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Copyright 2017 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

 

Some college football coaches of a certain age have dipped a toe into the turbulent waters of social media and found them generally useful. These kids today may be on to something.

While running his program at Miami, Mark Richt also manages his own Twitter account, which enjoys more than 325,000 followers. Swears he controls the content himself. "I know a lot of (followers) are left over from Georgia (where he used to coach, as you may know). I understand that," he said. "But it keeps growing over time. It's a way to get your message out.

"I could get out any message I want about our program, clarifying something that was confusing -- whatever I want to do, I can do that.

"I can re-tweet something that a recruit sent out that will make him feel good about recruiting. I can say things after a guy has committed, and people will probably figure out that I'm excited about him making a decision to come to the U. I think it's invaluable."

When the NCAA loosened rules last year, allowing coaches to re-tweet or like or otherwise endorse a recruit's post -- a "click, not comment" code that still did not permit coaches to tweet directly at recruits -- Richt began to do so instantly.

Others steadfastly resist the lure of building the direct digital bridge between their craniums and the world at large. They would rather don robes and preach nonviolence than engage in 140-character banter with you.

From ABSocial Media as a Window to the Character of a Recruit

Maybe they don't display exactly the personal contempt that Patriots coach Bill Belichick has shown Face-book, Instagram, Snapchat and your other assorted major social-media sites. He loves to derisively jumble them up, referring to sites of his own imaginings like MyFace, YourFace, Snap-Face and InstantFace.

Oh, and get off my lawn, too.

They display more the kind of general disinterest shown by Clemson's Dabo Swinney. "I've never participated in (social media) personally. I don't want any part of that stuff," he said. "I got all I can handle.

"I can text. I don't have to tweet at them. If they want to talk to me, they can call me back or text me back. I don't have to worry about the whole world watching."

But all have been forced to recognize that social media has become among the more important recruiting tools available to them. To stubbornly do otherwise would risk being left behind with the leather helmets and the Lindsey Nelson touchdown calls.

We refer you here to an anecdote from an early 2016 ESPN story in which new Iowa State football coach Matt Campbell included in his first staff meeting a discussion on hashtags and emojis. Somewhere, Bear Bryant grumbled.

For all its coach's personal old-school views, national champion Clemson, for instance, has become one of the cutting-edge programs in the field of bending social media to the goal of attracting teenagers of beyond-average strength and speed to its little corner of South Carolina.The Tigers department dedicated to keeping its various social-media platforms stocked with updates and snapshots and quick-hit videos -- most programs of any size now have similar specialists -- has grown these last couple of years into a particularly useful arm of the recruiting department.

This is where we are today: Sure, the weight room is important in enticing recruits. So, too, is the tech person who may only bench press a laptop but is adept at producing an eye-pleasing post.

Mind you, Clemson's director of new and creative media, 31-year-old Jonathan Gantt, is not saying that when five-star linebacker recruit Shaq Smith (now a redshirt freshman) called to compliment him on the quality of the Tigers' social media, it wasn't the main reason he committed in 2016.

But it couldn't have hurt.

"I just started laughing," Gantt recalled, "first of all because he's a 17-year-old kid who's nice enough to make a call like that. But then to think how much it impacted his recruiting process. It's hard to describe how much, but it impacted in some way. He was paying attention to it, and he wants to be in those videos. That helped him feel closer to Clemson."

The average fan may find the content informative and entertaining. But make no mistake. Every post, every quick-hit video, every upbeat update is geared toward appealing to some kid out there who's trying to decide upon the coolest place to go play.

Be it the Instagram photo of Clemson players who shaved their heads for pediatric cancer patients.

Or the behind-the-scenes look at Georgia players reporting to preseason camp.

Or the social media shout-out to Georgia Tech A-back Clinton Lynch for finishing up a successful internship at a tech company that "helps brands, businesses, entrepreneurs and startups with website design and mobile app development."

