During hissophomore year at Santa Barbara (Calif.) High, Roberto Nelson placed acardboard box behind a green recliner in the family room of his home. It was adecent-sized container—it once had been used to ship a microwave—and asufficient catchall. If he tossed something behind the recliner, it almostalways fell safely into the box.
This is an article from the Aug. 3, 2009 issue
Mail arrived atthe apartment complex where Nelson lived at around 2 p.m. each day. Largerenvelopes didn't fit through the slot in the front door, so the mail carrieroften dumped the delivery on the doormat. Nelson would leaf through the stackwhen he got home from school and then toss everything over the green recliner.Sometimes he would mimic a jump shot as he cast that day's bundle into thebox.
In November 1984SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ran a story about recruiting letters that to this dayremains an illuminating glimpse into the business of how colleges court elitebasketball prospects. Three of the top high school players in the country atthe time—Chris Washburn, John Williams and Danny Manning—allowed SI to examinethe mail they received from college coaches, including North Carolina's DeanSmith, North Carolina State's Jim Valvano and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. The mailwas an effective way to influence the college choice of the best prospects backthen; a thoughtful sentence in a timely letter could make all the difference.As Washburn explained just before choosing the Wolfpack later that week,"Those letters showed me how much N.C. State really cared aboutme."
The box RobertoNelson placed behind the green recliner was part of an experiment to see what,if anything, had changed 25 years later. In the era of e-mail, Facebook,Twitter and the like, did coaches still use old-fashioned correspondence tocourt players? Could recruiting by the post still sway a kid? In short, doesrecruiting mail still matter?
Nelson wouldeventually receive scholarship offers from UCLA, Florida, Ohio State and adozen other top programs. A 6'3" guard, he was ranked among the top 100players in the class of 2009. At SI's request, Nelson saved every piece of mailhe received from recruiters. The collection started with that big box butquickly expanded to include another, and then a milk crate, three shoe boxesand two large paper bags. Nelson received 2,161 pieces of mail from 56programs, a haul so massive that at one point his mother, Roberta, threatenedto throw it all in the trash if SI didn't cart it away. "It can't stay hereanymore," she said, likening the expanding pile to a giant blob. "It'staking over my house."
A brief historyof recruiting letters: Courting kids through the mail was once viewed as one ofthe least effective tactics. "When I coached, I never wrote letters,"says Barry Switzer, Oklahoma's football coach from 1973 to '88. "There wereno restrictions like there are today on how many times you could call or visita kid. I also had four assistant coaches who did nothing but recruit. Theydidn't even come to practices."
Coaches who sentletters did so judiciously, conveying the message that it was an honor for aprospect just to make the mailing list. Bill Walton was 15 years old when hegot his first letter, written by assistant coach Denny Crum, from UCLA, in1967. "It has come to our attention that you are a good player," beganthe letter, one of only a handful Walton received from the Bruins. "Makesure to focus on academics so that when the time comes you will qualify to livethe privilege of being a UCLA Bruin."
For Walton, theline "it has come to our attention" suggested that someone hadwhispered his name to the UCLA coaches, as if he were a special secret. He sayshe also loved the phrase to "live the privilege," which encapsulatedhis feelings about playing for John Wooden and his program.
As the 1984 SIarticle noted, basketball coaches began embracing the mail as a recruitingtechnique after the NCAA put restrictions on alternate methods, such as therepeated visits made by Switzer's assistants. In the 1990s innovation came onlyin the form of carpet-bombing campaigns such as the one USC basketballassistant David Miller orchestrated in 1996. He twice sent a future Trojan,Kevin Augustine, 500 handwritten letters in a single day.
The onlysignificant change in the last decade has been the targeting of recruits atyounger ages. Middle schoolers began receiving handwritten letters frombasketball coaches, and some recruiters started sending notes to fifth- andsixth-graders. The NCAA changed the language in its bylaws last year and nowprohibits coaches from mailing recruiting materials to a player before June 15of his sophomore year of high school. But there is a loophole. Coaches areallowed to send camp brochures, questionnaires or NCAA-printed materials, suchas eligibility guides, to prospects regardless of their age. Some recruitersinundate a young prospect with those documents so as to get envelopes embossedwith their school's logo into his mailbox. In one instance a basketball programsent one page of the NCAA's 21-page Guide for College Bound Student-Athletes toa recruit each week over a stretch of more than five months.
Most strikingabout the correspondence Nelson received was not the volume, not evenKentucky's whopping total of 295 mailings, but how little of it waspersonalized. Of the 2,161 pieces of mail that arrived on Nelson's doorstep,only 200—or 9.3%—featured writing tailored specifically for him. Everythingelse was a form letter, a media guide, a press release or, most often, aphotocopy of a page from a media guide.
SI deemedcorrespondence to be personalized if a coach wrote anything unique on it.Washington (86 mailings) was the only school to personalize every piece ofcorrespondence it sent Nelson, but rarely did the Huskies' coaches pen morethen a few words.
All of Kentucky'sdispatches were impersonal, as were those from Clemson (210), Tennessee (196),Oregon (93), Wisconsin (53), Kansas State (50), California (44), Florida (42),Kansas (41) and 27 other schools. In total, only 18 schools sent him anypersonalized mail.
