How Steve Addazio is changing Boston College's recruiting culture
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- On a perfect June afternoon, the Boston College football staff huddled in rectangular formation in its windowless staff recruiting room. White boxed lunches sat in front of the 15 staff members -- who has time to eat elsewhere? -- and five separate whiteboards dedicated solely to BC's 2014 recruiting class surrounded the group.
The whiteboards contained the DNA of a modern college football program, intricately coded recruiting information ranging from assistant coach responsibilities to geographic areas to the all-important #beadude board. This BC bunker has produced one of the most improbable stories of the college football offseason, as Boston College's 20 verbal commitments through Friday have the program currently ranked 21st nationally in Rivals.com's class of 2014 team recruiting rankings. Eight months out from National Signing Day, the Eagles have assembled one of the country's most impressive hauls, something that's especially unlikely given that BC went just 2-10 last year.
"Most years we wouldn't have 20 commitments by December," said veteran BC assistant Kevin Lempa, who worked at the school from 1981-90 and again from 2003-06. "This is totally different than how it was."
Meanwhile BC's recruiting coordinator, the man behind the program's overhaul, held court at the head of the table. He demanded information, constant contact with prospects and everyday commitment from his fellow coaches.
"Are we ever going to see him (on a visit)? Or is he a figment of your imagination?"
"I want to be on the phone with him today, OK?"
"Are you going to stand on the table for him?"
When Steve Addazio took over as Boston College's head coach in December, he recognized that the program lacked depth and speed, an expected situation considering the Eagles combined to win a mere six games over the past two seasons. So he appointed the best recruiter he knew -- himself -- to the recruiting coordinator spot, an unusual move for a BCS head coach.
"It's my program, that's my job," Addazio said. "If you own a factory, you better be able to run the machines. When you can't, that's when you get in trouble."
How does a program that has flailed in recent years start to secure the makings of a coveted recruiting class? SI.com trailed Addazio for a day to learn how BC has transformed itself in the eyes of high school prospects and coaches.
The easiest place to begin explaining BC's recruiting uptick is with a hashtag. Addazio, 54, doesn't give off the vibe of a social media trailblazer; he's a barrel chested ex-offensive lineman with a requisite old-school mustache. His voice is so thunderous that he could clear Mary Ann's, a popular local watering hole, at last call. But soon after he took the job in December, Addazio joined Twitter and forced his assistants to do the same. True to his smashmouth roots, Addazio began competing with his staff for followers -- the coach with the least gets his chops busted the most. When tight ends coach Frank Leonard admitted that his total of 158 followers lagged behind the rest of the staff, he asked earnestly, "Do I twit enough?"
At some point in March, 57-year-old defensive coordinator Don Brown started using the #beadude hashtag in his tweets. The term evolved from Brown's coaching vernacular, as "being a dude" is his quintessential compliment -- a label for a tough, smart, disciplined, hardworking player.
No one could have predicted that the tag would become synonymous with BC's recruiting rise. The hashtag went viral, and Addazio loved #beadude feedback so much that it became BC's unofficial mantra. Soon, the #beadude board became part of BC's recruiting bunker, as Addazio challenged his assistants to select players they knew they could get to commit. Then he challenged them -- as one might predict -- to be a dude and get those prospects to verbally pledge.
"Don't put a name up there if you're not going to bring it home," Addazio said. "Be a dude, stand up here and let me know who you're going to get committed."
The staff started an Instagram page; "Keep Calm and #beadude" is the message over the dominant image. Recently, the Eagles' staff began experimenting with Vine, a six-second video app owned by Twitter that's become increasingly popular of late. Once technophobes, many of BC's staff members can be spotted screaming into the camera in an attempt to crack up recruits.
"This is a revolution, and in a revolution you've got to overthrow a government," Addazio said. "We're going to all get out of our comfort zone and go into areas that I've never been before."
Addazio has also used Vine as a way to play up BC's NFL lineage, pointing out former BC dudes like Matt Ryan, Mark Herzlich and Luke Kuechly.
The way BC is reaching recruits has dramatically changed. But have the staff's moves worked?
"Honestly, I think the whole entire social media thing is hilarious," said Isaac Yiadom, a three-star cornerback from Worcester, Mass., who chose the Eagles over Virginia Tech and UConn in March. "They think of impressive stuff to make those out of."
While it has certainly taken years of relationships and hours of work for BC to cobble together its early 2014 class, the hashtag will seemingly endure. Every time BC gets a commitment, running backs coach Al Washington tweets out a message similar to the one he sent on June 25, after the Eagles landed their 20th pledge in the 2014 class: "20 #Dudes Strong in 14' All Chasing A Dream!" Of course, that message is punctuated by #beadude.
"I told Donnie, 'You better trademark that [hashtag],'" said Lempa, 60, only half-joking. "It's going to end up in the stands and on T-shirts and he's going to lose the money. He's the one that started it, and it's caught on. He's got to find a lawyer."
Behind the hashtag, BC uses an intricate system to evaluate its recruits. The Eagles began this winter with about 400 prospects' names on index-card sized pieces of white paper on their big board. That number has since been whittled to about 250. Each card includes a player's last name in large font, an orange stripe highlighted through if he's been offered a scholarship and a blue dot if the staff has reviewed his game film. Attached on the side of the card is a yellow Post-it note that indicates which other schools have extended offers to each recruit.
The biggest board is cut up into nine sections, one for each assistant coach. Each of those sections is then broken into three parts: players BC has offered or is targeting, the next tier of players who could rise up and a bottom tier of players who have yet to emerge.
