Somewhere in Allie Clement’s home in Falmouth is a box filled with unopened letters. Probably about 100, according to her father, Brian, all from colleges looking to lure her to their campus and basketball court.
It’s not that Clement, a junior guard at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland, isn’t interested in any of those colleges. It’s just that letters are so passe.
If you want to recruit Clement or any of the other top girls’ basketball players in the state, you’d better have a more modern approach, such as private messages on Twitter or Facebook.
“When you get a letter, or even an email, you know it’s the same thing they’ve sent to a ton of people,” said Clement. “It’s just a form letter, unless they send an email to you specifically, asking how your season is going.
“To be honest, I don’t even open them anymore. They’re just generic.”
Clement got her first letters in the mail when she was in seventh grade and admittedly was excited. Now, she gets a bigger thrill when she receives a direct message on Twitter or a private Facebook post from a coach.
“It’s a personal connection that you make with a coach and the players,” she said. “Their personalities can really show through Facebook and Twitter.”
Social media has taken the lead role in college recruiting, though there are limitations as to what forms of communication are allowed under NCAA rules.
The NCAA considers the one-on-one communication of private Facebook messages or Twitter’s direct messages a form of email, which is permissible under NCAA recruiting guidelines. Instant messaging and chat rooms are not allowed, however, nor are text messages from NCAA Division I and Division II schools, with one exception — Division I men’s basketball.
College coaches these days are relying more on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — even YouTube to the extent that recruits can showcase their personal highlights — not only to communicate with their recruits, but also to get a glimpse into their personalities.
“It is an enormous part of recruiting today,” said Amy Vachon, an assistant coach for the University of Maine’s women’s basketball team. “Just a huge piece.”
But the NCAA is struggling to fully grasp the effects of social media on recruiting.
According to NCAA spokesman Cameron Schuh, Division III is the only level where texting is allowed for all sports, as voted by its membership in January. In Division I, only men’s basketball coaches can text recruits. Division II does not allow texting.
Vachon noted that she can receive text messages from recruits but cannot answer them.
“I feel kind of like a jerk,” she said. “I can’t even text back to tell them I can’t text them.”
But she knows the rules are fluid.
“It’s all changing,” she said.
TEXTING UNDER REVIEW
On May 2, the NCAA Division I board of directors will reconsider the use of texting as a recruiting tool. The review is being conducted because at least 75 Division I schools requested an override of the rule permitting men’s basketball coaches to text recruits.
Doug Leichner, the associate men’s basketball coach at UMaine, doesn’t understand the fuss. He said text messaging is a vital part of recruiting: “If you do not communicate in the language of the person you’re recruiting, then you are immediately behind. And texting is the form of communication of guys that we’re recruiting.
“It’s a free-flowing form of communication that I think recruits as well as coaches have embraced.”
But in a story that appeared on the NCAA website, one of the schools that requested the override wrote in a letter that allowing coaches and recruits to exchange text messages could cause recruits to be overwhelmed by the number of messages they received and distract coaches from their current duties.
“There is a balance we want to strike,” said Steve Abbott, the athletic director at UMaine.
Abbott said he is no expert on the issue, but understands the rationale behind those who want to limit texting.
“Recruiting is the lifeblood of any collegiate program,” he said. “But you’ve got to make sure, especially with these high school kids, that the process is managed and that there are sensible controls.
“We want these kids to be able to answer their phones and not be worried about getting bombed with text messages every time.”
Dan Lebowitz, the executive director of the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University, applauds the debate.
“This question of limiting social media, I understand you don’t want to inundate the kids and that’s a good objective,” he said. “The world has moved too far away from personal. No one talks to anyone anymore.
“And if the NCAA makes it that more of the contact has to be actual live conversation, at least you get live exposure to the coach and what the program might be like.”
Gary Fifield, the longtime women’s basketball coach at the University of Southern Maine, knows exactly what Lebowitz means.
He has been granted the ability to text message his recruits, but prefers the personal touch.
“I’ll say this about the texting, the kids will get back to you immediately,” he said. “And they don’t return phone calls. But at the same time, you’ve lost that personal contact with them with texting.
“And it’s not just in recruiting, but a societal thing. People don’t know how to talk anymore.”
Recruiting, any college coach will tell you, hasn’t changed. It’s still about making that personal connection, making sure the player and the university are the right fit.
“The only thing that has changed is the forum by which you communicate,” said Lori Gear-McBride, the women’s basketball coach at the University of Vermont.
Whereas once it was letters and phone calls, it’s now social media.
