Instant recruiting

From letters and phone calls to front porch visits, coaches have often gone the extra mile to get a hot recruit. But when instant messaging, even via a cell phone, comes into play, is it a personal touch or simply too much?

Published December 14, 2005

Darrell Davis remembers the morning he went from high school receiver to bona fide Division I prospect.

He was in homeroom at Pasco High when his phone began to vibrate. It was about 8 a.m. on Sept. 1. Davis reached for his phone thinking it was a call from one of his buddies.

Instead, it was the start of an avalanche.

Davis scanned the text message discretely to avoid the ire of his teacher. It was from Miami assistant Curtis Johnson, Davis said.

"It said, "What's up Darrell? This is Coach Johnson from Miami. This is the first day we can contact recruits.'

"We want you to know we have you in our sights.' "

Text messaging has mushroomed in recruiting since the NCAA in August 2004 defined them as general correspondence, lumping them with letters and e-mails.

That designation comes with far fewer restrictions than those attached to phone calls.

College coaches armed themselves with the latest weapons in the recruiting battle: Blackberrys, PDAs and cell phones capable of sending and receiving e-mail, text messages and pictures. The devices range from $70 to several hundred dollars each.

The access they give coaches to recruits is priceless.

"It's just another way for coaches to develop relationships with the guy you're recruiting," said University of Florida recruiting coordinator Dan Mullen.

The NCAA limits phone calls from coaches to recruits to one call during the student's junior year and once per week his senior year from Sept.1 through November. There are no restrictions on the timing or number of text messages a coach can send a recruit beginning Sept.1 of the prospect's junior year. That has forced entire coaching staffs to adapt.

At Florida, each member of Urban Meyer's staff was given a Blackberry and taught how to set up an address book and send and respond to messages.

Because thousands of recruits wear cell phones like jewelry, coaches have the ability to send a quick note - how was your day?; how did your test go? - 24 hours a day, whether waiting for a flight or standing on the sidelines.

Messaging has become key to building relationships.

"When you have only one phone call a week, (text messaging) allows you to have more direct constant communication with those recruits," Mullen said. "It's a huge benefit to stay in touch with them."

Text messaging has boomed into a billion-dollar business since the first message was sent in 1992. In June, roughly 7.25-billion text messages were exchanged in the United States, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

The technology has opened doors for coaches, but has left many recruits with higher bills and headaches.

Hillsborough quarterback Jarred Fayson was sought after by schools such as Alabama, Auburn, Miami, and Southern California, before committing to Florida.

His phone would rattle with text messages daily.

Some were inspirational: It feels great to be a Florida Gator today. Others were more personal inquiring about grades, test scores and performances.

If he responded, the conversation would go back- and-forth until Fayson ended it.

Some months, that proved costly because Fayson's phone plan is limited to 1,000 text messages per month. Each additional message costs him money.

"Only about a quarter of them go to my mom or my girlfriend," Fayson said.

National recruiting Web sites also have jumped into the messaging fray.

Scout.com's Jamie Newberg said many of his co-workers use text messaging to build relationships with recruits.

"We approach the job the same way a college coach would, using any means of technology at our disposal to reach kids," Newberg said. "With the advent of every kid having a cell phone and with all the plans of free long distance and other stuff, it's easier to go that route than the traditional way of calling them at home."

Newberg pointed out that text messages, unlike phone calls, don't give recruits the option of using Caller ID to screen them.

Clearwater Central Catholic defensive back Riley Cooper, considering Florida, Oklahoma State, Tennessee, Notre Dame and Southern California, changed his phone number after three months of calls and text messages inflated his bill.

"My phone bill was getting expensive, like $582 one month," Cooper said. "All the long distance and (text messages) started getting out of control. I changed my number and contacted schools I wanted to talk to."

Still, Cooper's not bitter.

"It's an awesome problem to have," Cooper said.

Davis, being recruited by N.C. State, USF and Florida, said he received as many as 25 text messages a day from colleges, pumping up his bill by more than $100.

He canceled the service two months ago and isn't the only one disenchanted with messaging.

Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia, a 32-year veteran of coaching, says recruiting has evolved from a personal affair to the technologically tangled web it is today.

Garcia is frustrated when cell phones buzz or beep during his classes. And when it's one of his football players he knows the author is often a college coach.

"I've seen with my own eyes kids completely blow off text messages," Garcia said. "I've heard with my own ears players' cell phones ring from fill-in-the-blank from every college from the Pacific to the Atlantic during school hours when in Hillsborough County it's illegal to have a cell phone conversation during school hours.

"That is the next thing that needs to be looked at by the NCAA. ... I don't think they need to text message anywhere between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Garcia tried having Fayson teach him text messaging one afternoon for 20 minutes before he gave up.

"I'd rather talk to a guy face-to-face and shake his hand," Garcia said.

Mullen said Florida knows most recruits' schedules and tries to send messages when it's appropriate.

"For example, if you know when someone's eating lunch that's when you text message them and they'll text you right back," Mullen said. "Or there might be a certain time in the morning you send a message to a kid so they can know exactly when they're getting those messages during the day."

The NCAA has no plans to change the rules on text messaging, spokeswoman Crissy Schluep said, even though the Women's College Basketball Association proposed eliminating text messaging, saying it was intrusive. The proposal was rejected in April.

No matter the technology, for some, recruiting boils down to personal relationships.

"In the beginning when you're hungry for a Division I scholarship, it's awesome," Davis said of receiving his first messages. "Nothing compares to getting a message from Florida State's offensive coordinator or Bobby Bowden. After a while when you nail your choices down and it's not anything important, I think it gets in the way because there's nothing you can say to me in a text message you can't say over the phone that I would take more seriously."

Times researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report. Contact Izzy Gould at 813 909-4612 or sportsjournalist@gmail.com