Commentary

Recruiters staying ahead of technology

In the tech-savvy world of recruiting, coaches and officials just try to keep up

Updated: July 2, 2010, 9:28 AM ET
By Ian R. Rapoport | Special to ESPN.com

The questions aren't even out of your mouth, and the answers are already coming. That's how quickly the world of recruiting moves.

Joker Phillips
Mark Zerof/US PresswireAs an assistant and now a head coach, Joker Phillips has seen the good and bad side of recruiting rules.

What will be the newest innovation? What will take the place of text messaging, head coaches doing in-person spring evaluations and the Tiger Prowl?

Hint: It's already here.

"Skype, that videoconferencing deal," first-year Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. "Kids can get on the computer and be face-to-face with the head coach of the university."

A software application that allows users to place free videoconferencing calls over the Internet, Skype takes phones to an interpersonal level.

It's an instant in-home visit yet is considered just a phone call by the NCAA. Just wait until iPhones and Android phones become more popular so recruits can be pitched to on their cells.

That's not all. Not even close. Not in today's fast-moving world, with assistant coaches pushing the envelope like never before.

"Facebook.com is today," said first-year Akron coach Rob Ianello, whose previous job was Notre Dame recruiting coordinator, assistant coach for offense and receivers coach. "It's not a new thing, but it's a new thing in the recruiting world. You can really communicate with kids quickly. Kids have it on their phones and coaches have it on their phones, and you can communicate with them on a consistent basis."

Forget the archaic methods of texting recruits or (gasp) simply e-mailing them. A routine personal Web page becomes an interactive hub for instant messages and e-mails between coach and prospect.

"With the kids now all having of it on their phones," Phillips said, "it's similar to a text message, but now it can be considered an e-mail."

That's a big deal for recruiters. E-mails are unlimited, texts are not.

If you talk to those who work in the recruiting world, both Skype and Facebook could be outlawed or modified sooner rather than later.

"(Skyping) is kind of fudging the rules a little bit," said Phillips, who once served as UK's recruiting coordinator. "But, actually, there's no rule. It's not illegal. People are doing it until it catches on, then the NCAA will say, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, that's not right. It's really like going into somebody's home; it's not really like a phone call.' Now they're about to outlaw that. We try to steer away from them. We do use Facebook, but we just try to do it the old-fashioned way. We want to be aggressive, but we want to play as close to the vest as possible as we've been."

Regardless, the NCAA Recruiting and Athletics Personnel Issues Cabinet is investigating, well, everything.

Facebook, Skype and any other newfangled way to do a spin move past a recruiting rule is fair game -- you name it, it's being looked at.

"As we speak, we're undergoing a whole review of the current recruiting environment, and there are a lot of things on the table," said Brad Hostetter, the NCAA's director of Academic and Membership Affairs. "One of those things is how coaches are communicating with prospects."

As detailed in the priority item in agenda of the Feb. 3 and 4 meeting of the Recruiting and Athletics Personnel Issues Cabinet, the body is soliciting viewpoints and feedback to examine "communication methods and frequency, evaluations, campus visits and verbal and written offers of athletics aid." The meeting went on to direct staff members "to develop alternative recruiting models as a result of the discussion."

[+] EnlargeTommy Tuberville
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstIn the recruiting world, the telephone call has become an ancient form of communication.

The goal is to sponsor legislation, potentially an overhaul of recruiting rules, at the June meeting next year. While Hostetter didn't provide a definitive answer on whether there would be a proposal to preclude videoconferencing, he used it as an example of an issue that is raising some concern among the members.

"We're really trying to take a step back during this review and look at everything that's going on in the recruiting climate," Hostetter said. "One thing that happens over time in the recruiting world is that we tend to adopt rules on a piecemeal basis to react to a particular change in technology. The cabinet is trying to take a step back and take a broad review."

The pattern is familiar.

The NCAA has an established rule. Thanks to creative minds, coaches take the interpretation of the regulation a little further than intended, and the method spreads.

"You got a lot of young, innovative, creative coaches across the country that see an opening and they'll go for it," Phillips said, "and do it until they're told it's not legal."

The next step is bracing for the NCAA to correct or overcorrect, depending on your view.

"The only issue I have with the NCAA is the times they outlaw your ability to outwork somebody," Ianello said.

Meanwhile, the NCAA is scratching and clawing to stay ahead of the game.