“As technology has progressed,” said Gear-McBride, “very few young people pick up a phone and call when they can text or Facebook or tweet. So it’s important for us to communicate with them the way they feel most comfortable.”
UMaine’s Leichner said schools still send out letters, but not as many.
“It’s all part of the evolution of recruiting,” he said. “You can send something that takes two to three days to get there, or do it in 15 seconds. It’s real-time recruiting.”
That means coaches now have to maintain Twitter accounts. If the coach doesn’t have a Facebook page, their team better have one.
“We all have email,” said Vachon. “But a lot of kids don’t even go to their email anymore. They go on Facebook. Then again, a lot of kids don’t do Facebook anymore. They do Twitter.”
And coaches have to keep up.
“It’s just the way of the world now,” said Lynn Coutts, the UMaine softball coach. “We are social media.”
But Coutts and many other coaches know that even social media has its limits in recruiting. You can communicate with a student, and you can see highlights of a student’s talent on YouTube. But you can’t fully develop a relationship.
“I think relationships are not fully built through just words,” she said. “Seeing a kid react to what you’re asking them, that’s important. When you meet with them and see how they respond, when you meet their parents, when they visit the campus, that’s important. I’m still old-fashioned. I want to sit and talk to you.”
Coutts, 47, tries to stay away from following recruits on Twitter or friending them on Facebook.
“I don’t want to be a friend to an 18-year-old,” she said. “Maybe for the younger coaches it’s different.”
Cindy Blodgett, the former UMaine women’s head coach who’s now an assistant at Rhode Island, said personal contact — not text messages or tweets — is what’s going to determine who goes where.
“I think the relationship that is built with the player and her family is the most critical factor,” she said. “You’re going to spend the next four years together. You need to build a personal relationship.”
Clement, one of the state’s top three girls’ basketball recruits along with teammate Olivia Smith and Lake Region High’s Tiana Jo Carter, agrees.
“It’s all about the personal connection you make with the coaches and players,” said Clement. “You talk to some coaches and you can tell whether they’re interested or not. If they’re talking to you all the time, they’re probably interested. If it’s only once in a while, they probably aren’t that interested.”
Smith, a 6-foot-2 junior center, said it’s important to visit the school and to see a game.
“You want to get a feel for the atmosphere and see if you can fit in,” she said.
THERE ARE NO SECRETS ANYMORE
Social media has affected recruiting in many other ways.
UMaine’s Leichner said you can follow who is recruiting whom through Twitter and Facebook. And when you’re recruiting someone, “you don’t want to tip your hand,” he said. “So maybe I don’t follow this person on Twitter because I don’t want to lead on my competitors.”
He does follow other college coaches, hoping to see whom they’re recruiting, though he realizes they might be creating a diversion. “They might be following someone they’re not interested in to get others to do it,” he said. “It’s interesting how it’s evolved — who to follow, who not to, to tip your hand or not.”
USM’s Fifield said there are no secrets anymore.
“With social media, everyone knows who everyone else is recruiting in a hurry,” he said. “If a kid commits to somebody, even before the phone is hanged up, they’ve tweeted it or put in on their Facebook page.”
Social media also opens a window into the personalities of high school recruits. And that can lead to other issues.
Coaches learn the likes and dislikes of their recruits. They can tell by what is tweeted or posted on Facebook whether or not the recruit will fit in with their program.
Blodgett said the staff at Rhode Island includes people who follow their recruits closely on Facebook and Twitter.
“Whether it’s comments, or the language they use, of whether they retweet certain things, it can give you red flags,” said Leichner. “You ask yourself if that’s the type of person you want in your program. We live in a transparent age with very little filters. We can get closer to a person than we ever have before.”
That transparency was evident last winter when three members of the Greely High girls’ basketball team posted a photo of themselves on Facebook that included two of them appearing to give a Nazi salute to the third, who was called “Hitler” by some teammates. The photo was found and circulated to the local media, along with graphic and inappropriate language from the players’ Twitter feeds.
The players were disciplined for what was called “unacceptable behavior” by MSAD 51 Superintendent Robert Hasson.
Vachon, who previously was a guidance counselor in the Westbrook school system, stressed to her students the need to be careful with what they put out there.
“What you put on Facebook or Twitter, everyone can see it,” she said. “Whether you believe that or not.”
But if you ask today’s recruits, they still welcome the social media world.
McAuley’s Smith said “it is much more personal than the letters we receive.”
And, said Lake Region’s Carter, it’s easier to handle social media interaction.
“I don’t mind it,” she said. “I’m tired of opening mail.”
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: