How social media is shaking up recruiting; Punt, Pass & Pork
Matt Dudek didn’t shed a tear last month when this year’s Oscar nominations went out, but the omission did sting a little. Dudek turned in one of 2014’s great supporting performances, but his contribution to the culture was ignored in favor of actual actors who starred in actual movies. “The Academy just didn’t put us in there this year,” Dudek said with just a hint of regret.
But if his turn as the villainous old-school football coach trying to slow down college football’s cutting-edge offenses made a few recruits think harder about Arizona football, then the Wildcats’ director of player personnel can live without a statue this year.
Dudek’s other title is Arizona’s director of on-campus recruiting, which is a tad misleading since one of his main responsibilities is sending words, photos and videos into the ether that he hopes will reach potential future Wildcats hundreds or even thousands of miles from Tucson. On Saturday, Dudek fired out homemade Arizona-themed Valentine’s Day cards on Twitter and Instagram.
Why generate memes when he could take the day off? Because Dudek always wants something fresh on recruits’ preferred social networks. When prospects look down at their smartphones, Dudek wants the Arizona brand staring back at them.
“The power of social media is really second to none in recruiting,” Dudek said. “Back in the day, it used to be hand-written letters and the coach calling you. That’s all still relevant, but social media is 24/7/365. If a kid wakes up at 3 a.m. and scrolls through his phone, finds something and clicks on it, then we’re recruiting while we’re sleeping.”
About 110 miles northwest of Dudek’s laboratory, another of college football’s brightest young minds works to harness the power of social media to put his program at the front of recruits’ minds. Patrick Suddes helped build the juggernaut of a recruiting department at his alma mater, Alabama, under Nick Saban. He left for Texas in 2013 but was cast off with the rest of Mack Brown’s staff. Suddes departed Austin and went to Arizona State as the assistant athletic director in charge of player personnel. But unlike someone with a similar title in the NFL, Suddes can’t draft the new talent. He has to help Sun Devils coaches find players who might be interested in coming to Arizona State.
Arizona and Arizona State face similar challenges. They are well known to the players in their state but must fight one another for those players. And since the state of Arizona doesn’t produce enough blue-chippers to supply two competitive Pac-12 programs, the Wildcats and Sun Devils must reach wide to find players who can compete at that level. The problem? Players in California, Louisiana and Virginia may have little awareness of the programs at Arizona or Arizona State. So how do Dudek, Suddes and the coaching staffs they work for get players to think about relocating to the desert? By providing a constant stream of graphics, videos and old-fashioned/newfangled conversation that might pique a player’s interest.
Lately, Suddes has been thinking about web pages. In recent years, major programs built Flash-heavy sites—many of which autoplay sanitized hip-hop the moment a browser opens the home page. Suddes’ former employer in Tuscaloosa has such a site called CoachSaban.net. These sites look fabulous on a desktop or laptop but don’t work at all on a phone. To correct for this, programs have been designing iPhone apps packed with information that might interest recruits. This doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, Suddes thought. What if a recruit uses a Samsung phone? So Suddes now has a company designing a platform for Arizona State that resembles one of the most popular social networking sites. “We’ve created a site that’s going to come out that’s like Pinterest,” Suddes said.
Wait. Pinterest? The go-to network for recipes and craft ideas?
The subject matter will favor catches and collisions over bouillabaisse and bouquets, but Suddes was impressed with the way Pinterest pages deliver an attractive, functional look no matter the device. A recruit using a computer at home or a smartphone while hanging with his friends can see something he wants to click on. That helps the Sun Devils because every “This page requires Adobe Flash Player” message a recruit sees represents an opportunity lost. The platform also helps because instead of sending material to a website management company and waiting for it to be posted, Suddes and his staff can post directly to the page.
At the same time Suddes and Dudek are posting information publicly, Arizona State and Arizona coaches are communicating with players directly through social networking sites. The most popular network for coach-to-recruit communication at the moment is Twitter, where the direct message function replaces the text message that the NCAA still forbids. “Twitter has obviously taken over,” Suddes said. “Facebook is for older people. My parents use it.” This, apparently, is a universal truth. “Twitter DM is the most popular,” Dudek said. “Facebook is dwindling because their parents are on Facebook.” Said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez: “I had a Twitter thing, and I didn’t tweet for months. And the kids tell me that Facebook is for old people.”