SI had to searchlong and hard to find nuggets of original work. North Carolina assistant JerodHaase sent photocopies of the syndicated sports cartoon In the Bleachers. Inone panel a coach explains the physics of a slam under the title"Introductory Dunk," to which Haase added his own punch line, writtenin Carolina-blue ink: "Roberto—Are you ready for 'Advanced Dunking?'"On another cartoon showing "a 7-footer" who actually had seven feet,Haase added, "Roberto—This guy can really tap dance!"
The closest anyschool came to truly personal correspondence were a few letters from OhioState. The Buckeyes' coaches sent cards following up on phone conversationsthey had initiated with Nelson or his father, Bruce, who grew up inColumbus.
Your family knowsas well as anyone how passionate Columbus is about the Buckeyes. You and yourteammates are the show in town. Being a Buckeye is a very special honor.
P.S. Great job insummer school—B in Algebra!
With that as thehigh point it is no wonder that on most days Nelson heaved the latest bundlebehind the recliner without even a cursory look. In all, he opened only 387pieces of mail, or about 18%. (He later permitted SI to open the sealedletters.)
Five other toprecruits—three from the class of 2009 and two from the class of 2010—say theyalso opened only a small percentage of their mail after realizing it was mostlyimpersonal. Why, then, do schools still send recruiting letters?
"Mostcoaches, especially the younger ones, know the mail is not the way to build arelationship anymore," says a recruiter for one Pac-10 school. "Buteveryone else is doing it, so no one wants to be the one not to."
In Nelson's massof mail it was easier to find an NCAA violation than a well-turned phrase. LSU,for example, sent Nelson four recruiting letters before the NCAA's firstallowable date, then Sept. 1 of the player's junior year. "That occurredunder the previous coaching staff," says LSU associate AD MichaelBonnette.
"Schoolsoften mistake what year in school a recruit is, or they are just trying to geta jump on everyone else," says Foti Mellis, an associate athletic directorat Cal.
But even thosebreaking the rules still send mostly form letters and other impersonalcorrespondence. Thus there would seem to be little separating recruiters fromthe credit card companies, Pennysaver and Valpak.
They all mailjunk.
A few months agoNelson's recruiting haul was handed over to Gerard Gleason, a paper expert inSan Francisco.
Gleason is anassociate director for the nonprofit Conservatree, and for 20 years he hasadvised businesses and government agencies on efficient paper use, papermarkets and recycling. While he is among the nation's foremost paper nerds, heknew nothing about recruiting when he took possession of Nelson's mail. Uponseeing all the envelopes Kentucky sent out featuring a picture of coach BillyGillispie, Gleason said, "What would they do with all these envelopes ifthey got a new coach? It would be like Russia with [Joseph] Stalin. They'll beleft with all this stuff with his head on it."
Told thatGillispie had been fired in March, Gleason said, "Let's hope theyrecycle."
Gleason used apaper calculator created by the Environmental Defense Fund to estimate theenvironmental impact of the 135 pounds of paper used to recruit Nelson. Next heestimated the impact of the paper being sent to all Division I hoops recruitsin a given year.
His computationbegan with the average weight of paper each college sent to Nelson, which was2.4 pounds. Most schools send mail to at least 100 players in each class(according to three recruiters who spoke to SI) and are targeting two classes(juniors and seniors) simultaneously. If each of the 347 Division I basketballprograms sends 2.4 pounds of mail annually to 200 kids, the environmentalimpact each year of the production of that paper, according to Gleason'sanalysis, would be:
• the consumptionof 220 tons of wood, the equivalent of about 1,526 trees;
• greenhouse gasemissions equal to what 39 cars produce in a year, and the use of enough energyto power 32 homes for a year;
• and 167,034pounds of solid waste, which would fill six garbage trucks, and 1,423,939gallons of wastewater, the equivalent of two swimming pools' full.
Noting theenvironmental cost compared to the number of letters Nelson opened, Gleasonasked the obvious question: "If recruits don't open the letters, why keepsending them? Why waste all that money and paper?"
Some schoolsmight soon ask themselves the same thing. In May, Michigan and Ohio Statejointly announced that they would cease printing media guides. Bygones from thepre-Internet age, these publications contain as many as 208 pages (theNCAA-mandated maximum) of records, stats, player biographies and other teaminformation that is now also readily available electronically. Long arecruiting tool, they are no longer of much value on that front either. (Nelsonreceived 44 guides and says he looked at "one or two.")
Cal, Iowa,Wisconsin and the entire Mid-American Conference quickly followed theWolverines and the Buckeyes, perhaps signaling the beginning of a trend ofathletic departments' rethinking what they print.
"Theenvironmental issue came up after the decision was made," says Bruce Madej,Michigan's associate athletic director. "Mostly it came down to: Why spend$100,000 printing something that is no longer doing what it was meant do bedoing?"
The same logiccould—and should—be applied to recruiting mail. Coaches who stick to thepractice waste time, money and natural resources, and it no longer helps themland players. If further proof is needed, consider Nelson's college choice.
During the summerbefore his senior year of high school, Nelson met Oregon State coach CraigRobinson, better known as President Barack Obama's brother-in-law. Robinsoncalled Nelson four times last fall and went to Santa Barbara to visit him inSeptember. In November, Nelson spurned UCLA and Ohio State and signed a letterof intent to play for the Beavers.
How many piecesof recruiting mail did Robinson and Oregon State send Nelson?
Now on SI.com
More basketball and football recruiting news from Andy Staples atSI.com/bonus