All carry with them the subliminal message: See how great it is here; picture yourself in this perfect scene; this could be you one day.

"Whatever the channel is, we're trying to answer the question: What's it like to be a Clemson Tiger?" Gantt said.

"Every post should help answer that question. Yes, you can do that with the written word, and we do. But also, it's easier to do that with photos, graphics, videos. That mix is all meant to show mainly recruits what it's like to be a part of our program. That indirectly hits fans as well," Gantt said.

In the ever-changing recruiting battlefield, now it is the kid from the computer club, the one for whom the football team once had no use, who may hold a key to winning.

Even if they can't run the skinny post, they sure can put out a very useful web post.

And the big guys are taking notice. Of all the boasts a Clemson player may come up with these days, one of the unlikeliest of these may be this from guard Tyrone Crowder: "We're on the top of our game with social media."

Behind the digital curtain is another highly competitive playing field. Programs keep close watch on what the competition is putting out there.

Beyond other college football sites, Gantt says he may look to those belonging to some of the most popular cultural brands like Nike and Coke and how they are branding themselves for the younger consumer. Never know, could be something the corporate giant employs that can translate to the selling of a football program.

"In order for us to be different and have a competitive edge, we can't be like everybody else.We want to be different from what everyone else is doing," Gantt said.

These aren't sweeping, Cecil B. DeMille epics being produced, mind you. Who has time for that when you're young and popular and always on the lookout for the next shiny object? You get much more mileage from, say, the 10-second video loop of Swinney doing a victory dance in the locker room than you would from a 90-minute documentary on the coach, Gantt says. "You've got to get people's attention really quickly and make your point and get out before they get bored," he said.

Besides lowering the collective attention span of our nation's youth, social media as it's applied to college football comes with other unpleasant side effects.

The platforms can get crowded, and any crowd is bound to contain a few jerks. For recruits and players, social media brings them into contact with all kinds.

Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson of Louisville told the story recently of having to change his phone number after his old one was spilled on social media.

Yet, still, he said, "A lot of people look at social media as really marketing yourself, posting pictures, getting involved in your fans' lives, responding to them. It's cool."

Recruits are subject to the ire and entreaties of fans as they weigh their options and waver in their commitments to one school or another. And they are not completely bulletproof to the sniping out there on social media. In an ESPN poll of 80 of the nation's top high school football players at the 2016 Under Armour All-America Game, nearly a quarter of the incoming college freshmen said fans on social media influenced their recruiting process.

That same poll asked the recruits to name the most obnoxious fan base when it came to social-media interaction. Tennessee led the list, followed closely by Texas. As to which group of fans handled the situation best, Georgia received the most thumbs-up.

And take care, too, what you post, young recruit. Colleges are always watching, and schools have dropped interest in prospects whose social media behavior has betrayed character issues.

Like so much else in college football, you have to balance the debits with the credits of the social media explosion.

"It's the way the world does things," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "I think there's a lot of good to it.And there's also some that's detrimental, especially when you're talking about recruiting and kids who are 15 to 18 years old and the things that can go on in and around it.

"It's not going anywhere, and you have to come to grips with it," Fisher said. "We came to grips with it very quickly."

When Richt first began beating the bushes for recruits, he remembers the pay phone as being the indispensable tool. Then the cellphone came along in its various shapes and sizes to make his job easier. GPS guided him to the front door of the mamas and daddies he went to woo.

This is just another big step in the parade of progress. "Social media has changed our life in recruiting," he said. "Even changed how we speak to our own children."

Just know that it is a one-way conversation. Richt will dance only so far on the cutting edge of this social media thing. That could be the secret to a healthy relationship with Twitter and all the rest.

"I'll say what I want to say, and I keep coaching," he said.

"If people are hitting me up and expecting me to respond, I have no idea what you're saying to me. If it's good, that's awesome. If it's bad, I'm sorry."

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August 28, 2017
 
 
 

 

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