The rules are the same, but the recruiting game is now played a little differently.
Only a few years ago, one of the biggest selling points was the official visit, the 48-hour period when recruits would see the campus, meet players, coaches and academic advisors. They'd possibly take in a game day and soak in the atmosphere. It was the essence of the recruiting process.
But now teams are evaluating and offering players earlier than ever. Recruits are unofficially visiting schools earlier than ever. Prospects are now committing at such an early stage that it's changing the entire visit philosophy. It's turned into a game of dominos and programs that don't keep up are left behind.
"It wasn't that long ago when everything was riding on those official visits leading up to signing day," said Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora, who had previously been an assistant at Florida and Oklahoma State. "I remember when I was at Florida, we had so many kids still left out there in December and January. You waited in those days, and it wasn't that long ago. It was just a few years ago. Everything came down to those [official] visits in December and January."
There is no question that the unofficial visit has become larger and more important than the official visit. Summer is the key. Kids are coming. They are visiting three or four schools at a time and then making a decision. You have to be ready. You have to have a plan.
”-- Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora
While the official visit is still important, it's just not the key to the recruiting process that it once was because of the early offers and early commitments. More emphasis is starting to be placed on unofficial visits rather than official visits.
This wasn't a slow, gradual change. This happened quickly, sparked by Mack Brown and Texas. The Longhorns made it a habit to get out in front of the recruiting cycle. They'd have most of their class committed before the summer circuit even began. The Big 12 and the rest of the nation tried to keep up, eventually becoming a no-holds-barred free-for-all in the spring and summer months.
"There is no question that the unofficial visit has become larger and more important than the official visit," Fedora said. "Summer is the key. Kids are coming. They are visiting three or four schools at a time and then making a decision. You have to be ready. You have to have a plan. When we got here we decided that when a recruit shows up at our place we were going to treat it as a mini-official visit."
To be successful, coaches have to be ready for everyone and everything. There can be no surprises, no slip ups here.
"You have to pay more attention to the details," said Greg Adkins said, Syracuse's offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator who also has coached at Tennessee and Georgia. "You have to know everything, all the information on kids ahead of time. What will intrigue the kids? It's the old adage the first impression is the lasting impression. We believe if you get a kid on an unofficial visit you want to do it right. You have to hit a home run or you may not see them again."
Right now 24 BCS schools, including programs such as Alabama, FSU, Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Texas, have at least 15 commitments for the Class of 2011. Another 29 BCS schools have 10 to 14 commits. Just five recruiting seasons ago for the Class of 2007, only four BCS schools had 15 plus commitments at this same time -- Texas, Virginia Tech, Mississippi State and Texas A&M -- and 14 had between 10 to 14 commitments. Things changed rather quickly.
"Hey, 15 years ago you couldn't go online and research every school in the country," said Mark Ouimet, Mississippi State's coordinator of recruiting operations. "Technology has played a part, too. Now, everyone's adjusted and it's all about campus tours, junior days, spring practice and summer camps."
While the official recruiting calendar remains largely intact, college programs from coast to coast have adjusted on the fly. Each and every one is on-call each and every day, not knowing what recruit could show up at their campus.
"I had to fly back early to campus once from vacation," said Brian Polian, Stanford's special teams coordinator who coached at Notre Dame before joining the Cardinal this year. "It was so I could spend time with a prospect who showed up on our campus. I ended up spending a day and a half with him."
Coaches and programs throughout the country host junior days in the winter and spring in an attempt to lure as many prospects to campus as possible. These days, it's becoming a key factor in recruiting.
"Ultimately, whenever a young man is on campus you have to treat it as though they are never coming back again," Polian said. "It doesn't matter if it's the spring or the summer. You have to treat that time on your campus as your one shot and tailor that visit to that recruit's needs so they get the whole experience. This acceleration of the recruiting process and all these unofficial visits are so important."
While some coaches might fear change, the new recruiting world has a fan in first-year Kentucky coach Joker Phillips.
