For as much as recruiting has embraced technology—at times for better or worse—the ancient rituals of snail mail and even that archaic fax machine are still very active in the process.
The fax machine, of course, is a fixture every February. When national signing day hits, you develop a sudden cough that “forces” you to miss work. You tune in anxiously, hoping that letters of intent will make their way to your school of choice one below-average copy at a time.
Mail also plays a role, even at a time when our lives have become digitalized.
While coaches utilize Twitter and Facebook, and exhaust their phone plans with text messages, recruiting letters are still very much a part of the process. The letters have changed over time—in look, message and certainly quantity—but they still feature prominently.
How much of an impression they actually make is up for debate. Ramzy Nasrallah of the fabulous Ohio State blog Eleven Warriors argues that these letters no longer factor in our digital society.
Times have certainly changed, but that hasn’t stopped coaches from exhausting their postage budgets anyway.
Coaches now have many means of contact, all of which come with the seem goal: Make an impression. Over the phone and in person, that can be a much easier task to complete. If you can accomplish this through a letter (or something that comes in envelope form), then a staff has really done its job.
Easier said than done, though.
What’s in the Envelope? Depends on Who You Are and Where It’s From
Depending on the talent of the player, the competition for his services and the overall timing of the recruiting process, this one varies wildly. Not only that, but the template for this contact has changed greatly in recent years and will likely continue to do so.
More on that in a bit.
Bleacher Report’s very own Michael Felder—the other college football worker bee over at Your Best 11—knows plenty about this process. Felder was a wanted commodity in high school, and he eventually took his talents to the ACC, where he played defensive back for North Carolina.
Although Michael wasn’t the nation’s best prospect, the mail came pouring in. In fact, what you see below is just a sampling of the letters he received during high school.
These pitches—and make no mistake that’s exactly what they are—varied a great deal—many, of course, choosing to pinpoint strengths and potential hot points at that landing spot. Many of these letters are the perfect forum to do some school boasting.
“Different schools sell different things,” Felder explained. “Bigger schools talk about facilities and the players they have in the NFL. They also talk about being on ESPN and going to bowl games. Smaller schools that recruited me, especially the Ivy League and Service Academies, talked about your future after football and how beneficial an education from there could be run.”
If you’re Alabama, you don’t have to write a novel. In fact, forget about text altogether. Your recent success speaks for itself, and a crystal football or three will suffice. If you’re Stanford, there’s nothing wrong with playing up a better life after football, and the Cardinal has done just that in the past that by posting the average earnings Stanford grads average compared to other schools.
These messages will vary greatly depending on both the university and head coach leading the recruiting. The old school “here’s what we have to offer” sales pitch, however, is slowly but surely becoming just a part of the movement.
The game is changing. Oh, is it changing.
New Age Tactics: Being Different is Becoming the Norm
Recruiting is a business, and business is good. Business is also more competitive than ever before.
It’s becoming harder for teams to make an impression on a high school athlete, particularly a coveted player, who is bombarded with recruiting literature on a daily basis.
Although the classic letters are still prevalent, they’re no longer alone. Forget about providing stats and pitches. Coaches have instead turned to more, well, “interesting” tactics to turn heads.
These tactics are indeed turning heads, although turning heads into commitments is a different story.
Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez knows this well. He reached out to some of the nation’s premier players with a wild, wild west-themed bounty poster. With “Arizona” and “Most Wanted” plastered across the top, and “National Championship” as well as “All-American” scattered below, this message was loud and clear. And, of course, very different.
Christian Morgan, one of the better tight ends in the 2013 class, received this particular bounty and even praised the effort on Twitter.
Best piece of mail I've ever gotteninstagr.am/p/IaM9N6paIa/— Christian Morgan (@C_Morgan2013) March 20, 2012
Although it made an impression and clearly got his attention, his letter of intent was eventually faxed in to Ole Miss. In defense of Arizona, pretty much everyone ended up signing with Ole Miss.
On the topic of extreme comes the quantity tactic: a move that is no longer as shocking as it once was because others are joining in the postage frenzy. Forget about drawing up a creative flyer. Some are instead trying to push the limits of the mailbox threshold.
Alabama made headlines in 2012 when it mailed high school running back Alvin Kamara 105 letters in one day. Each one was different from the next, no duplicates in the group.
One would think this kind of barrage would be overwhelming, and it was, but not necessarily in a bad way.
