Second Place Writing – Sports


The New Word On Recruiting College Football Coaches

Originally published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel

Ricky Gary gets his motivation from a cell phone.

He speaks proudly, almost boastfully, of the electronic messages that pop up on his phone four or five times a day: Good luck. Work hard. You can guard anybody. It’s not the size of the person, it’s the heart of the person.

For the 5-foot-9 senior running back and defensive back at Pahokee, the hundreds of text messages he has received from football coaches tell him that he’s not an average player, that he has those “special talents.”

And that’s what he wants to hear.

“Growing up, this was all I wanted,” Gary said. “It’s a high school player’s dream to be highly recruited by Division I schools. I get a D-I scholarship, I’m going to be something in life.”

Gary said he gets most of his text messages from Pittsburgh and Minnesota, two of the many Division I-A college football programs using the newest recruiting tool to establish relationships with high school athletes.

But while this relatively easy form of electronic communication is quickly becoming a regular part of recruiting — some players said they receive up to 15 messages a day — there are those who aren’t as happy as Gary.

“Most of the time they’re annoying,” said Brandon Heath, a senior receiver and defensive back at Palm Beach Lakes. “They know I have enough to do at night, and it’s aggravating.”

The NCAA officially separated text messaging from heavily restricted telephone calls in 2004. The difference, the NCAA said, is that recruits can decide whether to answer messages but not calls.

Now players and coaches are beginning to take sides: It’s either a nice and easy way for college coaches to communicate with athletes and encourage them, or it’s a disruptive nuisance that keeps coaches in touch with recruits at almost all hours of the day.

While the NCAA keeps a close watch, text messaging is quickly changing the way college coaches compete for recruits. And it’s quickly becoming a big part of recruits’ everyday lives.

Personal touches

They can come at any time, and they usually do.

De’Andre Morgan, a senior defensive back at Suncoast, says he once received a text message from a Wake Forest assistant coach at 1 a.m. Although he has committed to playing at North Carolina State next year, he gets 10 to 15 messages a day.

“I didn’t know I would get recruited as heavily as I am now, because I didn’t play in ninth and 10th grade,” Morgan said. “When they started talking to me, I loved the attention. It made me a better player.”

Morgan said he has been getting text messages from coaches at Wake Forest, West Virginia, Rutgers, South Florida, Purdue, Vanderbilt and Mississippi. He’ll often take the time to have long text-message conversations, with him and a coach exchanging multiple messages on their cell phones.

Because coaches are not allowed to call football recruits regularly until Sept. 1 of their senior years, and after that only once a week, Morgan has been asked by assistant coaches to call them. Players are allowed to call coaches.

But typically the messages are just common remarks, often before he or the coach has an important game.

“`What’s up D-Money? How are things going? Make sure to watch our game,'”Morgan explained. “We’re just having a friendly conversation.”

Heath, who said he is being recruited by numerous Division I schools, including Miami, Florida and Florida State, said he was impressed by a text message he received from Herb Hand, West Virginia’s tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator.

“He said, `Brandon, I hope you’re watching. We’re just getting ready to kick off the big game,'” Heath recalled from Oct. 1, the day the Mountaineers played Virginia Tech. “I flipped on the TV to the game, and they were just kicking off. He was thinking about me during the big game.”

The text messages typically come from assistant coaches, though Heath said he has received them from West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez and Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.

Recruits said they begin receiving messages as early as the spring game in their junior years. After that, the quantity of messages increases each month.

Herb Bynes, a senior quarterback at Boyd Anderson, said that for two months he received at least 10 messages a day from Rutgers.

“Sometimes it can be annoying,” Bynes said. “I’ll come home from practice, and I don’t want to talk to them. I just want to take a shower and go to sleep.”

Even for the players who like the attention, so many messages can be overwhelming.

“I’ll be honest, at one time I started to get tired of it,” Morgan said. “I had homework and school, and they were text messaging me. I had to take the week off [from text messaging] to get my head straight. But I ain’t saying I don’t like it.”

Challenging the rule

In April 2004, the NCAA adopted a rule that separated electronic correspondence — text messages, instant messages, pages, faxes and e-
mails — from telephone calls, which are closely regulated.

Electronic correspondence in recruiting for all sports, according to the NCAA, falls under the category of general correspondence, the same category as letters sent by U.S. mail.

