Don't panic. Lol."
It's not always a laughing matter, though.
Recruits have unwittingly diminished their stock with distasteful tweets. Yuri Wright, a cornerback from New Jersey ranked 40th in the ESPN150 for the 2012 football class, reportedly lost a scholarship from Michigan after he was expelled from his high school for a series of sexually explicit and racial tweets.
"No one ever thinks of the repercussions," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who added that NBA officials always advise him to keep his players off social media. "It's hurt a lot of athletes."
Whether recruits recognize it or not, online behavior is a factor for some coaches in the evaluation process.
"I know our staff, our coaching staff, is very in tune with what kids are putting on Facebook and Twitter," Mack said.
But ill-advised tweets or status updates aren't red flags for every coach. Some blame youth, not character, for the harmful social media decisions young players have made. But others say they'd reconsider their pursuit if a prospect distributed an inappropriate message through Twitter or Facebook.
"You've got to be really careful," Williams said.
The new forms of communication also breed competition among coaches who sometimes struggle with the dilemma of beaming nonstop messages to kids or limiting contact.
Jones said some of the elite prospects he talks to have felt inundated since the new rules were implemented in June.
"I think a couple of them have a few schools that they feel are a little bit over the top," he said.
For that reason, California coach Mike Montgomery said he doesn't spend his day text messaging recruits because it's not practical and he doesn't think it's what recruits want.
"I can't possibly sit here and text every kid," Montgomery said. "The more you text, the more you do some of that stuff, it's not very genuine. It's just trying to outdo someone else by getting in front of them. Sometimes, guys feel like they work harder by texting more. I feel bad for kids and having them have the opportunity to be kids."
When the recruiting period ends, however, coaches want that player to sign a national letter of intent with their respective programs. So they have to figure out what works best.
But text messaging and social media alone rarely suffice.
The need for a relationship
One afternoon, Bobby Portis picked up his phone and 26 text messages were awaiting a response. Many came from the coaching staff at Arkansas, where he verbally committed last year.
Portis, ranked 12th in the 2013 class by RecruitingNation, receives multiple text messages from Razorbacks head coach Mike Anderson every day. Just brief check-ins, nothing too involved, he said.
But tweeting and texting weren't sufficient for the native of Little Rock, Ark.
He had to see the school. He had to hear Anderson's pitch in person. His mom needed that, too.
So they took an official visit to the school. And on that trip, Portis listened to Anderson discuss the value of family and unity, both significant factors in his final decision.
"I think on the trip, they sold me to it," Portis said. "[Anderson], he preached on family. He said we're going to be a family. I wanted to be a part of something. In a text message, I'll see it but I wouldn't really think about it. Him saying it to me face-to-face, it meant something."
Innovation hasn't created a one-size-fits-all recruiting method for prospects. It's more like a dessert tray with each form (texting, phone calls, tweets, home visits, letters) possessing the potential to satisfy a recruit's appetite.
So Williams writes personal letters. Hoiberg, who hated long phone calls when he was a star high school basketball player in Iowa, enjoys texting. And Martin still makes home visits.
"I think the biggest thing is that you have to find a way to reach a kid," said Mississippi State first-year coach Rick Ray. "And with all the modes of communication they have, you have to keep trying to reach a kid in his mode of communication until you get it."
All the modes have helped Jones assess his options.
The much-coveted prospect said he's pondering possible official visits as he prepares for his junior year in high school. Soon, he said, he'll shorten the list of colleges he's considering.
"It's definitely becoming more real," Jones said. "I'm starting to think about it more. I'll probably start narrowing my list down here, probably soon."
Perhaps he'll follow a growing trend and tweet his commitment.
And instead of calling the coach of the school he chooses, he may send him a text message. Or he might just tell the coach in person during one of his official visits.
With so many possibilities, coaches know it's always best to stay close to their smartphones.
"I always carry a charger with me," Hoiberg sad. "That's for sure."
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