When college coaches realized text messaging appealed more to recruits than letters or phone calls, the floodgates opened. Some top-flight players received several texts a day, because the NCAA had no limit on how the number of messages coaches could send, and recruits were often stuck with huge cell phone bills. The NCAA recognized this and banned text messaging in August 2007.
Earlier this week, the NCAA decreed direct messaging on Twitter -- correspondence only the sender and sendee can see on the service similar to an e-mail -- permissible for coaches to use in contacting recruits. This was big news because (1) it hadn't been acknowledged before by the NCAA and (2) because coaches got a "cool" way to fill the void left by the texting ban.
The brilliance of Twitter is the ability to instantly communicate to a large group of people. A user can "tweet" from his computer, but also from his phone -- something every college coach worth his salt became familiar with during the text-message era.
But if direct messaging is looked at just like e-mail -- which the NCAA has restrictions on -- and coaches can't publicly address recruits in their Twitter streams, then how can they use the service to their advantage?
It's all in what they're tweeting.
"If you're saying something and making it public to everybody, it has recruiting value," said Kathleen Hessert, president of Sports Media Challenge, a company that specializes in media training for athletes. "If it's interesting and cool, it's contributing to your recruiting strategy without being specific to an individual."
When Pete Carroll is tweeting about his buddy Will Ferrell, for example, he's not just targeting his followers, he's letting the recruit that's seen "Old School" 500 times now, too. The recruit could see that tweet on his phone and, if Carroll and his Twitter team so chooses after the tweet is published, receive a direct message from the coach: If you come to USC, you can hang out with Will. What are you waiting for?
After the NCAA approved direct messaging, Selling For Coaches, a service that trains college coaches in the art of recruiting, urged its clients to hop on Twitter, and fast.
"The possibilities of back-and-forth communication from your computer or phone to a prospect's computer or phone are endless," advice Selling For Coaches offered in its e-mail newsletter. "This will bring the convenience of text messaging back to recruiting, without the text costs, while giving the recruit control over when and who he or she communicates with via their Twitter account."
Further, if a coaching staff is keeping up on recruits' Twitter accounts and their social-networking activities, it will be educated on the recruits' personalities and preferences, and help the coaches cater to them with their own tweets.
As Hessert tells it, coaches not hip to these practices will be left behind.
"I'm going to tell them to ignore it at their own peril," she says. "Because they are going to be so far behind the curve that they're not even going to be relevant to today's young fans. In my estimation, they don't have an option anymore."