Editor's note: Coaches spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"Recruiting is recruiting. People say and do things that sometimes they wish they probably didn't do when it's over with. That always happens." -- Jimbo Fisher, FSU coach.
Most schools have a manual that outlines everything the program hopes to accomplish on the recruiting trail. It's basically a recruiting playbook filled with details of how the school plans to operate. However, nowhere within any of these guides will you find recruiting's trick plays.
Negative recruiting is as much a part of today's college football recruiting as the pretty girls who act as hosts and the all-you-can-eat buffets prospects gorge on when they take campus visits. When asked about it with their names attached to the quotes, coaches say their school doesn't need to go negative to win a prospect over. Give these coaches a veil of anonymity and the secrets spill from their mouths.
"Negative recruiting happens everywhere in the country," a Pac-12 assistant who has worked in the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 said. "Some would like to think it's just confined to the SEC or the Southeast, but that's just not true. It's everywhere. It's real."
There's no exact date when recruiting tends to turn negative, but it's usually about this time in the recruiting calendar. With just hours left before national signing day, coaches are eager to land the key player who's the missing piece for their program and often get desperate after spending two years chasing after him.
In many ways, it mirrors what happens during the final few weeks of a political campaign. Negative messages can potentially create fear, uncertainty and doubt in your opponent, and if it might end up giving them the final edge, recruiters will sling mud. And once that happens, the trick play has worked and will be rolled out again in the future, even if it leaves a bitter aftertaste in a coach's mouth.
"The pressure to win is higher than it's ever been before," said a veteran American Athletic Conference coach who has worked previously at Big 12 and SEC schools. "You have to win now if you want to still have a job. So, if that means you have to take the gloves off and go negative, then that's what you'll do.
"You don't like looking at yourself in the mirror in the mornings because you hate to have to go that direction, especially since recruiting is built off of trust and relationships. But deep down, coaches know to win you have to have talent, and to get that talent you have to sometimes bend the truth."
Does it work? The answer to that question is both yes and no. Obviously it does to some extent or coaches wouldn't turn to it as much as they do during recruiting's home stretch. Recruits themselves say they mostly tune it out and sometimes will actually be turned off to a school going negative. But in some cases one morsel of information can linger in the back of their minds and develop into a lasting impression of a school.
How do coaches do? Here's the guide to the art of being the bad guy.
When going negative, there are a few go-to subjects that lend themselves to picking apart a rival. These might not be the most popular tactics or fit every situation, but when the situation arises, they're easy to use.
Coach in crisis
Nobody can truly predict the future, but that doesn't stop college recruiters from trying. At the first sign of trouble, however, a head coach's job security or longevity at a school becomes a focal point of a negative recruiting pitch.
Take Kansas State and South Carolina for example. Coaches at both schools have heard from rival recruiters for years that Bill Snyder and Steve Spurrier wouldn't be there by the time recruits graduated. Things turned so negative this season for the Gamecocks on the recruiting trail in December that Spurrier had to come out and publicly state he would be back for at least "two or three more" seasons. He then followed that up with a series of in-home visits with key recruits to help reassure them that he was indeed in it for the long haul.
The same happens with head coaches who are coming off bad seasons. Everybody has seen the websites that rank coaches on the hot seats or read about a coach's job being in jeopardy, and somehow that information magically ends up as part of conversations with recruits.
"If you allow a recruiter to smell blood in the water, he's going to go for the kill," a Conference USA assistant who has worked previously in the SEC and the Big 12 said. "Talking about a coach's future at that school is one of the easiest ways to go negative, because it's so hard for them to defend. The coach can tell you he and his assistants are going to be OK, but all you have to point out is their record and talk about what people in the press are saying. Unless his athletic director has come out and said his job is safe, then you can use that to your advantage all day long."
The bad apples
Many coaches say one of the easiest ways to go negative is to point out when a program has issues with players continually getting in trouble off the field or not cutting it in the classroom.
"You don't even have to search very hard to find out that type of stuff," a Big 12 assistant said. "It's right there for anybody to see. You almost don't even have to mention it because fans will flood recruits' (Twitter) timelines with that type of stuff. 'Hey, why would you want to go there because they have kids always in trouble?' Or 'that school's players never go to class.' The recruits become pretty aware of it, and that's something you can use as part of a larger, more positive pitch about your program while also at the same time making sure they don't forget about what's happened over there."
Making the grades?
A former Big Ten assistant claimed a conference rival beefed up its graduation rates in chemical engineering a few years back to convince a top offensive lineman. But the coach also pointed out that this wasn't an isolated case and that this school wasn't the only Big Ten team that fibbed at least a little bit when it came to academics.
"Every school we recruited against in the Big Ten bumped things higher or lower to make their school look better, even those schools that are supposed to have a higher academic standard than others," the assistant said. "Some wouldn't like what their APR number was and adjust it a few points here or there in presentations to recruits. I think every school in the country adjusts their graduation rates a little bit. I know if we're trying to impress a kid that was a journalism major, we'd make sure our placement rate was higher than it really was."
Like anywhere else in sports, stats can be manipulated to tell whatever story needs telling. Recruiters have lots of numbers at their disposal to use against rival teams and recruiters.
