Aesthetics play role in recruit's decisions

The obvious reasons, you already know. From scouring recruiting updates and devouring message board material, no one needs to explain why recruits choose the schools they do.

The big-armed quarterback liked the pro-style offense. The dual-threat version picked his program because it runs the spread.

One stud recruit built up a strong rapport with only this group of coaches; a counterpart believes only his school has necessary academic buildings.

And so forth.

That's only part of the story, though. Recruiting decisions are never black or white. They are shaded by the gray of perception.

When recruits across the country spend today signing national letters of intent, all factors are at work.

Florida State might have been a runaway favorite for Jacobbi McDaniel, the No. 5 player on the ESPNU 150 list. He'll be able to contribute at defensive tackle immediately.

But it didn't hurt that, for the first time in years, he'll be able to play in his favorite brand of apparel.

"Well, Florida State is a Nike school," said McDaniel, a 6-foot, 267-pound EA Sports All-American from Madison County High in Greenville, Fla. "And my last year of high school, we wore Under Armour. But what I really love is Nike."

McDaniel made it clear that he wasn't disparaging Under Armour, the sponsor of a popular all-star game. The guy just likes Nike. And when it comes to recruiting, seemingly irrelevant issues matter.

Everything matters.

Russell Shepard, a 6-1, 183-pound quarterback from Cypress Ridge (Texas) High, could have gone anywhere in the country. Yet when asked why he chose to enroll at LSU in January, Shepard does not state the obvious.

For the personable prospect, that's too simple.

One reason: "My girlfriend from high school goes there," Shepard said, citing a factor with which it is tough to compete. That's not all.

"I can just see myself in purple and gold," said the EA Sports All-American multi-purpose selection and No. 3 prospect from ESPNU. "Purple looks good on me."

Ask some of the nation's top recruits, and you'll hear similar refrains. Players aren't just picking a team. They also are deciding on an image.

When they see themselves on TV for years to come, they want a place that will make them look good. Those well-versed in the recruiting spin cycle know this truth.

When Matt Barkley, the top overall prospect in the ESPNU 150, began the recruiting process, Southern California was always the favorite. Barkley grew up around the Los Angeles Coliseum, was wowed by the star-studded atmosphere and lauded the passion of the coaches. And although he had no idea that former starting quarterback Mark Sanchez would opt to enter the NFL draft a year early, Barkley figured playing time was available wherever he went.

Like Shepard's affinity for the way the uniform looks, Barkley admitted, "that cardinal and gold of SC definitely attracted me. But I don't think it would've been big enough to make or break a decision."

Maybe not. But the same criterion did eliminate one option. He was asked whether there was one uniform he could never don.

"I'd have to say the Bruins," said Barkley, the 6-3, 222-pounder from Santa Ana, Calif., who already is enrolled at USC. "Growing up in Southern California, my dad went to SC, nothing about UCLA ever attracted me."

McDaniel followed that line of thinking: "It was always a Florida Gators uniform that I could never wear," he said. "No disrespect to Florida, but I could never wear it."

Some people simply see themselves in one uniform or another.

William Campbell, a 6-5, 317-pounder, enrolled early to play for Michigan for several reasons. ESPNU's No. 21 offensive tackle from Detroit wanted to be close to his family, and he raved about UM's strength and conditioning program, which is led by Mike Barwis.

He said Michigan's uniforms, as classic as they come, are exactly what he wants. But he can understand if others don't feel it.

"I've heard some buddies who just love the way the Oregon uniform looks," Campbell said of the often outrageous, Nike-made duds.

It's not just the uniforms and apparel contracts. Players can run down a list of other less obvious factors when it comes to picking a program.

Barkley joked that the famous USC Song Girls "did add a little to the whole package."

McDaniel has always loved the atmosphere of FSU, particularly when the student portraying famous Seminole tribe leader Osceola plants the spear before games.

Shepard knows of Notre Dame commits who enroll because of the program's lucrative contract with NBC Sports to televise its games. A small advantage, but it helps.

But what Shepard likes is more than exposure. At LSU, freshmen are allowed to live off-campus, an interesting perk.

Plus, the Bayou Bengals are the only game in town. If you're from the state, you're most likely an LSU fan. When he visited, he felt the overall appreciation. Did it make the decision for him?

Maybe not. But it helped.

"It's not a question of whether they'll root for you in college," Shepard said. "You're cheered everywhere you go. You even get a standing ovation walking into class."

Ian R. Rapoport covers University of Alabama athletics for The Birmingham News. He can be reached at irapoport@bhamnews.com.