The wow factor
DeKALB – P.J. Fleck was happy just to have an e-mail account when he first stepped on campus at Northern Illinois as a freshman wide receiver 10 years ago.
Now, as NIU's recruiting coordinator, he monitors and learns all about Twitter, Facebook and any other new form of social networking, while keeping an older approach in mind, trying to find that personal touch in the evolving culture of recruiting.
"I think recruiting has changed completely," Fleck said. "The way kids communicate has changed. Their lives are a lot different than my life when I was in college."
NIU head coach Jerry Kill said he's trying to learn more about computers, social networking and how it can improve those important connections coaches make with recruits to try and sign them.
"I'm having meetings now about how fancy you can make an e-mail or a Web site. Go to the Web site, click on YouTube, it's got to be [smooth]. That's what kids like. It's just a different way. They used to just come play."
Kill does not have a Twitter account because he hasn't seen any evidence yet that it would help in recruiting. Toledo coach Tim Beckman, Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit and Miami (Ohio) coach Michael Haywood are among the MAC football coaches who do have Twitter accounts.
Kill said the change in technology is a part of a cultural shift that has changed the face of recruiting. Recruits want different things than the did even when Fleck was a high school player and figuring out what they like is the key to signing that next potential star.
"But you e-mail a player, the more pizazz it's got, the more pictures in this book, visibly, that's how their life is this generation," Kill said. "When they walk on campus they want the campus to be pretty. They want it to be big-time. That's just how kids are.
"You have to keep up. You've got to keep building. It's like Texas and Texas A&M. If Texas builds a building, Texas A&M is going to build another one. It's like arms races. You build the next building to get the next recruit in."
Looking inward for answers
Recruiting a generation of kids that want different things than a generation ago means Kill and coaches around the country are asking advice from everyone in that generation that's not a recruit.
"I listen to my daughter," Kill said. "She's on the Internet all the time. They're into the flash. This culture is into the flash and dash of life."
Learning new social media on the fly while going through the, on average, two-year process of recruiting a kid isn't an easy prospect. So what Fleck and Kill have done is gone to their current crop of players on the roster and asked them a question.
What if you were getting recruited right now, what would you want?
The answers, much like they are in any 25-30 man recruiting class, are varied.
Fleck said the approach still has to stay largely the same at this point, though. Coaches have the added step of having to find out if the recruit is trending towards the new media or if a traditional style is necessary.
But after that, it's still about selling the program and some methods are still tried and true.
"I think we do a really good job of still keeping a personal feel – handwritten letters, phone calls, them calling us, personal e-mails," Fleck said. "You have to develop a personal relationship. Some people just do all the math stuff, we do the personal touch.
"...But you've got to touch every area. Old school is writing letters. That's just old-school. There's going to be old-school parents and old-school e-mails that don't use Twitter and Facebook and you still have to touch them."
Figuring things out
With new forms of contacting recruits comes new regulation.
As of now, coaches can't speak directly about recruits on Twitter and can't write on recruits' Facebook walls. It is viewed the same as a coach speaking about a recruit at a news conference, against the rules. But, the NCAA treats private messages on Facebook and Twitter the same as an e-mail, which is allowable, at least for now.
"Today, there's always something that they're doing differently that we don't know about just yet," Fleck said. "And then the NCAA is making it legal to do this today, but tomorrow it might not be. Tomorrow it might be back again legal. So you just have no idea."
On top of that, there is the learning curve for recruiting at the highest level of college football for Kill and the coaches he brought with him from Southern Illinois.
After his first season at FBS, Kill feels he now has a better idea of what to recruit and how to recruit at this level. It's a lesson he learned when he jumped up to the FCS level at Southern Illinois.
"That's why it took us until the third year to really break out," Kill said. "It took us probably a year or two to figure out how to recruit and what we were trying to do and we thought it would take to be competitive in the league."
But it's not like Kill is without a knowledge base to fall back on, far from it.
"You've still got to have a personal touch," Kill said. "You still have to be connected. It's a big part of recruiting. You have to have people that trust you. And you get good kids through those connections."
No matter if those connections are with a click or a pen and a stamp.