Coaches, colleges explore new frontier

Editor's note: This is the first story in a four-part series examining the impact of online social networks on college athletics.

John Calipari remembers the first time he heard the word "Twitter."

He was in Indianapolis a couple of months ago with Indiana coach Tom Crean, and Crean was showing him his Twitter page and some of his "tweets."

"I thought he was crazy," Calipari said.

Not surprising, considering Calipari is a bit of a technophobe. He said he owns a computer but barely knows how to turn it on. He just discovered text messaging a couple of years ago and knows Facebook is something his kids use.

But after Crean's demonstration of Twitter, a Web-based social networking tool that allows people to explain what they're doing in 140 characters or less, Calipari decided it might be a worthwhile venture, especially for a new coach in a new city. Just two months later, Calipari's Twitter page -- @UKCoachCalipari -- is the most popular site among all college coaches, with over 350,000 followers.

"It's Kentucky," Calipari said. "If I was at Memphis we wouldn't have this many, or if I was at Massachusetts. This state lives and breathes the basketball program. So I'm not saying it's me; I'm saying this program has that kind of carry in this state."

Twitter has been around since 2006, but only recently have college coaches, universities and conferences jumped on the bandwagon. They use the social networking tool for anything from connecting with fans to recruiting to talking about trips with their families. The scope of Twitter is limitless, which is why a lot of coaches and conferences feel they're just beginning to scratch the surface of its potential.

"I'll tell you why it works," Calipari said. "It's the reason why USA Today worked. It's the reason why people want to see the ticker on ESPN. [People] don't want large bites. Give me a small bite; make it fast, I'll see what it is, I'll laugh and I'll move on to something else."

I'll tell you why it works. It's the reason why USA Today worked. It's the reason why people want to see the ticker on ESPN. [People] don't want large bites. Give me a small bite, make it fast, I'll see what it is, I'll laugh and I'll move on to something else.

--John Calipari

Calipari composes the tweets himself but, being technologically un-savvy, he uses Kentucky's associate athletic director for media relations, DeWayne Peevy, as a conduit. Calipari texts or calls Peevy and then Peevy posts updates from events Calipari is attending, pitches for Calipari's DVD or book or even Photoshopped pictures of Calipari with a shaved head (that was July 2 at 5:53 p.m.).

Calipari isn't the only coach known for having a little fun with his Twitter page. USC football coach Pete Carroll -- @PeteCarroll -- posts music videos from YouTube for his "song of the day" feature. He posts videos of his players and always updates his nearly 30,000 followers about when he'll be on the radio, TV or at a function.

Carroll is the ultimate social networking coach because he's active on both Twitter and Facebook and participates on the team's football-related Web site, USCRipsIt.com. He's so fanatic about social networking that he hired Ben Malcolmson as USC's director of online media to focus strictly on that.

Malcolmson is a former USC journalism student who decided to walk on to the USC football team for a story. He ended up making the team as a walk-on in 2006. After he graduated, Carroll asked if he'd stay on and build the football team's Web site. Malcolmson has been pushing Carroll and USC forward into social networking ever since.

"[Carroll's] whole thing is if you're not going to do it well, then don't do it all," Malcolmson said. "He's not going to do it halfway. His whole big motto is 'Do it better than it's ever been done before,' so I think that's been a part of it. He's always asking about what's going on with the Internet stuff and the Web site and all that."

Malcolmson said he started seeing Twitter become popular last fall, but with football in full swing he didn't want to add anything to Carroll's plate. But in January, he approached Carroll about it and the coach was sold.

Malcolmson said Carroll emphasized from day one that Twitter would be a fun way to showcase the program and his personality and would not be used to lure recruits to USC.

"The recruiting aspect -- he is not thinking about that one ounce at all," Malcolmson said. "I think when we started the Web site it was, 'This could be a cool recruiting tool.' But since then we've just gone completely away from that. There's sort of ancillary benefits to all this stuff that goes with recruiting, but really our attention is not recruiting at all in any of this stuff.

