Thursday March 6th, 2008

I've never met Pete Carroll. As far as I know, we've only been in the same room once -- at a crowded press conference at the Beverly Hilton the day before Carroll's USC team faced Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl. But this much I know about the man.

Pete Carroll has added boogey boarding to his list of interests.

That little nugget popped up on my computer screen late last week. See, Carroll is my friend. Or at least he is in the wonderful, slightly terrifying world of Facebook, where you can poke a perfect stranger with absolutely zero legal consequences. So when Carroll blasts Dire Straits in his office, me and his other 1,025 friends (as of Thursday morning) know about it. I also know his favorite book is The Inner Game of Tennis, his favorite television show is 24 and his musical favorites include James Brown, The Fray, The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones. (More on The Fray later, I promise.)

Here's something else I know. Carroll's Facebook page -- created a few weeks ago and managed on a day-to-day basis by USC football Web site guru Ben Malcomson -- is reason No. 347 why Carroll is light years ahead of his colleagues in connecting with the young men he coaches or hopes to coach. Carroll and Malcomson insist the page has nothing to do with recruiting football players to USC, and Carroll even posted a note saying NCAA rules forbid him from responding to many of the messages posted on his page, but Carroll's foray into Facebook will help him recruit players even as it helps his stated goal of recruiting fellow good Samaritans to his favorite charity, A Better LA.

If you don't understand Facebook or if you've never heard of it, fear not. You're probably just old. I'm 29, which makes me downright ancient in Facebook world. I didn't join until last week when I began working on this story. Mark Zuckerberg, now a 23-year-old billionaire, founded Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2004. By then, I'd been married three years, so one primary function of Facebook -- the hunt for the next hookup -- was rendered useless. Smarter people than I have found more noble uses for Facebook, which, according to Business Week, now has 67 million users and could soon eclipse MySpace as the social-networking site of choice. Among those millions of users are hundreds of potential football recruits.

Carroll has to know this. "Coach is as up on things as a 56-year-old can be," said Malcomson, the USC student-reporter-turned-walk-on-receiver who now provides much of the content for Carroll's Web site, USCRipsIt.com.

Carroll's coaching colleagues can't say the same. A Facebook search for the names of the other 64 BCS-league coaches returned no legitimate matches. Alabama's Nick Saban has five profiles, but the geniuses who created them all thought he lived in Birmingham instead of Tuscaloosa. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino's son has a page, but the Head Hog himself does not. Pitt's Dave Wannstedt doesn't have a page, but his mustache has its own fan club.

The only aspect of Carroll's page that could turn off a potential recruit is his inclusion of Grey's Anatomy-fueled soft-rockers The Fray in a list that includes the Godfather of Soul, the Boss, Stevie Wonder and the Stones. I asked Carroll about this in a set of questions I wrote on his wall, explaining that the choice might force folks to question his sanity. In a message sent to my Facebook page, Carroll explained himself.

"They're not in any order [of preference], I was just going through my iTunes and picked out a few of my favorites," Carroll wrote. "I'm really liking the Foo Fighters right now, though -- they've been blasting from my stereo for the last few weeks almost nonstop. Everyone in the office is probably getting sick of them, but that music has been good to me lately."

At most schools, the head coach has a snazzy Web site designed to lure recruits with exclusive video and interviews. And while MackBrown-TexasFootball.com, CoachUrbanMeyer.com and their cyberspace counterparts are effective recruiting tools, they may not have the impact of a simple Facebook profile. By posting a page and professing his love for boogey boarding and Kanye West, Carroll can connect on a personal level with recruits while still controlling the message.

Unlike most Facebook pages, Carroll's communication will be mostly one-way. Malcomson said that when he created the page, Carroll wanted to try to "stay away from potential landmines" such as writing on friends' walls or sending personal messages. Carroll made an exception for this story, but he knew I was out of NCAA eligibility.

Had I been a recruitable athlete, Carroll would have violated a seven-month-old NCAA rule forbidding coaches from corresponding with athletes using Facebook or MySpace. "Any communication using social networking [or similar] Web sites is not permissible unless it's e-mail," NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn explained in an e-mail. "So any communication via message boards, chat rooms, walls, comments, blogs, [instant message], etc. is not permissible. This doesn't preclude a coach from having his/her own Facebook or MySpace page, but it does restrict the type of communication that can occur between the coach and prospects."

That could be tough to police, though. To test how easy it would be to contact a recruit, I sent a friend request to Houston-area quarterback Russell Shepard, a top Class of 2009 player who committed to LSU this week. Within hours, Shepard had accepted my request. Were I a coach, I could correspond with Shepard by private message without anyone finding out. But with unlimited e-mails at my disposal, it probably wouldn't be worth the potential NCAA trouble.

Besides, Carroll would prefer his Facebook page serve its intended purpose -- to help A Better LA, a charity determined to help curb violence in inner-city Los Angeles. In his response to the questions on his wall, Carroll wrote passionately about his hope for the project. The cause seems even more vital in the wake of last weekend's senseless fatal shooting of 17-year-old Los Angeles High football star Jamiel Shaw.

"A Better LA is something we started up several years ago after a horrible string of shootings in one week in Los Angeles. It shook me pretty hard and really moved me to action," Carroll wrote. "So here we are about six years later and the group is really humming. ... This Facebook thing is just another tool for us to get the word out about A Better LA and make contact with people who might be interested in helping us change the city for the better."

And if the Facebook thing happens to help a recruit see Carroll as a regular dude instead of a millionaire football coach, Carroll probably won't complain -- even if he does take some grief. "coach y are you on facebook????" USC freshman tailback Broderick Green wrote on Carroll's wall Wednesday. "it's for losers"

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