Schools get creative to make recruiting pitch stand out

dmclemore@thestate.comJuly 7, 2014 

Left: This is an example of one of the graphics South Carolina has sent to offensive line targets and commitments. Right: The University of Florida sends mock Forbes magazine covers with prospects wearing business suits, including Orangeburg-Wilkinson defensive lineman Albert Huggins. Bottom/middle: This digital ESPN magazine cover was sent to offensive lineman Matt Womack of Hernando, Miss. He has not committed to a school yet but is still being pursued by USC and several other major programs.

Today’s high school football recruits never know what they’re going to see when they go to the mailbox or launch their favorite social media app.

Magazine covers, cereal boxes, movie posters – and more – all featuring their faces, names and a personal message or pitch to come play for that university’s football program.

It’s all about making an impact and impression on the prospects and their parents while trying to be as unique as possible in the crowded and competitive world of recruiting.

“You’re always pressing the envelope on what you can do and trying to find a new way to reach kids and get their attention and sell your program in as many ways as you can,” said Steve Spurrier Jr., the University of South Carolina coaching staff’s recruiting coordinator. “You’ve got to sit on the cutting edge of what is legal and what your competitors are doing.”

USC has 10 to 12 students who help send mail to prospects. Two on-staff employees produce and design graphics. And though traditional “snail mail” is still big, digital graphics sent from a recruiter or position coach are increasingly popular because they are more personal.

The Gamecocks try to find different ways to put a player’s face on a South Carolina jersey, Spurrier said. In addition to regular mail, coaches send prospects items such as a mockup of ESPN magazine covers to their private mail on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. They have also shared an image with the Gamecocks logo and the prospect’s name.

Recruits can then print the picture or share them out to the world at their discretion.

“It’s what all the college coaches are trying to do when they send these letters out,” said Kipp Adams, national recruiting insider for 247Sports. “They try to personalize them. It’s different than the standard mail. Even with the 100 handwritten letters, a lot of these kids don’t want to read all of them. You want to maximize the impact.”

Georgia created social media buzz earlier this year with hand-drawn portraits of recruits that included a handwritten note from coach Mark Richt. Kentucky has sent prospects 16 pieces of paper that form a larger ESPN “30 for 30” documentary poster featuring the target’s name. Florida is sharing digital Forbes magazine covers featuring the prospect in a business suit.

USC cornerback commitment Mark Fields of Cornelius, N.C., said his favorite mail was a series of puzzle-like paper pieces from N.C. State that put together said, “Mark Fields is the next first-round draft pick from N.C. State.” He liked it so much that it’s framed on the wall of his bedroom.

Fields also recalled finding 2,000 letters accumulated in the football offices at Hough High for him and other recruits. He once received 85 letters at home in one day from Tennessee.

And he still hears frequently from USC and future position coach Grady Brown.

“I got a bunch of handwritten letters from all the coaches, a lot from coach Brown,” Fields said. “Coach Brown said he sent me so many letters he knows my address by heart.”

South Carolina continues to send custom graphics to recruits after they commit to the Gamecocks. Offensive line pledge Jozie Milton of Clinton, La., recently shared via Twitter a digital photo that included his name, photos and a message, “The next great lineman at South Carolina!”

Milton, not a fan of the spotlight, admitted that some of the recruiting pitches were fun.

Wake Forest sent him a “Godzilla”-like movie poster with his photo and the headline “Jozilla.” The Demon Deacons also sent a picture of him and assistant coach Dave Cohen holding a very large catfish, with the words, “Jozie Milton: What a Catch for Coach Cohen.”

Iowa State sent a photo of Milton on a box of Wheaties. Oklahoma State designed a superhero-themed graphic featuring Milton as the Orange Hulk. Several schools sent birthday cards in the mail and via Twitter when he turned 17 on April 3.

“It was cool and all,” he said. “I know it helps, but I’m just ready to start playing football.”

Much of the mail gets stored away in a box, Milton said. Some things are more prominent around the house. Correspondence from USC offensive line coach Shawn Elliott is on the wall in his bedroom.

Milton received 12 hand-written letters from the Gamecocks at one time in June. Head coach Steve Spurrier also reached out with a personal, hand-written card. That piece of mail is displayed on the fridge.

“That was pretty cool,” he said. Spurrier’s letter shows “they actually care about me. I’m not just another player. They care about every single player they have and that they’re going to get.”

It’s becoming increasingly tough to stand out, 247Sports’ Adams said.

“I’ve seen the 100 letters,” he said. “I’ve seen coaches calling to sing happy birthday to these young men. I’ve seen guys using Skype or FaceTime, using every single thing they can to push the limits of the rules. At this point nothing really surprises me.”

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