"All these unofficial visits have helped us get off to a great start here at Kentucky," said Phillips, who has been with Kentucky since 2003 and served as the recruiting coordinator at one point. "We started in February and continued in the spring and summer. The great part about it was that it was always one or two kids. We could devout more personal attention to these prospects and spend more quality time with them. In some cases we literally dropped what we were doing. I dropped what I was doing; it's that important. You may only have them on campus one time and you want them leaving with a great taste in their mouth about your school."
He's not alone. Duke coach David Cutcliffe has been through the recruiting wars. As a longtime assistant and offensive coordinator at Tennessee and as the head coach of Ole Miss, Cutcliffe has seen the evolution of recruiting. Now the coach at Duke, he's using the new recruiting mentality to the Blue Devils' advantage.
"When we came here to Duke we knew the unofficial visit would be a premium," said Cutcliffe, whose Blue Devils have 22 commits so far. "Kids will rip through this state and see UNC, NC State, Wake Forest and East Carolina. We knew we had to develop a standard routine for unofficial visits from a [campus] tour, academics, coaches and faculty. Everyone had to be ready on a minute's notice. I like this system. This way is better. You just have to be prepared for it. I actually enjoy it. It's more laid-back and I get to know the kids better we sign."
Still, recruits will take their official visits. They will start the first weekend in September and go until the weekend before national signing day. Per NCAA rules, every prospect is allowed five official visits and each football program is allowed to host 56 official visits in a calendar year, not that they ever reach that number anymore.
"We used to be cognizant of the number of visits allowed before," Fedora said. "Now we don't even need to talk about it anymore because we don't come close to it."
What you see happening now is that teams will have official visit weekends. They typically consist of committed prospects and recruits the program is trying to land. Coaches hope that the committed players will assist them in the recruiting process with those that are uncommitted.
"That's what we are banking on," Phillips said. "The official visit now just cleans things up for you and helps finish things off with your class."
Programs will identify bye weeks of recruits or weeks where they play a Thursday night game that can free them up to visit. If it's an official, it's typically an out-of-state prospect visiting a school that they don't have the means to see during the spring or summer.
"When I was at Tennessee with coach [Phillip] Fulmer, we believed we could sell our game-day atmospheres and traditions," Adkins said. "That was one thing we tried to take advantage of. We had to get kids on campus, especially the kids out of state. Erik Ainge was a West Coast kid all the way who had never been east of Las Vegas. He was going to Arizona State or UCLA. Then he visited us and he said he had never seen anything like Tennessee before."
So while game day and atmosphere can sell a recruit, it's still tough for coaches to do much with them during game weekends. That's why, maybe in a perfect world, players would still take those visits in December or January when coaches aren't trying to win a game and can really spend time with the players. But the reality is it doesn't always work out that way. These are fast times in the recruiting world and there's no time to visit the ways of the past.
LB Steward sets two official visits
Five-star LB Tony Steward (St. Augustine, Fla./Menendez) has decided on two of his official visits, according to Menendez coach Keith Cromwell. Steward will officially visit UCLA on Dec. 8 and Clemson on Jan. 27, Cromwell wrote in a text message. That visit with the Tigers is huge, as Dabo Swinney and Clemson will get his last official visit.
Steward will set up an official visit to Alabama in the next few days. Florida and Florida State will also receive visits. Currently, the Tigers and Seminoles are co-leaders for Steward, who is No. 9 in the ESPNU 150.
O'Leary and UCF off to strong start
Has anyone noticed what Central Florida is doing in the recruiting battles? George O'Leary and his Knights have quietly put together a really good recruiting class right now. Of the 15 commits, eight are three-star recruits, including wide receiver Jacques Mackeroy (Lakeland, Fla./Kathleen), linebacker Willie Mitchell (Deltona, Fla./Pine Ridge), center Tarik Cook (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson), defensive end Deion Green (Orlando, Fla./Edgewater) and defensive tackle Thomas Niles (Gainesville, Ga./Gainesville). The UCF class got even stronger on Tuesday with the commitment of Fort Pierce (Fla.) Central defensive tackle Demetris Anderson. He was easily one of the best interior defensive line prospects I saw all camp season from the state of Florida.
Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.