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Coaches' New Friends
Norm Roberts took only one season off after coaching men's basketball at St. John's, but when he returned as an assistant at Florida in April, he entered a new era. Roberts could not believe how hard it had become to contact high school prospects by telephone.
"It drove me nuts," he said. "You're trying to call kids on the phone to talk, and they don't want to communicate like that."
So Roberts reluctantly joined Facebook, which coaches and recruits say accounts for 50 percent of their recruiting interaction. Twitter is second and gaining ground, they say, with its direct-message function offering the bite-size communication preferred by teenagers. Although Luddites remain - the Southern California defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, 71, refers to Facebook as Facemask - most have adapted to the point that Facebook, in-box and Tweet are verbs in the coaching lexicon.
"If you're not on Facebook or Twitter, you may be a step behind," said Evan Daniels, the national basketball recruiting analyst for scout.com.
In the multimillion-dollar businesses of college football and men's basketball, the shift toward social media in recruiting has come partly because the N.C.A.A. barred coaches from text-messaging athletes in 2007, citing their effect on recruits' cellphone bills as one reason. But coaches and experts say the increasing use of social media is indicative of communication trends, as voice mail is considered superfluous, e-mail is passé and phone conversations are often clipped and awkward.
"It mirrors a lot of societal changes," said Dhiraj Murthy, an assistant professor of sociology at Bowdoin College, where he runs the Social Network Innovation Lab.
The N.C.A.A.'s labyrinthine rulebook restricts Facebook and Twitter communications. Coaches are prohibited from contact with prospects until just before their junior year of high school, a guideline that coaches say is loosely observed. Coaches are free to e-mail an athlete through Facebook's in-box function, but they cannot use Facebook's instant messaging or write on his public wall. On Twitter, coaches may send direct messages to players but not public messages.
Although coaches' phone calls are limited to once a month for juniors and twice a week for seniors, "Facebooking" or "in-boxing," as the coaches like to call it, is unlimited during contact periods, as is direct messaging on Twitter. Prospects receive Facebook and Twitter messages on their cellphones in the same form as text messages, which is why the coaches are puzzled about the ban on texting.
"That's the one thing I think the N.C.A.A. needs to be better at," said Jon Embree, Colorado's football coach. "I don't think they can get hold of this technology. I don't understand why you can't text-message a kid but you can Facebook him back and forth. It's the same thing."
The N.C.A.A. Leadership Council, which plans an overhaul of Division I men's basketball recruiting, said last week that it had reached consensus on deregulating electronic communications between coaches and athletes. The council said it hoped to present its proposal to the board of directors in October.
Recruits would prefer to have text messages legalized. Murthy teaches a course called "In the Facebook Age," which he said he was considering renaming "In the Twitter Age." He has studied communication shifts from letter writing to telephone to e-mail and said that social media is the next logical step. It is not surprising that recruits shun one-to-one conversation, Murthy said, as many of his current Bowdoin students are "petrified of picking up the phone."
Nerlens Noel, a 6-foot-11 high school junior, is considered one of the top five basketball prospects nationally in his class. His athleticism recalls a young Shawn Kemp, and he has dozens of marquee suitors like Kansas, North Carolina and Connecticut.
On June 15, the first day coaches are allowed to contact high school juniors, Noel said he got 15 to 20 Facebook friend requests from coaches. Facebook is a convenient way for him to deal with the flood of attention at his prep school, Tilton School in New Hampshire, where he is permitted only an hour of free time, from 10 to 11 p.m. He said he did not want to spend it all talking to coaches.
"I'm on daily," Noel said of Facebook. "It's not a hassle, where they call you and you have to be on the phone for a long time. It's just like a message. It's a great way to contact me."
Noel has more than 4,200 friends on Facebook and 1,500 followers on Twitter. He said he receives seven or eight friend requests a day, acknowledging that most are from fans trying to persuade him to play at their colleges.
"It's the new status for these kids," said Mike Byrnes, an assistant basketball coach at Robert Morris. "Before it was how pretty my girlfriend is or how many games I won or my statistics. Now it's these kids saying, ‘Look at how many friends I have or people following me.' "
And it has sent coaches scrambling online, as Arizona State's football coach, Dennis Erickson, 64, said he felt he had to join Facebook to connect with recruits. He joked that he had finally learned to send text messages before the N.C.A.A. banned them and that he needed to be on Facebook to keep up.
"That's the way to communicate with players," he said.
West Virginia's football coach, Dana Holgorsen, went a step further regarding Facebook and recruiting, saying, "It's probably the only way to communicate with recruits."
Facebook also allows coaches a window into the player's life, as they can see what type of pictures he posts and his opinions on other colleges. Southern Cal Coach Lane Kiffin, Monte's son, said it is not a good sign if a recruit posts the words to a rival team's fight song.
Mike Martin, an assistant basketball coach at Penn, said he used Facebook for about 75 percent of his communication with recruits.
"You become friends with a kid on Facebook, and you can tell quickly who is recruiting him by what other coaches he's friends with," Martin said.
Likewise, Roberts said with a laugh, when he receives friend requests from other coaches, he is unsure whether they just want to see who he is recruiting.
Among the technology holdouts is Paul Pasqualoni, the UConn football coach, who said he had resisted joining Facebook and still preferred handwritten notes. He has the same philosophy as Dave Rose, the Brigham Young basketball coach, who delegates the technology to younger staff members who are more comfortable with social media.
"I'm involved as much as I need to be but still have some kind of privacy," Rose said. "Everyone in my family is on Facebook except me. I don't know if I want to commit myself all the way to it, and if you don't do that, you're behind."