As of Aug. 1, 2004, unlimited text messages could be sent to a football recruit as early as Sept. 1 of his junior year, a year before coaches can start weekly phone calls.

“The rationale behind it is with text messages, you can choose if you want to respond,” said Crissy Schluep, a spokes-woman for the NCAA. “With telephone calls, you pick up, and it can be a coach, a friend, a parent. Text messages give student-athletes the choice to respond or not.”

But it was the opposite of that reasoning that caused an organization to challenge the new rule in July 2004, before it even took effect.

The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association submitted a rules- change proposal calling for the elimination of text messaging and instant messaging in recruiting high school players for women’s basketball programs.

“We wanted to reduce the pressure placed on players and coaches, who felt compelled to respond immediately,” said Shannon Reynolds, chief operating officer of the WBCA, citing cultural expectations to respond that make text messaging intrusive.

Reynolds also said text messaging disrupts the balance in coaches’ lives, since they, like players, carry their cell phones with them most of the day.

“You could tell right away that coaches were losing their minds,” Reynolds said. “It became a game, and it also became crazy.”

In April 2005, the Division I Management Council of the NCAA voted down the WBCA’s rules-change proposal by a slim margin, with almost half of the votes in favor of the proposal, according to Reynolds.

After polling its members, the WBCA decided not to pursue another rules-change proposal during the 2005 legislative cycle. Reynolds said a decision about a proposal in 2006 has not been reached.

Schluep said there haven’t been any other proposals regarding text messaging submitted to the NCAA, but “at the NCAA, we say the general rule is discomfort leads to rules-change proposals.”

“It’s too early to tell whether it’s great legislation or not,” Schluep said. “Electronic communications in recruiting is something the [NCAA] membership is keeping a really tight pulse on, because technology is always changing.”


Reynolds said the WBCA didn’t have official support from other organizations when it submitted a proposal to ban text messaging. But she believes other coaching associations will follow the WBCA’s lead, especially if text messaging is outlawed in women’s basketball recruiting.

Todd Bell, a spokesman for the American Football Coaches Association, said text messaging is something that will be discussed at a January meeting for members.

“It has been discussed at meetings, and the coaches know it’s out there,” Bell said. “But it’s something that the Division I-A coaches haven’t come up with an official position on at this point.

“It’s not a hot-button issue at this point. It could be in the future, but it’s not yet.”

Charlie Partridge, Pittsburgh’s special teams coordinator and defensive ends coach, uses text messaging “a ton, every day” to recruit football players in South Florida.

The Plantation graduate is in charge of recruiting in Broward and Palm Beach counties, where he has several players who he sends messages to each week.

“It’s a great way to have instant contact with recruits legally,” Partridge said. “It’s a way to say we’re thinking about you and to communicate without the long phone calls.”

Partridge begins text messaging recruits midway through their junior years. He said that every day he takes a half hour in the morning, from 6:30 to 7, to send messages, and he sends more between meetings and on his way home from work.

“I have pretty strong thumbs these days,” he said.

Partridge said he doesn’t follow some of the practices that South Florida recruits have encountered, such as text messaging late at night or asking for calls.

And he said that if a recruit narrows his choice of schools and deals with the recruiting process appropriately, text messages are not harmful.

“It’s true of everything in recruiting: It’s only overwhelming if the young man allows it to be,” Partridge said.

One of the recruits Partridge has been contacting this year is Gary, who recently committed to Pittsburgh and said he typically receives about three text messages from Partridge every week.

But Gary also gets a text message every week from former Dolphins coach and current Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt.

“He’s a very technology-savvy head coach,” Partridge said. “A lot of coaches say, `Text what?’ Coach Wannstedt does his own text messaging, and that makes a difference.”

While having a technologically driven recruiting process once was a luxury, coaches are finding that they have to use techniques such as text messaging just to stay level with the competition.

And regardless of high school players’ preferences, South Florida’s top recruits will continue to see advice, compliments and requests from college coaches on the screens of their cell phones, until the rules are changed or a better form of communication comes along.

“It keeps us at an even playing field,” Partridge said. “Coaches who aren’t tech-savvy are getting caught, and they’re falling behind. It’s something you need to do to keep up with recruits.”