Every day since Addazio took over, he's held a staff recruiting meeting, typically at 7 a.m. The staff meets for at least an hour and talks about specific recruits, with Addazio tilting the cards at an angle to signify the players who will be part of that day's discussion. Some days the staff watches film and argues about how a given player will project in college.
"He's a bit of a robot Bambi."
"He's as good as advertised."
"We need to love him up."
When SI.com sat in on BC's meeting, the Eagles had 16 verbal commits for 2014. (BC coaches aren't allowed to comment on specific recruits per NCAA rules.) Much of the meeting came down to determining the best approach to filling BC's remaining slots, as the school finds itself with the desirable problem of a numbers crunch.
Addazio tells the assistants that they're the general managers of their position groups. Every day, Addazio demands to know what kids are saying when they're visiting, as well as BC's chances of landing any particular player.
"Meetings are intense," said Justin Frye, BC's offensive line coach. "He wants answers about the kids. He wants to be in contact with the kids. His thought is, 'If we're not talking to the kid, are we really recruiting him?'"
The Eagles staff is targeting a class of 24, a number that could change due to injury, attrition or transfer. The staff spent a lot of time debating remaining slots on the 2014 board -- namely, the positions to which to dedicate them. What are the team's biggest needs? Who should it press for a commitment? (While most of the slots on the board are defined by traditional positions like DB and QB, one empty slot is labeled "Big Boy," a hole for an interior lineman.)
There's a feeling that the Eagles are ahead of schedule, but there's still a sense of urgency. Addazio spent the meeting needling his coaches, tapping into their competitive spirit by demanding results.
"That's something I really feel like I learned from Urban," Addazio said of Urban Meyer, his former boss at Florida. "He was great at setting little fires. He could set a fire on anyone."
This BC class began taking shape well before National Signing Day in February. BC signed only 15 players in the 2013 class, as Addazio soon realized that BC isn't the type of place where coaches can scour the country late to find kids. He said he quickly learned that "fit" is the key to BC recruiting, with academics, character and long relationships emerging as the key factors that determine which kids are the best matches for the program.
BC's first 2014 commitment came in February from Marcus Outlow, a running back from Norwich, Conn., who ended up with offers from Ohio State and UCLA. Yiadom pledged next, which he said sparked interest from Rutgers and Miami. In April, Harold Landry, a defensive end from North Carolina, committed; now he holds offers from Clemson, South Carolina and Auburn.
Those players have become some of BC's best recruiters, part of a grassroots movement that goes beyond the hashtag.
"I can't say I expected to be here," said Washington, speaking generally about the class. "I expected to have some success, but my initial feeling when I first met Steve was that he has such a hardworking aura about him. You have to keep up with him."
The day after Addazio got the head-coaching job, he reached out to former BC stars like Ryan, Chris Snee and Doug Flutie. Addazio also connected with high school coaches across the country he knew from his stints at schools like Syracuse, Indiana, Notre Dame, Florida and Temple.
Addazio declared that he and his staff would build a fence around Massachusetts to retain the top in-state talent. The day after Addazio's introductory press conference, he visited Everett High coach John DiBiaso, who runs one of the state's most consistent programs. DiBiaso said the visit "meant a lot" and signified a clear departure from the former staff.
"I just don't think they were all on the same page," DiBiaso said of BC's former staff. "The whole school, the admissions, football, it just seemed like they were all over the place. This seems like a unified effort to bring football to the point where they want to get it."
Greg Toal coaches national powerhouse Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., and his belief in the virtues of Boston College runs so deep that two of his sons played there, from 2000-07. Both Brian and Greg Toal work in finance now, a byproduct of their BC degrees and part of the foundation for coach Toal's belief in the school.
Toal described Addazio as the "right guy at the right time," using the word "energy" seven times during an eight-minute interview to describe Addazio's enthusiasm on the recruiting trail. Toal made it a point to avoid speaking ill of former BC coach Frank Spaziani, who coached his sons and of whom Toal thinks highly as both a person and a defensive coach. Still, Toal said BC's current state is an obvious sign of past recruiting deficiencies.
"That's where they lost it," Toal said. "They lost it in recruiting. I think anyone would agree with that, I think Spaz himself would agree with that. Recruiting went south and it's going to take a while to get it back."
Brian Carlson, who coaches at Pope John XXIII High in Sparta, N.J., hinted that the key difference between Addazio's recruiting approach and his predecessor's comes down to communication. Carlson likes to ask his highly recruited players a simple question: "Have you talked to [a college's] head coach?"
"With BC, they say, 'Yeah,'" Carlson said. "That's a separator. It's a big difference when the recruiter is calling you versus the head coach."
At one point this winter, Addazio told his staff that he wanted to speak to a minimum of 30 prospects per week. Some weeks that number reached 50, as assistants constantly stroll through his office, ready to hand off the phone. Or, at night, assistants patch Addazio in on three-way calls. Addazio will even take recruiting calls while working out; Frye jokes that he knows by now to catch to Addazio before the 30-minute mark on the elliptical, otherwise Addazio is huffing and puffing too much to talk. Washington said he put Addazio on speakerphone once in the middle of a dumbbell bench press.
"He's mid-rep, pumping it out," Washington laughed. "He's playing it up and it's hilarious, the kid loved it. Steve says no one is going to outwork him and means it."
Coaches like Carlson have taken notice. "It's night and day," he said, describing the recruiting difference since Addazio took over. "They're doing everything all the big programs are doing."
That includes earning a recruiting ranking next to some of college football's bluebloods, one dude at a time.