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Coaches turn to Twitter for recruiting edge
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema stands on the field prior to a Nov. 29, 2013 game against LSU at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.
Recruiting is the lifeline of college coaches and with teenagers using social media like Twitter to communicate, some football staffs have pushed the boundaries of NCAA regulations to reach top high school recruits.
National Signing Day is Wednesday and the stakes are high.
The NCAA allows schools to confirm they're recruiting a specific unsigned prospect, but coaches can't comment on that recruit's athletic ability, how he'd contribute to their team or the likelihood that prospect might commit to a particular school.
Some coaches and staffers are bending the rules, tweeting thinly veiled references to prospects without naming them.
J.R. Sandlin was working as a recruiting analyst at Notre Dame on Dec. 17 when he tweeted, "The DT from KY calling me out. Just wait my man! Just wait! We want you here! Need u to be Irish!" One day later, Sandlin tweeted that "what I like about 'THE' 2014 DT from KY is the explosive power he can generate from his lower body. Truly impressive. The guy is a BEAST!" He didn't name a prospect, but the only defensive tackle from Kentucky being recruited by Notre Dame was Matt Elam of John Hardin High School in Elizabethtown.
The Twitter feed of five-star running back prospect Leonard Fournette of St. Augustine High in New Orleans is filled with references to "Buga Nation." Fournette was still uncommitted on Dec. 18 when LSU coach Les Miles tweeted "Geaux Buga Nation!!!" Miles' message received 782 retweets, including one from Fournette himself. Two weeks later, Fournette committed to LSU.
NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn said the NCAA rules on what a coach says to or about a recruit also apply to social media.
"It doesn't matter if you're doing it when you talk to a reporter or are on social media," Osburn said. "It's the same rule."
Jen Vining-Smith, Notre Dame's assistant athletic director for compliance, said she got several calls from compliance officers at other universities regarding Sandlin's Dec. 18 tweet about the Kentucky prospect. Vining-Smith told Sandlin she could defend the tweet, but she didn't want him tweeting so "pointedly" again.
"I do think it pushes right up to the line. ... You can't make it that identifiable," Vining-Smith said.
Miles was reminded by LSU administration officials to use caution when taking to Twitter to discuss recruiting. He was not admonished, however, because officials determined that Miles had tweeted a phrase which was not a direct reference to Fournette, as opposed to using a publicly known nickname, for example.
"Coach Miles understands that social media gives him the forum to promote his program to tens of thousands of people at any given time," LSU athletic department spokesman Michael Bonnette said in an email to The Associated Press. "He's careful and mindful of the rules when it comes to using social media as a recruiting tool, but he's savvy enough to understand the impact that it can have."
Coaches can tweet to their heart's content to let fans know that "someone" has verbally committed to their school without actually mentioning the recruit by name. And they're doing it all over the country, whether it's Tennessee's Butch Jones tweeting "#BrickByBrick" or Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin tweeting "#Yessir!"
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who is one of the most active coaches on Twitter, provided a snapshot of the trend when three players committed on Jan. 27.
"Great day in Razorback family. Getting stronger one day at a time! #woopig," Bielema tweeted. He later added, "And the day keeps getting better! #woopig".
Some coaches, like Alabama's Nick Saban, doesn't use Twitter as a part of his recruiting tactics. But not everyone can afford to take the approach by Saban, who consistently lands top recruiting classes.
Tennessee compliance director Todd Dooley has heard of a coach attempting to contact a recruit via direct message — allowed by NCAA rules — and inadvertently put the note on his actual Twitter feed instead.
Dooley said he doesn't mind if Tennessee's coaches tweet about what places they're visiting on recruiting trips, but he asks them to avoid saying a specific school "or anything that would narrow it down to people being able to identify a specific recruit."
Vining-Smith gives Notre Dame's coaches similar advice.
"If they're going to Texas and if they say, 'I'm heading to Dallas to find some talent' or whatever, well that's fine because there are plenty of people in Dallas they could be going to see," Vining-Smith said. "And my opinion on that is even if we're recruiting one kid from Dallas, I'm still OK with it because Dallas is a big city and there are lots of kids there that have the talent to play at Notre Dame.
"If they're going to Santa Claus, Ind., and there's one high school in that town and they say 'Heading to Santa Claus, Ind.,' I have a different perspective on that. They're specifically saying where they're going and more importantly, it's a little bit more direct as to who they're probably going to see."
Compliance officers are policing one another in an informal checks-and-balances effort.
They often call one another about tweets that might have crossed a line. Then it's up to each school's compliance officer to determine whether the tweet can be defended or needs to be reported.
"In the grand scheme of things, if someone called the NCAA to report a violation about Twitter, they would be like, 'Are you serious? Call us about something about extra benefits or cars being given. Call the schools, because that's how this process is supposed to work,' " Vining-Smith said. "You're really supposed to call each other out."
Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said he doesn't think the NCAA should allow any sort of interaction between coaches and recruits on Twitter, even by direct messaging. He said prospects sometimes use Twitter to play out the recruiting process and get more followers.
"I've seen kids after they commit to a school, lose thousands of followers and they're crestfallen because of it," Farrell said.
Then again, sometimes a tweet doesn't have much of an impact at all.
Shortly after Sandlin tweeted about a "DT from KY," Elam dropped Notre Dame from consideration. Elam announced Thursday he had chosen Kentucky over Alabama.
Naturally, not long after Elam made his pick, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops tweeted, "Great Day for the State of Kentucky and the BBN (Big Blue Nation)!!!"