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How social media is shaking up recruiting; Punt, Pass & Pork

Social media has taken over recruiting, with Twitter direct messages and Instagram posts replacing the hand-written letters of a past era. Andy Staples looks at the latest uses of social media in recruiting.

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.

#http://instagram.com/p/zFdQKlSCn9

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.

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“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.

#DearAndy: Should there be an early signing period for football recruits?

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.

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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.

[youtube:http://youtu.be/bEhVqvi7V2w]

4. We can’t publish this list without an appearance from 1986 Spud Webb.

5. Cedric Ceballos blindfolded in 1992.