Dudek is trying to teach Rodriguez to tweet. More importantly, he’s trying to ensure Rodriguez knows the difference between a direct message and a public one. Dudek also is working with his coaches on Instagram’s new direct message feature, but he isn’t sure they’re willing to attach the required picture every time they send a message.
The NCAA still forbids coach-recruit communication on Snapchat, the this-message-will-self-destruct-in-10-seconds network. That’s fine with Dudek. “I don’t want to see a 10-second picture of any recruit—ever,” he said. “That just opens bad doors.”
Suddes said Arizona State maintains two Snapchat accounts for public viewing, where posts last 24 hours instead of 10 seconds. He said the Sun Devils also maintain three Instagram accounts. One great advantage of social media is the research it allows coaches and staffers to do to determine relationships between recruits. Simply by examining who retweets whom and how they communicate publicly, recruiters can discern which players might want to play together. Coaches can also find a “bell cow,” a player whose magnetic personality might draw other recruits into the fold.
The social media networks also allow staffers to create personalized material that never would have been seen by anyone but the player and his family prior to this era. Plus, the old NCAA rules that restricted the use of colors and logos don’t apply to items sent digitally. Those rules were designed to protect less wealthy programs that couldn’t afford glossy, full-color mailings for hundreds of recruits. But it costs little beyond a few minutes of labor to create an image of a recruit wearing a team’s uniform. That image can then be attached by a coach to an e-mail or a Twitter or Instagram direct message. If the player likes it, he’ll probably end up posting it for everyone to see.
The recruiting gurus have a fairly good idea what generates a response from recruits. They like infographics, which is why most major programs have either hired or are in the process of hiring a graphic designer. Suddes said Arizona State is beefing up its graphic game now.
Each program is also increasing its video content. Suddes wants the content his team produces to make recruits to feel as if they have 24/7 access to the program. Perhaps the best example of this concept at the moment is Texas A&M’s AggieFBLife stream on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter.
Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, another program that routinely delivers videos destined for viral status is Arizona State’s Territorial Cup rival. Arizona can go football-heavy as it did with this video that describes an OKG (“Our kind of guy”), which was narrated by former Arizona player and Hells Angels infiltrator Jay Dobyns. The Wildcats can also go light, borrowing the “Mean Tweets” concept from Jimmy Kimmel.
And then there’s the cowboy video.
The original plan was hatched by Rodriguez’s wife, Rita. “She just wanted a picture of all of us dressed up as cowboys,” Dudek said. “We were going to mail it to some recruits and say, ‘The posse is coming for you.’ That was the whole idea. We have an old movie set in Tucson where a ton of Westerns were filmed. I said, ‘If we’re going to get dressed up, why don’t we film a trailer?’”
Rodriguez said the coaches spent a couple of hours on the set. The result was a faux Western movie trailer heavy on cheese, ponchos and hats that debuted on YouTube in June 2013. The staff had a blast filming it. No one thought it would make a splash on social media, but it was in heavy rotation for days. Dudek said he noticed someone tweeting a link to the video as recently as two weeks ago.
The Wildcats wanted to repeat the feat last year, and the Speed spoof was the perfect idea at a time when a few coaches were advocating a rule change to slow down hurry-up offenses like Arizona’s. It also didn’t hurt that the actual movie contained a scene in which Keanu Reaves and Sandra Bullock briefly discuss Arizona football.
Dudek was the breakout star, but he said the Wildcats’ “digital gurus” did the heavy lifting. That’s the video production team of John Daley, Carlos Moreno, Ryan Bloom and Mike Hausler. Dudek and the gurus are already planning this year’s summer blockbuster, but Dudek refused to divulge anything more. “We have a few ideas with the help of executive producer Rita Rodriguez,” Dudek said. “We like to keep them under wraps until they pop.”
You’ll have to keep watching. Because you never know when the next great idea from Dudek or Suddes will come to a smartphone near you.