"And that sort of frees us up a lot, because then [Carroll] can just be himself. He doesn't have to worry about being contrived or forcing anything. He can just be himself and put up whatever it is, and I think that projects a great image of who he is, who the program is, and if recruits like that, then that's a great side benefit."

Tim Beckman sees it a different way. The first-year Toledo football coach has been using Twitter -- @coachbeckman -- as a way to connect with recruits and to try to keep local and in-state players' minds on the Rockets.

Beckman likened Twitter to Alabama coach Nick Saban's use of videoconferencing with recruits. It's a way to push the envelope and get an edge without actually breaking NCAA rules.

"I've been around this business my whole life with my dad being a coach, so I know how important the recruiting is and getting quality players that you bring into your program," Beckman said. "We're not able to communicate with them as much as we'd all like to be able to communicate, so you've got to find ways to do it. And Twitter just happens to be a way that [Toledo] came to me about, so each day I learn more and more about it. It's not that I know everything about it, but it's something I think we need to explore."

Beckman said he tries to tweet on a schedule to make sure it's always current. He sends one as he's leaving the house for work, another around lunchtime and then one toward the end of the day. Unlike several other coaches who use Twitter to talk about goings-on in their personal lives, Beckman said he likes to keep the focus on promoting his team and enticing recruits to come to Toledo.

Unlike Calipari, who said he'd probably limit his tweeting during the season and even have guest tweeters fill in for weeks at a time -- University of Kentucky president Dr. Lee T. Todd Jr. has already been a guest tweeter -- Beckman said it's even more important to keep a Twitter regimen during the year so as not to lose any recruiting edge he might have built.

"You have to find time for it," Beckman said. "It's just like anything in recruiting. You better find time for it. If that means getting up 30 minutes early or an hour earlier then you better do it, because you have to stay on top of the recruiting stuff."

Beckman said he has had to stop himself from saying too much, something Malcolmson said was one of the reasons USC stays away from the recruiting aspect. Beckman said he's not in the business of breaking NCAA rules and has often deleted potential tweets that could toe the line between permissible and impermissible contact.

Currently, the NCAA allows coaches to direct-message recruits from Twitter or send them a private message on Facebook.

Beckman also has a Facebook page, but isn't nearly as devoted to it as he is to Twitter, mostly because of the ease of posting. The Southeastern Conference, on the other hand, uses its Twitter page -- @SECSportsUpdate -- to direct its more than 6,500 fans to the conference's Web site, or its extremely popular Facebook page. The SEC's Facebook page has over 23,000 fans; the next closest major conference is the Big 12 at 1,695 fans.

"We just try to draw support for the conference and the institutions and give the fans a hook to make them feel that they can get some information that they not necessarily can get through traditional means," said Charles Bloom, associate commissioner in charge of media relations for the SEC.

Bloom said earlier this year, there was a national conference call for all the college sports information directors that featured Kathleen Hessert, founder and president of Sports Media Challenge, a program that trains, and consults for, those involved with sports on how to deal with the ever-changing media. It was after that conference that several sports information directors around the country started Facebooking and Twittering.

"[Hessert] gave me a lot of buzzwords in terms of the philosophy of Twitter and Facebook, and that is it's not the technology, it's really the communication," Bloom said. "So what we try to do with our social media is engage the fan. Provide a give-and-take. Not just a source of information, but also try to get some feedback as well as try to give the fan some information that he or she won't normally get."

Providing what's usually private or unearthed information seems to be the driving force behind college sports and social networking. While various members of the college sports community use social networking in different ways, they achieve a similar goal of giving fans more access to previously private programs and making coaches seem just a little more human.

"The one thing I like is that it's a little bit of an unobstructed view," Calipari said. "They get to know what you are and how you are and how you think without someone telling them who you are, what you are and how you think.

"There's something there, and Twitter doesn't even know what it is. No one knows what it is. You know what I'm doing? I'm having fun with it."

Graham Watson is a college sports writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at gwatson.espn@gmail.com.