“Yeah, I got home and they were failing out of my mailbox,” Kamara said to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was crazy but I liked it.”
He did indeed. Kamara officially committed to Alabama in February—despite the fact that the team is absolutely jam-packed at the position—and he is yet another terrifying runner for Nick Saban to utilize.
The rest of the SEC has taken note. Ole Miss delivered 54 handwritten letters to a recruit in a single day earlier this year, and Kentucky has since taken over the throne. Mark Stoops, trying to compete with the likes of Saban and others, recently mailed a recruit 115 handwritten letters in, you guessed it, one day.
To combat this madness, Mississippi State has tried the exact opposite. Forget about 115 letters; the Bulldogs are content with one. They’re not exactly exhausting the alphabet or dictionary in this one, either.
The now infamous “YOU’RE A BALLER” recruiting pitch (seen above) spread like wildfire on the Internet only a few weeks ago, and it almost seemed too good to be true.
Short, sweet, and the look and feel of a first grader’s doodle, this was sent directly to Michael Ferns, a 4-star linebacker in the 2014 class and Michigan commit.
Ferns didn’t exactly seem thrilled by the unexpected hello. Then again, he had already "committed."
Ummm.. Thanks Coach instagram.com/p/XmhmUZSqhs/— Michael Ferns (@M_Ferns10) April 2, 2013
We shall see if this tactic ends up paying off come February of next year, but don’t hold your breath. Regardless, the letter—and I really think we’re stretching the limits of this word in this instance—brought the school a noteworthy amount of attention.
Much of the attention was greeted initially with Internet humor, but Mississippi State will gladly take the press. Although it may not work on this individual player, perhaps another high schooler in SEC land took note of the strange but bold attempt.
Surrounded by powers in the SEC, Dan Mullen and co. are doing things they believe will help separate themselves in creative ways. It’s a small move that may not actually pay off, but they aren’t the first or last ones to try something unique in an effort to stand out.
Ultimately, What Should a Recruiting Letter Say? Does it Even Matter?
The intent of sending out a recruiting letter is pretty simple: marketing and sales.
You send these letters, most of which likely end up in a trash can before they’re even opened, so you can have a presence. Or at least feel like you have a presence.
Hopefully this hard work pays off, and the end game is a letter of intent come early February.
The message you relay along the way will vary greatly depending on the relationship with the potential player, who’s sending it (head coach, assistant, etc.) and where you are as a program.
For me, however, the creative tactics and mailbox barrage don’t have the same impact as meaningful, authentic contact on why the school would be a good fit.
Relationships, relationships, relationships.
Michael Felder, our resident recruit once upon a time, agrees.
“The best, for me, were the handwritten notes that came,” Felder noted of the hundreds of mailed items he received. “Not the form letter signed by the coach, but rather the handwritten, chicken scratch and all, notes that came to your house or through your high school coach’s office. They asked real questions, gave you some real information and let you know that coach had some real interest in you.”
One of the letters Felder received can be found below.
Although the recruiting process has morphed into an incredible business, in the end it’s still all about relationships. A three to four year commitment is a long time to make, and the fit has to be just right.
If there’s enough of a match—and a coaching staff can accurately portray this through a number of ways—there’s a high likelihood an athlete will commit to that school.
High school athletes vary greatly in both wants and needs, and some will enjoy some of the wilder recruiting attempts that are becoming protocol. Others will gladly take a personal check-in from an assistant coach who is simply asking about school or family.
It all depends.
Do Recruiting Letters Still Factor Large in the Recruiting Process?
With social media changing the speed of this contact—and recruiting visits still serving as the bread and butter of the process—what you send in the mail likely doesn’t have the same effect that it once did. Some may argue that their impact has been limited all along.
Still, don’t think for one second that this envelope routine will become obsolete.
No, a recruit won’t commit based solely on a stuffed mailbox or the signed puzzle he received—something Lane Kiffin actually recently tried—but it can be an effective form of courting. Or, perhaps it will go unnoticed or unopened. There’s no formula that identifies what works and what doesn’t, no outline to lure recruits to certain destinations.
This is exactly why we’re seeing these tactics pushed to new levels each and every year. Although there's no correlation between creativity and commitments, it hasn't stopped many from trying. And that won't end anytime soon.
More powerful than any puzzle or mass mailer, however, is personality. If these letters can be the start of the relationship building process rather than end up in the blog post for the quirks, the likelihood of a faxed letter of intent come February is all the more likely.