What’s the secret to the best time to bring recruits to campus for official visits? The secret is that there aren’t any secrets, as coaches at schools from coast-to-coast will tell you there isn’t a one-size fits all solution for the timing of official visits.
Any visit to a college campus by a college-bound student-athlete and his parents or legal guardians paid for by the college is considered an official visit. During an official visit, the college can pay for transportation to and from the college for the prospect, lodging and three meals per day for the prospect, as well as reasonable entertainment expenses including three tickets to a home sports event.
December and January and the run up to national signing day have traditionally been when schools bring recruits and their families to campus for visits. The NCAA’s Football Recruiting Ad Hoc Group estimated around 75 percent of official visits take place in the eight weeks before signing day. But with the expedited recruiting cycle, the committee found more and more schools have been brining recruits in on game weekends in September, October and November.
“I’ve had a little bit of a change of heart on when you should bring kids to campus over the years,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “I used to believe December and January were the only times you should bring players to town. But over the past few years, I’ve started to see many of the benefits brining recruits in on visits for game days can have for your program. Both approaches have advantages, but they can also have some pitfalls you need to be aware of.”
One of the biggest benefits for brining recruits to town in December and January is that you can usually get larger groups of players together and use some strategy on uncommitted targets. SMU defensive coordinator Van Malone said he likes to group guys that are for sure coming to your school with a small handful of guys that are still not sure.
“You sprinkle him in with the guys that are locked in because they're talking ‘We and us,’ ” Malone said. “The guy that hasn't made a decision, he's 'You and them' and by the end of the weekend we hope he's talking 'We and us' too. It also gives the parents a good feel to be around other parents that are sold on the school already. It gives parents time to bond. You suddenly start seeing parents talking about how they could someday ride to the games together and talk about tailgating together. That’s easily one of the best reasons to bring kids in for December visits instead of earlier in the season.”
Another big advantage of December and January visits instead of game day trips is the coaching staff and players hosting visits can pay full attention to the recruits and their families, instead of having to work around final game prep, the actual game itself and the ramifications of losing the game.
“When you bring kids in on game day weekends, you have to really hope that your players can be your best recruiters,” Mississippi State assistant recruiting coordinator Niel Stopczynski said. “The team is doing a lot of recruiting for you because you don't have a whole lot of time to sit around and talk to the recruit and his family. Recruits that come in on game weekends might be lucky to get only an hour or two with your head coach, but when you bring them in January or December, you can ensure big blocks of time with your coaches. That’s why we always push later visits.
“And God forbid if you lose the game. You might as well send the recruits home after you lose a big game in front of a bunch of official visitors.”
But there are plenty of potential drawbacks to waiting for post-season visits. Texas coach Tom Herman said there’s always concern if you wait too long to get a kid to campus, he could be influenced by another school and it could be too late to “play catch up.” And unless you’re at a school like USC, UCLA or Miami, you always run the risk of having weather impact recruiting weekends in December and January.
Count No. 2 defensive tackle LaBryan Ray as a fan of taking visits in December and January. He said he was asked repeatedly by coaches to take visits during the season, but he’s elected for a visit schedule that took him to Ole Miss in December, Tennessee on Jan. 13, Alabama on Jan. 20 and Florida on Jan. 27.
“I owed it to my team to be focused on them during the season,” Ray, who had 124 tackles and 13 sacks at Madison (Alabama) James Clemens High School. “If you’re flying around all over the country, you’re missing practices, film review and putting yourself ahead of the team.”
Yet, the numbers do tell us that more and more schools are using official visits on game weekends, especially at places where there is outstanding setting on Saturdays or if there’s a marquee game.
“Your fan base is one of your biggest selling points, and what better thing to showcase to a recruit than your game days,” Riley said. “The crowd. The band. The tailgating. The electricity that’s created on game days can be awfully appealing and make big impressions on a recruit. It’s hard to replicate that, even when you have a home basketball game in December or January.”
But still coaches said they have to be smart with the type of players they bring in on game weekends. Instead of spending an official visit during the season on a local prospect, many schools will use it on players from outside their state or from a different region. For example, Nebraska brought in 31 of its available 56 official visits this recruiting cycle on game weekends and 30 of them were from out-of-state players.
“Say we had a juco kid from California that had never stepped foot in the state of Mississippi, that's never been to a game, probably never watched us on TV and has zero clue about what life is like in Mississippi on game day, we'll bring that guy in during a game day visit,” Mississippi State’s Stopczynski said. “I think the most emotionally charged you get on your visits, is when you come in on a game day, especially if we do a good job and we win. The crowd is happy. The cowbells are ringing and everything else. It does something to you.”
Herman agreed and said Texas will likely employ that philosophy as the he goes through his first full cycle in Austin with the 2018 recruiting class.
“With out-of-state kids, most of the time it's important to get them in during the season so they can see a game day atmosphere,” Herman said. “… I think if you've got interest from one of the top players in the country, and he's out of state and wants to come see game, we'll certainly accommodate that.”
That’s exactly what Penn State, Florida, UCLA and Ohio State did for top-ranked inside linebacker Anthony Hines III of Plano (Texas) East. Hines took all five of his official visits during the season because he said it was important for him to see what it was like on campus on a typical game day.
“Living in Texas, you don’t get too many opportunities to see places like Los Angeles, State College, Gainesville or Columbus other than what you see on TV,” Hines, who committed and is already enrolled at Texas A&M, said. “So I wanted to get on campus at those schools, walk around and see what the environment was like, what were the fans like. I also liked seeing how the coaches interacted with the players on game day. For me, the game day visits were vital.”
It’s the differences between Hines and Ray and how schools like Nebraska or Mississippi State use their official visits that make it one of the most fascinating parts of the entire recruiting process. For every argument for in-season or out-of-season visits, there’s a counter for why it’s not a good idea.
“… I think every kid is a little bit different when you're out there recruiting them,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “There are some kids that you say 'Hey, they like every school.' If they like every school, then you want to be the last school they visit, so that's the last thing on their mind. Others you want to get them on campus as soon as you can, so they’ll commit.
“It’s more complex of an issue than you think and there’s no right or wrong answer. You just hope your coaches recruiting find out form the people involved in the process when that right time is.”