A Random Ranking
Zach LaVine of the Minnesota Timberwolves threw on Michael Jordan’s Tune Squad jersey Saturday night and threw down a Slam Dunk Contest performance for the ages. The show harkened back to the late 1980s and early ‘90s when the dunk contest meant something. (Or when I was between the ages of 10-15, which means I’m hardwired to romanticize that era.) Here are the top five contest dunks between 1986 and 1995.
1. This was Michael Jordan’s second time dunking from the free throw line in a slam dunk contest, but the circumstances in 1988 made it better. Dominique Wilkins had just thrown down a two-handed windmill, and Air Jordan had to take flight to win.
2. And if that 1988 dunk contest hadn’t been in Chicago, this dunk by Wilkins probably would have won the thing.
3. The ancestor to Lavine’s performance is Isaiah Rider’s Eastbay Funk from 1994.
4. We can’t publish this list without an appearance from 1986 Spud Webb.
5. Cedric Ceballos blindfolded in 1992.
(This was a pretty slow news week, so we’re going to try something a little different with First and 10 this week. There are two topics rooted in news stories from last week that are worth deeper looks. One is quarterback Vernon Adams’ use of the graduate transfer rule to transfer from Eastern Washington to Oregon for his final season. That’ll be covered in items one through five. The other is the proposal by the NCAA Football Rules Committee that offensive linemen be allowed to go only one yard past the line of scrimmage before a thrown ball crosses the line of scrimmage. This change could seriously affect offenses that use “packaged” plays, and it could make every defensive coordinator in the country happier. That’ll be covered in items six through 10.)
1. When Adams announced his transfer last week, the loudest critique came from Montana State coach Rob Ash, whose team plays with Eastern Washington in the Big Sky Conference. “We’re Division I like the other level,” Ash told The Associated Press. “Our guys need to start and finish at the same school. We cannot be perceived as a farm system or Triple-A ballclub or anything like that.”
I reached out to Ash last week to ask him to elaborate on his comments, and he happily obliged. He has a few problems with the graduate transfer rule, which I am on record as saying is the best rule the NCAA has ever made.
2. Here are Ash’s issues with the rule:
First, it is not being used as intended in football. “This rule was put in for academic reasons,” Ash said. And he’s correct. It was intended for athletes who had eligibility remaining and wanted to enroll in a graduate program that their original school didn’t offer. An NCAA study of 258 athletes who used the graduate transfer exception in 2011 or ‘12 found that of the football players, only 24 percent had completed their graduate program in two years. Seven percent remained enrolled, and 68 percent had withdrawn. The numbers seem to back up Ash on this one.
His second issue is that he is concerned FBS schools will begin cherry-picking the best players from the FCS. This has not been an issue thus far in football, but a few mid-major basketball teams have lost players to high-majors looking to beef up their lineups. “I can see that if it’s a situation where a guy has encountered a bad deal,” Ash said. “Maybe he’s not playing. Maybe there has been a coaching change. But what bothers me is this effort to so-called ‘bump up’ to the next level.”
Ash’s other issue with the rule is what the resulting transfer does to the team concept. A starter leaving negatively affects the rest of the players on the team. “When you hit right on a guy that ends up being special, those guys are so amazing for the program and for all the other guys around them,” Ash said. “As a coach, you talk all the time about loyalty and dedication and commitment and the team and buying into the team.”
3. I’ll concede that the rule is not being used as intended, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad rule. The happy accident is that it has given players a positive incentive to graduate. And since I heard all those NCAA lawyers in federal court arguing that this entire enterprise is about education, any rule that incentivizes earning a bachelor’s degree should be considered a plus.
Besides, the NCAA’s transfer rules for undergraduates allow coaches to dictate where players can go—even when those players still have to sit out a year after the transfer. Allowing athletes to earn free agency by earning a degree at least tilts the balance back a little. Plus, if an athlete has been in a program four years—as Adams was at Eastern Washington—and earned a degree, he and the school have fulfilled their obligations to one another.
4. Ash worries about the FCS becoming a farm system for the FBS, but it will take an awful lot of graduate transfers to do that. In fact, it’s more likely that the FBS is currently a farm system for the FCS.
