Editor's note: Coaches spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Most days, Coach X loves his job, but this time of year, he can hardly look at himself in the mirror. That's because with signing day just hours away, Coach X feels like he works more for TMZ than he does his university.
After sending what feels like a million direct messages on Twitter, orchestrating marathon phone calls that go well past midnight and countless visits with Mom and Dad, the difference-maker Coach X has been recruiting for more than two years has finally narrowed his choices to three schools.
And after 15 years coaching at a Power 5 program, Coach X knows that it's at this point in the process when the gloves come off. Just like the coaches he's recruiting against, he knows he's going to have to go negative. It's not a question of if he will do it, but when he will start slinging mud.
"Coaches are so desperate this time of year they'll try anything," said Coach X, who has also spent time as a recruiting coordinator and a director of operations. "My job depends on me making sure I get the best recruits on campus to win games, and if that means I've got to negatively recruit, then that's what I'll do. I might not like it. I hate the way I feel when I walk out of the recruit's house, but if I don't do it, somebody else will and the guy is going to end up somewhere else."
Recruiters like Coach X turn to negative recruiting because it often works. And it often works because there's a heavy dose of truth in it.
Last year about this time, we told you negative recruiting was alive and well, and one of the examples we gave was other recruiters using Steve Spurrier's age against him and South Carolina. Spurrier bailed on his team in October, and the Gamecocks' recruiting efforts were suffering long before he stepped away. Any recruit considering whether to play for an aging legend is bound to hear the nightmare scenario involving Spurrier.
Recruits say they mostly tune it out, and sometimes they will actually be turned when a school goes 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. And that little crack is all Coach X needs to break down a recruiting rival.
Coach X said the best negative recruiters strike a balance between talking about the positives of their program and trying to stay honest, while at the same time finding creative ways to put down their recruiting rivals.
"It's not easy," he said. "The art of negative recruiting is trying to be a real person and pointing out the negatives about the other teams without attacking an individual coach. You want to be genuine as much as possible without getting personal. Talking about certain aspects about another program is considered fair play by most, but it crosses the line when it gets personal and coaches start talking about a coach's life away from football."
'The bread-and-butter tactics'
Coach X said 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. He called them his "bread-and-butter tactics."
Nobody can truly predict the future, but Coach X said that never stopped him from trying. When recruiting head-to-head against a school where a coach has had his job security or longevity questioned, it can immediately become a focal point of a negative recruiting pitch. Everybody has seen the websites that rank coaches on the hot seats or read about a coach's job being in jeopardy, and Coach X said that information somehow manages to work its way into conversations with prospects.
"Talking about a coach's job security is the easiest way to go negative, because it's so hard for them to defend against," he said. "Telling a recruit and his family, 'That coach won't be around next year' or 'He'll be lucky to still be there when you graduate' is something that can really strike a chord. You can use that to your advantage all day long."
Another easy way to go negative is to point out when a program has issues with players continually getting in trouble off the field and what the local environment is like around the competitor's campus. Coach X joked he has the FBI's crime statistics webpage bookmarked on his computer and on his cellphone.
"I've probably Googled 'insert mascot name' and 'arrest' almost a million times over the years," he said. "That type of information really isn't really that hard to find, and in many cases it's already showing up on recruits' Twitter timelines from media reports or fans talking about it.
"You can also hit them with the crime rates for that college town, especially if it's in a larger city or in a more urban area. You look at things like how many violent crimes were committed within certain miles of the campus. That's something that grabs mom's attention, and you can twist back to a more positive discussion about your program and what it's like in around your campus."
The numbers game
Like anywhere else in sports, statistics can be manipulated to tell whatever story needs telling, and that's something Coach X said he's used to his advantage and other programs' detriment over the years. He's also not ashamed to admit he's "adjusted" some of the numbers he's presented to prospects to ensure things at his school appear a little more rosy.
One of the easiest ways to do this, Coach X said, is through depth charts. With depth charts, recruiters can make almost any situation look overcrowded or underfilled. Want to make it seem like you don't have enough receivers? Show them your receiver depth chart with only upperclassmen on the two-deep. Want to make it seem like your rival is loaded at cornerback and the prospect you're both targeting wouldn't play for years? Show him a depth chart that includes both corners and safeties at the position and throw in some walk-ons from the roster, too. Heck, while you're at it, Coach X said his staff has been known to add in some kids that are already committed to make it appear even more skewed.
"Recruits are getting bombarded by so many different things, we've found they honestly don't have the time or ability to research every little detail," Coach X said. "Even if playing time is important to them, many times they'll believe what you tell them if you're persuasive enough."
Another practice Coach X says "everybody does" is to adjust stats that are presented to recruits. For example, if you're trying to land a blue-chip 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.
And probably to the disappointment of university administrators everywhere, Coach X said recruiters habitually alter academic numbers to appear more appealing for their school and negatively toward a rival. He said it's easy to add several percentage points to his school's academic progress rate by removing either the freshman or sophomore class from the results in presentations to recruits, while at the same time lowering the numbers of a rival by a few points. The same can be said about overall graduation rates or even placement numbers for specific majors in graduate school programs.
"When you talk academics with Mom and Dad their eyes start to widen, so it's something that definitely gets brought up, especially on visits," Coach X said. "Universities all over the country are already adjusting their graduation rates to make them look more positive when trying to attract a normal student majoring in chemistry, economics or biology, so why should we feel bad about doing it with somebody that's going to play football for the same school?"
The Hail Marys
Like in actual games, there are times when no matter what conventional pitch you throw at a prospect, it doesn't work and you're forced to dig deep into your recruiting bag of tricks. Coach X said these tactics have about as much a chance of succeeding as a Hail Mary does in a game, but the recruiter tries them out of desperation because there's always a chance they just might work.
"When you're desperate you'll do about anything," Coach X said. "You'll have your graduate assistants search all over Twitter and message boards for all the negative things they can find out on a school. You have them look up things like what the girls look like at that school. Does that school have a bunch of [ugly girls]? You have them save some of the most negative things fans say about players after games, and ask recruits 'Do you really want to play at a school where the fans treat you this way?'
"There's a long list of things like that -- is that school a party school or in a town where nobody cares about football -- you start to use those when you're in scramble mode."
And if all else fails, Coach X said that's when they finally flip the page to the part of the negative recruiting playbook. It's when they play the race card and cross the line with personal attacks against the other team's coaches.
"Playing the race card is the ultimate last resort, but you sometimes have to do it when dealing with an African-American prospect and the numbers are in your favor," Coach X said.
"You use, 'How many black assistant coaches does the other school have?' You talk with them about 'What's the racial breakdown on campus?' Are there only a small percentage of black students? How many black players actually graduate from the program and get good jobs after college? Heck, we've even used the fact that a coach at a rival school had a small percentage of All-Americans that were black and hadn't had any black captains in the past few years. Both of those are things that really resonated with some of the kids we targeted."
And crossing the line with personal attacks against other coaches sometimes works, too.
"There's somewhat of an unwritten rule in recruiting to not make it personal and attack the people that are doing the actual recruiting," Coach X said. "But recruiting is a lot like politics. Once somebody slings mud at you, you have to fight fire with fire. Is that coach a bible-thumper? Does he have a reputation as being too strict or too loose with his players? Has he had marital issues? It's horrible that sometimes it gets to this point, but when you're trying to get the final edge, you do what you have to do."