After coming off back-to-back subpar conference seasons, a Pac-12 assistant said he was tasked with convincing one of the nation's top 2015 receiver prospects to come to his program instead of signing with conference rival Oregon. So he dug into his school's statistics to find his program had 1,000-yard receivers four out of the past five seasons and six of the previous eight. He then dug up Oregon's numbers and discovered the Ducks have had nine 1,000-yard rushers and only four 1,000-yard receivers over a 10-season span.
"I really laid it on thick and made it seem like Oregon never throws the football," the assistant said. "I had this kid convinced if he went there he was never going to be a marquee receiver, and if he came to our place, we were going to throw the ball every single play and it was going to be to him. I left out the part where Oregon's quarterback threw for 4,000 yards this season and they've had a quarterback over 2,000 yards every single year for the past 10."
Coaches say this example is the most common form of negative recruiting that takes place in recruiting today. Recruiters know they can take almost any statistic and skew it to prove any point they want to make.
Want to make an impression on a defensive end? Show him a tackle chart from the past five seasons that only has the defensive linemen on it and somehow omits the fact the linebackers have led the team in tackles during that period. Then show him the reverse stats for the school that is your biggest competition. Or better yet, do what one SEC West assistant said he did.
"We were going after an offensive lineman that was really good at everything, but probably at his best when he was pass blocking," the assistant said. "So we showed him that our team passed the ball 65 percent of the time and even went as high as 75, 80 in some games. Then we showed him how the team that was our biggest competition was 50-50 and in some games ran the ball 80 percent. We failed to mention in those games why we were passing it. We were losing and had to throw the ball. And in the games they were running, they were trying to run out the clock.
"Sometimes the finer details don't matter as much when you're trying to paint a broader picture about your team and especially the other team you're recruiting against."
The fuzzy math especially extends to depth charts and players currently on the roster.
According to a former Pac-12 assistant, another school in the conference "got creative" with the depth chart it showed to recruits and didn't include any of its underclassmen on the two-deep, while at the same time sharing a depth chart for a rival program that was littered with nothing but freshmen and sophomores.
"(Another) coach led the recruiting pitch with 'Those guys don't know it yet, but they won't be here next year,'" the former coach said. "That's actually a pretty common practice. It was something we would even do. We would show recruits a different depth chart all the time. We'd shift linebackers to safety, defensive ends to linebackers or straight up tell a recruit a few guys will be leaving at their position, while all knowing that's not exactly true. Some coaches will even add committed players to depth charts to bolster the size of a competitor's depth chart."
An ACC assistant with previous experience in the Big 12 said misrepresenting the depth chart at your school and your opponent's school is a very common practice when going negative.
"I remember walking into a junior college a few years back and telling this star defensive tackle the other school recruiting him had eight or nine DTs already on their roster and two already committed in their recruiting class," the coach said. "It was true that they had two kids already committed, but one was going to end up at a juco. Plus, only four of those tackles already on their team were on scholarship. The other four or five were walk-on guys that would never see the field. When we talked about our depth, the walk-ons were never mentioned. We knew playing time was important to this guy, so we kept pounding our numbers and their numbers into his head. It worked. We signed the guy."
Recruits respond to different tactics, both positive pitches and the negative. Sometimes, that's when their true mastery shows up.
Christian Kirk wouldn't name the school, but reading between the lines it was very clear who he was talking about. Days before Kirk, the nation's No. 4 receiver and a top-35 player overall, committed to Texas A&M, he said a certain SEC school he visited turned negative with its recruitment.
"They asked me why I would want to go to Texas A&M because it looks like a prison," Kirk said with a laugh. "They seriously said if you really look at all the buildings on A&M's campus, they look like a prison."
Kirk's not the only one in the 2015 class that has experienced that type of unique recruiting pitch. A large number of recruits at the Under Armour All-America Game said they saw firsthand a school turn negative against another school in their recruitment. This includes No. 2 inside linebacker Leo Lewis, who said one SEC school went negative by talking about the crime rates in the towns of the other schools he is considering.
"A good recruiter does as much research as he can on the players he's going after and the schools that he is considering," a former Big Ten assistant said. "Sometimes that research leads you to things like how often a team has players in trouble with the law and crime rates in the college town."
Recruiters also have also been known to use travel arrangements and a recruit's friends to put rival schools at a disadvantage.
"We changed a kid's flight to keep him longer on an official visit, so that another team couldn't do an in-home the Sunday night before the dead period started," the former Pac-12 assistant said. "We would even have a couple of coaches coming off recruiting weeks fly on the same plane with kids coming into town on official visits. The coaches had all the time in the airport, the plane and the car ride to the hotel to talk to the kids.
"Then there is the officially tripping guys that are friends of ballers knowing that the kid has no business being on the team or being offered a scholarship or a recruited walk-on spot. But that's something you can tell a recruit, 'We want you so bad that we want your best buddy to come with you.'"
And really when push comes to shove and things get negative, everything is on the table and it's no holds barred.
"I'm not really proud to admit this, but I've even made a (graduate assistant) search for as many negative things as he can find out schools before just in case I needed to use it," a former Big Ten assistant said. "You'd be amazed at how many tidbits you can find from just reading what rival fans say about a school. I'm talking about things like what do they say about the girls they have on campus. Is the school a cow-town in the middle of nowhere or an overcrowded urban campus with dorms from the 1950s? Does it have a reputation as a party school with no focus on academics? If so, then that's maybe something you can use. You really have to get creative with some of the stuff you use if you're going to go down the negative recruiting route, so it doesn't seem so obvious."