"There's no question that the legislation, when it's adopted, can't cover every conceivable scenario that's going to come up at the time or in the future," said Hostetter, who is involved with, among other tasks, interpreting bylaws. "There is some element of reaction to current practices in the recruiting world and those reactions have to occur."

Hostetter emphasized that "reactions" occur with heavy input from the American Football Coaches Association and that the NCAA's Legislative Council has an open line of communication when member coaches have an issue that must be addressed.

For the NCAA to change a recruiting bylaw, it must be adopted by a legislative council made up of athletic directors, senior women administrators and representatives from member schools. A proposal is made through the governance structure, the football issues committee or conference offices. Barring a speed-up necessitated by a controversial rule, it can take up to a year to enact change.

"The issue is whether people believe the issue deserves national recognition," Hostetter said.

Thanks to ever-changing, ever-advancing technology, many rules do. Finally, it appears, the NCAA is fighting to be the pacesetter.

Especially recently, plenty of issues have been addressed.

No sooner had text messaging become a popular recruiting method than the NCAA outlawed it prior to the 2007 season. To some, it seems silly to disallow a practice that would make for easy communication between coach and prospect, a practice so prevalent in society.

[+] EnlargeSkype
AP Photo/Paul SakumaSkype and other video conferencing technologies could be the next big thing for recruiters.

"I'm not sure it should've stayed in the current form it was in -- it was kind of no holds barred," said Ianello, the former chairman of the AFCA Assistant Coaches Committee. "But we're in June right now. We got kids coming into our camps. It'd be nice for a kid to text you and say, 'Coach, does it really start at 10?' or 'Hey, I'm running late or is tomorrow OK?'"

Yet that doesn't answer the question of how to limit the intrusiveness to prospects, many of whom were hounded by repeated texts during class time. Hostetter said the issue will be re-examined.

"Our membership really has to balance the way the world works with the guiding principle in our rules and trying to protect the academic and social interests of prospects as well," Hostetter said. "The general public may think it's crazy that coaches can't text prospects, but the general public tends to forget that part of the reason is to protect the time of prospects."

Texting wasn't the only recent ban.

Alabama coach Nick Saban, long a proponent of evaluating junior prospects in person, saw what was dubbed "The Nick Saban Rule" go into effect before the 2008 season. Suddenly, because of the explosion of intentional or unintentional contacts -- "bumps" -- with high school prospects during impermissible times, coaches were taken off the road all together in legislation proposed by the Southeastern Conference.

Saban called it "ridiculous" at the time, describing his love for in-person evaluations. Other coaches acknowledged that it was nearly impossible to prevent high-profile coaches from having recruits approach them during times when such a conversation was not allowed.

Ianello took it a bit farther when describing his days at Notre Dame.

"When coach [Charlie] Weis went into big Catholic high schools, it was like bringing a rock star in there."

Phillips remembers noticing coaches talk to recruits at high schools in the spring when he was an assistant.

"I saw it with my own eyes," he said. "People started complaining, and now they can't go out. I wish that wasn't the case now that I'm a head coach because I'd like to be out on the road sometimes."

Last offseason, it was Auburn's turn. Under coach Gene Chizik, the Tigers sent seven coaches to one high school at a time during his first offseason, rolling through in a limo and calling it a "Tiger Prowl." The technique gained notoriety and some imitators. As a result, Auburn landed the nation's No. 4 class according to ESPN Recruiting.

At the time of its creation, Chizik said the goal of the events was to "make a statement to the 17-year-old players in this state who are coming out next year that it's important to us to be at their school. We wanted to make that statement to the high school coaches in the state of Alabama. We've said all along that we're stressing the importance of recruiting in this state, so we wanted to start out with a bang."

Then came the thud. When the NCAA was set to ban the practice (which it has since done), Chizik distanced himself from it by naming fan events "Tiger Prowls," which allowed him to say, "Tiger Prowl has nothing to do with recruiting. Tiger Prowl is basically a fundraising event that we do in the evenings."

Meanwhile, coaches such as Saban supported the ban.

"It was supposed to be an evaluation period," Saban told reporters. "Obviously, if you send five or six coaches to a place, you're not trying to evaluate."

Now, Skype and Facebook may be next to be banned or altered. Then it will simply be on to the next advancement -- whatever can be made into an advantage in the creative mind of a coach.

Ian R. Rapoport also covers the New England Patriots for The Boston Herald. Read his blog or e-mail him at irapoport@bostonherald.com.