Every year, players unhappy with their playing time drop down a level. They take advantage of the NCAA’s rule that allows FBS players with at least two years of eligibility remaining to transfer to an FCS school and play immediately.
Since 2013, Ash has taken transfers from Miami, Nevada and Hawaii. Meanwhile, Eastern Washington won the FCS national title in ‘10 with SMU transfer Bo Levi Mitchell at quarterback. In ‘11, Mitchell won the Walter Payton Award, the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy. The following season saw the rise of Adams, who ultimately will travel Mitchell’s path in reverse.
5. Ash can say these things because he is neither a serial job-hopper nor does he cut loose rising fifth-year players who have little on-field value to the program. But many of Ash’s colleagues have no moral leg to stand on in this argument.
During our conversation, Ash likened a fifth-year starter leaving for the FBS to a coach dropping the scholarship of a fifth-year projected to be a backup. “We would never pull the plug on a player, and it’s hard to imagine a player pulling the plug on us,” he said.
Ash may never do that, but it happens pretty regularly in the FBS. Also, the number of coaches who bail after less than four years for a better gig still far outpaces the number of graduate transfers.
Ash also made the point that it’s a different situation when a starter leaves. Unfortunately, the schools cannot make one set of NCAA rules for starters and one for backups. The benefit of this rule for the players who fall out of favor still outweighs the detriment to teams who lose starters because of the simple fact that most starters will not leave unless the circumstances are extraordinary. Adams got a chance to win the starting job at Oregon. That counts as extraordinary.
6. The news that the NCAA Football Rules Committee had proposed adjusting the rule for linemen downfield on a forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage shot through the college football world Thursday night. The battle lines may seem similar to last year, when a few coaches tried to ram new clock rules down the throats of everyone else so they could handicap hurry-up offenses, but this is a little more complex.
7. At issue is the fact that officials across the country have been ignoring the existing rule that states linemen cannot be more than three yards downfield before a thrown ball crosses the line of scrimmage. Some coaches have noticed this and taken advantage.
There are offenses that will call a “packaged” play—a handoff or keep option for the quarterback followed by the option to throw downfield—without varying the protection scheme at all based on whether the play is a run or a pass. That’s fine in and of itself. After all, play-action passes require the linemen to simulate a running play.
What’s not fine is when those linemen drift as many as five yards down the field. At that point, safeties and linebackers who know the rules are trained to close toward the line of scrimmage because a forward pass would be illegal. By rule, such a play must be a run. But if the linebackers and safeties close, the quarterback throws the ball to a wide-open receiver and no official throws a flag, then it’s a touchdown on a play the defense could not possibly defend.
When a lineman is drive-blocking a linebacker six yards beyond the line of scrimmage, no one in the secondary is thinking pass.
Or check out this screen shot from the Notre Dame-Arizona State game.
There are teams that almost always ask their offensive lines to block the run, no matter the play. This isn’t lazy coaching, either. It’s a recognition of the officials’ unwillingness to enforce the rule, and it allows offenses to take advantage by fooling defenses that are trained to expect the offense to follow the rules.
9. Why have officials ignored the breaking of this rule? Because with huge people moving around at high speed, it’s awfully difficult to tell if a player is three or four yards from the line of scrimmage while also looking for various other infractions. And what if the official is wrong and the lineman is only three yards away? Then a touchdown might be taken off the board unfairly.
The rule change seems like a lowering of the speed limit. If you want to ticket people driving 60 mph, you would probably lower the limit from 55 to 45. Cops will rarely ticket someone driving 5 mph over the limit; they’ll frequently ticket someone driving 15 mph over the limit.
Where this could become a problem is if officials decide that now they actually want to call this to the letter of the law. At one yard with officials calling the rule strictly, it would be difficult to run a legal play-action pass.
10. The best solution to keep the game flowing and help the defense is to leave the rule at three yards and station an extra official on the sideline three yards from the line of scrimmage. His only job would be to watch for linemen too far downfield on passes. Given the proliferation of packaged plays, this would be a full-time job on a lot of Saturdays.
