Saban, Miles talk to recruits via Web camera to bypass new rule

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban normally spends this time of year on the road evaluating prep prospects and visiting with high school coaches.

The Alabama coach is doing a different kind of networking these days -- all from the comfort of his office. Saban is among a handful of college head coaches using video conferences to chat with recruits because they can't meet in person.

A new NCAA regulation -- dubbed the "Saban Rule" -- is keeping coaches from making those traditional visits to high school campuses during the spring evaluation period that runs through May.

Webcams have hardly replaced telephones or text messages as the preferred mode of talking to recruits. But, said LSU spokesman Michael Bonnette, they are without a doubt the wave of the future in long-distance communicating with high school players.

Saban and Southeastern Conference rivals Les Miles of LSU and Phillip Fulmer of Tennessee are using the Internet tool. Others among several dozen schools contacted by The Associated Press are considering or have considered it.

"We've got the technology in place, and most of the high schools we're finding have the technology that allows it, so it makes sense," Bonnette said. "Once again, it's one of the perks of being on the forefront when it comes to technology, so we're going to use it to our advantage."

Even before the new rule, coaches weren't allowed to have more than brief, inadvertent contact with recruits during the spring, a rule Saban was accused of breaking last year in Miami. He has called the new restrictions against visits to high schools "ridiculous."

When they went into effect, he turned to Plan B: Webcams, which are permitted by the NCAA.

Saban said he speaks to "four or five" recruits a day on the Web when he's in the office. He had previously used the technology with LSU, the NFL's Miami Dolphins and at Alabama for things like giving players a chance to talk to doctors or sports psychiatrists.

"I just think it's a better way to communicate," said Saban, who estimates he visited some 100 high schools last spring. "It's great to communicate over the phone but I'd feel a lot more comfortable with this conversation right now if I could see the person I was talking to.

"In business meetings, they wouldn't use the technology if it wasn't a more effective way to communicate, would they?"

It may be the new, new thing. But not everyone seems likely to embrace the technology.

Florida State's 78-year-old Bobby Bowden is more at home with face-to-face chats in recruits' living rooms. What about screen to screen?

"I can guarantee you Coach Bowden is not on a Webcam," Florida State football SID Elliott Finebloom said.

Auburn's Tommy Tuberville said he plans to stick to his strategy of assembling the Tigers' coaching staff at his home on the first day of permitted contact and take turns chatting with each targeted player. Webcams aren't in the game plan.

"I wouldn't be interested in doing it," Tuberville said. He said personal contact is the method he prefers. "I've talked to them, their parents, they've been on our campus. I think that's what's important."

Besides, he added, "I've been recruiting these kids since the eighth grade. Hopefully, they know what I look like."

Oklahoma State coaches have approached compliance director Scott Williams about the possibility of using Webcams. Williams said the latest high-tech tool definitely merits consideration for recruiting.

"It's constantly evolving," Williams said, pointing to text messaging and MySpace pages.

The NCAA rules count "all electronically transmitted human voice exchange" as phone calls, specifically mentioning videoconferencing and videophones.

"We have a rule, and it's been in place for awhile, that Webcams and video conferences are considered telephone calls," NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said. "We don't see it as a violation. It would just be subject to rules we have regarding recruiting and telephone contact."

Illinois' Ron Zook and Colorado's Dan Hawkins adopted different strategies to cope with the new rule instead of going online with recruits. Zook is visiting coaching clinics around the country as another way of "getting to know high school coaches and establish relationships," spokeswoman Cassie Arner said.

Hawkins is using the time to visit fans, donors and even speak to grade schools, spokesman David Plati said. Saban also is doing a seven-city tour speaking to Crimson Tide supporters.

Minnesota recruiting coordinator Dan Berezowitz said the so-called "Saban Rule" limits the demands on "coaches who don't want to work and evens the playing field with the ones who do." He is eager for coach Tim Brewster to start using the Webcam once they're sure it's permitted by the NCAA.

After that, he said, "there's no sense that you wouldn't be doing it."

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said he'll leave it up to the Sooners coaches if they want to employ Webcams, but figures "people are just taking advantage of what is out there."

"It remains to be seen if it creates any unintended consequences," he said.