Twitter makes presence known during football recruiting
FARGO — Today is national signing day for college football recruits, and most of them have already made their decisions known to the public — on Twitter.
It’s the hip social media mechanism for high school student-athletes, an online mode that was first created in 2006, but didn’t gain worldwide popularity until about 2010.
It now has college coaches across the country glued to their smart phones practically all year around. In the race to attract the best players possible, it’s becoming a you-snooze-you-lose proposition.
“It’s crazy how much social media has blown up the whole recruiting process,” said Nick Goeser, NDSU’s assistant football coach and recruiting coordinator. “If you don’t have a Twitter or Facebook account, you immediately fall behind in comparison to other schools.”
By blowing up, Goeser is referring to the popularity of the verbal. NDSU is expected to sign 19 student-athletes to a binding commitment. Another eight are expected to enroll as preferred walk-ons.
Of those 27 players, at least 17 made their intentions known on their Twitter accounts.
“This is what we do now as a society,” said Patrick Schmiedt, an assistant professor of practice in the NDSU Department of Communication. “This is how we share all of our big moments. Why would a college choice be any different? We share our lunch. A college choice is a big decision and when we want to tell a lot of people, the easiest way is social media.”
Twitter can toe the line of violating NCAA rules
Schmiedt has access to data to back up his theory. He maintains a high school football website and Twitter feed that caters to the state of Wyoming, and he figures at least two-thirds of prep players have a Twitter account. Following teenagers on Twitter for the purpose of letting the public know where players will be attending college is not the most fun job in the world, he said, but that’s how it’s done these days.
The biggest recruit in the state last year, for instance, only tweeted twice. One was to let people know he was attending the University of Florida.
NDSU’s recruits have tweeted more extensively. A lot of them, in fact, have tweeted each other and in a sense have already become online teammates.
For instance, it was common for quarterback Easton Stick of Omaha and tight end Marcus Collins of Madison, Wis., to welcome each new Bison verbal to the program. They will be roommates next fall at NDSU.
“With Twitter, it makes it really easy to find guys,” Stick said. “It helps us find each other and reach out, and that was something that was important to me. The more players you know, the easier the transition will be. We’re all moving away from home, and with Twitter and their (cell) numbers, I think it will be an easy transition.”
By NCAA rules, recruits contacting other recruits would be allowable because they have yet to officially align themselves with NDSU until today. With current Bison players, boosters and fans, however, it would be a gray area.
Colleen Heimstead, NDSU’s director of compliance, said boosters cannot specifically go on a recruit’s Twitter page and say they want the kid to play at NDSU. What defines a booster? Anybody who has contributed financially to NDSU, either academically or athletically, an NDSU alum, former athletes, parents of athletes or current students, she said.
Heimstead said she hopes the NCAA will address the issue in terms of being more flexible. She said it’s hard to monitor “kids being kids” and said her office does the best it can to educate Bison athletes.
It’s much tougher — almost impossible, perhaps — for her to control fans. For instance, when Isaac Cenescar of Orlando, Fla., verbally committed to NDSU last week using his Twitter account, at least four people who could be considered Bison fans congratulated him. But with Twitter boasting hundreds of million tweets per day, the NCAA monitoring that type of online activity would probably be considered almost impossible.
“This is a rarely enforced NCAA violation,” said John Neis, who runs a blog site specific to NDSU athletic recruiting. “But more importantly, it puts pressure on 17-year-old kids who have to make one of the most important decisions of their life. Asking someone a question and telling them where they should continue their education and playing career are two very different things. Fans need to trust the coaching staff is targeting the right players for their system and not meddle in that process.”
Asked how he avoids NCAA violations, Neis said asking a recruit a question is not a violation, actively recruiting them is. He said the only instances of problems he’s seen is if current players or high-profile alumni get involved in the process.
“I don’t care who signs with NDSU,” Neis said. “It’s not my job to play recruiter or fall in love with a recruit. All I want and all I have ever wanted is up-to-date information.”
The key for coaches: Keep message general
It’s obvious coaches know the NCAA standards for using Twitter. Mainly, the key is not to get specific, or as Heimstead said, “If you can tell who they’re talking about, then it’s too detailed.”
So they’ve gotten good at being general. On Tuesday, NDSU assistant coach Tyler Roehl posted: “National Signing Day right around the corner. Looking forward to recognizing the new Bison.”
On Jan. 26, a Sunday after several players left Fargo after making their official college visit, Goeser tweeted “Another great recruiting weekend! Finish strong!”
That same day, Bison assistant coach Tim Polasek tweeted “Love upgrading the recruiting class. Evaluate till it’s over!”
Two weeks earlier, Goeser reacted after another weekend of official visits with: “Wow! Huge weekend for recruiting. 3 commitments, 1 reaffirmed commitment, and 1 freshman enrolled and ready to go. This class is special!”
It doesn’t matter what NCAA level, either. On Monday, Concordia head coach Terry Horan used his Twitter account to announce “Just rocked a commitment in our offices!”
Who was it? It could be coincidence but two hours later, Sioux Falls Argus-Leader sports editor Stu Whitney said on his Twitter account that Sioux Falls Lincoln High School linebacker Taylor Salava had committed to Concordia.
Goeser said he just obtained his Twitter account in the last year. It’s gotten to the point now where he’s constantly checking it at all hours of the day.
“At first I had no idea what I was doing, but I got used to it,” he said. “I’m on my phone all the time, but that’s the best way I can get it.”
Minnesota State Moorhead head coach Steve Laqua acknowledges it potentially allows him to be more personal to potential recruits. It gives the players more access to coaches, he said.
“For me, it’s something I try to be very strategic about how I use it,” Laqua said. “I want to be about substance. To me, it’s more about quality than quantity.”
The tweet by itself not 100 percent accuracy
The problem using Twitter to announce a decision as opposed to a personal interview with an established media outlet is accuracy. Seeing a photo of a high school player wearing something with his college choice on it is worth 1,000 words.
The 140-character limit for a Twitter message, however, carries danger. There is no 100 percent certainty that the player who commits is the one who tweeted the message. Computer or electronic hacking is all too common, after all.
“That’s one of the things about social media,” Schmiedt said. “That’s the case with email, that’s the case with any electronic communication where you can’t see or hear the person talking.”
NDSU fans following recruits on Twitter were thrown for a loop a few weeks ago when Stick said his account was hacked. He said another student used an iPad and got on his Twitter account, posting that Stick changed his commitment to Rutgers University.
“I was in class when it happened,” Stick said. “My phone was going crazy in my pocket, and when I got into the hallway, my heart just dropped a bit. I was like, ‘You have to be kidding me.’”
Stick immediately issued an apology. But in a testament to the speed of information, the word was out.
“It’s kind of funny how serious some of this stuff is and how quickly stuff gets around,” he said. “Looking back, at that moment I was pretty upset. I reached out to the coaches and said that wasn’t me.”
Goeser said misinformation is something coaches are always checking. He said there have been cases where Bison coaches have found out about a recruit’s college choice on Twitter before being told in person.
Many of the tweets are retweeted by Neis and his “Bisonation” account. It’s not aligned with NDSU and Neis, a Fargo South graduate and son of former Bison assistant football coach Sam Neis, makes that clear on his cover page.
“With Twitter, fans no longer have to wait on local media to give them information they are looking for,” he said. “It also gives recruits the opportunity to get in contact with coaches and be able to announce to the world what is happening in their recruiting process.”