Unfortunately, this round of changes just added an eighth official. The center judge stands in the offensive backfield opposite the referee. This solution would require a ninth official, which would be fine in the Power Five conferences but probably not in the less wealthy ones.
Another option is to leave the rule at three yards and tell officials to make it a point of emphasis. As defensive coordinators have been screaming about this during games for years, that probably isn’t going to work.
If the one-yard rule passes the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel, defensive coaches across the country will rejoice. But offensive coaches who rely on packaged plays will have to hope the committee reduced the number to one yard so that officials would actually call the three-yard rule they should have been calling in the first place. Because if the rule is called strictly, a few offensive linemen will finally learn how to pass set.
What’s Eating Andy?
E.L. James wrote some Twilight fan-fiction, turned it into the 50 Shades of Grey franchise and became a gazillionaire by bringing kinky into the mainstream. Certainly there is a publisher—and after that, a movie studio—willing to take a chance on my erotic novel, Hog Tied. You’ll never eat bacon the same way again.
What’s Andy Eating?
The Twitter messages came sporadically, maybe two or three a week. They didn’t come from the same person, which lent them credibility. They made one request. The next time work took me to Phoenix, I needed to try Little Miss BBQ.
I remained skeptical. A bunch of diners in Texas or Alabama recommending the same barbecue place? That’s a no-brainer. But in Phoenix? This was going to go one of two ways. Either someone had decided to bring real barbecue to the deprived masses in the Salt River Valley, or a place outside of the barbecue belt had once again sullied the good name of America’s finest culinary contribution.
So I drove west on University Drive from the Arizona State campus, past Sky Harbor airport and into an industrial district known in most towns as The Place With The Airport Adjacent Strip Clubs. This might frighten away some of the transplants accustomed to the manicured chaininess of Scottsdale, but no true barbecue lover worries about such things. Experience has taught us that a barbecue restaurant in a good neighborhood offers far more cause for concern. Besides, there is nothing to fear during Little Miss BBQ’s hours, which are 11 a.m.-4 p.m., or until they sell out.
I arrived at Little Miss at about 1 p.m. this past Thursday. A line snaked around the side of the building and into the picnic area set up near giant offset smokers that still smelled of that day’s brisket. A pile of wood—Arizona oak and pecan, according to the Little Miss website—stood nearby. These were the most positive signs. The best barbecue places always have a giant pile of wood nearby, and no one will wait in line for terrible barbecue.
The folks at Little Miss make the best of their location. The building is tiny and can’t accommodate the demands of the lunch crowd, so diners have to queue up outside. But the proprietors of Little Miss have created a tent system to ensure most of the waiting is done while shielded from the unforgiving Arizona sun. They also stash a cooler full of water bottles at the midpoint of the line. No one needs to be dehydrated before they consume a pound or two of salty meat.
When diners finally do gain entry to the Little Miss inner sanctum, the scene at the counter erases any lingering doubt. Beautiful, bark-covered briskets are sliced open to reveal cascading juices and a glistening red smoke ring. The beef looks as good as the stuff at any hot Texas spot, but the menu doesn’t stop at the Texas trinity of brisket, sausage and pork spare ribs. Near the bottom, I noticed something else: lamb neck.
When we bring home a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, I immediately grab the neck bone before my wife or kids get the chance to swipe it and take the tiny shards of tender meat. I thought about the size difference between a chicken and a lamb and immediately ordered half a pound of lamb neck meat. The man behind the counter informed me that Little Miss only sells whole necks. Then he grabbed one and tossed it on the scale: 1.6 pounds. At least half of that is bone. The rest is pure bliss. Imagine the most succulent leg of lamb you’ve tasted. Now make it more tender. Now add smoke. And bark. That’s a lamb neck from Little Miss.
The lamb neck was so good that it overshadowed the brisket, which might be the best available west of Texas. If not for the neck, you’d be reading a glowing review of that brisket. I could also spend several quality minutes discussing the jalapeno cheese grits, but we’ve already crossed the 4,000-word mark on this column and need to wrap things up lest your workday productivity suffer.
Just know this: Little Miss is no mirage. It is a pure oasis in the barbecue desert that is the western United States.